Cape Cod

Cape Cod is a sandy peninsula in Massachusetts, which hooks into the Atlantic Ocean. Settled originally by the Wampanoag, the cape attracted many European explorers because of its exposed location. The Norse, French, and English visited the region, but only the Pilgrims established a permanent settlement, stepping off the Mayflower onto the tip of lower Cape Cod in 1620. The area briefly supported agriculture, but it is best known for its shipbuilding, ship supplying, fishing, and whaling industries. The colonial history of Cape Cod begins around 1000 c.e., when Norsemen are thought to have sailed to the area in search of good cod fishing. Other fishing peoples may have also visited the cape, but they left no records. In 1524, Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian commissioned by the French government, sailed up the coast of North America in search of a westward route to China. He discovered the cape, named it Pallavisino after an Italian general, and returned to France. In 1602, Bartholomew Gosnold sailed down the coast of New England in search of a passage to Asia and sassafras, a tree with a bark that was in heavy demand as a suspected cure for syphilis. Gosnold found abundant supplies of sassafras on Pallavisino and then changed the peninsula’s name to Cape Cod in honor of the many cod in its waters. A French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, next visited the cape in 1606. Champlain’s brief stay on the peninsula is notable only for his fight with the Wampanoag over a kettle that left seven French and an undetermined number of Native Americans dead. After this incident, the French never returned to Cape Cod. Meanwhile, Englishman John Smith had learned of Gosnold’s discoveries, and on a 1614 voyage he charted the coastline along Cape Cod. Smith publicized his map, which prompted the Pilgrims to seek a land grant, ostensibly to profit from the cod to be found in the new country but also to escape religious persecution. The practice of kidnapping Native Americans into slavery led the Wampanoag to be suspicious of European motives and likely prompted them to initially treat the Pilgrims as enemies. Thomas Hunt, one of several captains known to have enslaved Cape Cod natives, had led a 1614 kidnapping in the future area of Plymouth that claimed a number of Wampanoags, including Squanto, a member of the Patuxet group. When Squanto returned to the cape in 1618, the European diseases that decimated the Wampanoag had already wiped out his village. Eight of the Cape Cod villages identified by John Smith had vanished by the time of the arrival of the Pilgrims at Provincetown. Finding the land at Provincetown to be too sandy to support settlements, the Pilgrims moved across the bay to Plymouth. Instead of a wilderness, they found cleared land ready for planting, villages with small homes, and the remains of many Cape Cod Native Americans. The forested areas of the cape, which created a screen for the villages by extending down to the shoreline, were filled with beeches, several types of oaks, hickories, black and yellow birches, red and white cedars, and pitch pines. Although the waters around Cape Cod swirled with marine life, the English were slow to benefit from these riches. The Pilgrims disliked clams, declined to eat the abundant supplies of mussels, and only devoured lobsters to avoid starvation. Not especially adept at catching cod, they abandoned attempts at commercial fishing by 1626 to concentrate on fur trading and agriculture. Salt hay from the marshes was used to feed cattle and horses, but forest removal and soil depletion eventually caused farm yields to drop dramatically. When the supply of beaver and otter furs became exhausted by 1688, the Cape Codders were forced to turn to the sea. In an imitation of the Wampanoag whaling approach, the first English whaling efforts were limited to butchering the giants that beached themselves on the cape. By 1700, almost everyone was involved in whaling. Rather than venturing out for long journeys, the English posted lookouts along the beach and rowed out in an attempt to herd passing whales into the surf. By the middle part of the eighteenth century, whaling had evolved to harpooning passing animals and towing them back to shore. The peak year for shore whaling was 1726, when eighty-six whales were killed. When the whales stopped coming so close to Cape Cod, the whalers simply went on longer journeys to find them. By 1776, life on Cape Cod revolved almost entirely around the sea. This pattern would continue into the twentieth century. Caryn E. Neumann See also: Fish and Fisheries; Massachusetts; Massachusetts (Chronology); Massachusetts Bay Colony; Massasoit; Pilgrims; Squanto. Bibliography Kittredge, Henry C. Cape Cod: Its People and Their History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968. Schneider, Paul. The Enduring Shore: A History of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket. New York: Henry Holt, 2000. Natural Cape Cod holidaymapq

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