Once upon a time there was a land called Monomoit, named by the Monomoyick, a Native American tribe. Over time its name was changed to Chatham - the "first stop of the east wind." Chatham sits on the elbow of Cape Cod and is the easternmost land on the Atlantic seashore.
Chatham, like all of Cape Cod, was carved by ice. As the glaciers pressed southeastward from Canada during the last ice age, they pushed small mountains of debris in front of them. When the climate warmed and the glaciers retreated, these loads were left behind as ridges known as "moraines," two of which created Cape Cod.
The glaciers carved ridges and hills, extensive barrier beaches and spits, harbors, and many small estuaries. As the glaciers retreated they left large ice block called "calves" which melted in place and formed freshwater ponds known as kettle ponds. Wind and wave action continue to carve Chatham shores.
The French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, was the first European to visit in 1606. He needed rudder repairs and anchored in Stage Harbor. The Native Americans who had been here for over 10,000 years, went out in their canoes to greet Champlain and things started out well.
However, over the next couple of weeks tensions rose until they erupted into a deadly encounter that left three of the French dead and one mortally wounded. Many more Monomoyicks were slaughtered by French muskets. Champlain also retaliated by attempting to catch slaves, but was unsuccessful. He finally weighed anchor never to return, leaving the coast clear for the English.
The presence of dangerous reefs off Monomoy Point known as Pollock Rip shoals caused the Mayflower to turn back and head to Plymouth in 1620. So it wasn't until thirty years later, in 1656, that William Nickerson made a deal for four square miles of land with Mattaquason, the Monomoyick sachem.
It cost him a shallop (small boat), ten coats, six kettles, twelve axes, twelve hoes, twelve knives, forty shillings in wampum, a hat, and twelve shillings in coin. Unfortunately Nickerson hadn't consulted the authorities in Plymouth beforehand, and it took another 16 years and a fine of ninety pounds before he settled with the courts and received written deeds from Mattaquason and his son, John.
By the time of the Revolutionary War, seafaring, not farming, was the prevailing occupation. With Harwich and Barnstable, Chatham dominated the deep sea fishing industry. And, whaling and ship building followed.
Fast vessels were built to haul cod down the coast of colonial America all the way to the West Indies. Most Chathamites served as privateers raiding British ships during the War of Independence. Chatham did see action when one night a British privateer sailed into her harbor to capture a ship anchored there. Fortunately, the militia arrived in time, recaptured the ship and sent the British packing.
By the 1800s the waters off Chatham were the second busiest shipping routes in the world, after the English Channel. On November 22, 1887, the railroad made its first run to Chatham. Previously the only way to get here was by stagecoach, boat or cart.
The railroad made travel convenient and comfortable, and, lured by Chatham's abundant, natural beauty, rich families from Boston and New York began spending summers here and hotels and business catering to the tourist trade flourished. Chatham's early prosperity had endowed it with a large number of 18th century buildings which contributed considerably to its charm. Many were bought by Bostonians and New Yorkers as summer homes.
The oldest house in town, the
was built in 1750. The many 18th century buildings still stand, well kept and inhabited today. And, Chatham continues to flourish as a popular and welcoming place for tourists.
Chatham has been the location of more wrecks than practically any other part of the Atlantic shore. It is believed that if you resurrected all of the hulls of the vessels that have sunk between Monomoy and Provincetown and placed them end to end they would form a solid line down the coast between the two towns.
While the waters around Chatham are treacherous, with strong currents and dangerous shoals, they are not the sole cause of the numerous wrecks. 19th century sailors spoke of a ghostly rider on a pale white horse who appeared on stormy nights, waving a lantern that led the unwary to their graves. Actually the ghost or ghosts did exist.
They were called Mooncussers. According to legend, Mooncussers aggressively bewildered and beached ships by waving a lantern from the dunes, or sandbars, or from the neck of a horse walked along the beach. On moonlit nights, they "cussed" the moon because it thwarted their efforts. The Mooncussers weren't all bad. While they were after the goods, they did also save the sailors.
In 1937 the bus lines started arriving which led to the closing of the railroad. The main station remained abandoned until 1951 when it was donated to the town for a museum. Chatham has maintained both its history and seaside essence. Rich summer visitors still flock to Chatham buying and building houses along Shore Road and North Chatham. The fishing industry is still an important part of our town as is our architecture
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