CAPE COD is a narrow, sandy peninsula in southeastern Massachusetts bounded by Nantucket Sound, Cape Cod Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean. The Vikings may have visited in 1001. The Cape's sixty-five-mile arm—hooking into the ocean—was subsequently a landmark for many early European explorers. Giovanni da Verrazano sailed around it in 1524, Esteban Gomes arrived in 1525, and Bartholomew Gosnold named it in 1602 because of the abundant codfish in adjacent waters. Samuel de Champlain charted its harbors in 1606 and John Smith mapped Cape Cod in 1614. The Pilgrims landed at Provincetown in 1620 before settling at Plymouth and they established communities at Barnstable (1638), Sandwich (1638), Yarmouth (1639), and Eastham (1651).
The English colonists, who had peaceful relations with the native Wampanoag and Nauset people on Cape Cod, found the soil too poor for farming and turned to fishing and whaling. Harvesting clams and oysters and obtaining salt from the evaporation of seawater were industries before 1800 and cranberry bogs were first established in 1816. Shipbuilding flourished before the American Revolution and Sandwich was famous for glass making from 1825 to 1888. Many of the 100,000 Portuguese immigrants to New England, attracted by whaling,
fishing, and shipping, had settled in Cape Cod communities as early as 1810.
Because of the many shipwrecks in the vicinity, the picturesque Highland Lighthouse was built on a scenic bluff in Truro in 1797. The Whydah, flagship of the Cape Cod pirate prince, Captain Samuel Bellamy, was wrecked in a storm off Orleans in 1717. The lighthouse and the Whydah Museum in Brewster are popular attractions for tourists visiting the Cape Cod National Seashore, established in 1961. The Cape Cod Canal, connecting Cape Cod with Buzzards Bay, was built in 1914 to shorten the often-dangerous voyage for ships sailing around Provincetown from Boston to New York City.
By 1835 Martha's Vineyard had attracted Methodist vacationers to summer campgrounds and tourism had become a cornerstone of the modern Cape Cod economy. Henry David Thoreau, who wrote Cape Cod in 1865, was one of many writers and artists attracted by the unique scenery of the Cape. Provincetown had a bohemian summer community by 1890, including an avant garde theater company, the Provincetown Players, in 1915. Summer theaters and art galleries continued to entertain visitors through the twentieth century. In Wellfleet, the ruins of Guglielmo Marconi's first transatlantic radio station in 1903 can be seen on the Cape Cod National Seashore's Marconi Beach.
The distinctive Cape Cod house, a one-story, center-chimney cottage built in the eighteenth century, is found across the United States. The moraines, high ground rising above the coastal plain, and sand dunes reveal a forest of pitch pine and scrub oak with marsh grasses, beach peas, bayberry shrubs, beach plums, and blueberry bushes. The naturalist Henry Beston described life on the Cape Cod dunes in The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod (1928). Most of the ponds and lakes on Cape Cod are kettles formed by melting glacial ice. Because the Gulf Stream tempers the New England climate on Cape Cod, retirement communities and tourism, as well as fishing and cranberry growing, are the major industries on Cape Cod.
Schneider, Paul. The Enduring Shore: A History of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket. New York: Henry Holt, 2000.