The Native Americans     Long before English settlers arrived in what is now Yarmouth and Dennis in the 1630s, many generations of Native Americans lived here. Several resident tribes fell under the collective Wampanoag nation. The Pawkunnawkuts occupied both sides of the southern section of Bass River. The Hokanums lived in the northeast section of the town, part of which still bears their name, and the Cummaquids lived in the western section. The area which bordered Nantucket Sound to the south was known as the "South Seas" and the whole of the area that is now Yarmouth was referred to as "Mattacheese." In the native tongue, Mattacheese meant "old lands by the borders of water." 

Yarmouth natives, believed to have numbered several hundred, lived in simple domed dwellings constructed of "bent sapling frames covered over with rush matting equipped with smoke holes and doorways." Game and wild birds were plentiful and were supplemented with shellfish and fish caught in traps and weirs. The Europeans who began to arrive early in the 17th century completely disrupted the Indians' way of life and brought with them diseases which would, over time, decimate the native population.

Early relations between European settlers and the American natives were friendly. However, hostilities erupted off-Cape in 1643 and local towns were advised to build a "place of defense" in the case of Indian attack. Although Yarmouth built a fort on Fort Hill, next to the first meeting house in what is now the middle of the Ancient Cemetery, no records of unfriendly acts exist.


After serving in the Revolutionary War, Samuel Taylor returned to Yarmouth at war's end, married his wife, Lucretia, and built the farmhouse at what is now known as Taylor-Bray Farm where the couple raised their children. The house and barn, open today, date from 1780-1820.

After serving in the Revolutionary War, Samuel Taylor returned to Yarmouth at war's end, married his wife, Lucretia, and built the farmhouse at what is now known as Taylor-Bray Farm where the couple raised their children. The house and barn, open today, date from 1780-1820.

The Founders     Three Englishmen, all farmers, founded the first permanent settlement of Mattacheese in 1639. They were Anthony Thacher, John Crowe
and Thomas Howes. (A year earlier, Mayflower passenger Stephen Hopkins was granted a leave of Plymouth Colony "to erect a house at Mattacheese, and cut
hay to winter his cattle, provided it not to withdraw him from the town of Plymouth.") 

By 1640, Mattacheese had been renamed Yarmouth, probably after a seaside town in England, and 28 families made their homes here. The first generations of Yarmouth settlers were farmers—the principal occupation—and their bountiful vegetable and corn crops provided the food staple upon which a growing town depended. The newcomers also brought skills with them and developed trades to support the business of the village. Blacksmiths, cobblers, wheelwrights, furniture makers, coopers, and other craftsmen all practiced trades that were vital to the development of Yarmouth

Food was plentiful; these settlers didn't go hungry, as had their brethren in the early days of the Plymouth Colony. Cape Cod Bay and its coves overflowed
with lobster, mackerel and cod, sometimes referred to as "Cape Cod Turkey." Nantucket Sound to the south provided much the same fare. Scallops, quahogs, clams, and oysters found their way to the supper table as did geese and ducks hunted on the salt marshes. Dense forests hosted a plentiful supply of game,
and many of the town's twenty-two glacier-carved "kettle" ponds yielded pickerel and perch.

Although the first settlement of Yarmouth's territory occurred on the north side of the Cape, settlement of the "South Seas" area soon followed. In 1643 Yelverton Crowe, believed to be a brother to John Crowe who settled on the north, obtained a large parcel of land bordering Lewis Bay. According to legend, Crowe is said to have acquired the land in a peculiar way. An Indian sachem told Crowe he could have as much land as he could walk over in an hour in exchange for an "ox-chain, a copper kettle ... and a few trinkets." Crowe must have been a fast walker, as his lands included much of what is today West Yarmouth.

Once much larger than its present eight square mile radius, "Old" Yarmouth, as originally established, included the lands of Chatham, Harwich, Brewster, Dennis, and the Barnstable village of Cummaquid. Dennis was the last land holdout, initiating a successful, friendly split in June 1793.

In the later half of the 17th century, the Indians began to sell off chunks of their land to European farmers and in 1713 a reservation in South Yarmouth was set aside for Indians' use. By that time disease had already reduced the native population to a very small number and a smallpox epidemic in 1763 virtually wiped out the remainder. The town set aside a few acres of "Indian Town" for the last native, Thomas Greenough, and ordered the remaining lands be sold. Quakers bought up much of the Indian lands along Bass River, and took up residence in what was to be appropriately called Friends Village.


Sturdy Yeomen And Sailors     Response to the cause of liberty in Yarmouth was strong and enthusiastic. Two "Liberty Poles" were erected
in town and around them the Sons
of Liberty gathered in support of the cause. One of these poles, the Liberty Pole atop "Liberty Hill" at the corner of present day Willow Street and Route 6A, is said by tradition to have been the first Liberty Pole ever erected. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, citizens of Yarmouth gathered contributions for the "suffering citizens of Boston" and appointed committees "Of observation and prevention" and "to see that no tea is consumed in Yarmouth." 

In June of 1776, the Continental Congress sent forth a request for advice as to whether "if Congress should ... declare their independence, the people will sustain them in the act." The response was "that the inhabitants of the town of Yarmouth do declare a state of INDEPENDENCE OF THE KING OF GREAT BRITAIN, agreeable to a late resolve of the General Court, if in case the wisdom of Congress should see proper to do it." One historian claims that no other community in the state responded to the inquiry of the Congress with anything like the decisive and bold declaration of the people of Yarmouth.

The aggressive acts of the English in Lexington and Concord brought an immediate response from the "sturdy yeomen and sailors" of Yarmouth. At once the militia of the town, 60 officers and men, departed for the scene but as they found the British soldiers had been driven into Boston, they soon returned. As the war progressed, Yarmouth responded to requests for troops, encouraging "one in every seven men" to enlist, raising bounties to pay them, and voting to suspend taxes for the volunteers while they were in service and to support the families of the men as necessary. Captain Joshua Gray commanded the local militia and on at least one occasion his militia volunteers were called out to help form a line of defense near Boston. Townspeople heeded repeated calls for war supplies and in June, 1780, Yarmouth sent north some 51 shirts and the same amount of shoes and stocking, 26 blankets and over 10,000 pounds of beef. Soon, with its town resources badly depleted by the war effort, Yarmouth successfully applied to the General Court for relief from taxation.


Whampoa Anchorage, China, where foreign vessels were required to remain in order to trade with the Chinese.

Whampoa Anchorage, China, where foreign vessels were required to remain in order to trade with the Chinese.

America Becomes A Maritime Power     For centuries, the Chinese traded their riches with Europe along the Silk Road and its many branches to the north. But the sea trade to the south was new in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the Chinese government feared that the westerners would corrupt the Chinese and perhaps even try to conquer China. In 1760, the government established a set of regulations to control the foreigners and their ships. Canton was the only port open to strangers. All ships were required to stop first at Macao, a small settlement acquired by the Portuguese in 1557. Macao was about 65 miles south of Canton and 40 miles from Hong Kong. There, foreign ships hired a pilot licensed by the Chinese government. The pilot had to acquire written permission (called a "chop") for the foreign ship to enter Chinese waters. The ships were examined, and finally with the guidance of a pilot, the vessel could proceed up the river to Whampoa, an island 13 miles below Canton.

All ships had to anchor at Whampoa and could go no farther. It was not uncommon for a hundred ships to be anchored at once. Here the loading and unloading of cargoes took place. The sailors had to stay with the ship, and were only allowed on rare occasion to enter Canton for a day in the company of an officer. The captains and supercargoes (a person who was responsible for the sale of the cargoes and the purchase of goods) went up the river to Canton, where they resided during the trading season which lasted from August until March. Women were not allowed to enter Canton, nor were guns or arms of any kind allowed to be brought in. If women did accompany men on a voyage to China, they set up housekeeping in Macao and awaited their husbands. There were strict regulations controlling the foreigners in Canton, who were confined to the row of factories set up outside Canton along the Pearl River. The factory’s long narrow buildings were used to store goods on the first floor, and housed offices and accommodations on the second and third floors. The factories were called by the name of the country which first established them (Sweden, Denmark, Austria, etc.) although many of these countries no longer participated in the trade by the 1800s. One of the first things a captain had to do upon arrival was to acquire accommodations in one of the factories.

Trade was conducted through a system called the co-hong. Thirteen Hong Merchants were established in 1782 to act as go-betweens with the foreigners and the Chinese government. The Hong Merchants were responsible for the behavior of the foreigners with which they traded. The most famous of the Hong Merchants was Houqua, a man who was treasured by the westerners for his loyalty, friendship, and honesty. He was one of the richest men of his time.

During the entire time that America had been a British colony, it was absolutely forbidden to trade with China. That privilege was reserved for a group of British merchants known as the East India Company. But after the War of Independence, the Americans were free to trade with China and loaded its first ship, the Empress of China, in 1783. The Chinese wanted much of what America offered: Gold and silver bullion, furs, timber, even ginseng. In return, America wanted what China could provide: Tea (the most highly prized cargo), silk, porcelain, and other goods.

Arriving in 1784, those aboard ship were greeted with the strange sights and sounds of the Chinese. They saw hundreds of small ships, which lined the banks of the Pearl River and where many Chinese families lived. There were so many small boats that only a narrow travel lane was left down the middle of the river. There were larger junks involved with the trade in Java. Elaborately decorated sterns and strange eyes painted on the bows peered at the anxious foreigners. Gaily decorated "flower boats" were filled with Chinese ladies of pleasure and strange Chinese music flowed from some of the ships.

At first, each ship had its own supercargo. This system was soon replaced by the agent-in-residence, who worked for a particular American firm. Some of these agents were very young men of 16, 17 or 18 years of age. By the time they reached 20, they would retire to America with great wealth. Many of the great fortunes of the time were made by these firms, and these names even today are identified with wealth: Russell & Co. (and the Forbes family), Perkins and Company, Heard and Company, Olyphant and Company, and others.

America's speedy, efficient, yacht-like Clipper ships—like those designed by Donald McKay—and the expert seamanship of their skippers and crews, led the way in challenging the supremacy of the British merchant fleet and helped transform the still-young nation into a dominant maritime power of the day.


The Baxter Gristmill, on the shores of Mill Creek in West Yarmouth.

The Baxter Gristmill, on the shores of Mill Creek in West Yarmouth.

Distinctive Identities Emerge    By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Yarmouth was a town of well established communities. Each of the villages had begun to take on its own distinct character. The north side settlement, laid out along present Route 6A, evolved into two villages: Yarmouth to the east and Yarmouth Port to the West. Yarmouth had its stately church on the village green and its maritime hub in Bass Hole. But as the Hole began to silt in, maritime commerce shifted to the Mill Creek area, farther to the west, and Yarmouth Port became a community of much activity with its own Common and churches and numerous stores. In 1829, Yarmouth Port was incorporated as a separate village and the two villages remained distinct entities until the Yarmouth Post Office
was closed in the 1960s and the entire north side assumed the identity Yarmouth Port. Many of the town's deep-water captains lived on the north side, 53 being said to have lived on a one-mile stretch of the Old King's Highway alone.

On the south side, West Yarmouth became populated with the descendants of the earliest settler Yelverton Crowe(ll). (Crowell remained the most prominent surname in the village well into the 20th century.) Although the Crowells were joined by other families, and married into many of the north side families, the village itself remained small and rural in nature. Homes with large acreage for subsistence farming dotted the county road (now Route 28) which ran from Parker's River to Hyannis' Main Street. A fulling mill in the village, established in the late 17th century, was the first known mill in Yarmouth. The Baxters, who operated the mill, also built a gristmill along the shores of Mill Creek in West Yarmouth. The mill is now an historic site owned by the town. Stores, however, were few and tradesmen were fewer. Many villagers transacted business in nearby Hyannis or in Yarmouth Port. Since the village remained rural and undeveloped throughout much of the 18th and 19th century, it presented a blank palette for developers who were to arrive with the turning of the 20th century.  

Friend's Village, now South Yarmouth, had a much later beginning than Yarmouth's other villages. However, with the hard work and entrepreneurial spirit of the Quakers who took up residence there, the village soon became a thriving hub of maritime and business activity with its ropewalk, sailworks, shipbuilding enterprise, packets, saltworks, and banks. The Quakers constructed solid and stately homes along the shores of Bass River and welcomed newcomers of all faiths to their village.

In 1854, the town built three new identical district schoolhouses. By 1881, 355 children between 5 and 15 were students in the public school system. In 1890, 1,760 people called Yarmouth home and the town's distinct villages formed a self supporting, prosperous town.  Dry goods dealer Crocker & Company sold its share of clothing and home supplies from its store in Yarmouth Port while Hallet's Drug Store, just a few doors down, had recently opened for business. (More than a hundred years later, Hallet's store is still in business, operated by the great-grandson of the original owner, and is a popular attraction for residents and visitors alike.)


Media coverage of President Kennedy's many trips to the family compound on the Cape only added to the area's appeal.

Media coverage of President Kennedy's many trips to the family compound on the Cape only added to the area's appeal.

Tourists Discover The Cape—And Vice Versa     As the 1800s came to a close, more and more people from the cities began to look toward the shore as a place of rest and respite from their urban environment. The growth of railroad travel put Cape Cod within easy reach of more and more visitors. West Yarmouth, with its hundreds of acres of rural land and large stretches of sandy beaches, became a prime area for developers who moved in to create summer communities with the names Englewood, Hyannis Park, and Colonial Acres.

Large hotels were also built to accommodate the summer trade and West Yarmouth cottages were marketed to those who lived and worked in cities. "Cottage" communities sprang up, especially along Route 28. Offering modest dwellings, the cottages provided practical vacation accommodations for those who were unable to afford a summer at one of the large, grand hotels. As America's population became more mobile, especially after World War II and the expansion of automobile travel, cottage communities gave way to motels, and businesses sprang up to cater to the growing tourist trade. Undeveloped acreage between Route 28 and Route 6A gave way to new residential housing, and the modern town that we know today began to emerge.

Cape Cod tourism also received a major boost in the 1960s with the election of John F. Kennedy as the 35th President of the United States. The extensive media coverage given the family and their frequent visits to the Kennedy Compound
in Hyannis Port along with the designation of The Cape Cod National Seashore, is credited with spurring a wave of renewed interest in the Cape as a destination featuring a unique combination of natural beauty and respectfully preserved historic attractions that continues to this day.