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Cape Cod Chronicle, December 26, 2019


When the Mayflower sailed into Cape Cod waters in November, 1620, what was the first land that came into view? It was the sand bluffs of the Outer Cape--somewhere between East Orleans and South Truro--the exact location is lost to history. But ever since Samuel de Champlain charted the Nauset Inlet area in 1605, it became a navigational landmark for successive voyages to the New World.

           “The Land Called Nawsett” (an original spelling for today’s Nauset) is the name of a new exhibition being planned to honor the Native Americans, the first European adventurers, the founding families and the early settlements of the area in the 1600s. It is scheduled to open at the Meetinghouse Museum in Orleans in 2020.

           Why was the “first encounter” between the Wampanoag tribes and Mayflower explorers on a beach in Eastham not so friendly? It really was not the first encounter. Previous skirmishes with Champlain’s crew members and other explorers had made everyone wary. However, when the land that was to become Eastham, Wellfleet and Orleans was purchased from the tribes in 1644 for colonization, Nauset Heights was reserved for the Native Americans so they could continue to grow corn on the land they had worked for centuries, helping to ensure peace.

           While many schoolchildren today learn about the voyage of the Mayflower, how many have heard of the Fortune (1621), the Anne and the Little James (1623)--three other early ships that brought settlers and cargo to Plymouth? What was their impact on the new colony? 

           The Nicholas Snow family, along with those of Edward Bangs, Josiah Cook, John Doane, Richard Higgins, Thomas Prence and John Smalley (the “Nawsett Seven”), were the first from Plymouth to settle the land purchased from the Native Americans. Unlike most early colonists, they did not cluster their homes around a common village green. Yet they prayed together, met to resolve issues, helped each other and joined in common defense. They built a meeting house, the first of which was near Orleans’ Town Cove, as a place of worship, seat of local government and a fort. What were their lives like, and why did they choose to live apart?

           “The Land Called Nawsett” exhibition will explore these and other questions about life in the Orleans area during the 17th century. It is a part of the 400th anniversary celebration in 2020 of the Mayflower landing in Provincetown and the founding of the Plymouth Colony.  



Cape Cod Chronicle, April 16, 2020

Ancestors of the Wampanoag/Nauset tribes had occupied Cape Cod for about 12,000 to 15,000 years prior to the arrival of early European explorers. From 1602 to 1614, Bartholomew Gosnold, Samuel de Champlain, John Smith and others sailed to today’s New England coastline to map the region, seek riches and possibly open new ports of trade.

Inevitably they met Native Americans during their travels. Unfamiliar with each other’s customs and languages, some of their interactions were peaceful and resulted in trade while others were not so friendly. In one incident at the end of Smith’s 1614 visit to the Cape, Thomas Hunt was left in charge to fill a second ship with fish. While doing so, Hunt captured 27 tribe members to sell as slaves in Spain.

Also, the Europeans brought disease that caused a “great dying” of an estimated 90,000 Native Americans from Maine to Cape Cod in 1616-19. Little wonder the tribes wanted to scare off the next group of those they considered hostile invaders. When the Mayflower Pilgrims first encountered the Nausets on December 8, 1620, on a beach in Eastham, they were met with a barrage of arrows.

Yet, just six years later when the English ship Sparrow-Hawk foundered on today’s Orleans coast, the Nausets were the first to help the crew and passengers, and sent word to Plymouth of their plight. What changed?

Massasoit, great sachem (chief) of the tribes inhabiting parts of Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts including the Nausets, had a dilemma. Having lost many of his people to disease and worried about attacks, could he trust the Pilgrims? Imagine the surprise of the Plymouth colonists in March, 1621, when his representative, Samoset, walked boldly out of the woods and into the settlement, greeting them in English learned from previous visitors!

Treated well by Governor Carver, Samoset reported back to Massasoit and returned a few days later accompanied by the sachem and Tisquantum (Squanto). A treaty was made and Squanto remained with the colonists to help them grow crops and survive in their new land. Ironically, Squanto was one of the Native Americans abducted by Captain Hunt but had found his way back, learning English in the process.

A few months later, a Pilgrim boy wandered off from Plymouth into the woods, became lost and was found by the Nausets. A rescue party set off accompanied by Squanto serving as an intermediary and interpreter. On the Cape they encountered an older Nauset woman who, upon seeing the Europeans, began weeping over the loss of her sons at Hunt’s hands. The Pilgrims gave her gifts to make restitution.

Upon reaching the Nauset village, Squanto interceded with their sachem, Aspinet, who returned the boy wearing tribal beads he had been given. In thanks, Aspinet and the tribal member who had found the boy were presented with gifts of knives. The Pilgrims also arranged to replace some corn they had taken previously. The treaty with Massasoit and the conciliatory gestures with the Nausets helped form the basis for peace, and set the stage for later Pilgrim settlement of the Outer Cape. 


Pictured is a replica of a 30-foot shallop that was the Pilgrims’ primary mode of water transportation at Plymouth. A disassembled shallop travelled in the Mayflower. (Richard Besciak photo)


Cape Cod Chronicle, May 7, 2020

Just half of the 102 Mayflower passengers and crew survived the first winter in Plymouth; the others had succumbed to harsh weather, illness and lack of food. The population increased in November, 1621, when the 36 passengers of the Fortune arrived. Meager resources at Plymouth were further strained by 60 newcomers aboard the Anne and the cargo ship Little James, which came in June and July of 1623.

The choice of Plymouth as the site of the Pilgrim colony had always been a default location. The sandy, rocky soil was unsuitable for growing crops to sustain the population. So the colonists began moving outward as early as 1624, eventually founding Duxbury and Scituate and making those towns part of the Plymouth Colony. This expansion was of great concern to Governor William Bradford since it was contrary to the original Pilgrim concept of a single community where everyone lived, worked and worshipped together.

At about the same time, ships bankrolled by merchants of the Massachusetts Bay Company began arriving in Gloucester and Cape Ann. In 1630 alone, the number of Europeans coming to that area exceeded all newcomers to Plymouth in the 10 years following the Mayflower landing. Settlers from the Massachusetts Bay Colony provided the impetus for expansion to Cape Cod, moving first to Sandwich in 1637, then to Barnstable and Yarmouth.

Back in Plymouth, the colonists for some time had been considering a move of the entire settlement to a better location, perhaps to Cape Cod. Having first explored the Outer Cape in 1620, the colonists had made several other trips there in search of food, a lost boy, and to rescue passengers and crew of the wrecked Sparrow-Hawk in 1626.

In 1643, a scouting party set out to identify a relocation site on the land Bradford called “Nawsett” in his letters. They likely travelled across Cape Cod Bay in a shallop, a shallow-water boat for up to 15 people that could be rowed or sailed. Impressed as they were by the arability of the land and availability of fresh water, they concluded it was not big enough to accommodate everyone. However, the seed planted by that expedition was enough to inspire seven of its men to make a bold decision.

The following year (1644), Thomas Prence, Nicholas Snow, John Doane, Richard Higgins, Josiah Cooke, Edward Bangs and John Smalley returned with permission from the Plymouth Colony Court to negotiate with the Nauset tribes and settle on the land. Soon joined by their families, all 49 people were the founders of Nauset Plantation. It was the first settlement on Cape Cod to be born exclusively from the original Plymouth Colony. In 1646, the Plymouth Court granted township status to Nauset and, five years later, changed its name to Eastham. 

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Artist’s rendition of the first Nauset meeting house built in 1644 north of Town Cove (Eastham). Men could be

fined if they did not bring their muskets to church


Cape Cod Chronicle, May 28, 2020

Leaving the rocky, sandy soil of Plymouth behind in 1644, Nauset Plantation’s original seven families--49 people in all--hoped that sustained hard work ultimately would allow them to be self-sufficient. They had been granted for their settlement about 15 miles of the Outer Cape, defined by the Plymouth Court as “…lying between sea and sea, from Namskaket (in today’s Orleans) to the herring river brook at Billingsgate (Wellfleet).” However, the land still had to be purchased from the Native Americans living there.

So the settlers negotiated with several Nauset tribal leaders, and agreements soon followed thanks to the peaceful relations they shared. What was traded for the land is not known. For goodwill, the area now called Nauset Heights in East Orleans was reserved for the tribes who had grown corn and fished there for centuries. All agreements were verbal until 1666, when written deeds were exchanged.

In April of 1644, the founding Nauset Plantation families of Edward Bangs, Josiah Cooke, John Doane, Richard Higgins, Thomas Prence, John Smalley and Nicholas Snow each had shares of the land, starting with the Snows in the southern-most tract (now much of Orleans). They began work immediately to build homes (crude at first), clear small plots of land and plant crops. Unlike Plymouth village, the settlers built their houses apart, on their own properties, probably because they felt safe doing so and wanted to avoid traveling each day to tend their crops.

The settlers also constructed a meeting house just north of Town Cove. Described as being about 20 feet square and having a thatched roof and slit windows for firing muskets, it served as a place of worship, seat of government and fort for protection if needed. The Federated Church in East Orleans is a direct "descendent" of that church, and timbers from the 1644 building later were used in a house that stands today on Canal Road.

Life in Nauset was very hard in those early years. While most of the men had previous trades (e.g., Bangs was a shipwright, Higgins and Smalley were tailors, and Snow may have been a carpenter or cooper), little of that mattered. All had to be farmers if their families were to survive. Fishing and hunting were secondary.

The “three sisters” of Native American tradition, corn, beans and squash, became the crops of choice, with beans climbing up the corn stalks and ground-covering squash (or pumpkin) vines providing weed control. Other root vegetables were grown, along with wheat, rye and barley, to various degrees of success. Potatoes would only mature to the size of hens’ eggs. Apple, pear and cherry seeds from England also were planted, but the trees would not bear fruit for several generations.   

Corn continued to be the principal crop, not only for food but also for money, and remained for years the standard measure of wealth. To say that a family had “corn in the crib” was the equivalent of today’s “money in the bank.”  

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Tending the crops was a family affair and, being essential to their survival, took precedence over most other work in the early

years at Nauset Plantation. 


Cape Cod Chronicle, June 18, 2020

On a June morning in 1645, the sun was rising over the Snow farm at the southern end (now Orleans) of Nauset Plantation. Like the other six founding families from Plymouth, they had survived their first winter on the Outer Cape, sustained by the previous year’s crops and the milk, butter, cheese and meat from their livestock and chickens. Hunting and fishing supplemented the diet of their growing family, now totaling 11 people. They would have three more children in the next five years.

The Snows’ lives were typical of the early Nauset settlers. They likely sheltered in a 20-foot-square, timber-framed cabin with rough-hewn siding, the cracks daubed with clay to reduce drafts. It had a stone fireplace topped by a wood chimney also lined with clay. The steep roof was thatched and tiny windows were covered with oiled paper. A more refined home would come later.

Constance Hopkins Snow, 39, arose that morning and got dressed in her simple, home-made clothes including a petticoat under a loose gown with sleeves, stockings, cap, apron and shoes. Husband Nicholas, 46, had put on a long-sleeved flannel shirt, trousers ending below the knee, a long vest and a hat. He often skipped stockings and shoes when working in warm weather. Their five boys and four girls, aged 1 to 17 years, also were awake and dressing in their siblings’ hand-me-down clothes to begin daily chores.

           Usually the family made breakfast of toasted bread with milk, if available, or cheese. Afterward, Nicholas and his sons went to work in the fields, or occasionally dug for clams, fished for lobsters, and went hunting for duck, turkey or deer. Constance and the older daughters also tended the crops while keeping an eye on the youngsters. Children had the tasks of feeding farm animals, milking cows and goats, and helping with their parents’ work. 

When it was time for the main, mid-day meal, the women prepared a broth of beans and herbs, called porridge, followed by an Indian pudding with sauce and a dish of boiled pork or beef with turnips and a few potatoes. Then it was back to work for everyone until evening supper, a repeat of the breakfast menu.

After supper, Nicholas might have enjoyed a pipe of tobacco, although smoking was taboo and had to be hidden from church officials. Constance likely spent the evening spinning wool from the family sheep into thread, or sewing clothes. The children, when chores were done, played games like “I Espy,” “Thread-the-Needle” or marbles. All retired early for the next day of hard work

Sundays were different. Breakfast was more sumptuous with pancakes, doughnuts, or brown toast. Then, everyone attended church regardless of age. The Snows had a shorter distance to walk than most to the meeting house at the north end of Town Cove. Services lasted about two hours, with a short break in the middle. The family then returned home to dine on roast fowl, beef rib or stew pie, and spent the rest of the Sabbath in quiet observance. Travel, amusement or other secular activities were forbidden in the settlement.

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Governor Prence’s home in Eastham, built in 1646, survived into the age of photography some 200

years later before it crumbled to the ground. 


Cape Cod Chronicle, July 9, 2020

By 1654, the decade-old Nauset settlement had officially become Eastham and was prospering on the Outer Cape. The arable soil for crops and natural marsh grass for livestock had sustained the settlers during their tough first years. Now, with additional land cleared for farming and herds expanding, many families had more than they needed and the surplus could be sold or traded. 

Large families were typical, and when spouses died it was customary for widows or widowers to remarry quickly and create new, combined families to share the workload according to traditional male and female roles. When children became adults, land was sub-divided for them or it was traded among families for more convenient parcels. Some property was sold to others who had come to live in Eastham from outside the township.

Many founding family patriarchs had assumed additional responsibilities in local government. Edward Bangs, for example, was elected Treasurer at the first town meeting, a position he held for nearly 20 years. He and John Doane, Richard Higgins and Nicholas Snow had their turns as Eastham’s Deputy to the Plymouth Court. John Smalley and Josiah Cooke were Town Constables. Doane, Higgins and Snow were Eastham Selectmen; Snow and Smalley planned roads and bridges while serving as Surveyors of Highways.

The most notable public figure of the time was Thomas Prence. Elected Governor of Plymouth Colony in 1634 (a decade before Nauset’s founding), he was either Governor or Assistant Governor (under William Bradford) every year from then on until his death in 1673. Living in Eastham, Prence was exempt from residing in Plymouth while in office. But eventually he was induced to return there by a gift of a large farm and an annual salary of 50 pounds.

In addition to civic duties, Doane was Deacon of Eastham’s first church. Bangs and Cooke became innkeepers who were required to be licensed and “were not to suffer any to be drunk, nor to tipple, after 9 o’clock at night.”

Life in Eastham was not always harmonious. In 1669, a group including Nauset founders Higgins and Smalley left for New Jersey, either because of religious or political differences with Plymouth elders, or because land was more available further south. The move divided the Smalley family as two daughters stayed in Eastham.

The “Land Called Nawsett” is a story of courage, determination and adventure. Seven families had come to the Outer Cape from Plymouth in 1644, hoping that sustained hard work ultimately would allow them to be self-sufficient. Their venture succeeded. Today, some of their descendants are still on the Cape and, through them, the Pilgrim story continues.

* * *

This is the final article of five based on “The Land Called Nawsett” exhibition being curated at The Centers for Culture and History in Orleans as part of the 400th anniversary celebration of the Mayflower landing in Provincetown and Plymouth.

Previous columns have focused on the Native Americans and early European explorers of the region, the Pilgrim migration to and from Plymouth, Nauset’s seven founding families and their daily lives. The exhibition features early maps, artwork, family trees, replicas of Pilgrim clothing, actual period furniture and household items, examples of tools and weapons, and more.

A digital tour will be available soon, and the exhibition will open at the Meetinghouse Museum when health guidelines permit. To learn more, see the tour, or review all articles in this series CLICK HERE.