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Provincetown Town

Barnstable County, Massachusetts

Provincetown Town Hall is located at 260 Commercial Street, Provincetown, MA 02657.
Phone: 508‑487‑7000.


Beginnings [1]

Provincetown was first settled in the late 17th century and was incorporated in 1727.

Historians believe that before the Pilgrims came, Basques and other daring fishermen visited these shores; and there has long been the theory, without tangible support, that it was to Cape Cod the Norsemen sailed in their voyages of the early 11th century. Fosnold, who sailed around the Cape in 1602, named the tip-end Cape Cod. Other explorers gave it other names, but "Cape Cod" had clicked, and as Mather wrote, it is a name the Cape will never lose "till the shoals of codfish be seen swimming on the highest hills.

For nearly a century after the Pilgrims landed, then abandoned for Plymouth, Provincetown drew a strange assortment of transients. The Indians — Pamets of the tribe of Wampanoags — came here often, but had no permanent settlement. Provincetown was thus a sort of aboriginal Coney Island, where they gambled and drank and visited with fishermen. One imaginative historian writes of their "bacchanalian carousels, which were continued sometimes for weeks with unrestrained license."

In 1714 the "Province Town" was put under the jurisdiction of Truro, as a precinct. But pious, respectable Truro wanted no part of it, and after a long campaign, the horrified goodmen of that town succeeded in getting rid of the "Poker Flats of Cape Cod," as historian Shebnak Rich termed it. Provincetown was thus incorporated in 1727.

Deepwater whaling began at about that time, and the fleet grew rapidly. Provincetown and Truro took the lead. The whalemen and the Banks fishermen gave the Lower Cape a fair start toward prosperity in the latter half of the 18th century. At the same time the business of "wrecking" was pursued with uncommon diligence.

Mooncussing and beachcombing (recovery of goods from the beach, chiefly cargoes drifting ashore from wrecked ships) were the wreckers' work. This was a recognized means of livelihood by the good citizens of "Helltown," as Provincetown came to be called. The legend of false lights hung out on moonless nights to lure unwary mariners of those days are part of the Cape's oral traditions. Rum-running and other smuggling were facilitated by long, deserted beaches, hidden from the village by the dunes.

About 1800 the Cape began making salt by evaporating sea water, and this discovery gave the fishery a new impetus. Provincetown became more prosperous and somewhat more respectable. A settlement grew up on Long Point itself, to be nearer the fishing. In lieu of lawns these people had patches of seaweed at their front doors, and children were cautioned against crossing the road at high tide.

Shortly before the Civil War the people at Long Point moved across harbor to the main part of town. They loaded their houses, stores, church, and schoolhouse on scows and casks, and poled them across. The only structure one sees on the Point today is the lighthouse. Fishing went on, however, and expanded, reaching a peak in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

The founding of the Cape Cod School of Art here in 1901 by Charles W. Hawthorne was the real beginning of Provincetown as an art colony, though a few painters had visited the town before that. Hawthorne's own pictures of the Portuguese fisher people did much to build up the colony's prestige. Since his death in 1930, other schools have carried on, and the Provincetown Art Association's annual exhibit is an event of widespread interest. Prominent painters who have been associated with the colony include, besides Hawthorne, Arthur Diehl, Heinrich Pfeiffer, Edwin W. Dickinson, Ross Moffett, Frederick Waugh, George Elmer Browne, Richard Miller, John Noble, Mrs. Max Bohm, John Frazier, Gerrit A. Beneker, Hans Hoffman, Jack Beauchamp, Karl Knaths, W. H. W. Bicknell, William Paxton, Tod Lindenmuth, John Whorf, Henry Hensche, Jerry Farnsworth, and Charles J. Martin. Among sculptors here have been William Zorach and William F. Boogar, Jr.

In 1915 the Provincetown Players gathered under the leadership of George Cram Cook. They later took a theater in New York City, where they carried on until 1922. Drama on Broadway, at the time they set themselves up, was stilted and heavily encrusted with outgrown traditions. The Players broke away from the timeworn formulae, offering plays with a fresh outlook, a new simplicity of method. The pioneering work done at that time has had a lasting influence, and has made the organization long remembered.

Among writers and dramatists who have lived in Provincetown are John Dos Passos, Susan Glaspell, Mary Heaton Vorse, Edmond Wilson, Harry Kemp, Frank Shay, George Cram Cook, Wilbur Daniel Steele, Max Eastman, and two winners of the Nobel Prize for literature, Eugene O'Neill and Sinclair Lewis.

Many of the artists and writers of reputation return each summer, and with them come large numbers of young unknowns. But to the old skipper of Provincetown who has retired from the sea and hung out his tourist sign, these are merely the forerunners of an even greater throng the summer vacationers. By July 1 all is in full swing the painters painting, the writers writing, tourists buying, and the traffic policemen perspiring.

  1. Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration for Massachusetts, Massachusetts: A Guide to Its Places and People, American Guide Series, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1937.