Brewster-Orleans- Eastham, 11 miles
We began the day at the Snowy Owl Coffee shop on 6A in Brewster. Thank you to Lauren for joining Walk #6, Licia and Ailene for walking, Wilderness and her granddaughter Saphron for returning again, and Mary Ellen and Jennie for listening to the talk on Brewster. Thanks Chris for the ride and support.
We started our day with setting an intention for why we were walking, and to offer acknowledgement to the indigenous peoples whose land we would be walking on and through, from Brewster to Orleans and Eastham. Eight of us gathered to hear about the history of the Cape economy, and Brewster in particular with the number of Sea Captains here in the late 1700s and 1800s, the connections to the slave trade/Triangle trade. We also focused on environmental justice from the establishment of the National Seashore to climate change, algae blooms in our ponds, and sustainable practices for healthy living here on Cape Cod.
The possible connections to slavery reveals a complex story, one that is difficult for progressive whites in particular to acknowledge and explore. Our work on this walk, as well as moving forward, is to be open to hearing about the towns we love entwined with the institution of slavery and how they benefited over time. Even if our ancestors came here well after slavery ended (as mine did from Ireland and Poland in the early 1900s), we share a legacy of benefiting from the economic gains made by those who profited from the Triangle Trade in the 1800s.
For me personally, this was the hardest Camino week thus far. I have owned a home in Brewster for twenty years, living here full time the past 7 years. Through the Camino Way process this summer, I now understand in a deeper way the complicity of my community and our former leaders (political, religious, community) in benefiting from trading with the Caribbean to support the institution of slavery. I understand more about my own complicity.
To prepare for this walk, I visited two of Brewster’s historical cemeteries, behind the Unitarian Church and on Lower Road to explore their hidden in plain view stories:
I saw that Sea Captains died and were buried in Africa, Havana Cuba, Port of Prince Haiti.  I remember walking these cemeteries several times in the past two decades without carefully reading the headstones and thinking about the stories behind them. I noted how many of the families inter-married and created a strong connection for economic, political, and religious continuity in the town. I then drove up Rt 6A to take photos of the numerous sea captain homes, many of them historic Inns and taverns and thought about how we continue to benefit from the beauty and charm of our historic town through tourism.
All up and down the seacoast of the northern states, merchants traded goods such as wood, textiles, and food (including on ships built on Cape Cod) with the slave owners of the West Indies in return for sugar cane, coffee and other products. The rum from that sugar cane became a mainstay drink for Cape Codders. There also is the thorny question of did any of our Sea Captains actually buy and transport slaves from Africa? In the peak year of 1850 there were 50 clipper captains living in Brewster.
Sally Gunning, the president of the Brewster Historical Society was generous to spend some time with me explaining the possible connections. Sally is an outstanding writer of historical fiction, including her latest book “Monticello” which tells the Jefferson story from the point of view of his daughter Martha and his slave Sally Hemings. Ms. Gunning explained that the Historical Society has a new exhibit to open now in Spring 2021: “Were there slaves in Brewster? Yes.” The exhibit will include documentation from wills, bills of sale, diaries, etc. and interpretation by historians. A few examples:
Brewster became its own town in 1803. Prior to that Brewster was considered part of Harwich. The slave census for Harwich in 1774 included 8 male and 6 female slaves.
  • · In 1755 archives, Thomas Clark of the Brewster gristmill fame left in his will “little Negro Molly” to his wife.
  • · In 1760, Benjamin Bangs noted in his diary his “Negro Oliver” was sold for 39 pounds. Bangs lived across the street from First Parish UU, and his home eventually became the parsonage. There is also a bill of sale from Bangs for Sarah for 25 pounds- included a warranty of sorts, if she had TB, the buyer could recover his money.
· By 1783 slavery is no longer legal in MA ; after 1790 no slaves are listed on the census. However many Native Americans and Blacks likely remained as indentured servants.
Although Ms. Gunning noted that there is no documented proof of any Brewster captains having direct involvement in the capture and transport of slaves, there are many questions that remain. Meadow Dibble,another local documentarian I spoke with this week, (her parents owned the Brewster General Store) years ago noticed on a grave in the UU cemetery that Benjamin Crosby “ died in Africa 1795”. That raised a major question for her: What was he doing there?
Meadow took on excavating the story of Elijah Cobb, who built the home on Lower Road where the Historical Society is now located, and the ship the Ten Brothers. The captain and crew of Ten Brothers spent months on the west coast of Africa in the fall of 1818, in the gulf of Guinea. In the harbor of Principe many contracted yellow fever and died, including Captain Joseph Mayo. Elijah Cobb, senior member of the crew, sailed the ship back to Boston, stopping at Martinique to unload an unspecified cargo. When they arrived in Boston in July 1819, they brought yellow fever with them, causing an epidemic. He was charged with a public health threat and slave trading. He was cleared of both charges. It is notable that 12 years of Cobbs’ diaries are missing, including many years when he was at sea. Dibble believes his story is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” story of the time. Meadow’s research can be found at:
How did the town of Brewster, and Cape Cod, benefit from the institution of slavery? Both Sally and Meadow agreed that the entire economy benefited. For example, the salt codfish that were dried all along the coast was shipped to the West Indies to feed the slaves. In :
But it was sugar which transformed salt cod from a valuable commodity into an economic sensation. By the late 17th century, much of the Caribbean had been given over to sugar production. The cane was grown on large plantations…slaves brought over from West Africa…plantation owners would have to devote great swathes of their land to crops or animals which they were unwilling to do. Their solution was to give the slaves salt cod instead.” New England fishermen turned away from European markets to make a low-grade salt cod for the Caribbean.
By the 1640s captains were coming back with holds full of salt, sugar, indigo, cotton, tobacco. But the real money was in slaves. New England ships would cross the Atlantic, buy slaves in the Cape Verde islands or West Africa, sell them in the Caribbean, then take cargo-loads of spices and fibres back to New England. They would then return with the salt cod needed to feed the slaves they had sold earlier and the whole process would begin again…it delivered huge profits, especially after 1713 when the development of the schooner, a faster, sleeker ship cut travel times dramatically. “
So the question needs to be asked, if this was happening out of Bristol RI, New Bedford, New York, etc. was this happening here on Cape Cod, and in Brewster? And it was not just cod, but our beloved herring. Herring was cheap and transported well. Who caught the fish? Built the barrels to store the fish? Made the ships? Worked on the ships? Captained the ships? A few more clues:
Captain Winslow Knowles noted in his log: ‘The passengers have been a great annoyance”. In other logs there are notes on palm oil, gold dust, ivory, coffee coming from Africa. What about people?
Cyrus Augustus Bradley, who was the First Parish minister from 1851-1857 wrote: “When I came here the people were extremely sensitive on certain political questions. We were all slaves to slavery…about 50 active ship masters lived in own then, and every one of them sided with the slave interests.”
It seems to me that many members of the town were aware of, directly benefited from, and participated in the Triangle slave trade.
Ironically, some of these same men, and their descendants, active in the Unitarian Universalist and other churches, became abolitionists. There is some indication of several stops on the Underground Railroad on Cape Cod including the Little Inn on Pleasant Bay, Old Yarmouth Inn, and Tern Inn and Cottages in West Harwich.
After this sobering start to our walk we moved onto the Cape Cod Rail Trail to walk through many conservation areas and Nickerson State Forest. We noted how conservation plays a role at the local, state and federal level and that our federal government is currently abdicating its role as protector of the environment and causing real damage through policies, neglect, and inept management.
At the overlook into Skaket marsh we had a conversation about the environment and I shared information from the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, the leading environmental group on the Cape. Their website if chock full of resources including Tips for an Eco-Friendly sustainable landscape. We talked about the rise in harmful blooms of cyanobacteria in our ponds from excessive fertilizers, human and pet waste and runoff from roadways. I shared information from APCC regarding climate change, support for wind energy, sustainability and water protection. I encourage you to check out
We continued our walk into Orleans Center with a stop at the Chocolate Sparrow for much needed ice coffee. At the picnic tables outside we spoke of what we had learned thus far, expressing a commitment to explore these historical stories further and think about how they impact us today. All the walkers except Lauren and me took leave in Orleans. As we continued on to Eastham, we talked about our friends the Pilgrims again, as the Mayflower replica had just passed through the Cape Cod Canal on its return to Plymouth after a three year restoration. I must admit I had conflicting emotions watching the grandeur of the tall ship passing through the canal escorted by dozens of smaller vessels. The Pilgrims were a persecuted group who left England in search of a better life. Reconciling that fact with how they treated the Indigenous peoples once here remains a difficult question.
From the Eastham Historical Society website, located on Route 6 (which I have passed hundreds of times and didn’t know was there):
An exhibition has been organized to honor the Native Americans, the first European settlers, the founding families and the early settlements of the Outer Cape in the 1600s. It continues the Pilgrim story of migration from Plymouth to Outer Cape Cod, then called “Nawsett” (today’s Nauset), and describes the lives of the first generations of families that settled here.
​Our presentation begins with the region’s Native American tribes and their initial encounters–peaceful and not–with early European explorers and then the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. Next we recount the expeditions launched from Plymouth to Nauset to find more fertile land to expand and sustain the colony.
​Finding that the Outer Cape offered better prospects, at least for some, the Plymouth Colony Court in 1644 gave land grants to each of seven families to settle the area that today includes parts of Orleans and Wellfleet, and all of Eastham. We explore the backgrounds of these founding families, and the imprint their first and second generations left on our history.
I was astounded to read that 7 families received all the land in Eastham, part of Orleans and Wellfleet that was populated already by the native peoples! What did this mean for the Native peoples living here? Hundreds of families now call this area home. Some current statistics on the population given Nauset High School statistics: 85% White, 5 % Black, 4 % Hispanic, < 1 % Native; 3% one or more races; 23% Low income
We made our way to the new crossing that stops the traffic on Rt 6, otherwise referred to as the Grand Army of the Republic Highway. I never knew what that meant. The road was named for the veterans of the Union army, navy and marines who fought in the Civil War. Thank you to the MA state highway system for a pedestrian crossing on a dangerous road. We continued to note the lack of sidewalks on our walks, and even when one was present, it was not well cared for.
At Fort Hill we took in the breathtaking scenery of the Cape Cod National Seashore: 68 square miles Created in 1961 by President Kennedy, including ponds, woods and 40 miles of seashore. This forward-looking environmental policy has provided generations with access to a national park- our beloved seashore. We made our way to the Skiff Hill overlook. The story boards tell of the Native Americans who settled there, the European explorers including Champlain, and the ecological story of the marsh. A large boulder used as a sharpening rock by Native Americans provides a welcome rest stop for viewing and sitting (a family of four sat on it while we were there- I felt uncomfortable and wanted to ask them to move, but didn’t want to bother a mother and her three small children).
After leaving Fort Hill, we had a decision to make- it was already noon and almost 90 degrees with high humidity. Both of us were spent and although I wanted to make it to First Encounter Beach where the Pilgrims stole the Natives corn and disrupted graves, we both had been to the site several times before. Instead we continued to the Windmill on Rt 6 and crossed over to Salt Pond Visitor Center for the end of our day. We sat overlooking the pond (which I later dove into to revive myself) and recounted the day and our past six weeks of walks across Cape Cod. Two more to go! Next week we walk Wellfleet into Truro focusing on people of color in the arts, current issues and we will take in both the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay.
Thank you for reading along and please feel free to comment or be in touch to walk next week.