Pounded by waves and shaped by sand, the story of Cape Cod is set in a ever-changing geological wonderland. As Ice Age glaciers began to advance into lower New England about 22,000 years ago, the front sections encountered warmer temperatures and began to melt. Over the following 4,000 years, glaciers would recede and stop, then push further and recede again. This repetitive movement deposited rocky debris during each stop, eventually making up the hills along the northern coast of Cape Cod. Huge sections of ice crashed down, debris smoothed out and ocean levels rose. Evidence of these dramatic changes can still be seen today in hundreds of the Cape’s “kettle ponds”, where giant chunks of ice melted and formed depressions in the earth. Ice Age glaciers combined with wind, tides and storms to create the Cape Cod of present day — an exquisite collection of barrier beaches, salt marshes, and pristine dunes.
Cape Cod has served as a landmark for seafaring exploration for centuries. Italian explorer Giovannia da Verrazzano approached from the south in 1524, followed the next year by Estevan Gomez, who named the landmass Cape St. James. It wasn’t until the year 1602 when Bartholomew Gosnold first used the name Cape Cod, inspired by the abundance of codfish in the waters surrounding his ship.
Even before maritime explorers came into the picture, Cape Cod’s Native American tribes had been surviving for centuries. The Wampanoag’s were accomplished farmers and fishermen, practicing sustainable techniques such as lighting controlled fires to keep underbrush in check. A dominant tribe in the area, the Kakopee, were known for their fishing prowess, and were the first Native Americans to use large casting nets.
Contrary to popular belief, the Pilgrims did not make their first landing in Plymouth but in Provincetown on November 11, 1620. Shortly after landing, they decided the land was too sandy to support crops and sailed across Cape Cod Bay to Plymouth. Over the next 20 years, settlers spread out from Plymouth and made their way back to Cape Cod.
The first homes built on the Cape were wigwams, in the style of the Wampanoag. Eventually, the new settlers began to strip the land of its forests to make room for farmland and to build more European-style houses; much of what is now Eastham was planted to wheat. As acres of woodland were burnt to release nutrients from the soil, the intensive farming practices eventually led to heavy amounts of erosion and a loss of top soil. Sand dunes on the outer Cape became more common, and settlers began importing wood from Maine. When Henry David Thoreau visited Cape Cod, he observed the land as “a vast morgue, where famished dogs may range in packs — the most uninviting landscape on earth”. It was very much a ruined land.
Smallpox, measles and influenza eventually caused the death of many Kakopee and Wampanoag tribes, and through continued purchases and expropriation by colonists, the Native Americans lost their land. Not until 2007, after the 1974 formation of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council, did the government officially recognize the tribe.
Following an old Indian Trail that has now become the scenic Route 6A, the towns of Sandwich, Barnstable and Yarmouth were incorporated into the newly settled Cape Cod region. Many of the towns were named after English seaports, and all but two have English names. The exceptions being Orleans, named after a French city and Mashpee, a name given by the Wampanoags. By the end of the 18th century, all of the Cape’s towns had been incorporated except for Brewster, Mashpee and Bourne.
A history of Cape Cod is at the same time a history of storms and hurricanes. These natural forces have helped characterize the Cape’s constantly shifting shoreline, but have also created some of the Cape’s most iconographic symbols and lore.
The first recorded shipwreck in Cape Cod history was the wreck of the Sparrow-Hawk in 1626 off Nauset Beach. In 1717, the area experienced one of the worst storms on record, leading to the crash of the Whydah, a pirate ship commandeered by “Black Sam” Bellaby. Bellaby was on his way back to Provincetown to see his sweetheart and to retire after years of sea-plundering, only to fall a few miles short of his destination, crashing off the coast of Marconi Beach in Wellfleet. So many ships have struck the hidden sandbars between Chatham and Provincetown, that those fifty miles of ocean have become known as an “ocean graveyard”, a site of over 1,000 wrecks.
In 1797, the Cape’s first lighthouse was built in Truro by order of George Washington to warn sailors of this dangerous area. Today, the beacon is the most powerful light in New England. Numerous lighthouses were constructed during this time to provide safe navigation through the treacherous waters. These beacons in the night remain working today. Over the years, the relentless pounding of the ocean has caused massive erosion, resulting in the need to rebuild or move many lighthouses further inland. Nauset Light, Chatham Light, Race Point, and Nobska, among others, have become emblems of Cape Cod and its precarious position amidst the waves.
Lighthouses were not the only emerging technologies on Cape Cod around the turn of the century. In 1914, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi made the first transatlantic wireless transmission from Wellfleet, passing a message between President Theodore Roosevelt and the King of England. A new wireless station was built a few years later in Chatham. Marconi chose the site because of Chatham’s vantage point on the Atlantic Ocean where three sides of the coast are surrounded by water. This technological milestone would serve as an aid in the communication of Charles Lindbergh during his famous trans-Atlantic flight, as well as the last voyages of the Hindenburg and Amelia Earhart. Today, there is a park built around the first wireless station, offering spectacular vistas from the platform above the Marconi site.
The Wampanoags had taught settlers how to strip blubber from stranded whales, creating a thriving whaling community on Cape Cod and especially on the island of Nantucket. Whale products such as oil and bone were a staple of colonial life and an economic pillar. The wreck of the Essex, a Nantucket whaleship attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820, even served as inspiration for Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick. But by the mid-18th century, the amount of near shore whales had dramatically decreased and the economy began to turn downwards. As a result, in the 19th century, the Cape began to cultivate a new source of revenue: tourism.
The first train service from Boston to the Cape Cod town of Sandwich began in 1848, and extended outwards to Provincetown by 1873. Eventually, Amtrak began a passenger train service running between New York City and Hyannis. The service lasted until 1959, when all passenger trains running to Cape Cod ceased operation.
Sailing the deadly and difficult ship route surrounding Cape Cod was a well-known danger. Even Myles Standish, a member of the original Plymouth colony, proposed the idea of linking two tidal rivers and creating a route across the seven-mile isthmus of Cape Cod. But it wasn’t until 1909, backed by wealthy New York financier August Belmont, that construction of the canal began. It originally opened in 1914 and was a man-made marvel, but was extremely narrow and winding. Space was only available for one-way traffic and several accidents occurred. The canal greatly shortened the trade route from New York City to Boston, but because of the route’s dangerous reputation, toll revenues were unable to meet investors’ initial expectations.
In 1928, the Federal Government purchased the canal and handed it over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild. Width and depth were increased making the Cape Cod Canal the widest sea level canal in the world. During the 1930s, three bridges were built; two traffic bridges — the Sagamore and Bourne — and one railroad bridge. Today, the canal provides a route for 30,000 vessels each year, as well as sightseeing ferries. Service roads along both sides allow access for fishing, bicycling and walking. Carved out of rock and dirt, the canal has made the newly formed peninsula of Cape Cod a unique and beautiful site.
The Cape remained very isolated, and to some, even a bit backwards, well into the 1920s. Though Provincetown was becoming popular with artists and writers from New York City, the rest of the Cape remained very rural and quiet. After World War I, with the development of cars and paved highways, the Cape became more accessible to visitors.
The construction of the Mid-Cape Highway (Route 6) in the 1950’s marked an important milestone in Cape Cod’s growth, allowing travel from the bridges out into the Lower Cape. Adding to the Cape’s appeal was the Hyannis Port summer residence of the new president, John F. Kennedy.
In 1961, President Kennedy signed legislation establishing the Cape Cod National Seashore, a wide stretch of stunning beaches and national parks that remains as one of the most popular destinations for visitors. Housing subdivisions were once scheduled to be built on the seashore, but now the coast is protected from any development.
Tourism and small businesses remain the backbone of the Cape’s economy. Farming and the highly prized fishing industry also help boost the local economy. Though growth and development has taken place, much of the Cape’s natural beauty still remains, making it a sought out destination for outdoor-lovers. The year-round population of Cape Cod is nearly 230,000, but summer tourism increases it immensely. Because of this, many businesses are targeted for the tourists. Gift shops, kayak and bike rentals and waterfront restaurants, all close down during the “off-season”. Provincetown has become a popular gay and lesbian destination, offering lively activities and festivals during the summer. The islands of Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, have transformed from simple whaling and trading communities, to resort destinations with packed ferries running trips from the mainland.
The history of Cape Cod remains in motion. The tides are still coming in and the shorelines will keep changing. But at the moment, its beauty remains perpetual and harkens back to a time of wooden sailing ships and lighthouses gleaming on the horizon. It’s the place for the perfect cup of chowder, the long walk on the beach and the discovery of your new favorite spot, whether it is a restaurant, hidden cove or a place to watch the sun rise. The waves are welcoming and the charm of the Cape is of something familiar yet exciting, a true gem of the Atlantic coast.