How Chatham was Settled
"Along this coast we observed smoke which the Indians were making; and this
made us decide to go and visit them… Here there is much cleared
land and many little hills, whereon the Indians cultivate corn and other
grains on which they live. Here are likewise very fine vines, plenty of
nut-trees, oaks, cypresses, and a few pines... This would prove a very
good site for laying and constructing the foundations of a state, if the
harbour were a little deeper and the entrance safer than it is."
- Samuel de Champlain, 1606
The French explorer Samuel de Champlain guided his vessel past
Harding's Beach and into Stage Harbor in October of 1606. The Native
Americans here, who had been here for at least 10,000 years, paddled
out in their canoes and greeted Champlain hospitably. Nevertheless,
two weeks of increasingly uneasy contact erupted into a fatal skirmish
under circumstances that are still unclear. Three of the Frenchmen
were killed and one fatally wounded. Many more Monomoyick were
killed by French musket shot. After a retaliation that included
an unsuccessful attempt to capture slaves, Champlain weighed anchor,
giving up any ideas of making Chatham a French foundation of state,
and leaving the way clear for the English.
It wasn't until 50 years later in 1656, when the first English
settler ran a cart down the ancient Indian pathway with an eye
on living here. Englishman William Nickerson struck a deal for
four square miles of land with the Monomoyick sachem, Mattaquason.
For this he paid a shallop, ten coats, six kettles, twelve axes,
twelve hoes, twelve knives, forty shillings in wampum, a hat and
twelve shillings in coins. This transaction took place, however,
without the approval of authorities in the Plymouth Colony, and
so, for sixteen years his purchase would be disputed until he settled
with the courts by paying a fine of 90 pounds and obtaining written
deeds from Mattaquason and his son John.
place was then called "Monomoit", as the Indians
called it, and Nickerson immediately appealed to the court for
incorporation of Monomoit as a town, but was refused on the grounds
that there was no resident minister. Until the time when there
was a population sufficient to support a church Monomoit would
be known not as a town but as a constablewick. Nickerson gave
land to each of his 5 sons and 3 daughters and built his house
on Ryder's Cove on a spot now marked by the Nickerson Family
Genealogical Research Center.
Early Chatham History
A handful of settlers soon trickled in to join the Nickerson family here.
The early houses were not much different from the infamous Cape Cod-style
houses of today. They were built with low roofs to withstand nor'easters
and hurricanes, and were often situated in protective hollows facing southerly
for maximum exposure to the sun. Seaweed, washed and dried over the summer,
often was often heaped around the foundation to provide insulation. The
small farming village consisted of twenty or so families when Reverend
Hugh Adams became the resident minister in 1711. The town wasted no time
and the next year a second petition for incorporation was then drawn up
and subsequently approved in Boston with the condition that the constablewick
give up its Indian-derived name of Monomoit in favor of something a little
more English. On June 11, 1712 the constablewick of Monomoit was incorporated
under the name of Chatham, taken from a seaport town in England.
But most of the residents were farmers, rather than fishermen.
Early Chatham settlers cultivated such crops as corn, rye, wheat,
and tobacco on farms of thirty acres or more. The typical family
owned a horse or two for transportation, several oxen for work
on the farm, and raised sheep to provide wool for New England textile
Corn, introduced by
the Monomoyick natives centuries before, already grew readily here, and soon
became the town's priniciple crop. In fact, the cultivation of corn was so
important in Chatham, that a law was passed in 1696 which stated that all householders
were required to kill 12 blackbirds or 3 crows each year, delivering
the heads to the selectman or forfeit a tax of 6 shillings.
Farming remained an important part of the Chatham economy well
into this century. As late as 1921 there were still 125 cows resident
in town, ten active farms, and votes were still being cast to pay
a bounty of twenty-five cents for each crow. The Godfrey Mill,
built in 1797, ground corn until 1929. You can now see it at the
head of Chase Park, one of the last visible reminders of the importance
of farming to the first people of Chatham.
Chatham and the Sea
By the late 1700's Chathams population had grown far beyond the tight, self-possessed
group of Nickersons who had maintained common lands for the grazing of their
cattle. Corn was no longer sufficient currency as the community diversified
and the once fertile soil yielded less and less each year. It was natural
then, that the Chatham men were turning to more fertile pastures, those of
By the Revolutionary War seafaring, rather than farming, was
the prevalant occupation in town. Chatham, along with Harwich and
Barnstable, dominated the Cape fishing industry with hauls of cod,
mackerel, and halibut from the waters of the Grand Banks 1,000
miles to the north. Over 200 men and boys made these dangerous
but profitable runs, working to save enough money to buy their
own vessel and skipper it, often before the age of twenty-one.
a successful fisherman began his career as an eight or nine-year-old
cook, perhaps on his father's schooner. The first, most urgent
thing, was to figure out how to make corn meal mush, how to 'goose-rig'
a vessel, where the best fishing places were; how to recognize
the different shoals by the kind of sea-bottom brought up by
the sound lead; and later on when he could lay his hands on Blunt's
Coastal Pilot and Eldridge's charts, study them as if they were
the Good Book. Somehow he might find somebody to teach him navigation."
- Josephine Buck Ivanoff, Historian
seaworthy vessels were built in town to haul salt cod down the
colonial coast and into the West Indies. Stage Harbor was a bustling
port to three-masted schooners loaded with cod. In fact, it was
given its name from the number of racks there in operation drying
fish. Reverend Adams had once reported to the Governor, "We
(have) a Good Harbour for a Vessel of Fifty Tunns, to Run Into & Ride
Anchor within Musket Shot of... Oyster Cove and Our Stage Neck."
The Revolutionary and Civil Wars in Chatham
Just as the townspeople were throwing themselves wholeheartedly into their
new occupation the Revolutionary War erupted. Chatham's orientation as
the easternmost land in the United States made her waters particularly
appetizing to British raids and harassment. Thus, the economy of Chatham
came to a virtual standstill. Her ships lay rotting in the harbor
for most of the war, as the British had a standing blockade on Cape ports
and the towns were often raided for food to feed the British forces.
Chatham men were pulled reluctantly from baiting their fish lines.
Campaigning in Rhode Island when their boats and families lay
exposed on the elbow of Cape Cod was not exceedingly popular.
Nevertheless, all males of military age were in the town militia,
which provided each man with "a good firelock, bullet pouch,
and powder horn or cartridge box, bayonet, cutlass or hatchet,
twenty bullets, a knapsack, and blanket."
Most of them served
on privateers, raiding British commerce, but Chatham itself did see firsthand
involvement when a British privateer sailed into its harbor one night to capture
a brigantine anchored there. As the British were raising their flag Capt. Benjamin
Godfrey's arriving militia fired on her, captured the ship, and
sent the British back into the Atlantic.
The Muster Rolls in the Massachusetts State Archives say that
a company of Chatham men, commanded by Captain Godfrey, was even
at the Battle of Bunker Hill. One of them, Stephen Nickerson, great
grand son of William, was signed on as a fifer. And Seargeant Hiat
Young served at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777.
The War of 1812 brought
Chatham men again into service, with most of them using their navigation and
sailing skills in the Navy or on privateers running the British fleet that
harrassed the New England Coast. And during the Civil War the little
town of Chatham sent 292 men, more than its quota for a town of 2,600. Many
of them died at Cold Harbor, Spotsylvania, Petersburg, and at Andersonville
prison in Georgia. The 33d Massachusetts had only 12 men remaining of its original
1,000 by June of 1864. Sixteen year old James Freeman Clark was even there
to witness the legendary Monitor and Merrimac fight.
Mooncussers and Shipwrecks
By the nineteenth century the waters off Cape Cod were the second busiest shipping
routes in the world behind the English Channel.
"There is no other part of the world, perhaps," wrote
the director of the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1869, "where
tides of such very small rise and fall are accompanied by such
strong currents running far out to sea."
is also famous for mooncussers. The mooncussers were wreckers
who, as legend says, aggressively disoriented and grounded ships
by waving a lantern in the dunes, on sandbars, or on the neck
of a horse that they walked up a beach. They "cussed" the
moon on moonlit nights because they could only operated effectively
in the dead of night. Sailors were rescued but so were the goods.
And there were times when the wreckers saved those in need when
the lifesavers could not.
soon met one of these wreckers, a regular Cape Cod man...with
a bleached and weather-beaten face, within whose wrinkles I distinguished
no particular feature. It was like an old sail endowed with life...too
grave to laugh, too tough to cry; as indifferent as a clam...
He was looking for wrecks, old logs... or bits of boards and
joists..when the log was too large to carry far, he cut it up
where the last wave had left it, or rolling it a few feet, appropriated
it by sticking two sticks into the ground crosswise above it."
- Henry David Thoreau
It is said that one
half of the known wrecks on the entire Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts have
occurred off this outer beach. And so, on October 7,1808 President Thomas Jefferson
appointed Samuel Nye as keeper of the two wooden lard-burning lighthouses to
guide ships safely past Chatham. In those days lighthouses were identified
by the number of beacons rather than the timing of their blinks.
Ships rounding the Cape to Boston would see one light on the
tip of Monomoy, two on the bluff in Chatham, and three up at Nauset.
In 1923 one of them
was dismantled and brought up to Eastham to become Nauset Light. The other
one remains today on the original site on Shore Rd. Though radar and satellite
technology provide a safer navigational aid the beacon of
Chatham light continues its service and will continue to turn,
if nothing else, as reminder of Chatham's unique maritime history here on the
elbow of Cape Cod.
Despite its remoteness Monomoy, an eight mile-long spit of sand off Chatham,
was inhabited as early as 1710. A tavern for sailors was opened up in the
location of today's Hospital Pond, known then as Wreck Cove.
During the early 1800's a deep natural harbor at Monomoy's inner
shore, known as the Powder Hole, attracted a sizeable fishing settlement.
In its prime Whitewash Village housed about 200 residents, a tavern
inn called Monomoit House, and Public School #13, which at one
time boasted 16 students. Cod and mackerel brought in to the Monomoy
port were dried and packed for markets in Boston and New York.
Lobsters were also plentiful, providing both food and income for
the villagers, who peddled them to mainlanders at about two cents
The village was abandoned after its harbor was washed away by
a hurricane around 1860. Since a storm in 1958 Monomoy is only
accessible by boat and was designated in 1970 a Federal Wildlife,
serving as an important stop on the migratory routes of 285 species
Monomoy has no human residents, no electricity, no paved roads--
Today the only reminder of Monomoy's habitation is the Monomoy
Point Light, which guided from 1828 to 1923. The wooden lightkeepers
quarters, the cast iron light tower, and the brick generator house
are alone on the desolate point of the South Island.
Tourism in Chatham
On November 22, 1887 the railroad in Chatham made its first run. Before the
railroads, travel to the Cape was only possible by boat or by cart or stagecoach.
With travel now comfortable and convenient, the richest families in Boston
and New York began spending their summers here, and even began purchasing
their own summer houses.
By the 1880's Chatham was maturing into a resort town with hotels
and businesses that catered to vacationers. Monomoy offered its
bounty of wildlife to the hunters and fishermen. The warm waters
and shallow pools of Nantucket Sound attracted families who feared
the angry, rough-and-tumble breakers of the Atlantic.
sensible practice, happily increasing among city people, of checking
themselves each year in the rush and hurry of business to take
a vacation at the seaside has already modified to a great extent
the resources and prospects of Cape Cod."
- Simeon Deyo, The History of Barnstable County, 1890
the July 3rd issue of the Chatham Monitor reported, "Vacation
time is here, so do not be surprised at any time to receive word
that some of your numerous cousins, aunts and uncles think of
coming down for a few days to get a whiff of the sea air."
In 1937 the coming of the bus lines closed the railroad- the
main station sat abandoned until 1951 when it was donated to the
town to be maintained as a museum for the public.
The widespread purchase of automobiles by middle class Bostonians
and the installation of hard roadways combined to increase the
flow of tourists from a trickle to a torrent. In 1936 the Cape
Cod Chamber of Commerce reported that 175,000 tourists visited
the Cape in that summer alone, and that 55,000 motorcars passed
over one of the bridges in one 24-hour period, just about the same
The railroad, saltworks, and the maritime trade have all disappeared. But,
though the day-boats have replaced the Grand Bank schooners Chatham's commercial
fishermen maintain her vital connection to the sea. Off-season events like
May's Spring Fling, the madly popular First Night, and Christmas by the Sea
have made Chatham a year-round place, and not just a summer tourist spot,
with its beaches and fried clams.
"The sea is master here-- a tyrant, even-- and no people
better than ours, who have gone down to the sea in ships so often
in so many generations, understand the subtle saying.... 'We conquer
nature only as we obey her.' Chatham occupies the whole ragged "elbow" of
the Cape...Its entire coast line is broken by indentations caused
by the encroachments of old ocean,-- bays, creeks, harbors, coves,
inlets-- every kind and order in fact of seashore formation that
can make irregular and tortuous the line that marks the meeting
of the land and sea."
- E. G. Perry, 1898