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The History of Cape Cod & The Islands

Cape Cod, often referred to locally as simply “the Cape”, is a 75-mile long peninsula located in the State of Massachusetts.  The islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket lie off the southern coast of Cape Cod. 


Cape Cod was formed as the recessional moraine of a glacier, resulting in a peninsula in the Atlantic Ocean. In 1914, the Cape Cod Canal, which took over 30 years to complete, cut through the base of the peninsula, forming what may be loosely described as an island. In effect, Cape Cod is one of the largest barrier islands in the world, shielding much of the Massachusetts coastline from North Atlantic storm waves. 

Early Explorers

Early explorers made Cape Cod a landmark. The first, although this cannot be proven, were the Norse voyagers between 985-1025. In 1524 Giovanni da Verrazzano arrived on Cape Cod and the islands. He named Martha's Vineyard Claudia, after Claude of France, the wife of Francis I of France.  In 1525, Portuguese explorer Estêvão Gomes also arrived on the Cape.

In 1602 Bartholomew Gosnold named the peninsula Cape Cod, the surviving term and the ninth oldest English place-name in the United States. He named Martha's Vineyard too - “Martha’s” in honor of his infant daughter and “Vineyard” for the abundance of wild grapes.  Nantucket takes its name from Native American sources, possibly "Natockete" which means "faraway land".

Sailors and explorers Samuel de Champlain and Henry Hudson charted Cape waters in 1606 and 1609 respectively. English Admiral and Jamestown settler, John Smith noted the Cape on his map of 1614. Finally the Pilgrims entered the "Cape Harbor" and – contrary to the popular myth of Plymouth Rock – made their first landing near present-day Provincetown on November 11, 1620. Nearby, in what is now Eastham, they had their first encounter with Native Americans - today known as First Encounter Beach.

Cape Cod was among the first places settled by the English in North America. Aside from Barnstable (1639), Sandwich (1637) and Yarmouth (1639), the Cape's fifteen towns developed slowly. The final town to be established was Bourne in 1884, breaking off from Sandwich. 

The Changing Landscape

Henry Thoreau arrived on Cape Cod in 1849 when vegetation and trees were scarce due to colonial settlement and intensive land use. The colonists planted familiar crops which proved unsuited to Cape Cod's thin, glacially derived soil. They burned woodlands to release nutrients. Intensive farming led to the erosion and loss of soil. Farmers grazed their cattle on the grassy dunes of coastal Massachusetts, only to watch in horror as the sands `walked' over richer lands, burying cultivated fields and fences. 

By 1800, much of the Cape's firewood had to be imported by boat from Maine. The paucity of vegetation was worsened by the raising of merino sheep. The early industrial revolution of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, mostly bypassed Cape Cod due to a lack of significant water power. The Cape developed mostly as a fishing and whaling center. After the opening of the American West in the 1860s, farmers abandoned agriculture. By 1950 forests had recovered to an extent not seen since the 18th century.

Over in Nantucket Captain Hussey was the first to harpoon a sperm whale in 1712. There began Nantucket’s whaling industry. At one time Nantucket produced sufficient whale oil to light the majority of all oil lamps. Martha's Vineyard was also brought to prominence by the whaling industry, during which ships were sent around the world to hunt whales for their oil and blubber. The discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania gave rise to a cheaper source of oil for lamps and led to an almost complete collapse of the industry by 1870.

Cape Cod in the 19th Century

By the 19th century Cape Cod became a summer haven for city dwellers as improved rail transportation made Cape Cod more easily accessible to Bostonians. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Northeastern mercantile elite built many large, shingled "cottages" along Buzzards Bay. The relaxed summer environment offered by Cape Cod attracted writers such as Joseph C. Lincoln, who published novels and countless short stories about Cape Cod folks in popular magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and the Delineator.

Transatlantic Wireless Transmission from Cape Cod

Guglielmo Marconi made the first transatlantic wireless transmission from what is now known as Marconi Beach (Wellfleet). In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt initiated the first two-way transatlantic communications from Cape Cod, sending the first wireless telegram between America and Europe, to King Edward VII which read "In taking advantage of the wonderful triumph of scientific research and ingenuity which has been achieved in perfecting a system of wireless telegraphy, I extend on behalf of the American People most cordial greetings and good wishes to you and to all the people of the British Empire."

In 1914 Marconi built a new transatlantic wireless receiver station in Chatham. In 1920 the stations were acquired by RCA and Chatham became a maritime radio station using the callsign WCC. WCC supported the communications of Amelia Earhart (the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean), Howard Hughes (who set a record time of flying around the world in 1938), Admiral Byrd (the first to reach the North Pole by air), and the great Hindenburg airship on trips between Europe and New Jersey. 

Cape Cod in the 20th Century

Much of Cape Cod's east-facing Atlantic seashore consists of wide, sandy beaches. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy made the majority of this coastline a protected area and it became The Cape Cod National Seashore

Presidents on Cape Cod 

The Kennedy Compound in Hyannisport was President Kennedy's summer White House during his Presidency, and the Kennedy family continue to retain homes in the same buildings.

President Grover Cleveland maintained a summer home in the Gray Gables area of Bourne. Today former and current Presidents choose to summer on Cape Cod,  Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.