Many things come to mind when you mention Cape Cod – JFK walking the beach at his summer White House at Hyannisport, a getaway for the well-to-do, the arts and alternative lifestyle of Provincetown. But an incredible amount of history has washed up on Cape Cod’s shores.
One of the largest barrier islands in the world and shaped like an arm flexing its bicep, Cape Cod protects much of the Massachusetts coastline from the unforgiving waves of the north Atlantic. Between Chatham and Provincetown, a distance of around fifty miles, over 1,000 wrecks are recorded, leading to its designation as an ocean graveyard.
The Sparrowhawk was the first recorded shipwreck on Cape Cod’s shores, back in,1626. That tale had a happy ending, with all the passengers reaching safety and the ship being repaired, only to sink again before it could be relaunched. Over the next few hundred years, shipwrecks became a form of income for the locals, salvaging the cargo, and sometimes the human cargo which washed ashore. Typically ships would flounder during storms however, and it was seldom that the hapless passengers reached the beaches of Cape Cod. As lifesaving techniques improved, when possible, lifesaving crews took specially equipped boats to ships in distress. When the surf made this impossible, they would attempt to fire a small cannon called a Lyle gun with a line attached to its shell to the ship. Sailors and passengers were then brought to shore in a basket above the waves. It was a dangerous task for those charged with saving lives as well, and their motto was “you have to go, but you don’t have to come back.”
Native Americans also were known to rescue stranded mariners, whose ships piled up on Cape Cod’s shore. The Wampanoag tribe has called Cape Cod home for many years, though they only received official recognition from the U.S. government in 2007. Originally numbering around 7,000 at the time of the pilgrim’s landing in Massachusetts, it was the Wampanoag you might remember, which helped them survive their earliest years on the new continent. The arrival of white people on the Cape had devastating consequences on the native American population, as the tribe was hit hard from Eurasian diseases for which they had no natural immunity.
And forget Plymouth Rock. The pilgrims made their first landing on these shores near Provincetown on November 11, 1620. It was there that the Mayflower Compact was drawn up, and a scouting party sent ashore to look for a suitable area for their colony. They encountered Indians near Eastham, and found no spot suitable for habitation, so once again the Mayflower set off, before finally settling on Plymouth.
And it’s believed that the pilgrims weren’t the first Europeans to come ashore on Cape Cod. There is evidence that the Promontory of Vinland mentioned by the Norse voyagers of 985-1025 was Cape Cod. Some believe that in 1006, Leif Ericson and his Vikings started a colony near Dennis. Archeological evidence has been found which might support the theory that it was here that the Norsemen built a form of dry dock to repair their ships. Whether the Vikings reached as far south as Cape Cod will probably never be known for certain however.
Henry Thoreau’s incredibly dry travelogue Cape Cod paints a picture of the area in the years 1849-1857. By then the land had been denuded of trees, and firewood had to be shipped in from Maine. The sand encroached on farm land and ground available for pasture, so much so that farming was abandoned on the Cape by the late nineteenth century, it’s inhabitants concentrating instead on the whaling and fishing industries.
By the end of the nineteenth century, tourism was coming to life on the Cape. Today it’s a major form of income for the locals, with much of the island’s commerce being shut down after the summer months. Which for me is the time to visit Cape Cod.
In late October and early November, you can feel the winter blowing in from the Atlantic winds, which while I was there never seemed to lie down, The colors were changing, far later than most of the rest of the northeast, and the sunsets were truly spectacular. You have the beaches to yourself, bed and breakfasts are off-season and you can get a sense of what Cape Cod was like before it became gentrified. Colonial era houses and buildings, as well as residences built for sea captains dot the landscape, and there are fewer roads which scream New England like Route 6A, which skirts serpent-like along the coast. It’s there in the solitude that the ghosts of Cape Cod speak to the traveller, of a time long gone but still out there. Below the sands and below the waves.