When Thoreau Walked Through South Wellfleet

I recently opened Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod to check on a quote for another post, and started re-reading. To my surprise, I found that I was understanding this classic in a whole new way. Now that I’ve worked my way through a good deal of South Wellfleet history and many other historic pieces written about the outer Cape, I was “getting Henry” in a new way. I began thinking of his famous walk as traversing through our own South Wellfleet.

After spending the night at an Orleans hotel, Thoreau and his friend William Ellery Channing, a poet and the nephew and namesake of Boston’s great Unitarian preacher, walked north through Eastham. They were headed toward the ocean, to the site of the

Three Sisters Lighthouses U.S. Coast Guard photo

Three Sisters Lighthouses
U.S. Coast Guard photo

Three Sisters lighthouses — three small brick lighthouses erected in 1838 above Nauset Beach.

It was raining and blowing on this day, October 11, 1849. This was the first of Henry David Thoreau’s Cape visits, and he returned in 1850, 1854 and 1855. Thoreau wrote about the visits in his journal. He lectured and published first in a series of articles in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine in 1855. After he died of consumption in 1862 at the young age of 44, his sister Sophia and friend Channing published the book Cape Cod in 1865.

The 1849 “Thoreau walk” from Nauset to Provincetown provides the organization of the book, and includes observations that he collected on his subsequent trips. (Of course, the beach he walked on may be 400 feet further offshore today.)

Here are the two men starting their Back Shore walk at Nauset beach, umbrellas up to ward off the mist and rain, and, Thoreau says, reading Eastham’s history as they walk. The book is Enoch Pratt’s 1844 “Comprehensive History of Eastham, Wellfleet and Orleans.” This was the first published history of these outer Cape towns (earlier writing had been

The Back Shore in South Wellfleet

The Back Shore in South Wellfleet

about the Pilgrim’s explorations in 1620) and focused somewhat on the ecclesiastical history of Eastham. Thoreau adds a dash of humor to his description of the town, particularly about the ministers of Eastham depending on beached whales for their compensation. He mocks the Pilgrims from Eastham as they grabbed the Indian land that became Wellfleet, since they were told “not any” own it. (They had to settle up later.) Thoreau makes “Not Any” every Native American faced with the European snatching of their land. “Not Any” appears to have been the sole proprietor of all America before arrival of the Yankee. Thoreau jokes that Lieutenant Anthony, our South Wellfleet Native American for whom Lieutenant’s Island is named, “may be knocking at the door of the White House some day.”

Thoreau is also a bit jokey about the Millennial Grove in North Eastham, the site of many summer Methodist Camp meetings, before they moved further up Cape to be closer to the railroad. These remarks about religion, the sacred Pilgrim Fathers, his description of the Cape’s sandy, desert-like landscape, as well as a few pointed remarks about the appearance of Cape women, did not endear him to many Cape Codders. There were several disparaging pieces about how he simply did not understand the Cape and its way of life.

The book did not take on the sacred nature it holds today until much later in the 19th century. By the time that tourists came in great numbers at the start of the 20th century, the book was for sale at many summer tourist shops. Its depiction of many Cape characters, such as the Wellfleet Oysterman, may have helped create that early Cape brand as a land of many odd inhabitants.

We learn that Thoreau and Channing walk for a while and meet a “wrecker” on the beach, looking for the bolts of “tow cloth” that was part of the cargo of the wrecked Franklin, which had run aground in Wellfleet in March 1849. (Tow cloth was a coarse, heavy linen used to make work clothing.) The wrecker directs Thoreau and Channing to climb up from the beach at Snow’s Hollow, the first such hollow in South Wellfleet, nearest to the now-lost village of Fresh Brook. Thoreau uses an early piece of writing about the outer Cape “Description of the Eastern Coast of the County of Barnstable” (1802) which describes the “hollows” in the landscape along the Back Shore, places where a shipwrecked sailor could climb up the dune, and which way to turn to find the nearest house. These hollows are what was left of streams that had run down from the face of the retreating glacier that formed the Cape.

Before moving to the pages on the “Charity Huts,” Thoreau stops for a moment and writes about the land of South Wellfleet, called by the sailors “The Plains of Eastham”:

Here in Wellfleet, this pure sand plateau, known to sailors as the Table-lands of Eastham,… as seen from the ocean… stretched away northward from the southern boundary of the town, without a particle of vegetation, — as level almost as a table, — for two and a half or three miles, or as far as the eye could reach… We were traversing a desert, with the view of an autumnal landscape of extraordinary brilliancy, a sort of Promised Land, on the one hand, the ocean on the other.

By “mid-afternoon” Thoreau and Channing reach a “charity house” – one of the one-room huts that the Massachusetts Humane Society had erected on the top of the dune, a place where wrecked sailors could find shelter. Thoreau quotes from the 1802 publication named above in describing the charity huts, mentioning a specific hut in Truro. If his 1849 writing describes what he found on this first walk, in the order in which he found it, then the charity hut must be in Wellfleet, before he reaches the (now famous) Wellfleet Oysterman’s house, later identified as John Newcomb’s, near Gull Pond and Newcomb Hollow. Of course, it’s always possible that Thoreau worked this charity hut material into the narrative at this point, and may have visited another hut further up the coast. (At least one writer I found indicates that the hut Thoreau visited was in Truro.) In his memory piece on Wellfleet, Charles Cole describes a charity house put up by the Humane Society “about ½ mile north of the Hollow near Cook’s Camps.” I wonder if this is the hut that Thoreau visited.

The wreck of the Franklin is cited several times throughout the book. A few months ago, I wrote a blog piece about South Wellfleet’s Captain Isaiah Hatch and his son. The wreck also turned up a veritable treasure of seeds: when Thoreau visited the Wellfleet

John Newcomb's House (Library of Congress photo)

John Newcomb’s House (Library of Congress photo)

Oysterman, John Newcomb, he noticed his garden plantings of cabbage, broccoli, and parsley.

In re-reading Thoreau, I can see that he must have met Captain Hatch, although he does not name him. In the chapter “The Beach Again” he speaks about him:

Another [man], the same who picked up the Captain’s valise with the memorable letter in it, showed me, growing in his garden, many pear and plum trees which washed ashore from her, all nicely tied up and labelled, and he said that he might have got five hundred dollars worth; for a Mr. Bell was importing the nucleus of a nursery to be established near Boston. His turnip-seed came from the same source. Also valuable spars from the same vessel and from the Cactus lay in his yard. In short the inhabitants visit the beach to see what they have caught as regularly as a fisherman his weir or a lumberer his boom; the Cape is their boom.

Then in the next paragraph Thoreau writes one of my favorite passages:

But are we not all wreckers contriving that some treasure may be washed up on our beach, that we may secure it, and do we not infer the habits of these Nauset and Barnegat wreckers, from the common modes of getting a living?

About three years ago, as I was starting to research South Wellfleet history, I found a scrap of Thoreau’s map of Cape Cod, in a book published for the 300th anniversary of Eastham. I saved it, since this small map included part of South Wellfleet, with Thoreau’s note on the possibility of growing corn in the eastern side of North Eastham/South Wellfleet. Now that map is readily accessible online, having been made available at the Concord Free Public Library. With my added knowledge of South Wellfleet’s history, I was drawn to Thoreau’s notes on the map all understandable with the exception of one mysterious notation on the east coast of South Wellfleet: “Lombard’s Hd.” Here’s the Cape Cod Map.

Thanks to the Concord Free Public Library, I soon had a verification of these letters,

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau

noting Lombard’s Head, but with no idea as to what it meant. Thanks to another Thoreau scholar, I learned that “Lombard Head” was on an 1848 map of Wellfleet produced by the Coast and Geodetic Survey, the national project begun under President Jefferson. Thoreau had set himself up as a self-taught surveyor, and was no doubt interested in this map, a part of the national effort to measure the coast. There were Lombards in Wellfleet, with one branch of the family in South Wellfleet. I’ll write about the Coastal Survey later.

If you wish to read Cape Cod again, here is a useful link.


1848 Coastal and Geodetic Survey Map of Wellfleet supplied by Chet Lay.

Henry David Thoreau, Cape Cod – I used an online version, cited above

New Englander and Yale Review Vol 24 Issue 92 (July 1865) “Notices of New Books.”

“Thoreau Walks the Cape” online at www.AmericanHeritage.com







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The Millionaire Hermit of South Wellfleet

The Cape Codder in May of 1959 had a small note on the death of Albert Stone, Jr. who had a “summer camp” in the woods of South Wellfleet, near the ocean. The reporter noted that only three people from Wellfleet knew he was there: Earle Atwood, the tax collector; Lawrence Cardinal, who had the closest house (Cook’s Camps); and E.J. Davis, the proprietor of the General Store in South Wellfleet. Later, Major Yarbrough of Camp Wellfleet also became acquainted. Mr. Stone, it appears, traveled by bus to South Wellfleet and walked to his rustic camp. He was supplied by the General Store. “He never entered Wellfleet proper.”

In the late 19th Century, like many others, George Chapin had assembled South Wellfleet land and developed a plan for a cottage colony. Mr. Stone’s purchase in 1932 of Lot 24 of this plan appears to be his first purchase in South Wellfleet. In 1938 he bought the “… premises formerly owned by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph company” from Mr. Foster. Perhaps Mr. Stone occupied one of the buildings left by the company which had vacated the site at the outbreak of World War I, when the U.S. Navy took over the communications. The 1959 article noted that Mr. Stone owned 13 acres.

The Boston papers wrote about Mr. Stone extensively when he died in 1959, as a he left his 17 million dollar legacy to charity. (Today, that $17 million would be over $300 million by one wealth measure.) Mr. Stone lived quietly at 152 Bay State Road where his neighbors knew he had a housekeeper and (home) caretaker on site. The caretaker polished the brass on the front door every day. He took a walk most afternoons. He did not like headlines or ostentation, and was described as friendly, gracious, and warm. His charitable giving before his death had been anonymous.

I traced Albert Stone’s life through the federal censuses posted online; his parents married in 1871; his father was described as a “shoe manufacturer” from Alton, Illinois; and his mother was from Ipswich, Massachusetts. The family lived in Boston and had a summer home in Hull, as the census picked them up in both places. Albert Stone, Jr., born in 1878, had one sibling, a sister Mary, who was 6 years older.

By the turn of the 20th century, the Stone father and son were both occupied with “real estate.” In 1910, the family was living at the Bay State Road house, with both children — in their thirties — living there also. In the 1920 census, both parents were still alive, and both children still living at home. By the time of the 1930 census, the children were living there alone but with three servants also.

When Mr. Stone’s charitable bequest to the Permanent Charity Fund of Boston was announced in October 1959, the newspapers hunted for details about him, but only got a few comments from his banker who noted that his father had left him several million, and that the family had “textile interests.” The banker noted that he had been in failing health in recent years. Mr. Stone was 81 years old when he died. Presumably, his sister Mary died before him.

Services for Mr. Stone were at the Eastman Funeral Home, and he was buried at the Riverside Cemetery in Grafton, Mass. The family may have had a relationship with the Congregational Church there, as his mother’s family had memorial windows there. A cousin who lived in Wayland, Massachusetts, was the only reported living relative.

By the time Mr. Stone died, his property was within the bounds of Camp Wellfleet. Major Yarbrough reported that he often greeted Mr. Stone when he reached his camp. The Major kept an inventory of Mr. Stone’s camp furnishings: one bed with a bedroll, one skillet, one plate, and one drinking glass.


The Cape Codder on line at the Snow Library

U.S. Federal Census collection at www.ancestry.com

Newspaper account online at www.genealogybank.com.


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Remembering Rookies

Hard to believe, but there was a time when pizza was not such a mainstay of the American diet. Introduced to the culture after World War II by returning American servicemen, it took a while for word to spread. By the late 1950s, chain stores were established: Pizza Hut, Little Caesar’s, and Domino’s, testament to the fact that this “fast food” was catching on across the country.

In 1959, two brothers named O’Rourke applied for their liquor license for an establishment they planned to call “Rookies” near the entrance to the then-Camp Wellfleet, now the entrance to the Cape Cod National Seashore’s headquarters and the road to Marconi Beach. At first they leased, and then in 1965 they purchased the land from the Lane family. The name “Rookies” was chosen because the entrance to Camp Wellfleet was nearby, and the Army recruits – real rookies — practiced artillery skills there. Indeed, while the Camp was still open, evenings at Rookies meant a load of Army guys would be enjoying their beer in there. In 1973, the O’Rourke family sold to the Nelsons, who continued operating the restaurant until it closed in 2012.

One of the Lane brothers owned a boat shop there, and The Cape Codder reported that the O’Rourke brothers leased the building from Lane, installed pizza ovens, and equipped a kitchen. Their “beer and wine license” occupied the attention of the Town Fathers, who advised them quite sternly that there were to be no drunks allowed, and that teenagers were not to be served.

As I followed the deeds for the Rookies land, one of them, back in the 19th century, mentioned the “old South Wellfleet school” that had been on this site. This was the school noted on the 1858 Walling Map just north of the Fresh Brook community in South Wellfleet. In the 1850s, the South Wellfleet population was at its height, so it makes sense that a school would be located there. Another deed refers to the road on the other side of today’s Route 6 as the “road to the old South Wharf” instead of today’s designation as “Lieutenant’s Island Road.” The Barker family, whose homestead was out near the South Wharf, remembered using that road whenever they planned a trip to Orleans, and the “Old Wharf” road when their trip took them to Wellfleet.

In a further digression from pizza, the Lane family purchased their land from the Doane family in the middle of the 19th century. The first Mr. William Lane, who married a Doane daughter, was a sail maker, a useful skill to have so close to South Wellfleet’s South Wharf. His son William was a Captain, taking the Nelly Rich south to Chesapeake Bay for oysters. Both these Lanes are buried in the South Wellfleet Cemetery.

Returning to the pizza story: For my family, Rookies was our introduction to pizza. Perhaps because we were in our summer mode, a pizza from Rookies was a special treat from time to time in an era when all meals were prepared in our kitchen, not ordered in. What is now of interest to me is how the Rookies’ pizza stayed exactly the same for those fifty years. That thin crispy crust and the taste of the tomato sauce were never the same as any other pizza.

This inherent quality to remain constant and unchanged is such an important part of Cape vacations in South Wellfleet. Our family cottage has the same quality. But for the more transient visitor, Rookies’ 1950s décor (“owned by an elderly couple”) and so-so fried seafood generated poor (and mocking) online reviews. Nevertheless, others raved about their pizza. The nearly-empty parking lot never signaled many patrons in the later years, or maybe the couple just needed to retire. When we arrived for our vacation in June of 2013, sadly it was gone.

In 1967, the land just south of Rookies was purchased by the Kears family to establish a “frozen custard stand.” That’s how we got our South Wellfleet “pizza and ice cream” location, for those times when you just can’t eat anymore seafood.

Rookies Restaurant

Rookies Restaurant


The Cape Codder, online through the Snow Library.

Barnstable County Deeds available at www.barnstablecountydeeds.org

David Kew’s Cape Cod History site: www.capecodhistory.us.


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The Story of the Paulmino

Paulmino April 1959

Paulmino April 1959

The bottom of the sea is strewn with anchors, some deeper and some shallower, and alternately covered and uncovered by the sand, perchance with a small link of cable still attached, — to which where is the other end? Henry David Thoreau, Cape Cod

The remains of the trawler Paulmino were uncovered again this spring 2014, on the Back Shore near the Cook’s Camps beach, about one mile north of Marconi Beach. David and Laurie (Cardinal) Sexton told me about its re-emergence, and about their arrangement with the family of the ship’s Captain, Angelo Marino. Captain Marino lost his life that night in April 1959. His family visits the site, especially when the remains of the wreck are uncovered. Captain Marino’s wife, two sons and two daughters, have visited the site as a way of remembering their husband and father.

So many shipwrecks on the outer Cape are just names and numbers, but this one — even though it is over fifty years old — is still in a family’s memory. In 1959, the Marino family had just re-located from Boston’s North End, to Everett, where they purchased a home. The children were then 11 months, 7, 12 and 15 years old. Mrs. Marino had planned to meet her husband upon his return so the family could attend their older daughter’s First Communion together. Instead, on that tragic weekend, their lives changed forever.

Angelo Marino was a member of the Italian community of fishermen of the North End, many with roots in Sciacca, Italy. Today, the neighborhood still celebrates its Sicilian heritage with an annual Fisherman’s Feast of the Madonna Del Soccorso di Sciacca, now in its 104th year. As an up-and-coming young fisherman, Angelo Marino had recently bought the Paulmino, and in April 1959 was on his second voyage. Of the six other men on board, four were pulled from the surf and saved.

On April 4, 1959, the eighty-three foot Paulmino, loaded with fish from Georges Bank, and on its way back to Boston, ran aground in fog and heavy surf a half mile from shore at 1 am. The ship was able to send one distress signal before it lost its radio. Its radar was out of commission. At daybreak, the crew felt the ship breaking up and decided to swim to shore. Two later reported saying the Rosary as they struggled to reach the beach.

The Coast Guard was aware that the ship was in peril, and had dispatched beach patrols. One patrol stopped at the Cardinal’s home at Cook’s Camps, near LeCount Hollow. Laurie Cardinal was 12 years old, and remembers the 5 am event. She accompanied her father and mother down to the beach where they and two Coast Guardsmen managed to pull four men out of the surf, wrap them in blankets, and get them warmed up.

The four survivors were taken to the infirmary at Camp Wellfleet for a while, until they could be moved to a hospital in Boston. The bodies of the two drowned seamen, the cook and a crewman, were recovered. But Captain Marino’s body was missing. Fortunately, it was recovered two days later, on April 6th, after the Coast Guard had kept up a steady jeep patrol on watch.

The Cape Codder covered the event in 1959 when it happened, and again in 1995 when the wreck was uncovered. Laurie and David welcomed a Marino daughter on a searching visit a few years ago, and were able to share Laurie’s recollection of the event, and point out the actual place on the shore. Those of us who know the Sexton’s golden retriever, Stormy, have heard the story of how he sat with the young woman on the edge of the shore, somehow understanding that she was mourning her lost Dad.

Paulmino wreckage uncovered

Paulmino wreckage uncovered


Paulmino Wreck

Paulmino Wreck







Conversation with David and Laurie Sexton, June 2014

Conversation with Peter Marino, Captain Marino’s youngest child, June 2014

The Cape Codder, on line through the Snow Library

Newspaper account online at www.genealogybank.com.

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Trying the Whales in South Wellfleet

The Cape’s whaling heritage is more visible this summer (2014) with visits to various Cape harbors by the refurbished 1841 whaling ship Charles F. Morgan, the last square-rigged wooden whaling ship — a restoration project of the Mystic Seaport Museum. The Cape’s and Nantucket’s whaling heritage is well-documented by historians. Wellfleet was a well-endowed whaling town before the Revolution.

However, before there were whaling ships operating in the North Atlantic, and then round the globe, there was a long period when the English settlers learned how to capture and harvest these animals. South Wellfleet was one of the places where the earliest whaling – called “shore whaling” — took place.

John Braginton-Smith and Duncan Oliver present their extensive research on the Cape’s shore whaling efforts in their book, Cape Cod Shore Whaling. There is a long-time and extensive literature about whaling that emerged as an early key industry in New England, but little had been written about what went before, and how the first European settlers learned to hunt these creatures.

Like early agriculture, shore whaling skills were learned from native inhabitants. Indeed, as the Pilgrims left the Mayflower to explore the Cape, one of the first reported sights was the Indians cutting up a grampus — a blackfish or pilot whale. That image is incorporated

Wellfleet Town Seal

Wellfleet Town Seal

into the Wellfleet Town Seal. For the native people, the whales were a food source. For the English, they became an important commodity, as the oil and baleen were harvested.

Great Island and Lieutenant’s Island became the places in Wellfleet where the whales were brought ashore for “trying” – the process of stripping and boiling the blubber. Durand Echeverria’s book on early Wellfleet, A History of Billingsgate, places these activities on these two islands.

Lieutenant’s Island in South Wellfleet, then a part of the town of Eastham, was set aside in 1662 as common land. Later, in 1673, it was designated to support the town’s minister. In the 1690s, when the town had to raise 86 pounds to support Plymouth Colony’s effort to get their charter re-established and fund travel to London, Lieutenant’s Island and Great Island were mortgaged to raise the funds. Eventually, both islands were released from public ownership and lots were sold to individuals, although some rights were reserved for people who owned whale houses so they could travel across private land. Today, we are left with the designation of “Try Island” by Massachusetts Audubon as the last remaining vestige of shore whaling activity in South Wellfleet.

Shore whaling was not a new human activity: the Basques had been catching whales since the 10th century. Nevertheless, it was new to the English farmers who settled Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies. In 1635, Governor John Winthrop noted “Some of our people went to Cape Cod, and made some oil of a whale that was cast on shore.” (“Cape Cod” at that time was the name given to today’s Provincetown.)

Initially, the harvested whales were “drift whales,” those that had died of natural causes, and floated in on the tides. Later, as their value became established, men began actually pursuing the whales spotted from lookouts.

It took Plymouth Colony a bit longer than Massachusetts Bay Colony to get started in shore whaling, and to build the boats needed to harpoon and bring the whales to shore. Besides overcoming their agricultural backgrounds, the colony was poorer, with not much

19th century whaleboat

19th century whaleboat

capital to invest in boat-building. The boats had to accommodate six men: a harpooner, four oarsmen, and a steersman. The whaling season in winter, from November to March, thus establishing the Cape’s tradition of weaving together maritime work with farming work to make a sufficient living.

Cape Cod Bay had several thousand whales in the mid-seventeenth century. The colonists were on the lookout for right whales – the term “right” indicated the right kind, as these floated after they were killed and had baleen rather than teeth, which could be used for stays, buttons, stiffeners, and other clothing purposes.

Of course the whale oil was the most important product of the whale, as it had become necessary for lighting in ever-more populated places. The Colony shifted its oil requirement (often spelled “oyle”) from “a barrel” (31 gallons) to “a hogshead” (63 gallons) in 1662. Much of the whale oil went to England, with the Cape Codders shipping their barrels to Boston to the merchants who handled the trade.

The shore whaling book mentioned above provides the details of what the settlers had to do to “try” a whale. Their cutting tools and large, 50-gallon try pots were stored in “whale houses” until used. They had to cut large amounts of wood to build a fire, another way the landscape was denuded.

Now a drift whale might land on any beach, so they were cut up right there, and the blubber moved in carts to the “try yard.” Or, one can imagine, a whale harpooned and hauled to shore, would be brought into where the try yard was located. The first part of the operation was to cut off the lips, mostly blubber, remove the bone from the head, and then cut off the head. Next the visible blubber was removed, and a windlass attached so that at the next high tide, the carcass could be rolled over and more blubber exposed and removed. One report says it took two or three days to fully strip the whale. A source notes that four tons of blubber would yield three tons of oil. The smell of cooking blubber was extremely obnoxious, all the more reason to put the try yards on land that was not used for other purposes.

Since whale oil had to be put in barrels, having a local cooper, or barrel-maker, was necessary. In early Eastham documents, sometimes a man’s occupation would be noted. For example, Thomas Paine’s father, one of the earliest Eastham settlers, was a cooper.

In November and December 1660, there were laws passed in Eastham about the drift whales. Their first rule ordered anyone who found a whale within the township to notify the governor and his nearest neighbor, and all were to converge at the governor’s house to organize the harvesting. The person first finding the whale was to get a double share of the proceeds, but if he was not a townsman, his share would be only a single one. Within a month, this process was found to be cumbersome, and a new order was put out, that any four men of the town could cut up a whale; if the whale was found between Great Namscakett (today’s Orleans/Brewster border) and Blackfish Creek (in South Wellfleet), the four men were to have two pounds (cash) per whale. Whales found north of Blackfish Creek to Pamet (today’s Truro) would receive three pounds per whale. Groups of four men were developed and assigned to the first, and then the second, etc. whales to arrive onshore.

Later, in December 1662, the town meeting decided that whale distribution should be divided: the first whale to the north part of town, the second whale to the southern half. Each whale, however, had to supply a barrel of oil for powder and a hogshead for the public ministry, delivered to the deacon. These rules changed from time to time. As the industry of hunting and harpooning whales developed, new rules were established as to how a whale would be marked for ownership, and how the men in the whaleboats were to be compensated.

The Eastham town records record an incident in South Wellfleet in November 1684 when John Snow, Josiah Cooke and Stephen Hopkins had cut up a whale “beyond the head of Blackfish Creek” without notifying the town. They had to surrender the blubber to the town, although they were compensated for their labor. Another group of men, in the same meeting, received the same arrangement for a whale they had cut up at Rock Harbor. Captain Jabez Snow was one of the men appointed to settle the Blackfish Creek case. Both he and John Snow left wills that showed, in their inventories, that they were part-owners of whaleboats.

Wellfleet is known today for Smith’s tavern, located on the northeastern side of Great Island. After the archaeological dig there in summer of 1970, it was dated from its ceramics and other material as operating from the 1690s to the 1740s. Amongst 24,000 objects removed from the site, archaeologists found a large whale vertebra that was used as a chopping block. They also determined that the second floor was used as sleeping space, making the tavern a gathering place for the work of catching and harvesting whales. In his Wellfleet book, Durand Echeverria does not agree with the tavern’s dating, as he could not find property records that showed Samuel Smith’s ownership. However, James Deetz, one of the archaeologists who worked on this for the National Park Service, explains the dating of ceramics and pipe-stems in a way that certainly does not appear open to dispute.

As whale stocks declined, shore whaling began to diminish as early as 1720 which various newspaper reports reported. Cape Codders began to harvest the blackfish that came on shore regularly, a subject I’ll cover in a future post. However, in the years before the Revolution, Wellfleet developed its Atlantic-based whale fleet to a size of nearly thirty ships, and one of its citizens, Elisha Doane, became the richest man in Massachusetts. Nevertheless this maritime industry was lost in the long seven years of the Revolution when the Cape was blockaded — and never recovered.

An Added Note

I noticed recently that, as I was reviewing old newsletters of the Wellfleet Conservation Trust, that there is some Trust property around “Whale Bone Point” on the north side of Blackfish Creek. There is a walking trail near the Point.

Whale Bone Point received its name from its prominence as a spot for landing blackfish and small whales when the inshore fishing industry was in its heyday. According to the WCT newsletter, “reputedly, the bones of these marine mammals could be found stacked on the site after blubber and oil was rendered from the carcasses.”


Durand Echevierra, A History of Billingsgate, Wellfleet Historical Society, 1991.

Jeremy Dupertus Bangs, editor, The Town Records of Eastham During the Time of Plymouth Colony 1620-     1692, (Publication of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, 2012)

James Deetz, Patricia Scott Deetz, The Times of Their Live: Love, Life and Death in Plymouth Colony, New York: Anchor Books 2000.

H. Roger King, Cape Cod and Plymouth Colony in the 17th Century, Landham, MD: University Press of America, 1994.

Braginton-Smith, John and Duncan Oliver, Cape Cod Shore Whaling, Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2008

Bolster, W. Jeffrey, “Putting the Ocean in Atlantic History: Marine Communities and Marine Ecology in the Northwest Atlantic, 1500-1800,” The American Historical Review, Volume 113, Number 1 (February 2008) pp 19-47.






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Blackfish Creek’s Fulling Mill

The Massachusetts Historical Society began publishing papers in their collection in the late 1700s. One of the earliest writers about Wellfleet, quoted often, is the town’s minister, Levi Whitman. In 1794 he wrote a letter called “An Account of the Creeks and Islands of Wellfleet.” He began at the Eastham border with Silver Spring Creek, then moving on:

Advancing further north is Blackfish Creek, the head of which was formerly a fresh pond. A way was cut from it to the main creek, for the purpose of erecting a fulling-mill, which in time went to decay, and the time has worn a passage for vessels of sixty or seventy tons.

This held two surprising facts: first, that Drummer Cove (what we now call the head of Blackfish Creek) was once a fresh water pond, and second, that South Wellfleet had a fulling mill. I had to check out what a fulling mill is, or was, as these pre-industrial mills have disappeared.

Fulling mills processed hand-woven woolen cloth. We know that the early settlers of Eastham, including Billingsgate which became Wellfleet, kept sheep, so it’s no surprise that they needed to process the cloth they wove. Woven wool is not very compact and the wool contains excess grease and oils. Fulling is a process involving beating the cloth in a wooden tub filled with water and soap to remove the oils. The beating “felts” the fibers to form a denser, more compact cloth. In a fulling mill, a waterwheel powered a pair of wooden mallets that beat the cloths in a tub for an extensive time.

After this processing, the cloth would be attached to a “tentering” frame, a long framework of horizontal bars covered with L-shaped nails called tenterhooks. The cloth would eventually dry, and then would be stroked with teasels to raise its nap, and finally sheared smooth.

From this second process we get the expression “on tenterhooks” or held in suspense. Does anyone say this anymore?

New England used its many streams and brooks to build grist mills, saw mills and fulling mills. Eastham and Wellfleet had windmills for grinding corn, but I was unaware of a fulling mill until I read Levi Whitman’s letter. There was also a tide mill in South Wellfleet, in the small channel in Loagy Bay near Mill Hill now a conservation area.

South Wellfleet

South Wellfleet

When I first read Levi Whitman’s essay, I had thought he was referring to “Drummer’s Pond” at the head of Blackfish Creek. I know that in the nineteenth century the fishing schooners were brought in there for winter storage, and his reference to “a passage for vessels of sixty or seventy tons” confirmed my assumption. Several people commented to me as I was working on this research that the tidal movement into Drummer’s Pond would not have been strong enough to power a mill. Could the minister have been referring to the part of Blackfish Creek now cutoff and to the east of today’s highway?

However, another source for believing Whitman was referring to today’s Drummer Pond is the 1775 map of Wellfleet which Chet Lay provided recently. On this map, a “mill pond” is clearly marked, with a very small water passage between Blackfish Creek and the pond.

1795 Map of Wellfleet from Mass. State Archives

1795 Map of Wellfleet from Mass. State Archives

(This map also marks the “water mill” near Loagy Bay, separating Lieutenant’s Island from the mainland South Wellfleet.)

The Brewster Grist Mill at Stony Brook once had a fulling mill; one account says that it was across the road, another says that the grist mill there today was built on the foundation of the fulling mill. Marstons Mills, further up the Cape, claims to have had the last fulling mill in operation, it closed in 1830.


Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society Volume IV 1795, available at Google Books.

1795 Map of Wellfleet by Waterman and Hamblin (State Archives of Massachusetts)



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Making Hay in South Wellfleet

Free food! The first Billingsgate settlers joined the other English farmers who found the salt marshes up and down the North Atlantic coast as a certain source of fodder for their livestock. Harvesting salt hay was not new – it had been practiced in Europe and in the British Isles for a long time. As discussed in my previous post, many of the earliest land grants in South Wellfleet were “meadow grants” for the salt marshes around Blackfish Creek, Lieutenant Island and Loagy Bay, and other marshy areas around the bay.

Blackfish Creek marsh

Blackfish Creek marsh

There were no cattle on the Mayflower brought by the English farmers who settled Plymouth in 1620. The first to arrive were three heifers and a bull on the ship Charity in 1624. Plymouth Colony records show a very careful division of cattle, and also groupings of colonists there who were to share the services of the bull. Eastham’s early records show bull (often spelled “boole”) groups also.

When the Plymouth settlers came to Nauset (later Eastham) in 1646, the earliest town records note the individual earmarks given to cattle and horses. Initially, the settlers’ homes were around the Town Cove, and all the open fields were shared. As time went on, fields became individually owned and fenced, and meadow grants were allotted to individuals. The earliest records of land division in South Wellfleet are for these meadow grants, as discussed in my previous blog post.

Salt hay is the marsh grass, spartina patens, the low, delicate grass that makes beautiful cowlicks on the marsh. The other common marsh grass is spartina alterniflora, the upright cordgrass that creates the thatch left on the beaches today. It was used to thatch roofs, and perhaps as insulation around houses in the winter time.

The salt hay was cut by hand, raked into long rows called windrows and then into larger bundles called haycocks. The settlers probably used cedar from the South Wellfleet cedar swamp that we can stroll through today to build what they called staddles. These were platforms on the marsh that the hay was stacked on, built high enough to avoid the tide flooding the structure and floating the hay away.

Salt Hay tools

Salt Hay tools

All of this information is assumed, since I have not found records that confirm that the South Wellfleet men were handling their hay in this manner. Nevertheless, it is the method other colonists used, as historians have well documented. We do know that the Cedar Swamp near the current Marconi site supplied the right kind of wood for the salt works of the early 19th century, wood that could stand-up to salt water without deteriorating.

Once stacked, the hay might have been weighted down. It was cut in summer when the

Marsh Hay stacked on a staddle

Marsh Hay stacked on a staddle

neap tides created the least amount of water coming into the marshes. Cutting hay took more than one person, so the settlers helped each other. It was hard work, not helped by sinking to one’s knees in the mud from time to time, or being bitten by mosquitos and green head flies. Later in the year, after the marshes were frozen, the farmers returned to their staddles to collect the hay and store it in their barn for the winter.

Another method for harvesting was to pile the hay in a flat-bottom boat known as a “hay scow” and float it back to dry land and into one’s barn. The

Salt Hay boat on display at CCNS Visitor Center

Salt Hay boat on display at CCNS Visitor Center

National Park has a “hay barge” from the 1850s on display at the Salt Pond Visitor Center.

Haying has often been depicted by artists — and even more humble salt-hay making written about by James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) in his poem “Charles River Marshes”:

In Summer ‘tis a blithesome sight to see,

As, step by step, with measured swing, they pass,

The wide-ranked mowers wading to the knee,

Their sharp scythes panting through the thick-set grass.

Later, after some experimentation, the farmers discovered how to grow some of the grasses they had in England, and the cattle had this more nutritious source. However, the English grasses never replaced salt hay completely. Salt hay remained a local commodity well into the 19th century. I’ve read deeds for land around Lieutenant’s Island that transfer meadow land to a new owner, but keep the rights to access other portions, so haying could be done. In the 19th century, some harvesting may have been done with a tool called a drag, raked by a horse wearing special shoes to prevent it from sinking.

an empty staddle

an empty staddle

Milk from the cows fed salt hay was salty. One writer about this harvesting process told of a young man returning to his farm after being away, asking his father to feed the cows a good mix of salt hay before he returned so he could enjoy a taste of home he’d missed.


James Deetz, Patricia Scott Deetz, The Times of Their Live: Love, Life and Death in Plymouth Colony, New York: Anchor Books 2000.

Jeremy Dupertus Bangs, editor, The Town Records of Eastham During the Time of Plymouth Colony 1620-     1692, (Publication of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum,2012)


Teal, John and Mildred Life and Death of the Salt Marsh, New York: Audubon/Ballentine Books, 1969






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When South Wellfleet was Hither Billingsgate

Land Distribution in South Wellfleet

Since I began researching the history of South Wellfleet, I’ve looked for evidence of the earliest European settlers — and evidence of native people populating the area, yet another topic. This article discusses the records I’ve found of land distribution known to be in South Wellfleet.

In Durand Echeverria’s book on the settlement and political development of the town of Wellfleet, A History of Billingsgate, he refers to land deeds that named the area just to the north of Indian Brook “hither Billingsgate.” Indian Brook, now called Hatch’s Creek, remains the dividing line between Eastham and Wellfleet. “Hither Billingsgate” is another earlier name for South Wellfleet.

The three Barnstable County historians Pratt (1844), Freeman (1858), and Deyo (1890) touch lightly on early settlers but do not provide many details. A more certain early record is the 1734 notation in “The Records of Wellfleet, Formerly the North Precinct of Eastham, Massachusetts” published in The Mayflower Descendant. It names the men who wanted to remain with the church in Eastham, and pay their taxes there rather than to the new “precinct” of Billingsgate. Presumably, they lived with their families in SouthPam Tice South Wellfleet Map with Title 001 Wellfleet, and the meeting house on Chequesset Neck (in today’s Wellfleet) was too distant.

There are two other records that we can draw certainty from — both are land distribution lists. The first is the published records of land distributed by the Town of Eastham, although there is no record of home building. Another is a record of the 1711-1715 distribution of Eastham land that had been held in common. Taken together, these records, as well as many family histories, are my sources for who was living in today’s South Wellfleet. Another source, one that I have not fully explored, is the record left by individual’s wills, where land is left to family members and others by the deceased.

The Town Records of Eastham, newly published by Jeremy Dupertuise Bangs, lists the earliest land grants by the ruling town of Eastham, in places that named South Wellfleet sites:

  • 1654, a meadow at Blackfish Creek to Richard Bishop, next to the meadow of William Twining
  • 1658, half acre of meadowland at Blackfish Creek transferred to Mr. Smalley by Daniel Cole, next to that of Richard Sparrow.

Then, in 1659, there are numerous land grants in Billingsgate, many on the islands west of the harbor where historians have determined that the settlement of Wellfleet began. In South Wellfleet, these 1659 land grants included 3¾ acres of meadow to Jonathan Sparrow and the same amount to William Walker, at Silver Spring Meadow, on both sides of Silver Spring Creek. There’s an important distinction made in these land distributions: “meadow” refers to the marshland where salt hay could be harvested for the animals that were key to the farms of the early settlers; I plan to post about salt hay making in a separate article. Many of the distributions around Blackfish Creek were such meadow grants.

In 1662, Lt. Joseph Rogers received two acres on “the netherside” of Little Blackfish, as Blackfish Creek was sometimes called, between land belonging to Job Cole and John Doane. Rogers was an important town figure, named the head of the Eastham militia soon after the town began, at a time when Plymouth Colony took action to be ready for potential disruption from the Dutch in New Amsterdam. Fort Hill in Eastham was so named because it was the site of the fort that Plymouth Colony had ordered the town to build at that time. In 1665, Joseph Rogers Jr. was given four acres “at Loge,” today’s Loagy Bay, adjacent to land belonging to Samuel Freeman. There’s no record I’ve found to tell us why Loagy Bay is so named; I wonder if it might reflect the word “logy,” an old Dutch term meaning slow-moving and sluggish, perhaps referring to the movement of the tides.

In 1664 and 1665 there was another round of land distribution. Jonathan Higgins, son of Richard Higgins, received three acres of meadowland at Silver Spring, adjacent to the land of Mark Snow, son of Nicholas Snow. When Richard Higgins and Nicholas Snow became Eastham Proprietors, they were older and it wasn’t long before their sons needed land as they married and started their own families.

In 1665, Nicholas Snow was given five acres at the mouth of Blackfish Creek and, later that same year, two acres of meadow “in the second meadow coming out of Blackfish Creek.” The second piece was land transferred from Mr. Doane, extending to land belonging to Job Cole. In 1678 Nicholas Snow was given an acre and a half “with the sedge within land belonging to William Walker against the Silver Spring Creek.”

In his will of 1676, Nicholas left to his son, Jabez Snow, “one-half of a meadow at Silver Springs on the northside of William Walker, and the cliff of upland adjacent to the meadow and all the sedge ground about it (next) to Ephraim Doane’s.” Jabez Snow was the grandfather of the Sylvanus Snow mentioned later in this piece. Nicholas Snow’s son, Joseph Snow, who died in 1722/23, left to his son, Benjamin, “1/4 meadow on the south side of Lieutenant Island” and to his sons, Stephen and James, meadow and upland at Silver Spring.

The Snow family figures prominently in the early days of South Wellfleet. Previous to the establishment of Wellfleet as a town, there were years of negotiations as Billingsgate — the north part of Eastham — began its separation. In 1723, when the Billingsgate residents were given permission to have their own minister, the area so-designated was as far south as Blackfish Creek, leaving those further south in South Wellfleet able to still attend church at the Eastham meeting house.

In 1734, when Billingsgate was set aside formally as “the North Precinct” it was Sylvanus Snow and “five others” who were released from paying their tax to the precinct, presumably because they were living closer to the Eastham church. The others were Eldad and Ebenezer Atwood, Joseph and Jesse Brown, and Samuel Snow (Sylvanus’ brother). These records are the first we have of actual South Wellfleet settlers who did not want to travel all the way to the new meeting house at Chequesset Neck. Sylvanus Snow’s mother, Elizabeth, is buried in the cemetery now called “Bridge Road Cemetery” in Eastham, where the second Eastham Meetinghouse stood, further proof that the Snows of South Wellfleet attended church in nearby Eastham.

When the limits of Wellfleet were described in 1763, Wellfleet was “joined from the Bay to the Back Side Sea” but “leaving aside the estate of Sylvanus Snow as excepted in the incorporation.” In the 1802 description of Wellfleet’s ocean side by the Humane Society, telling seamen where they could find shelter after they scaled the dunes, there was a hollow described as Snow’s Hollow, two miles south of Cahoon’s, noting that the County Road rounding the head of Blackfish Creek was a half-mile west. However, on the 1858 map, Snow’s Hollow is prominently designated further south, close to the Eastham border, just east of Fresh Brook. Today that hollow is not named, since there is no beach access for 21st-century swimmers. The more northerly hollow, north of the National Park’s Marconi Beach, is now LeCount’s Hollow, named for the family that settled nearby at a later time.

Returning to the seventeenth century, in 1664, Governor Bradford got twelve acres of upland and 44 acres of meadow near Lieutenant’s Island “now lawfully possessed by Richard Higgins.” Governor Bradford never settled on the Cape; perhaps the land was for payment of a debt. That same year, Jonathan Sparrow, son of Richard Sparrow, an original Proprietor, gave Richard Higgins an acre and a half of meadow at Indian Brook, between land belonging to Nathaniel Mayo and Daniel Cole. He also sold three and ¾ acres of meadow on both sides of Silver Spring Brook, nearby to land belonging to William Walker. Also in the mid-1660s, Edward Bangs, Josiah Cook, Robert Wixam, and John Jenkins each received two-acre meadows on the Blackfish River, another name for Blackfish Creek in early deeds.

Richard Higgins, a tailor and one of the Eastham Proprietors, left the Cape in 1669, to purchase and settle on land in Piscataway, New Jersey. His son Benjamin, already grown and married, stayed in Wellfleet, and was grandfather to the Thomas Higgins who built the first part of the “Atwood Higgins House” on Bound Brook.

When Edward Bangs wrote his will in 1676, he left four acres of meadow at Blackfish Creek to a third son, Joshua, along with other extensive land holdings. When Lt. Joshua Bangs died in 1706, his own son Edward had already died, so he left his meadow near Blackfish Creek to John Knowles. Previously, when I was researching Old Wharf Point, I noticed that the Knowles family still owned a piece of land near there in the 19th century.

In 1666/67 Daniel Cole received four acres on the southerly side of Indian Brook, “beginning at the cartway that goes over the bridge.”

In 1669, Captain Samuel Freeman got four acres of meadowland at Loge (also known as Loagy Bay), near the north arm of Silver Spring Creek. We know that Captain Freeman had a family tie to Governor Bradford’s wife.

In 1672, William Brown (recorded as Browne) of Sandwich received 16 acres and “associated meadow” at Little Billlingsgate and Silver Spring in a sale from a Daniel Seward. Mr. Browne was the great grandfather of Joseph and Jesse Brown, who were also released from North Precinct taxes along with Sylvanus Snow, presumably because they also lived in South Wellfleet, so this deed notes their family’s beginnings in South Wellfleet.

James Brown, Jesse and Joseph’s father, was another who left South Wellfleet. He moved to Gorham (then part of Massachusetts, now in Maine) in about 1750, as did some of the Harding family members who had become South Wellfleet settlers. Land grants were made in Gorham in 1733 to reward the men who had successfully fought the Narragansetts in King Philip’s War of 1675. By the time the grants were made, the land was given to children and grandchildren of the soldiers. Other members of the Brown family stayed in South Wellfleet. George Brown married a daughter of the Freeman family, mentioned above, and lived to 1767; he is buried in Duck Creek Cemetery.

Another family named in the agreement of 1734 concerning the payment of North Precinct taxes was Ebenezer and Eldad Atwood. Since so many of these early Eastham families have been researched, it’s pretty easy to check on who the early settlers were. Stephen Atwood was an early arrival in Eastham, producing the large family characteristic of that era. His son, Eldad, married a Snow daughter. They had numerous children, including Eldad, born in 1695, and Ebenezer, born in 1696. Other Atwood children settled in Wellfleet’s western islands. The Eldad and Ebenezer named in the 1734 town meeting notes appear to be the two who were living in what was South Wellfleet. Children born later in the 1700s married daughters of families I can place in South Wellfleet also — Witherell, Cole, and Doane. One of my early blog postings was about the Barker family; their son married Lizzie Atwood, whose family line can be traced back to these South Wellfleet Atwoods.

The second source for land distribution records, mentioned above, is the Division of 1711-1715. This record has been published separately, and I found a copy at the New York Public Library. It’s a list of names, numbered from 1 to 143, of “Lot” and “Woodlot” distributions. There was no key to the list, although I found a note in yet another source that it was numbered from south to north, but with no indication which numbers were in Wellfleet. Fortunately, Durand Echeverria dug a bit deeper than I have been able to do, and noted several of the Wellfleet grants made at this time, including some in South Wellfleet, allowing me to assign numbers to sites. Again, this list refers only to land, not homesteads:

  • Brown family members: lots 111, 115, 117, 119, 120, 121, 123.
  • Harding family: 112 and 113. In her research, Polly Stubbs, noted that John Witherell bought his land from the Hardings when they moved to Gorham, one of the families receiving land grants there. Durand Echeverria noted that this Harding land was on Blackfish Creek. (I wrote about Major John Witherell several blog posts ago.)
  • Isaac Doane lot 118 which Echeverria notes was on Indian Brook.
  • Isaac Pepper received lots 104 and 107; I have a record of a 19th century Arey land naming a portion “the Pepper marsh” perhaps referencing this 18th century land.
  • William Walker received ½ of lot 104, sharing this with Isaac Pepper; a John Walker got lot 116.
  • Isaac Higgins got Lot 114.
  • The Collins men – Jonathan, Joseph Sr., Joseph Jr. and John — received lots 101, 102, 103, and 110.
  • Daniel Atwood received lot 108.
  • Joshua Cooke received 109.
  • Stephen Snow received Lot 106.

This ends my research that identifies the earliest South Wellfleet families.


Durand Echevierra, A History of Billingsgate, Wellfleet Historical Society, 1991.

Kneedler-Schad, Lynn, Katharine Lacy, Larry Lowenthal, Cultural Landscape Report for Fort Hill, Cape Cod National Seashore, 1995

Jeremy Dupertus Bangs, editor, The Town Records of Eastham During the Time of Plymouth Colony 1620-     1692, (Publication of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, 2012)

Trayser, Donald G. “Eastham Massachusetts 1651-1951” Eastham Tercentenary Committee, 1951

New England Historical and Genealogical Society, on-line publication of The Mayflower Descendant.

Smith, Edward Leodore, compiled in 1913, Ancient Eastham, Massachusetts, two lists of those proprietors there in seventeen hundred and fifteen: from the originals in Town Book Lands and Ways, 1711-1747.

David Kew’s Cape Cod History site: www.capecodhistory.us.



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South Wellfleet During the Plantation Period

We require great imagination to take us from the 21st century back to the 17th in South Wellfleet. Historians call the time frame of 1620-1692 the “Plantation Period”. This followed the “Contact Period,” pre-1620, when there were European explorers and fishermen making contact with the Cape’s native people. The word “plantation” means the time of settlement; Plymouth Colony’s reenacted village site is called “Plimoth Plantation.”

There’s no evidence of anyone establishing their “plantation” in South Wellfleet during this time, but land distributions were made by the Town of Eastham (also encompassing the area that is now Wellfleet) established by Plymouth Colony. Looking at these records made me curious about the legal basis on which lies the whole Plymouth Colony venture. Much of our history considers the “Pilgrims” (a term not used until the late 18th century) and their search for religious freedom. They were also referred to as “Separatists” to note their wish to separate from the religious practices in England. I wanted to look more closely at the business negotiations that brought them to North America, and the context for their venture. I sought to understand their changing role as Englishmen far distant from home. While greatly diverting from my South Wellfleet subject here, I am sharing understanding of the context in which the Plymouth colonists, and their Eastham counterparts, operated in the 1600s.

Fortunately, the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth has an explanatory piece on just this subject. An online essay “The Plymouth Colony Patent” outlines this legal arrangement in detail.

In 16th century England, there was new knowledge of the world’s geography, newly developing capitalism and its structures, and a wealthy landed gentry. Adventuresome aristocrats and rich merchants began to put together “companies,” pooling income, securing a patent from the Crown (thus gaining import duties and taxes), and funding a “project.” By 1615, there were two Virginia Companies with royal charters that split the monopoly on colonizing British North America.

The Virginia Company of London covered the Carolinas to northern New Jersey, and the Virginia Company of Plymouth (England) covered northern New Jersey to Maine, and was reorganized as the Council of New England around 1620. The Pilgrims obtained their patent — called the Peirce Patent — from the Virginia Company of London to settle within the jurisdiction of Jamestown. Creating these special patents was a mechanism to help the financially floundering Jamestown colony.

As we know, the Pilgrims landed on Cape Cod, putting them outside the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company of London patent, but instead under the aegis of the territory of the Council of New England. The Mayflower Compact, which they drafted and signed while in Provincetown harbor, was an attempt to structure a government to govern the conduct of the settlers. However, it had no force in law as recognized by any outside authority. The Compact did emphasize their commitment to mutual support and cooperation, but individual freedom — as we know it today — was not a consideration.

In 1621, the Plymouth settlers got a second patent, giving them permission to attempt a settlement. This patent was to last seven years, and that the settlement — not individuals — would receive 100 acres for every person who moved there, who stayed for three of the seven years, or who died in the attempt. The seven years proved successful, more or less – the Separatists in Plymouth began sending fish, clapboards, and beaver pelts back to England in December 1621.

When 1628 arrived and it was time for a new patent, a “deal” was struck by William Bradford whereby he and eleven of his fellow settlers agreed to take on the remaining debt of £1800 in exchange for the sole right to trade for six years. They became known as “the Undertakers.” The patent settled far more than 100 acres for every person, and even included territory in Maine where fur trading took place. In 1635, the Council for New England went out of business, and for 25 years Plymouth drifted along without any direct authority by England.

Dramatic changes were underway in England during this time. James I, who had been king when the Separatists left for North America, was succeeded by his son, Charles I, who was beheaded during the Civil War and the government came under the leadership of the Puritan Oliver Cromwell. Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 and ruled until 1685, when James II took the throne.

Now England began to pay more attention to its colonies, and made an effort to assert royal control. Proposals to appoint a royal governor were not met with enthusiasm, but neither was Plymouth’s request for a new royal charter granted. The Colony’s government drifted for a decade until, in 1675, King Philip’s War broke out in southeastern Plymouth Colony. This costly and bloody war lasted until 1678. The English government criticized Plymouth for allowing it to happen.

In the 1680s the Crown became aware that Massachusetts Bay Colony, a far wealthier settlement to the north of Plymouth, had been refusing to enforce the Acts of Trade and Navigation, England’s means of collecting taxes on the colonies. In 1684, Mass Bay’s charter was revoked, and all the colonies – Massachusetts, Maine, Plymouth, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, plus New York and New Jersey two years later — were consolidated into the “Dominion of New England.” A royal governor, Sir Edmund Andros, was sent to colonial New England to enforce all English laws, including religious toleration. (The Puritans in Massachusetts Bay had become rather extreme.) The new government tried to impose new taxes and limit the town meeting self-government that had grown up around New England. The colonists disliked Governor Andros, and there was growing civil disobedience.1634 map2-01

The “Glorious Revolution of 1689” overthrew James II, and William and Mary came to the throne. In Boston, Governor Andros was overthrown too, and Massachusetts Bay Colony reasserted its colony status with self-government. At the same time — perhaps as a way to show their loyalty to the new monarchs — the colonies launched a poorly-planned expedition against Canada, where the French and their Native (Indian) allies had initiated hostile action against the English. Several Plymouth men were killed.

Plymouth Colony attempted to obtain a royal charter again during this period, but was overcome by the strength of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. There was even a chance during this time that Plymouth might be included in the New York colony. Finally, by 1691, a new charter was granted that annexed Plymouth to Massachusetts Bay; property rights and some aspects of representative government were kept, but a crown-appointed royal governor was put in place in Boston. The new charter arrived in 1692, putting an end to the Plymouth Colony.

This is the background of the time that Eastham — then comprising all of today’s towns of Eastham, Wellfleet and Orleans — was established and people came to settle in the area, the home of the indigenous Nausets, one of bands of southeastern New England Wampanoags.

The settlement of Nauset — later named Eastham — took place beginning in 1644, when a committee of seven Plymouth men first explored the area as a potential settlement. The area called Nauset was already known to the Plymouth settlers. During their December 1620 explorations while the Mayflower was anchored in Provincetown harbor, they had, over several days of exploration, found fresh water in Truro, stolen corn, disrupted a burial site, saw a grampus (blackfish) being slaughtered on the beach, and had their “First Encounter” in Eastham. The Plymouth settlers eventually paid for the stolen corn, and later purchased more during their first year during the time when they experienced starvation in Plymouth. The Nausets also helped the Plymouth colonists in April 1621, when the Billington boy wandered off too far and was taken into safekeeping, but later returned.Plymouth_Colony_map

The seven men who came to be known as the “Proprietors of Eastham” were all leading citizens of Plymouth, office holders, and landowners. It had become apparent as a second generation was developing that Plymouth’s land was not especially productive. In fact, the Colony considered moving all of its settlers to Nauset, but later decided that the land could not support them all. The men who became the Eastham Proprietors included Governor Thomas Prence, who had been elected Plymouth Colony Governor in 1634 and again in 1638, during years when Governor Bradford was not in office. The other Proprietors were Josiah Cooke, John Doane, Richard Higgins (sometimes referred to as Higginson), Edward Bangs, John Smalley, and Nicholas Snow.

By 1645, John Jenkins, Samuel Hicks and Joseph Rogers had been added to the list of “freemen” and, soon after, Daniel and Job Cole, Robert Wixam, and John Freeman. By 1658 other men were on the list of freemen: Stephen Atwood (often referred to as “Wood”), Henry Atkins, William Walker, William Merrick, Thomas Paine, Ralph Smith, Joseph Harding, George Crisp, Richard Sparrow, William Twining and John Young. Some of these men may have gained their status by marrying the daughters of the Proprietors.

Plymouth had granted land previously for the establishment of other towns on the Cape: Sandwich, Yarmouth and Barnstable. However, these settlements were the result of religious disputes within the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Plymouth Colony had proven itself to be more relaxed in religious tolerance than were the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay.

The settlement at Nauset was the first on the Cape that sent Plymouth Separatists to the Cape directly. The seven men proceeded to purchase from two sachems. They purchased from Mattaquason, the sachem of the Manamoyick, a tract of land called Pochet, with a beach and small island upon it, and also all the land called Namskaket. They bought from George, the sachem of the Nausets, land as far as Indian Brook (today’s Hatch’s Creek, the line separating Eastham and Wellfleet).

There is an oral tradition regarding the remaining land north to the stream the English called Bound Brook (northern Wellfleet). George told them no one owned it, so the English purchasers claimed it as theirs. Later, a Native man named Lieutenant Anthony claimed to be the sachem of this land, for a group called the Punonakanits of Billingsgate. A deed was negotiated much later. This transaction reserved a small neck called Tuttomnest for the use of the native people. It became known as James’ Neck, and later Indian Neck. Confirming the arrangement in the sale, this land was set aside by the Eastham town meeting for the exclusive use of the native people in 1716. The island in South Wellfleet that was named for Lieutenant Anthony — “Lieutenant’s Island” — was not set aside for native use; rather, it was designated for common use in 1662, and in 1673 for the support of the ministry.

The Eastham Proprietors were acting for the Plymouth Colony, since no one had the right to buy native land individually. Thus, on March 3, 1645, the Plymouth Colony Court, whose records are carefully transcribed (and now on the internet!) issued to the Proprietors the following grant:

The court doth grant unto the church of New Plymouth, or those that go to dwell at Nossett, all the tract of land lying betweene the sea and sea, from the Purchasors bounds at Naumskeckett, to the Hering Brooke at Billingsgate, with the said Hering Brooke and all the meddowes on both sides of the said brooke, with the great basse pound there, and all the meddowes and islands lying within the said tract.

The Purchasers’ bounds at Namskaket refers to land south of Yarmouth that the original purchasers (the Undertakers) received in 1640 to reward them for their efforts in settling the colony. That land later became Harwich. The Nauset purchase began east of there, at today’s Namskaket Creek, which marks the line between Orleans and Brewster. By 1640, the remainder of the Plymouth Colony was in the hands of the Colony’s freemen. William Bradford, the often-elected Governor, had explored the Nauset area with the seven purchasers, but never settled there, though he did receive land and meadow grants there, including one at Blackfish Creek.

In 1646 the town of Nauset was established, and in 1651 it had an unexplained name change to Eastham. Once a town was established it then became the governing body including selectmen, a constable, men to maintain the highway, and representatives to the colony court, that served as both the legislative and judicial body.

Before ending this part of the Plantation era story, a word here about place names. It appears that Billingsgate was already a known name for the Wellfleet area by the mid-1600s. Sometimes it would be referred to as “Little Billingsgate,” but this did not appear to be a mere section of the area, but the whole. Some deeds called a section “Hither Billingsgate” to refer to the closest part — that being today’s South Wellfleet. Blackfish Creek, Blackfish River and Great Blackfish River were referred to in locating meadow grants, as was Boat Creek in Eastham.Pam Tice South Wellfleet Map with Title 001

Lieutenant’s Island was so named in the 1662 meeting when it was decided to keep it for public use. It may have had this name long before. Loagy Bay was referred to as “Loge Bay,” but I have found no explanation as to why this name was so given. Silver Spring and Indian Brook in South Wellfleet were early named reference points. Both arms of Duck Creek are referenced.

In what is now Orleans, Pochet or Pochey, was often referenced, along with Town Cove. Not all deeds had these reference points that can be understood today. Most deeds were very difficult to understand, as they named rocks, trees and other natural features, along with abutting owners. Sometimes a land description contains a useful clue to the researcher, such as naming a “Mill Pond” signifying that a mill had been built there.

There is no recorded information as to the first land distribution in Eastham, but we know from later records and from recorded wills that the Proprietors settled around Town Cove, building their first meeting house and homes there. The Cove Cemetery is today’s remnant of that settlement. They shared the common lands for grazing their cattle, used wood as needed, and fished and took shellfish wherever they wished. Soon that would change.


Baker, Peggy M. “The Plymouth Colony Patent, Setting the Stage,” downloadable at http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org.

Durand Echevierra, A History of Billingsgate, Wellfleet Historical Society, 1991.

James Deetz, Patricia Scott Deetz, The Times of Their Live: Love, Life and Death in Plymouth Colony , New York: Anchor Books 2000.

Jeremy Dupertus Bangs, editor, The Town Records of Eastham During the Time of Plymouth Colony 1620-1692, (Publication of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, 2012)

Plymouth Colony Records (Boston: William White 1855-1861) edited by Nathaniel Shurtleff and David Pulsifer (available on line)

H. Roger King, Cape Cod and Plymouth Colony in the 17th Century, Landham, MD: University Press of America, 1994.


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South Wellfleet’s Drive-In Theater

In 1957, two Wellfleet citizens, Charles Zehnder and John M. Jentz, purchased about 26 acres of land in South Wellfleet just across the Eastham border, and formed the Spring Brook Center, a company that operated the Wellfleet Drive-In theater. There’s no public record of why they planned this venture – but it was a popular time for this type of entertainment. In 1958 there were more than 4000 drive-ins in the U.S.; today, one account estimates that there are only 357 still operating. The movie theaters in Orleans and Provincetown were popular spots as well, but the Wellfleet Drive-In was an entirely different movie experience.

Drive In photo from Surfside Cottages

Drive In photo from Surfside Cottages


The Wellfleet Drive-In opened on July 3, 1957. A 2008 Cape Cod Times article stated:

“I remember my father telling the story of opening night,” said Ben Zehnder, Charlie’s son. “The asphalt wasn’t quite dry, so the cars all sank in with their tires.” Jentz, a graduate of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in engineering, had designed the pavement to rise in such a way that every car had a good view, but in all the excitement hadn’t quite managed to get the drying time right.

Zehnder and Jentz purchased their equipment from RCA: 650 speakers and speaker baskets plus other equipment. The Drive-in has stayed pretty much the same, one screen and about a 700-car capacity. Now the sound can also be accessed on FM stereo.

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My Dad was always up for trying something new. He loaded up the family car and drove us there the first summer, when we watched Debby Reynolds in Tammy and the Bachelor. Later, the Wellfleet Drive-In was a date place, and, for a short while, I added to my summer earnings by working at the snack bar on Wednesday nights. That must have been during the era when  Eleanor Hazen managed the site – including the miniature golf and snack bar that was added in 1961. I’m not sure how long Famous Tang’s, the Chinese restaurant, lasted, but it was there in 1988 when Alice Hoffman, the novelist, wrote her encomium to the Wellfleet Drive-in in The New York Times. I’m sure that others in South Wellfleet have the same memories.

Today, the site is miraculously still in operation with the support of the Wellfleet Cinemas added in the 1980s, and the ever-popular Flea Market helping make this business last. Now the drive-ins that managed to last into the 21st Century are threatened with having to make an expensive change to digital projectors. Recently, Honda got into the process of trying to save these nostalgia spots by awarding $80,000 grants to nine family-owned drive-ins around the country so they could upgrade.

When you’re at the drive-in, you’re sitting on the land of the Lincoln family who had deep roots in the town of Eastham, and eventually settled in the section that became Wellfleet in 1763. Like many old Cape families, Joshua Lincoln farmed his family land from the mid-19th Century to its end, when the heirs had moved away and were probably glad to sell their nearly one hundred acres. Everett Osterbanks arrived in Wellfleet in the mid-1920s and bought the land, then sold off portions. In 1950 he sold a piece to Maurice and Anna Gauthier, whose family still owns the Maurice’s Campground complex in South Wellfleet. The acreage that became the drive-in had another owner, a Mr. Dettman, and then afterwards it became the Zehnder/Jentz property when they formed their Spring Brook Center business.

Wellfleet aerial view from Drive-In's website

Wellfleet aerial view from Drive-In’s website

A recent Boston Globe article (March 15, 2014) by Sarah Shemkus concerning the Mendon (Mass.) Twin Drive-In purchase notes that this one and two others are the last remaining drive-ins in Massachusetts. In addition to South Wellfleet, the other is the Leicester Triple Drive-In outside of Worcester.


The New York Times, September 4, 1988

Boston Globe, March 15, 2014


Barnstable County Deeds available at www.barnstablecountydeeds.org

Newspaper account online at www.genealogybank.com.


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