Chapter 22

Chapter XXII


It is doubtful if another village can be found so sinned against by the literary guild as Provincetown. Three generations of writers have made it a target for their wit, and the place has come to be viewed by the outside world only through an atmosphere of metaphor and exaggerated description. Without question, there is much of the quaint and primitive in the village, and many elsewhere obsolete customs obtain, but I think the serious student in his study of the town will be moved not so much by his sense of the grotesque as by admiration for the courage and energy that founded and has sustained a village on this sand heap, miles away from any center of supplies.

From Town Hill, an immense sand dune overtopping the village roofs, one gets an admirable idea of the town’s isolated and exposed position. The summit of this hill is encircled by an iron fence, and, being well supplied with settees, makes a delightfully unique park, much affected by the townsmen. Looking east, the place is seen extending for three miles along the curve of a harbor, that, for perfect protection from wind and




wave, is the wonder of the physicist. If one stretches out both arms, then curves right fingers, hand, and arm, bringing it within an inch of his outstretched left, he will describe the configuration of Provincetown Harbor his right arm representing Long Point, the extreme tip of Cape Cod, and his body and left arm the north shore of the cape, trending toward the main land. The harbor has a depth of from three to fourteen fathoms, and is two miles in width. The town is an irregular mass of wooden buildings, built on the narrow beach, barely one hundred feet wide, which intervenes between the water and the sand-hills. Two narrow streets follow the trend of the coast, thickly lined with stores and dwellings. Until within a few years these streets were mere sand, through which horse and pedestrian waded toilsomely, but of late earth and gravel have been carted in and a solid roadbed formed, while a narrow plank-walk has been laid on one side of the street. Along the water-front the old town is seen in its purity; quaint, weather-beaten structures are here: cooper’s shop, boat-shop, fish-house, ship-chandler’s stores, commission offices, and in striking contrast the neatly-painted village hotel, built on piles over the bay, its favored guests lulled to sleep every night by the ripple of the waves. On the docks fishermen are cleaning the morning’s catch of mackerel, and "Bankers" just in are landing the spoil won from the Banks or stormy Labrador. In open spaces between




the docks long lines of dories are drawn up, nets are drying in the sun, and codfish are curing in flakes, or lie piled in immense heaps, waiting for the packer. The dwellings are nestled near the bases of the dunes: some homes of wealth and refinement, furnished with all modern appointments, some quaint and venerable; some hidden in trees and shrubbery, others bare to the sun; and some, in the Portuguese quarter, squalid and poverty-stricken.

Looking landward from our hilltop, as far as the eye can reach, one sees an arid waste of sand heaped in curiously shaped hills, some covered with beach grass, some with scrub oak and stunted shrubs, others bare and white in the sunlight. It is hardly three miles across from Massachusetts Bay on the north to the Atlantic on the south.

Nothing edible can be raised on these sand heaps. Provincetown cattle are fed on hay and grain imported from Boston. The butter, vegetables, and fruit on the hotel table come from far down the Cape.

Nothing is indigenous but fish, and one’s first query is how a town came to be founded at all on the further end of this desolate sand spit. It was the ocean, and above all the harbor, that gave it its excuse for being.

Gosnold first discovered the harbor in 1602, and rested here several days, refitting his bark. Hendrik Hudson put in here in 1609, a few weeks before the discovery of the Hudson. In his journal, under date




of June 15, 1609, he gives a quaint account of his discovery of a mermaid which will bear repeating: "Here," he says, "we saw a mermaid in the water, looking up earnestly at the men. From the waist up, her back and breasts like a woman’s, her body as big as one of us, her skin very white, and long hair hanging down behind, of color black. In her going down they saw her tail, like the tail of a porpoise, and speckled like mackerel." The harbor has a place on Captain John Smith’s map of 1614 as Milford Haven. When the Mayflower was nearing the American coast she cast anchor here on the 11th of November, 1620. The men went ashore to explore, to talk with the Indians, and gather odorous woods — birch, sassafras, spruce — which then grew in abundance on the sand-hills; the women to do their washing at a spring of soft water that gushed out on the beach. Here the famous compact was signed and Peregrine White was born. The grave elders, however, saw no site for their town on these sands, and after a few days the Mayflower coasted along the shores of Cape Cod. The Pilgrims discovered vast schools of cod and other food fish in these waters, which was reported in England, and drew many vessels from thence which engaged in the fishery. Later colonial vessels resorted thither. Then a few fishermen built huts on the shore, the better to pursue their calling, and Province-town was founded. It was made a district in 1714, in connection with Truro, the adjoining town, and in




1727 was formed into a township, the inhabitants, from their exposed and perilous position, being exempted from taxation and military duty. By 1748, we are told, so many had removed or been lost at sea that only three houses were left. The census of 1764 makes no mention of it. Thirty-six families were reported in 1776. Its experience in the war of 1812 will bear relating. The fine harbor and good water caused it to be made a rendezvous for the British fleet during the entire war. Only a few weeks after war was declared a British squadron, commanded by Commodore Hayes, dropped anchor in the harbor. For men to whom free egress to the ocean was indispensable to a livelihood this proceeding was most alarming. The Commodore, however, quickly divined their trouble, and sent them a permit allowing the fishing-boats to go out, on condition that the townsmen filled his casks with water. This was done, the boats coming in with full cargoes, and the old men and boys filling the water-casks and rolling them to the water’s edge. But the shrewd fishermen were guilty of a trick which the Britons little suspected. The overplus of fish caught they pickled, then conveyed stealthily in their dories to Sandwich, hauled boats and cargoes across Cohasset Narrows with oxen, then launched them on Buzzard’s Bay, and sped away to New London, New Haven, and even to New York, where they exchanged their fish for flour, sugar, and other necessaries, which were returned in




the same manner to Provincetown. After the war the growth of the fisheries was rapid, and the town rose from a population of 812 in 1814 to 3,096 in 1855. The census of 1880 gives it a population of 4,443.