Gunning in Wellfleet and Eastham


Just after Labor Day this year (2019), the Wellfleet Conservation Trust Annual Walk took participants to two “gunning camps” near Great Pond. Men with their rifles and fishing gear began coming to Wellfleet in the early spring and late fall, even as summer tourism developed, when the whole family came to enjoy the seaside. This blog post will concentrate on the coastal sport of shooting migratory birds.

Wellfleet visitors began building “gunning camps” as a place of very simple accommodation for those who came to shoot birds, hunt deer, and pursue both salt- and freshwater fishing. Local Wellfleet reports about visitors who came to the gunning camps never mention females, although there are photographs in other regions of the country of female hunters dressed in deerskin outfits.

Hunting as sport developed early in the 19th Century as a way to counteract the expectations of men as the country industrialized and more men were in cities working in factories and at desks.  Hunting, shooting, and fishing became respectable activities of the new “leisure class.” Cultural crusaders in the mid-to-late 19th Century promoted male physical fitness, competitive sports and outdoor activity. These activities were antidotes to a somewhat-feared “feminization” of American culture where women became the rulers of the home and also found more roles outside the home, including pursuing the vote.

In the late 19th Century “market hunting” became necessary as the increase in immigration put demands on the country’s food supply. The menus of fine-dining restaurants reflected the popularity of game birds: snipe, woodcock, plover, and partridge, along with several varieties of ducks: teal, mallard, canvasback, and ruddy. Further, the plumage of the coastal birds was much sought-after for women’s hats. Sometimes a whole bird appeared on top of a woman’s head!

Bird Hats Library of Congress photo

Hat with Birds, 19th Century


On the Cape, market-hunting provided work for many men. Numerous references in the 1940s issues of The Cape Codder newspaper often refer to men who served as guides to sport shooters as “a former market hunter.” In an article describing a local Wellfleet duck hunter in the 1920s, the writer refers to the man as a former “market hunter” who “in the days before licenses and bag limits had sent four or five barrels of shore birds a week to the Boston market”. In his book, I Remember Cape Cod, E.C. Janes writes about fishing trips to Gull Pond during his summers in Wellfleet in the early 20th Century. “Local gunners then in the spring and the fall with their live decoys, bagged hundreds of geese, many of which found their way to the Boston market where they brought twenty-five cents apiece.” By the time he wrote his book, market gunning had been banned.  Janes’ description of how live decoys worked is described later in this post.

Still Life with game and vegetables, Van Utrecht

After live decoys were banned, wooden carved decoys served duck hunters. Elmer Crowell of Harwich, a prolific carver, produced them in his work as a hunting guide further up the Cape. When he died in 1952, his estate was valued at $200; today, his carvings bring in many thousands of dollars at auctions. In 2007, two pieces were auctioned at more than a million dollars.

The popularity of shooting is also found in the history of the Goose Hummock store in Orleans. Founded after World War II, it got its name from a hummock on the Nauset Marsh. In a piece quoted in The Cape Codder many years later, Frank Sargent, one of the founders of the store, writes, “It was at the Goose Hummock that the market hunter crouched shivering behind cakes of ice, waiting for a sight of these great water fowl, outlined before a bright full moon. Goose Hummock has seen teams of young geese, reared in captivity and trained as live decoys, released as flyers to lure the flights of wild geese within range of the hunter’s gun.” Eventually, the Goose Hummock was destroyed by high seas during a winter storm.

This commercially-sanctioned slaughter of birds by market hunters eventually led to recognition of the need for regulations in order to preserve various species.  The first was the weak 1900 Lacey Act; after which a stronger 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act was signed by the United States and Canada. Conservation organizations, including the newly organized Massachusetts and National Audubon Societies, helped lobby for passage of the Act. By the 1920s most states had game regulations that preserved wildlife, and certain areas were to be set aside for recreational use.

Grover Cleveland Shoots and Fishes in Wellfleet

President Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland was U.S. President for two terms, the first from 1885-1889 and the second from 1893-1897. He established a Cape presence in 1891 when he bought Grey Gables, a large cottage on Monument Point near the village of Buzzards Bay. Between his two terms as President, he worked as an attorney in New York. He would take the train to Boston, then switch to the Old Colony line for the rest of his journey to the Cape, then travel the four more miles through the woods to his summer home. Eventually, the railroad set up a flag stop near his property. Grey Gables became the “summer White House” during his second term as he continued his fishing and sailing ventures.

Cleveland didn’t visit Wellfleet until after he left the Presidency. In 1901, the Barnstable Patriot reported that he was in Wellfleet for a “fishing and gunning” trip hosted by Solomon Atwood. On the 1910 map of Wellfleet, “S. Atwood” is noted on the southern part of Lieutenant’s Island—perhaps this was his gunning camp.

In September, 1902, the Boston Herald reported that the ex-President and friends “visited the blind” in Wellfleet but in two days shooting only “succeeded in getting down six birds,” but remained enthusiastic about shooting “good snipe and yellow legs later.” Gunning trips were also made in 1903 and 1904.

After 1904, the Cleveland family gave up Grey Gables when their eldest daughter died of diphtheria there. In 1906, Cleveland published a book on hunting and fishery, remembering his days shooting on Cape Cod and his heightened awareness of wind and weather needed to be a successful gunner. President Cleveland died in 1908.

When Mr. Atwood’s home in Paine Hollow partially burned in the 1940s, the news reported that he was a good friend to President Cleveland, and that a poem and a set of decoys given to him by the President were lost.

Solomon Atwood’s son, Alton Atwood, continued hosting gunning parties for several years. The 1938 booklet of the South Wellfleet Neighborhood Association notes Alton Atwood’s prized possession: a fishing rod given to him by President Cleveland.  Although not related to gunning, the South Wellfleet Arey family also connected to the President.  When he was serving as a pastor in Buffalo, the Reverend Doctor Charles Arey, who was well-acquainted with Cleveland, defended him during his first campaign from the scandalous statements about his supposed out-of-wedlock child.

Wellfleet Hosts Hunters, Gunners and Fishermen

The Cape’s newspapers regularly reported on the arrival of sports hunters, gunners and sometimes fishermen, although the latter reporting was minimal. One of the first mentions of sport hunters came in 1857 when one of the Selectmen, Benjamin Oliver, ordered two hunters off his property, and the ensuing altercation found the three men in court. In 1882, William G. Townsend “opened a gunners camp” in South Wellfleet, in a spot north of Blackfish Creek.

There were gunning camps built on Lieutenant Island as the land there was developed in the 1890s. In one of his Cape Codder columns from the 1970s, local historian Earle G. Rich wrote about his father and a local carpenter erecting a gunning camp for a group of Boston men in 1908 on Beach Hill, the last island on Wellfleet’s western shore before Billingsgate.   He called the camp “Steel Shanty” since corrugated steel sheeting covered the structure. Mr. Holbrook, who operated Wellfleet’s livery stable, built another camp nearby.  The Barnstable Patriot’s local column mentioned two other camps: Dr. Paul Haley’s on Lieutenant Island and another in South Wellfleet at Mrs. Boynton’s.

Gunning in Wellfleet, Boston Public Library

In his “Only Yesterday” columns in The Cape Codder in the 1970s, Holman Spence provided a detailed description of duck hunting on Indian Neck in the 1920s, an experience with a Wellfleet man he calls “the Walrus,” someone who had been a market hunter in earlier days.  The Walrus set up his blind near the Spence cottage, on a certain sandy beach on Chipman’s Cove:

This consisted only of a gray blanket and a piece of drift timber at the high tide line to sit upon. He would bunch up a few pieces of seaweed and algae at the water’s edge for decoys and then go up to the drift timber, sit down with his shotgun and pull the gray, rock-colored blanket over himself. He would peer out at his decoys through a hole in the blanket and when some ducks came in he would thrust the gun out through another hole and shoot. It was a pretty good system and he always got himself a number of ducks each time he went there. … He explained how a duck resting on the water exposes only its head and back … the pellets from a shotgun, therefore, would not hit the meaty area of the bird. … The old Walrus would take his dead birds, pick the feathers and down from their breasts, slit the skin and peel it back and with his fingers remove the two slabs of breast meat. He would wrap the meat in waxed paper and pocket it to take home.

The South Wellfleet Fishing Camp

When summer visitors started coming to the Cape, fishing trips with a retired sea captain would often be a part of their summer experience. As Mr. Janes writes in his book, his father and local Mr. Hopkins often spent a day at the northern Wellfleet ponds fishing for pickerel and perch. But in 1900 a much bigger fishing operation was established.  Richard Freeman, the son of a prominent Wellfleet family, established a private, membership-only 84-acre fishing camp around Fresh Brook in South Wellfleet. He stocked the stream with brook trout to supplement the native salters. In the 1910 map of Wellfleet, the Brook’s name was changed to “Trout Brook.” No contemporary news reports of Mr. Freeman’s organization were found, nor is there any evidence of buildings erected to serve the fishing club members.  Recent research by a group seeking to bring back the anadromous, sea-run or salter trout that once provided fishing in the Brook opened a new line of inquiry for this writer.

Frank W. Benson was an American Impressionist artist who also became known for his black and white wash sketches of duck hunting made around the turn of the 20th Century displaying the Nauset marshes, where he shared property with his brother-in-law, Dr. Maurice Richardson. In a 2000 book, “The Sporting Art of Frank W. Benson,” author Faith Andrews Benson quotes from a logbook of his Eastham farm: “All drove to Fresh Brook, South Wellfleet, to try for trout. Tied the horse and fished downstream from the Railroad [bridge]. In the pool above the track F.W.B. caught a half-pounder, then another half-pounder, then a one pounder. The others arrived and we caught from the pool 13 more fine trout. The 15 fish weighed 17 pounds after then were brought home and weighed.”

Dr. Maurice Richardson

My research turned to the Benson/Richardson relationship and found that the two men, plus “Uncle Ned” who was Benson’s brother, purchased an old Doane farmhouse (on the “Nauset Road”) in 1892. This is the same house that gained fame in the 1950s when Richardson’s son, Dr. Wyman Richardson, published memory pieces about the house and its surroundings in a series of articles in The Atlantic Monthly. Later, these pieces were published in a 1955 book “The House on Nauset Marsh” which became one of the most iconic books on the outer Cape, often named with Thoreau’s work, “Cape Cod,” and Beston’s “Outermost House” as our best regional writing.

Dr. Maurice Richardson was a wealthy Boston surgeon, a professor of anatomy at Harvard Medical School, and an expert on the human body that made him the first chief of surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. His land purchases in Eastham and the “Great Pond Camp” that he established there are an important part of North Eastham’s history. Eastham had six such hunting camps before 1910, located there to access the seasonal bird migration on the great Nauset Marsh and the various other water locations in the town.

Richardson originally established just a warming hut near Eastham’s Great Pond while his guests stayed in the “farmhouse” on Nauset Road. Richardson also bought some land on Nauset Beach. The Eastham Camp grew when friends bought abutting property, and structures were added by Dwight Blaney, also an American artist, and Matthew Luce.  The Barnstable Patriot covered the Richardson family’s arrivals and departures, along with the other property owners, referring to the place as a “camp” or the “gunning cottage.” A scene from the English countryside unfolded there in December, 1905, when twenty members of the Norfolk Hunt Club of Dedham rode in, “the horses and dogs with men in their red coats a handsome sight.”

E.G. Janes, in his book mentioned earlier, describes a fishing trip to Eastham’s Great Pond when he explored the shore of the pond, finding Richardson’s “Once-elaborate goose-hunting set-up … a lattice wall about sixty feet long, painted green and thatched with pine boughs and pierced with loopholes spaced six feet apart. At either end of the wall were located pens for the live decoys – the callers, the fliers, and the runners. A camouflaged trench ran from the wall to a large, squat, gunning camp on the bluff above the shore.” Janes describes the work of a guide who would watch for a flight of geese over the Pond, the release of the flier geese who were trained to circle the pond, calling loudly, and then return to the blind where corn awaited them.

Meanwhile the guide pressed a button alerting the gunners, perhaps relaxing and playing cards, who hurried to the trench to take their positions. If the wild geese did not come in close enough, the trained runner geese went out and mingled, bringing them closer to shore. Mr. Janes later became the editor of Outdoor Life, which may have been why he provided such a detailed account of the gunning camp. Of course, by the time he was an adult, the use of live decoys was banned.

Richardson also played a role in Wellfleet history. In 1897 he bought Billingsgate Island from the Smith children for $350 and $435 for two lots, a place that measured around 15 acres at that point. Richardson owned whatever structure was there. One description of the site refers to the building having a cupola. The Lighthouse Board owned another part of the island, six acres they purchased for the second light in 1857, although we do not know how much was left when Richardson became their neighbor. There were news reports in 1898 and 1900 that the Richardsons—father and sons—were at Billingsgate Island.

Dr. Richardson died in 1912 while in his early sixties. His sons, two doctors and one attorney, kept portions of the property in Eastham, but sold the Billingsgate camp to Robert Barlow. The Lighthouse was abandoned in 1913 with the bricks —it is said—going to many homes, including my family’s where they lined an area under our cottage that kept dairy products cool.  For a while Billingsgate was a bird sanctuary, helped by Dr. Austin of the sanctuary he had founded in South Wellfleet, today’s Massachusetts Audubon Sanctuary.

While Dr. Richardson was still alive, John Southward became the superintendent of all of the Richardson property. No photograph has been found (yet) of the Richardson property at Billingsgate, but Southward’s 1908 log provides a sense of the place at that time. (This is copied from a 1930 article from The Springfield Republican.)

The article quotes from various notes in the log:

One of the accompanying photographs shows one of Dr. Richardson’s houses beginning to careen, its foundation yielding to the ceaseless gnawing, and, in due course, the structure tumbles into the waves and vanishes.

Further: On reaching the house we saw quite a lot of beetleheads and other large birds on the flats, although the tide was too far out for shooting. Heard them whistle before light next morning.

The mosquitos visited us in force one hot still night and we had to turn out at 5 am to smudge them out. The next night we were ready for them with nets around the beds and slept in peace.

July 30, 1901: This shanty was nearly washed away last winter and the winter before. The tide took out the foundations as far as the chimney. The original frontier was W/S/W of this on the edge of the bank. The view was glorious and the frontier every way superior to this. The N/W. angle of the island has changed tremendously and is steadily growing.

We went fishing in the morning. Filled the car and left for home at noon after having a fine time. No telephone messages, and the best tautog in the world. 45 birds. Oodles of tautog. Saw many horse mackerel chasing sand eels.

One last day is here! And that day has been a day! We are leaving at 11 this morning for Wellfleet; we have had very good luck. There have been lots of birds and if we had shot better our score would have been more than doubled. Our total score of birds: 29 beetleheads, 65 chicken plovers, 2 winter yellowlegs, one summer yellowleg, 2 greybacks, 20 sanderlings — total 119 birds and 16 flounders.

Billingsgate on the sea

Our hearts all turn to thee

               On sporting days

And when your owner’s nigh

May plover hover by

Darkening the western sky

               In southward flight – and now

Farewell – goodbye.


Southward’s 1908 log:

Been here most two months and have had the most enjoyable time, and leave with some regrets, for certainly old Billingsgate is a lovely place to stay during the summer months. Every year makes some serious changes to the island by way of washing the banks away. Mostly done in the winter months by high tides and N.W. gales and ice. In 12 years there has been a most astonishing change made, but we, the lovers of the place, hope that the island will endure while we last if not longer. The island has quite a fishing history in the past century, for the people that made fishing their business. Some 30 to 40 came on the island from east to west and remained during the fishing season. They had a school teacher that used to teach during the week and preach on Sundays. Theirs must have been a happy life – in those days all kinds of fish could be taken from the waters around the island. I sincerely hope that I may be spared to come here again and that our owner, Dr. Richardson, may live many years to enjoy the island and to eat of the many products of the place. A fine display of northern lights during the evening.


E.C. Janes I Remember Cape Cod,”  Brattleboro, Vermont, The Stephen Greene Press, 1974

South Wellfleet Neighborhood Association booklet downloaded in 2012 from David Kew’s Cape Cod History site, now defunct.

The Cape Codder available at the Snow Library, Orleans

The Barnstable Patriot available at the Sturgis Library


Family history researcher living in New York City.
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2 Responses to Gunning in Wellfleet and Eastham

  1. Hi Pam,

    I remember growing up there was a duck blind at the bottom of Mill Hill, facing Loagy (sp?) Bay, where we used to play. The salt marsh on our property (Barker homestead known as Kildee) abutted Mill Hill, and you could walk there at low tide, crossing the narrow tidal channel on what my mother called the “stone bridge.” I think some of my ancestors placed the stones there so they could access Mill Hill. Thanks for the memories.


    Bruce Eastman

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