History of Cape Cod

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The Cape Cod peninsula was created by glaciers that dumped their accumulated till some 18,000 years ago and then began their retreat northward, scooping out Cape Cod Bay. Glaciers are also responsible for the deep ponds that dot the Cape. At least 5,000 years ago, the first Native Americans settled on Cape Cod. These were the Wampanoag Indians, part of the Algonquin Indian Nation. As they settled the Cape, they split into five tribes. There are some stories of Viking explorations in the area about 1,000 years ago, but many experts do not accept these claims. However, it is well established that, in the early 1600s, Europeans started making their way onto the Cape.

One of the most famous explorers was Bartholomew Gasnold, who sailed from England with a small crew. During their journey, they anchored in Cape Cod Bay and caught so much codfish that Gasnold named the area Cape Cod. Despite attempts by later explorers and settlers to change it, the name stuck. Other explorers passed through as well, but the most famous visitors to the Cape were the Pilgrims, who arrived on November 20, 1620.

Although every American schoolchild learns about Plymouth Plantation, the Pilgrims actually first stopped at Provincetown, on the end of Cape Cod. Having missed their intended destination of Virginia, they were struggling to reach land safely before winter in the treacherous waters just to the east of Cape Cod. They finally found Provincetown Harbor, anchored, and sent a team to explore the Cape. The scouts found a stash of Wampanoag corn at a place still known as Corn Hill , in Truro, and "borrowed" it from them. They also found some fresh water in the ponds of that area, but decided they weren't a sufficiently reliable source, and so left the Cape and went on to Plymouth. However, while they were anchored off the Cape, they accomplished a remarkable feat: they wrote the Mayflower Compact, which established a fairly democratic form of government and ensured the social stability of what would be a very difficult colonization. Their history here is commemorated in the Pilgrim Tower in Provincetown, the tallest all-granite structure in the U.S., and in the adjoining Provincetown Museum.

Once in Plymouth, the Pilgrims remained the dominant European influence on the Cape, and, as their colony grew, they began expanding onto the Cape. The numbers of Native Americans predictably waned, in a story of epidemics and territorial loss familiar from other American settlements. The Pilgrims founded the Cape Cod towns of Sandwich, Barnstable, and Yarmouth in the 1630s, and a significant portion of their congregation relocated to Eastham in 1645. They engaged in farming and fishing.

New settlers, some fleeing the religious repression of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, developed new technology and industries throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Salt works were widely established in the 1830s and were a major industry until cheaper methods were developed in the West. Glass from Sandwich was world-famous in the 1800s (the industry is remembered at the Sandwich Glass Museum). Cranberries were cultivated and the Cape is still a world-leading producers of the fruit. Clipper ships and the men to skipper them were produced in abundance on the Mid and Lower Cape.

These industries slowly became obsolete or were outdone by cheaper and bigger establishments elsewhere, but they also produced an unexpected spinoff. In the 19th century, the Cape Cod Railroad serviced the Capes industries and agriculture, but also, eventually, began to bring tourists from Boston and New York all the way to the tip of the Cape. This was the beginning of the summer tourist industry that has been the economic mainstay of the Cape for many decades. The 17-mile long Cape Cod Canal was finished in 1914 (and is still the widest sea-level canal in the world); in the 1930s, the Sagamore and Bourne bridges were built over the Canal, opening up the Cape to automobiles that have increased in number every summer since.

The Cape exploded in popularity and livability in the last half of the 20th century, and everywhere there are signs of the Capes struggle to find a happy medium between commercialism and its quaint New England roots. Cozy cottages with weathered cedar shingles, tacky motels with neon signs and waterfront trophy homes have all multiplied rapidly. Summer tourism approximately triples the population and a local joke has it that the Cape sinks a foot in July and August. Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of retirees living here, too. In fact, the population of Cape Cod is the fastest growing of any region in Massachusetts. But the draw is obvious: its a beautiful place to be, with the most swimmable beaches you'll find this side of the Mason-Dixon line and a small-town, Yankee feel despite all the development.

Probably the Capes most famous summer visitors are the Kennedys. Joseph P. Kennedy and his wife, Rose, rented a house in Hyannisport in the 1920s. They later bought it, other family members found homes nearby, and the Kennedy Compound was created. Although the Cape is very proud of their link to Camelot - celebrated at the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum - Richard Nixon had a 20 percent margin of victory over JFK in his summer hometown in the 1960 presidential election. One of the Capes other footnotes in history is that Orleans is the site of the only World War I attack on American soil: a German U-boat shelled the coast in 1918, sinking two barges and a tugboat.

Throughout its history, the Cape has been separate from mainland Massachusetts in its geography, vegetation, architecture and culture. From its beginnings as a haven for religious outcasts, the Cape has appealed to those who feel ostracized elsewhere, including artists, gays and lesbians, and inventors. But every summer, and now even in the spring and in the fall, they open their galleries, restaurants, shops, and inns to hordes of families and tourists who call the Cape their home away from home. And, for now, theres room for everybody.