Cape Cod and Plymouth

We have found in our travels that we don’t really know what we think we know and we certainly don’t know it all; and we often don’t know the whole truth. History is constantly unfolding and the story is retold, refined, and edited as new information comes to light. Our time spent in Plymouth and on Cape Cod were prime places to “relearn.”

I really wasn’t prepared for Cape Cod. It wasn’t what I thought it would be at all, at least not the first part of the peninsula. Even though it is a peninsula, the Cape Cod Canal, part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, effectively makes the Cape an island since access is reduced to two massive bridges.

Getting to the Cape can be quite an endeavor, especially if you make the mistake of heading out there on a Friday afternoon, as we did. It seems everyone heads to the Cape for the weekend. There were large signs along the highway warning of traffic jams and slow going. The traffic wasn’t all from visitors either, over 230,000 people live in the 15 towns that crowd the peninsula.

The peninsula is shaped like a person’s curled-up arm. cape cod map The parts closest to the “shoulder” are called the Upper, Mid and Lower Cape which is where most of the towns are located. Shortly after you turn north you enter the Outer Cape. We were relieved when we reached the Outer Cape and the Cape Cod National Seashore as there were fewer people and houses. The next good sized town is Provincetown (called P-town by the locals) way at the northern tip of the peninsula. Can you imagine what it would be like if President John F. Kennedy hadn’t authorized the National Seashore in 1961? Those 44,000 acres would be completely packed with houses and roads and the Cape wouldn’t have any of its natural beauty left.

Speaking of nature, we enjoyed a couple wildlife encounters during our visit. First, we spotted small, dark, rounded shapes just off shore in the water. Upon closer examination we determined that they were curious Grey Seals. While we were watching them, they were watching us. We even witnessed one seal slap his flippers after a lone surfer caught a great ride on a wave. Was it a coincidence or did the seal appreciate another creature having fun in the waves? Wish I knew…

Later in the evening, just after sunset, as the last bit of light was fading we were surprised to see a coyote sauntering across the road. I admire them because they are such resourceful and amazing creatures; since I grew up listening to them they are special to me.

As we wandered a few of the six beautiful sandy beaches in the National Seashore I was reminded of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, long white beaches backed by grassy dunes. Our stop at Nauset Beach was quite rewarding in an unexpected way: onion rings.

Called “Lord of the (Onion) Rings”, Liam’s is a beach-side snack-shack famous throughout New England for its hand cut, lightly battered and perfectly fried creation. They looked and smelled so good we couldn’t resist and yes, they were delicious! I don’t know that I’d visit Cape Cod just for the onion rings but if you are there, then you might as well drive up to Nauset Beach for them. You can always work off the calories on the beach afterwards.

Cape Cod isn’t just recently popular, it has been for thousands of years. Not only did several native tribes live on the Cape seasonally, some even lived there year round. Archaeological evidence of habitation goes back at least 10,000 years. Considering that the peninsula was created by the retreat of a glacier just 16,000 years ago, the land has been lived on for most of its existence.

The peninsula was probably explored by Vikings around 1,000 years ago, but evidence is slim. The first reliable records come from Verrazzano in 1524 and Esteban Gomez in 1525. Gomez originally named it Cape James after the King of England, the Queen eventually had Cape Ann named for her, and the James River which ran between the two Capes was named for their son. Cute, eh? At some point the Cape was renamed Cape Cod, in reference to the hordes of fish found there. One record mentions there were so many cod you could walk across their backs.

We visited the site of Marconi’s wireless radio station which is within the National Seashore, near Wellfleet on the Outer Cape. While Marconi’s station did successfully transmit a message from President Theodore Roosevelt to the King of England in 1903, it turns out that all Marconi did was test things. Do you remember learning that Guglielmo Marconi invented the radio? Well, forget it.

Apparently Marconi used other people’s inventions and patents in his public demonstrations. So while he proved they could work, they weren’t his to claim. Much of the credit has now been given to Nikola Tesla (and others) and even Marconi’s shared Nobel Prize is in question. An unrelated yet undisputed Marconi fact is his high-ranking involvement in the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini who was a good friend of his.

Ready for more “new history”? The first place the Pilgrims landed when they reached America in November of 1620 was not little ol’ Plymouth Rock. It was Cape Cod! They arrived in Cape Cod Bay after being blown off course by several storms. They anchored in what is now the Provincetown Harbor and rowed ashore. An encounter with the unfriendly Nauset Indians (they’d had dealings with Europeans who kidnapped members of their tribe for use as slaves) convinced the Pilgrims to try life on the mainland instead.

They weren’t supposed to land that far north and they did not have permission to settle in the area they named Plymouth. Apparently they considered sailing south around the Cape but after 66 days at sea they decided against it (besides sailing around the Cape is very dangerous, to date there are over 3,000 documented shipwrecks out there).

The Mayflower sailed from England in September of 1620 (I will not cite the exact date because of the confusion between Old Style and New Style dates, I can see why it takes a specialist to figure these things out!) with 102 passengers, roughly 25 crew members and two dogs. There was no mention of livestock but a later letter refers to chickens, swine and goats so they must have been on the ship too. Can you imagine the stench? During the voyage one crew member and one passenger died, and one child was born. Since the Pilgrims arrived in the dead of winter they remained living on the ship and survived by sending men out to scavenge what they could.

By March of 1621, when they finally moved off the ship, only 53 passengers were still alive and half the crew had also succumbed. (Interesting aside: Lance’s aunt has traced their family lineage back to several of the Mayflower passengers.) That spring they had their first contact with a native Wampanoag and were shocked to find out he spoke English.

Tisquantum (Squanto) had learned English when he was kidnapped by Thomas Hunt and sold as a slave. In a strange twist, the kidnapping spared Tisquantum’s life, for while he was away a plague spread through his village of Patuxet. By the time he returned, his village was gone. It was there, at his old homesite, where the Pilgrims settled.

So if they weren’t the first English settlers in America, if Squanto didn’t help them survive their first winter (they stole the food they needed from Wampanoag stashes) and if their first step wasn’t on Plymouth Rock why are the Pilgrims so famous? One word, Thanksgiving. Of course it didn’t happen the way you have been told. The Pilgrims did celebrate a harvest in October 1621 and they did invite their Wampanoag neighbors, with whom they had an uneasy trust yet from whom they had learned so much. Unlike what you might have learned, it was the Wampanoags who provided most of the food for the three day feast. Yes, they did dine on turkey and corn that day. They might have also eaten cranberries, potatoes and pumpkins as those items were available, but there is no record of them doing so.

It certainly wasn’t the first harvest celebration in the New World and for many years they didn’t always observe it. The first attempt at creating the holiday came in 1789 when President George Washington decreed a day of thanks in late November. That holiday was sporadically celebrated over the years. It was almost one hundred years before Thanksgiving became a nationally recognized holiday when President Lincoln authorized it in 1863. In 1939 President FDR changed the date of the holiday in November, but since 1941 the fourth Thursday of November has been the official day of thanks.

As you might imagine, Thanksgiving Day is not such a treasured time of remembrance for the descendants of the Wampanoag (or many other tribes for that matter). After 1621 the tribe was mostly destroyed by disease, warfare, loss of land and cultural conversion though they were not entirely eradicated. There are still Wampanoags scattered throughout the east coast, with the largest groups at Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard and Mashpee on Cape Cod (the Mashpee group just received Federal recognition as a tribe in May of this year).

That sums up our time along the southern coast of Massachusetts. I can think of no better way to “relearn” than by visiting the actual sites where the events occurred, especially when the places are as scenic and interesting as Plymouth and Cape Cod. Next we head inland to the location of the “shot heard ‘round the world.”

Photos: View our photographs from Cape Cod and Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Notes: We visited Cape Cod and Plymouth, Massachusetts on 07/13/07 and 07/14/07. As part of our time in Plymouth, we visited Plimouth Plantation, a living history museum.

6 thoughts on “Cape Cod and Plymouth

  1. Caravans for Hire

    I’ve been studying Canadian Genealogy for over 4 years now, can anyone send me in the right direction to start my own genealogy service? Is it even worth it?


  2. Erin

    I’ve only dabbled in genealogy myself, and that only here in the States. So, I can’t offer you any help or advice. Good luck with your research!


  3. Sheryl

    This a nice article and a good read. Its good to know our geography from time to time. I’d bookmark this page and would love to read more of your travels. Good Luck!


  4. Erin

    Thanks, Sheryl. Glad you enjoyed reading this – we certainly had a wonderful time exploring the area and learning more about it!


  5. Josh Garrod

    I was planning a trip to Cape Cod, may think twice about it if the traffic is like you say it is. Interesting fact about the population of the 15 towns, absolutely massive! Thanks, enjoyed a good read.



  6. Erin

    Josh, traffic heading to the Cape is a major issue on Friday afternoons (it reverses on Sunday afternoons) but please, don’t let that stop you. The Cape is beautiful!

    Our favorite spots were the many beaches protected by the National Seashore. If you go, and we recommend it, be sure to make it out to P-town – the views and the town’s funkiness are worth it!


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