Wellfleet History

If someone says "Wellfleet" when playing word association games, one of the most frequent answers would be "Oysters." Wellfleet oysters were famous before there was a Wellfleet. The Indians enjoyed oyster feasts long before the English settlers arrived. The French explorer Samuel Champlain also beat the English to the oysters. Exploring what is now Wellfleet Harbor in 1606, he named it Port Aux Huitres for the tasty treats he found in its waters.

Wellfleet became Wellfleet in 1763. It was part of Eastham which was incorporated in 1646. The northernmost part of Eastham became Truro in 1709 (and Provincetown evolved from the north of Truro in 1727). In 1723 the North Parish Meeting House was built in the Chequesset Neck area of Eastham to serve the growing population in that area. In 1734 Wellfleet applied for town status but it had to wait until 1763 to be incorporated. The Boston Court wanted to call the new town Poole but the people objected and, with the court's approval, chose Wellfleet. Here again, the oysters played a significant role. It is believed that Wellfleet was named after the Wallfleet oyster beds of England.

Whaling was Wellfleet's business, in fact its only business in its early days before the Revolution because in 1770 a mysterious plague wiped out the oyster beds. But during the Revolution Wellfleet's harbor was blockaded and its whaling industry also died. So, after the war, commercial fishing became Wellfleet's occupation. As fishing grew, Wellfleet grew. It has been estimated that during the period after the Civil War half the fish eaten in this country were caught by Cape Codders and Wellfleet fishermen were second only to those from Provincetown in hauling cod and mackerel into their schooners.

In the late 1800s Wellfleet also became a summer resort. How did this happen?

It started in 1870 when a young skipper named Lorenzo Dow Baker returned from Jamaica with bananas. Unfortunately they were spoiled. So he went back the next year and brought home a cargo of green bananas. They turned to yellow gold as Baker bought more boats and expanded his banana fleet. In 1881, Baker and his brother-in-law, Elisha Hopkins, also of Wellfleet, organized L.D.Baker and Co. In 1885, they offered stock to the public in their Boston Fruit Company. This became the United Fruit Company in 1899. And what does this have to do with Wellfleet becoming a summer resort? In 1885 Baker bought the Mercantile Wharf and built a hotel, the Chequesset Inn, on the pilings, staffed it with Jamaicans. This was the start of Wellfleet as a summer playground.

Wellfleet remains a magnet for "summer people" and visitors. The harbor is one center of activities and not just for those related to the sea. The Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater (W.H.A.T.) now in its 11th year is right next to the pier. Downtown Wellfleet is another center with its many shops and art galleries. Wellfleet is ranked by many interested in art as the place to go to enjoy it; and buy it. The entire eastern half of Wellfleet is part of the National Seashore. On the high land above Marconi Beach two bases of the four towers that Marconi used to send the first wireless message across the Atlantic in 1903 can still be seen. That only two remain is a testament to the power of the Atlantic Ocean which, in less than a century, has encroached so deeply into the cliffs. The road to Marconi Beach, east off Route 6, is about 2 miles beyond the Wellfleet town line.

The Atlantic White Cedar Swamp Trail, which starts at the Marconi Beach parking area takes you on 1 ΒΌ mile walk through eight different examples of local plant life, showing how some areas evolve over time and others remain fairly stable.

The National Seashore also takes in part of the west side of Wellfleet to include Great Island, the barrier beach that protects Wellfleet Harbor from Cape Cod Bay. There is a self-guided tour for this totally undeveloped area, but it is recommended only for those in good health.

Wellfleet Cape Cod Contact Information

279 Orleans Road
North Chatham, MA 02650

Phone: (508) 945-6443
Fax: (508) 945-7837

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