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
In the late 1800s Wellfleet also became a summer resort. How did
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 ¼ 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.