The Pilgrims Meet Squanto: Arriving in 1620

In November 1620, a gaunt and exhausted band of Pilgrims traveling on a rickety boat called the Mayflower landed on the tip of the Cape in what is now Provincetown. While some people believe that they landed in nearby Plymouth, the Pilgrims actually landed in Provincetown. Plymouth was their second stop. While in Provincetown, they put together a little agreement called the Mayflower Compact, which was the first governing document of Plymouth Colony. At the far east end of Commercial Street in Provincetown, a rock marks the spot where the Pilgrims are believed to have landed, and a bas-relief on Bradford Street, behind Town Hall, pays tribute to the Mayflower Compact.

The Pilgrims were not the first European explorers to discover the region. Cape Cod was named around 1602 by explorer Bartholomew Gosnold, after "the great stoare of codfysshes" he saw offshore. He is also said to have named Martha's Vineyard after his daughter and the large number of grapevines he saw. But many say the area had been visited by Europeans long before Gosnold; some local historians even believe they have evidence, in the form of markings on boulders, that the Vikings were here as early as A.D. 1000.

However, the Cape's cultural history really begins with the Wampanoag Tribe, a name that translates as "The People of the First Light." This Native American tribe inhabited the northeast coast and used the area that is now the town of Mashpee on the Upper Cape as one of their bases. The Pilgrims were greeted by members of the Wampanoag Tribe, among them Squanto, who is said to have stayed with the newcomers for the 1 1/2 years that they lived over in Plymouth, teaching them the ways of the New World. The Wampanoags were friendly to the Europeans, offering them food during the cold winter and showing them how to farm crops in the sandy soil. The Pilgrims seem to have repaid them with smallpox and some beaver pelts. The Pilgrims set up one of the first trading posts, at a spot the Native Americans had long been using, at what is now the Aptucxet Trading Post Museum (24 Aptucxet Rd., Bourne; tel. 508/759-9487).

The Wampanoags were receptive to missionary efforts that led them to be known as "the praying Indians." The 1684 Indian Meeting House where they worshiped is one of the oldest churches on Cape Cod and is considered the oldest Indian church in the United States. It is located within an old Indian cemetery on Route 28 in Mashpee and can be visited by appointment (tel. 508/477-0208).

Around 1675 relations between the white man and the American Indian soured, and King Phillip's War was waged by Chief Metacomet (whom the Pilgrims called King Phillip). The 2-year war resulted in the deaths of about 600 settlers and 3,000 American Indians.

The Wampanoag Tribe -- When the Pilgrims first arrived in Cape Cod in 1620, they were greeted by the Wampanoag Tribe, a group of Native Americans who lived in the region. The Wampanoags were officially recognized by the U.S. government only in 2007 -- 387 years later. Today the Wampanoags hope to build a casino off-Cape, and the towns of Middleborough, Fall River, and New Bedford have been floated. If plans for the casino are accepted, the Wampanoags could use the profits from the casino to fund tribe needs, such as housing, healthcare, and education. Those plans are awaiting decisions by the governor and state legislature, who are debating if and how to allow casinos in the state.

The tribe, which has about 1,500 members today, is in the process of organizing some of its cultural artifacts. The Indian Museum on Route 130, in Mashpee (tel. 508/477-0208), can be visited by appointment.

Early Towns on Cape Cod

The Pilgrims continued on to Plymouth, but within a few years, other settlers came from Europe and settled on the Cape. The first town to be incorporated, Sandwich, was founded in 1637. The early settlers braved the dangerous cross-Atlantic voyage to escape religious persecution in Europe. Here they formed congregations of religious groups, including Quakers, which are still evident in several Cape Cod towns; the Congregational Church in West Barnstable, founded in 1630, has one of the longest uninterrupted congregations of that denomination in the world. One historian, Henry C. Kittredge, described the early Cape Cod settlers as "zealots and idealists."

The first settlements on the Cape in the early 17th century were compact. The idea was that every member of the community was in close proximity to three crucial places: the mill, the market, and the meeting. They used the large marshlands, particularly those north of Sandwich and Barnstable, as salt hay for grazing sheep and cattle. Most of the Cape was wooded, and the early settlers cleared much of the land to raise livestock and used much of the wood to build homes. The first couple of generations of settlers were farmers who were self-sufficient, growing corn and other crops and raising sheep, pigs, and cattle. For variety they would indulge in delicacies from the sea, such as clams and lobsters. Corn was the principal crop, and each town soon had a miller to grind the corn. The early mills were operated either through water power or wind power, and the miller was considered one of the most distinguished citizens of the town because of his prized skill. As there were no stores, any item not grown on the property or made locally had to be purchased from England at great expense. It was easier to buy a parcel of land than an hourglass, noted Kittredge.

As the oldest town in the Cape, Sandwich is a good place to explore the Cape's early history. Evidence of 17th-century life can be found at the Hoxie House, built in 1675 (Rte. 130, Sandwich center; tel. 508/888-1173); the Dexter Grist Mill, built in 1654 on Shawme Pond (Town Hall Square; tel. 508/888-4910); the Sandwich Glass Museum (129 Main St.; tel. 508/888-0251); and the Heritage Museums and Gardens (67 Grove St.; tel. 508/888-3300).

Some fine examples of historic houses can also be found on the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. In Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard, the Vincent House, built in 1672, is the oldest house on the island (off Main St., btw. Planting Field Way and Church St.; tel. 508/627-8017). On Nantucket, the Jethro Coffin House (tel. 508/228-1894), a 1686 saltbox home, has the distinction of being the oldest building on the island, though there are countless examples of well-preserved historic structures here, given that the entire island is designated as a historic district.

From Pirates to Whalers: The Cape's Rich Maritime History

Before the Cape Cod Canal was dug out and the bridges were constructed in the 1930s, the shipping route around the arm of the Cape carried the reputation as "the graveyard of the Atlantic," for all the shipwrecks that took place among the treacherous shoals and currents off the Cape. Lighthouses were built -- the first one was Highland Light, in 1797, at Truro -- to help captains navigate the tricky coastline that often became enveloped in a dense fog. Highland Light, also called Cape Cod Light, and the nearby museum run by the Truro Historical Society, can be visited (27 Highland Light Rd., Truro; tel. 508/487-1121).

There are many tales of shipwrecks at the Nantucket Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum (158 Polpis Rd., Nantucket; tel. 508/228-1885) and at the Old Harbor Lifesaving Museum in Provincetown (Race Point Beach; tel. 508/349-3785), which both tell the story of the men who risked their lives to save those who would have drowned at sea. Most were lost, but the lifesavers, which later became the U.S. Coast Guard, would patrol the coastline ready to assist if need be. The Coast Guard Heritage Museum (3353 Main St., Barnstable Village; tel. 508/362-8521) tells that story. A side business (that was quite a bit less noble) was run by those called "mooncussers," who would watch by the full moon for shipwrecks and stand by to pick through any valuable parts of the wreck that came ashore.

Whaling was a prominent and lucrative industry from about 1750 to about 1850, when the industry began to wane. Whalers proved to be some of the most successful seafarers in the Cape's history. In order to make bountiful catches, whalers traveled around the world; when they returned, they inevitably brought souvenirs home with them. Therefore the homes of successful sea captains on the Cape and islands became virtual museums containing treasures from across the globe.

Nantucket became an important whaling port, and its wealth was renowned. The Nantucket Whaling Museum (13 Broad St.; tel. 508/228-1894) houses exhibits that show the history of whaling and the bounty it enabled seafarers to bring home. The museum displays the interior of an actual candle house, where whale blubber was transformed into candles. Other remnants of whaling life displayed at the museum are the scrimshaw (elaborate carvings made from tooth and bone) that sailors would carve to pass the time during the months at sea and "sailor's valentines" (colorful boxes decorated with hearts made of seashells that crew members purchased from Caribbean ports for their sweethearts).

The Great Fire of 1846 destroyed Nantucket's town center. After the fire razed the town, much of the town center was rebuilt with the riches from whaling journeys. An economic bust period in the late 19th century meant that nothing was changed for decades, and the town has been virtually preserved from that mid-19th-century period, cobblestone streets and all.

Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard also thrived during this period, and there are numerous examples of the majestic sea captains' houses -- mostly private homes -- along North Water Street. There is also a large concentration of sea captains' houses along Route 6A in Brewster, nicknamed "The Sea Captains' Town." This is a good place to admire widow's walks, those rooftop porches that were said to allow the wives of sea captains to scan the horizon in anticipation of the return of their men. There are many sea captains' homes that you can visit in the region, but exceptional examples are the Hadwen House, on Nantucket (96 Main St.; tel. 508/228-1894); the Dr. Daniel Fisher House, in Edgartown (99 Main St.; tel. 508/627-8017); and the Julia Wood House, at the Falmouth Museums on the Green, in Falmouth center (at the Village Green; tel. 508/548-4857).

Although the fishing industry has been suffering in recent years from overfishing, the Cape and islands are still the home of many who make their living by harvesting from the sea. In some families, the profession goes back for generations. Stop by the Fish Pier in the Lower Cape town of Chatham after noon to see fishermen unloading their catches. This too is an important part of the history of the region.

The Whydah: A Pirate's Treasure Trove -- One of the most famous ships that fell prey to the ocean was the Whydah, a pirate ship that wrecked near Wellfleet in 1717. The ship was captained by the notorious pirate Samuel (Black Jack) Bellamy. Bellamy and his pirate crew had captured a couple of other vessels in Nantucket Sound, but then the small fleet, manned by what is said to be crews of drunken pirates, was caught in a gale. The two other ships wrecked first; then the Whydah, with Bellamy still aboard, wrecked a couple miles south of Wellfleet's Cahoon's Hollow Beach. Bellamy and 140 of his men drowned. Two men, both of whom had been captured from other ships, made it to shore alive. They alerted the locals, who set about hauling in whatever they could that washed ashore from the wrecks. The one thing that the plunderers never did find was the chest of pirate's gold. It took almost 270 years for that loot to be found.

In 1984 local adventurer Barry Clifford began to excavate the site. His findings, including thousands of gold and silver coins, can be viewed at the Expedition Whydah Sea Lab and Learning Center, in Provincetown (MacMillan Wharf; tel. 508/487-8899).

The First Tourists: Spiritualists & Scientists

The late 19th century brought the beginnings of the tourism industry to the Cape and islands. The first tourists to these shores were looking toward the heavens, but they were not seeking the sun. They came -- by the hundreds -- for religious retreats.

In Oak Bluffs, on Martha's Vineyard, Methodists would gather in a grove close to the harbor for revivalist camp meetings. The canvas tents they erected for the extended religious revivals were eventually expanded into tiny cottages. Today visitors can stroll around and see these "gingerbread cottages," a name that has been coined after the elaborate Victorian-era scrollwork and brightly colored details on the houses, and also see the Trinity Park Tabernacle, the largest wrought-iron structure in the country. Open-air services and concerts are still held here every summer. The Cottage Museum (1 Trinity Park; tel. 508/693-7784) tells the history of the camp meeting grounds and has early photographs of the visitors, who dressed in modest Victorian garb.

Across Vineyard Sound, in the village of Woods Hole in Falmouth, a different kind of summer tourist was discovering the area. Scientists -- especially oceanographers -- interested in spending their summer vacations surrounded by other scientists were beginning to gather for seminars. Founded as a summer lab in 1888, Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL; 7 MBL St.; tel. 508/289-7423) today is an international center for biological research, education, and training with about 50 Nobel Laureates associated with it. Woods Hole is also home to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI; 15 School St.; tel. 508/289-2663), founded in 1930 and dedicated to ocean research, education, and exploration. The institute runs on about $100 million a year in grants, many from the U.S. Navy. Both MBL and WHOI have visitor centers open to the public.

Perhaps drawn by the scientists at MBL and WHOI, several other science organizations have sprouted up in Woods Hole. The village is home to a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration and a semester-at-sea school, called Sea Education Association. The village is a hub for scientists, fishermen, artists, and bohemians, particularly in the summer.

From around the 1890s to the 1930s, summer cottage communities began to spring up all over the Cape and islands for those who could afford a small second home. Two particularly picturesque summer cottage communities are Falmouth Heights, a village along the south shore of Falmouth, where Victorian-era cottages were built on and around a central hill, and Siasconset -- known as 'Sconset -- on Nantucket, where the tiny cottages are all near the ocean, festooned with climbing roses and ringed by white picket fences.

Artists Colony Forms on the Outer Cape

Around 1900 a group of artists from New York, led by Charles Hawthorne, discovered Provincetown, a tiny picturesque fishing village at the tip of the Cape, where the native population of fishermen, many of Portuguese descent, had developed a colorful community. The artists, who set up their easels on the piers and the tiny lanes, made it an even more colorful community. Hawthorne taught his students to paint outside -- en plein air -- and to render figures with broad brush strokes with a palette knife, concentrating on the nuances of shadow, angle, and color rather than getting hung up on detail.

Another famous artist who set up a school decades later in the 1950s was Hans Hofmann, a German who favored abstraction and whose background in art studies reached back to the Paris school of Henri Matisse. New York artists of the Art Students League, where Hofmann also taught, began taking summer homes in Provincetown and the nearby towns of Wellfleet and Truro. Some of them even moved there year-round. Visit the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (460 Commercial St.; tel. 508/487-1750) to understand the rich art history of the town.

As writers and intellectuals followed, the area became a hotbed of bohemia, a kind of Greenwich Village of the north. The liberal, artsy, open-mindedness of the populace made the area a popular spot for gays, and Provincetown is now one of the country's top gay resorts.

JFK & the Cape Cod National Seashore

Cape Cod really became well-known when the second-oldest son of a certain family who had been vacationing on the Cape for decades became president. It was the glamour of seeing John F. Kennedy sailing his boat, the Honeyfitz, off Hyannis Port that gave Cape Cod worldwide panache in the 1960s. Some say the place has never recovered. Hyannis, which is actually a village in the town of Barnstable, is by far the most built-up part of the Cape. It has a giant mall and numerous plazas surrounded by seas of asphalt. It also has the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum (397 Main St.; tel. 508/790-3077), a large photo display that continues to be one of the Cape's top tourist draws. The Kennedy compound is still in Hyannis Port and is considered "home" for many of the Kennedy clan. Vehicles are warned away from the area by signs, but the curious can still get a good look at the compound, which consists of several homes set closely together, by taking a sightseeing boat trip out of Hyannis Harbor. The Kennedy family's favorite pastimes, such as sailing in Nantucket Sound, continue through the generations.

JFK also did his part to preserve the Cape. In August 1961, he signed a bill designating 27,000 acres from Chatham to Provincetown as a new national park, the Cape Cod National Seashore. Visiting the national seashore can mean a trip to one of its spectacular beaches, along 40 miles of coastline from Nauset Beach, in Orleans, to Herring Cove, in Provincetown, or following a ranger on a nature walk through the endangered habitat of an Atlantic White Cedar Swamp, in Wellfleet. There are numerous nature trails offering self-guided tours throughout the seashore, as well as several historic buildings set up as museums. Maps and information can be found at the Salt Pond Visitor Center, on Route 6 in Eastham (tel. 508/255-3421). Standing on this pristine seashore looking out at the churning Atlantic Ocean, putting all of America behind you, to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, continues to be one of the most cherished experiences for those visiting Cape Cod.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.