154 Commercial Street, Provincetown, MA 02657508.487.4005800.838.4005Provincetown

Provincetown Brief History

Provincetown has a long history as a "refuge"

cape home

The Pilgrims, fleeing religious persecution in Holland, landed first in Provincetown in 1620, where they signed the 'Mayflower Compact' in Provincetown harbor, before fleeing the sandy, hostile environment for the more fertile environs across the bay in Plymouth.

The area became a port of call for seafarers and fishermen during the 1600s, and the carousing, and drinking and gambling and smuggling caused the Puritanical to nickname the town "helltown".

Settlement progressed down the Cape from Sandwich, Barnstable and Yarmouth, with the Town of Truro incorporating in 1709: the sand dunes and large harbor of adjacent Provincetown were included. As more and more settlers arrived-principally English--the wilder sort were tamed and Provincetown was itself incorporated as a town in 1727.

Decline set in until the the late 1700's, when deepwater whaling became an industry. With the War of 1812, Provincetown's large harbor revived and the town had over a thousand residents. Whaling became the principal business of the town, and after New Bedford and Nantucket, Provincetown became one of the great whaling ports of the country: by 1870, it was the wealthiest town in Massachusetts, a fact attested to by the many great late 19th century buildings that dot the landscape. As whaling activity expanded, whaling captains took to replenishing their crews in the Cape Verdes and Azores, bringing to Provincetown the Portuguese who by 1900 would come to dominate the Town.

With the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania, whaling went into steep decline, and Provincetown men turned to fishing, foraging as far as the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.

In the late 1890's, the town saw the beginnings of its current economic backbone, tourism. The arrival of the railroad had made visiting easier, and the sea, the dunes and the unusual natural light attracted artists and painters. Charles Hawthorne established one of the earliest schools of art, and dozens would follow.

The art colony flourished, and writers soon followed:in 1915 the Provincetown Players was established. Eugene O'Neill joined the players in1916 introducing many of his plays here. John Dos Passos made Provincetown his home, Tennessee Williams completed "The Glass Menagerie" here, and Norman Mailer has been a summer resident for years. Michael Cunningham, author of "The Hours" is a current summer resident.

Today art, theater and fishing still exist side by side in Provincetown. And, since at least the 1930's, Provincetown became a haven for "alternative lifestyles": gay men and lesbians flocked to Provincetown form the 1950's onward, many founding guest houses or businesses here. The town is one of the "gay friendliest" communities in America!

As a resort, Provincetown has much to offer: whale watching, people watching, fishing, kayaking, and sailing, of course; the Pilgrim Monument, rising 252 feet, offers an incredible panorama of the peninsula. Its cornerstone was laid in 1907 by President Teddy Roosevelt and President Taft attended its dedication in 1910. You can tour a winery in Truro, gallery hop on Friday evenings in the East End' gallery district, tour the wonderful Provincetown Art Association & Museum, or bike for miles along the Cape Cod National Seashore's bike trail. And there are always the lower Cape's many fine beaches for sunbathing and swimming.

Last updated: December 18, 2010