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      Chatham, Cape Cod, Massachusetts  
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The History of Chatham, Cape Cod,


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Chatham, Cape Cod
Incorporated: 1712
Population: 6,579
Total Area: 24.33 square miles

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.

This 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 mills.

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 the sea.

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.

"Many 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


Fast, 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.

And so 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."

And Chatham 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.

"We 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 apiece.

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 of birds.

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.

"That 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

In 1893 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 as today.

Chatham Today
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




© 1998-2009 Text by Christopher Seufert

From the award-winning 3-part History of Chatham documentary series narrated by Chatham's own veteran actress Julie Harris available here


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Read the first two chapters of Joseph C. Lincoln's 1924 Rugged Water, about the Chatham Lifesaving Service.

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Visit the newly expanded Chatham Historical Society.
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Read About Cape Cod Shipwrecks

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Read About the Lifesavers of Cape Cod.

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Read The History of Chatham Bars Inn.

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Purchase part 6 of the Cape Cod Soundscape Audio CD Series, September Crickets>

September Crickets CD

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Samuel De Champlain> Samuel de Champlain is greeted by the Monomoyick in 1606.


Samuel De Champlain

>Detail from map of Indian settlement drawn by Champlain


> William Nickerson purchased Chatham for a shallop, ten coats, six kettles, twelve axes, twelve hoes, twelve knives, forty shillings in wampum, a hat and twelve shillings in coins.



> Chatham was originally known as Monomoit, so named by the original Native American inhabitants.



> Champlain's Map of the North Atlantic coastline.


> Though Chatham is one of the oldest towns on the Cape, it actually wasn't incorporated until 1712.


> A law was passed in 1696 that all householders were required to kill 12 blackbirds or 3 crows each year.



> The Nickerson Family Farm


> By the Revolutionary War, seafaring was the prevalent occupation in town.


> Chatham Harbor



> Stage Harbor was a bustling port to 3-masted schooners.


> A Company of Chatham men served at the Battle of Bunker Hill.


> The waters off Chatham were the second busiest shipping route in the world.


> Chatham Light was built originally as a set of twin towers in 1808.


Chatham Twin Lights

> The Twin Lights of Chatham


> Chatham Light Today




> Monomoy is an eight-mile-long Fish and Wildlife Refuge off Chatham's coast.





> Monomoy Point Light








> The Chatham Railroad made its initial run in 1887.







> The Chatham Railroad Station, now a museum.






> By 1936, 175,000 tourists were crossing the Cape Cod Canal.











  Christopher Seufert Photography & Marketing, 2469 Main St- Floor 1, South Chatham, MA  02659

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