December 7, 2023 in Massachusetts

From Pilgrims to Parties: The Fascinating 400-Year Evolution of Provincetown, MA

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Early History

The area of Cape Cod where Provincetown is located was originally inhabited by the Nauset tribe of Native Americans. Archaeological evidence shows that Native Americans lived in the Provincetown area as early as 3,000 years ago.

The Nauset tribe inhabited much of Cape Cod, relying on fishing, hunting, and agriculture for sustenance. They were part of the Wampanoag Confederation of tribes. The Native Americans called the Provincetown area “Meeshawn”, meaning “the place of big trees”.

When the Pilgrims landed in Provincetown in 1620, they encountered the Nauset tribe. Relations were initially peaceful, with the Nausets even helping the exhausted Pilgrims by showing them more fertile grounds further down Cape Cod. However, tensions mounted as more Europeans arrived and began claiming tribal lands. This led to decades of conflict between the Native Americans and the English settlers.

By the late 1600s, the Native American population had been decimated by disease and war. Their numbers were reduced to a few hundred as the Provincetown area came under control of the English colonists spreading outward from Plymouth. While the Nauset tribe still exists today, their traditional lands in Provincetown were gradually overtaken by European settlement over the 17th and 18th centuries.

European Settlement

Provincetown was first settled in the early 1600s by Europeans seeking to establish a fishing colony in the New World. The area had long been frequented by Native Americans, but the first permanent European settlement was established in 1620 when the Pilgrims stopped in Provincetown Harbor before proceeding on to Plymouth.

Although the Pilgrims continued on, other European fishermen and traders soon recognized Provincetown’s advantageous location at the tip of Cape Cod. Throughout the 1600s, English, French, and Portuguese ships frequented Provincetown to take advantage of the rich fishing grounds in Cape Cod Bay.

The early economy of Provincetown centered around fishing and whaling. Cod fishing was a major industry, with fishermen splitting and salting the cod right on the harbor docks before exporting it back to Europe. Whaling also emerged as an important endeavor – whales were hunted close to shore and then flensed and boiled for their oil which was used for heating, cooking and lighting.

In the late 1600s, Provincetown began to develop into a small permanent community centered around the fishing and whaling industries. The town was officially incorporated in 1727. But its population remained small, never exceeding 1,000 permanent residents during the Colonial era.

American Revolution

Provincetown played an important role in the American Revolution. Its location at the tip of Cape Cod made it a strategic harbor for American forces.

In 1775, the British navy began a blockade of Provincetown harbor to prevent American ships from accessing the town. The colonists built fortifications on Long Point to defend the harbor from British attack.

In June 1775, Provincetown resident James Henry was sent by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress to appeal to General George Washington for help in defending the town. Washington sent troops and appointed General Artemas Ward to lead the defense of the Cape’s eastern shore.

In 1778, the British made an attempt to seize Provincetown harbor and raid the town. Residents were warned in time and removed most of their possessions inland. The small Continental garrison stationed in Provincetown resisted a short British bombardment before retreating as the superior British forces approached. The British occupied Provincetown for five days, causing damage to property but no loss of life.

After this raid, the fortifications around Provincetown were strengthened, ensuring there were no further attacks on the strategic harbor town for the remainder of the Revolutionary War. Local militias regularly drilled on the dunes near Provincetown to prepare to defend against possible British invasion from the sea.

19th Century

The 19th century was a time of growth and change for Provincetown. The town’s fishing and whaling industries expanded significantly during this period.

Provincetown became one of the busiest whaling ports in North America in the early 1800s. Dozens of whaling ships would set sail from Provincetown Harbor each year, hunting whales for their oil and baleen. At its peak, the whaling industry employed hundreds of local residents. Fishing also boomed, with cod being the most lucrative catch.

The arts community in Provincetown traces its roots to the 19th century as well. Artists were drawn to the area for its natural beauty, unique coastal light, and inexpensive living costs. Many painters focused on seascapes and maritime subjects. The Provincetown Art Association was established in 1914 to promote local artists.

While fishing and whaling declined in the late 1800s, Provincetown had developed a reputation as an art colony and tourist destination. The growing creative scene and scenic landscape brought many new visitors and residents over the coming decades.

20th Century

In the early 20th century, Provincetown became known as an artistic mecca, attracting painters, writers, musicians, and actors. The natural beauty of the outer Cape and its remoteness from the city made it an ideal location for creative inspiration.

Several important art movements were nurtured in Provincetown. It was the birthplace of modern American theater, with the Provincetown Players founded by Susan Glaspell and other avant-garde playwrights performing their works here starting in 1915. Abstract Expressionism also has its roots in Provincetown, where artists such as Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko came to paint and debate new artistic approaches.

Provincetown increasingly became a popular summer resort destination in the 1920s and 1930s. Travelers were drawn to the town for its beaches, bohemian vibe, and artistic culture. The population grew substantially during the summer months.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Provincetown began to develop into an important LGBTQ hub. Gay artists and writers had already been attracted to Provincetown for decades. The town became a safe haven for the LGBTQ community, especially with homosexuality still illegal in most of the country at that time. Provincetown elected the nation’s first openly gay Select Board member in 1977.

Today Provincetown remains a vibrant tourist destination and proudly displays its history as an arts colony and LGBTQ haven. The combination of scenic beauty, unique culture, and tolerance continues to make Provincetown a one-of-a-kind destination on Cape Cod.

Art Colony

Provincetown gained a reputation as an art colony starting in the late 1800s. Several factors contributed to this, including its remote location at the tip of Cape Cod and its inexpensive living costs.

The presence of artist Charles Webster Hawthorne was a major influence. Hawthorne opened the Cape Cod School of Art in 1899, attracting students and faculty. Notable artists who studied under Hawthorne included Edward Hopper, Max Bohm, and Ross Moffett. Hawthorne taught en plein air painting, directly under the open sky. His school operated until 1937.

Other prominent artists drawn to Provincetown included painters Hans Hofmann and Franz Kline. Hofmann founded his own art school in Provincetown and greatly impacted abstract expressionism. Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner were among the famous 20th century artists to frequent Provincetown.

The Cape Cod School of Art and other art schools fostered Provincetown’s reputation as a nurturing community for creativity and artistic development. To this day, Provincetown retains a vibrant artist community and lively gallery scene.

Theater

Provincetown’s legacy in theater dates back to 1915, when the Provincetown Players were formed. This seminal theater collective included playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill and Edna St. Vincent Millay. The Provincetown Players were known for their small experimental productions and free spirited approach.

Some of O’Neill’s early works premiered on the Cape Cod stages before moving to Broadway. In the 1950s, Provincetown saw the opening of the New Provincetown Playhouse, which hosted the premiers of notable plays like Tennessee Williams’ “The Parade.”

Today, Provincetown has over 30 active theater groups and companies. The primary theater venues include the Provincetown Theater, the Art House, the Provincetown Inn, and the Post Office Cafe. In the summer months, the town is home to productions from the Provincetown Theater Company, the Provincetown Repertory Theatre, Shakespeare on the Cape, and the Provincetown Counter Productions. Festivals like the Provincetown Theater Festival also draw theater lovers.

Theaters remain an integral part of Provincetown’s identity, continuing its long legacy as a flourishing arts colony and creative hub. The stages regularly debut new works and showcase the talents of local actors, writers, designers and directors.

LGBTQ History in Provincetown

Provincetown has a long history as a popular summer destination for the LGBTQ community. As early as the 1950s and 1960s, gay men and lesbians were attracted to Provincetown for its welcoming atmosphere and arts culture.

In the 1970s, more LGBTQ people began buying homes and opening businesses in Provincetown. Commercial Street became lined with gay-owned guesthouses, restaurants, and shops. Provincetown developed a vibrant gay nightlife, with drag shows and cabarets.

In 1989, Provincetown held its first official Gay Pride Parade to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The parade drew over 10,000 participants and has become an annual tradition. Today the parade attracts over 60,000 people each summer.

Provincetown continues to have a very large LGBTQ population, both year-round residents and summer visitors. It’s known for its accepting, open environment and is considered one of the top LGBTQ vacation destinations in the country. Many LGBTQ travelers are drawn to Provincetown for the sense of community, the nightlife entertainment, the beautiful beaches and scenery, and the small-town charm.

Provincetown hosts several annual events focused on the LGBTQ community, such as Bear Week, Family Week, and the Provincetown International Film Festival. In recent years Provincetown has also become popular for LGBTQ weddings, especially after same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide in 2015. Overall, Provincetown’s distinct LGBTQ culture has had a profound influence on the town’s identity over the past several decades.

Geography

Provincetown is located at the very tip of Cape Cod in Barnstable County, Massachusetts. Known for its beaches, harbor, and artist community, Provincetown has a unique geographic location.

Provincetown is situated on a spit of land that hooks off the “inside elbow” of Cape Cod, with Cape Cod Bay on the west side and the Atlantic Ocean on the east side. The town is about 105 miles southeast of Boston and 7 miles northeast of Truro.

Provincetown has a humid continental climate with warm summers and cold, snowy winters. Summers have average highs around 75-80°F and winters have average highs around 35-40°F. The area gets frequent Nor’easters in the winter that can bring blizzard conditions.

Some of the key geographic landmarks in Provincetown include:

  • Race Point Beach: A pristine beach on the outer tip of Cape Cod with panoramic views. Part of the Cape Cod National Seashore.
  • Provincetown Harbor: A large, deep water harbor that opens out to Cape Cod Bay. It’s home to a vibrant fishing industry.
  • Herring Cove Beach: A family-friendly beach on the harbor side of Provincetown. Popular for swimming, sunbathing, and picnicking.
  • Long Point Lighthouse: An historic lighthouse on the outermost point of the hook of Cape Cod. Offers beautiful views.
  • Pilgrim Monument: A 252-foot granite tower commemorating the Pilgrims’ first landing in Provincetown. The tallest all-granite structure in the US.
  • MacMillan Pier: The town’s commercial fishing pier, also home to ferry service to Boston and Plymouth.

Provincetown’s unique geography – surrounded by beaches yet centered around a bustling working harbor – has shaped its development and culture for centuries. The scenic landscapes and seascapes continue to draw tourists and artists alike.

Culture

Provincetown is known for its vibrant arts scene and lively culture. As an historic fishing village turned tourist destination, P-town has a unique blend of Portuguese, maritime, and creative influences.

Some highlights of Provincetown culture include:

  • The dozens of art galleries, museums, and studios that line Commercial Street. Provincetown has been home to many acclaimed painters, photographers, writers, and performers over the decades.
  • The numerous festivals held each summer, such as Portuguese Festival, Carnival Week, and Provincetown International Film Festival. Music, costumes, food, and parades fill the streets.
  • Iconic Portuguese cuisine like malasadas doughnuts, kale soup, and seafood stews. Many restaurants source ingredients from the nearby waters.
  • A proudly open LGBTQ culture, with rainbow flags lining Commercial Street. Provincetown hosts large annual celebrations like Carnival and Bear Week.
  • Quirky attractions like the Cape Cod Pilgrim Monument, scenic Race Point Lighthouse, and bustling MacMillan Wharf.
  • Street performers, open mic nights, drag shows, and 24-hour energy during peak summer months. The population swells from 3,000 year-round to over 60,000 in summer.

Provincetown’s unique setting, history, and open-minded attitudes blend to create a vibrant, creative culture and lively community spirit year-round. There’s always something happening to experience.




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