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A Brief History of Provincetown, Massachusetts

Provincetown, MA, sits at the far northern tip of Cape Cod and is notable for numerous reasons.

Today, this town with under 3,000 permanent residents experiences an explosion in the summer, with estimates suggesting its population reaches as high as 60,000. The main reason for this influx of visitors is Provincetown's status as one of the top vacation destinations for the LGBTQ+ community.

However, the town's past is far different from its present and is worth exploring if you're considering purchasing a home in the area.

Here's a quick bit of history looking at some of the things that make Provincetown, or Ptown, such a special place to live.

Early History

Although European settlement on Cape Cod wouldn't occur until the 1620s, there have been people living in the area for centuries.

In particular, the Wampanoag and Nauset tribes began settling in the Provincetown area between 3000 and 2000 BCE, living off the land and the abundant fish in the region's waters.

Later, the Paomet tribe settled in the area and did the same.

The Pilgrims

Before getting into the Pilgrims, it's important to mention that Captain John Smith sailed off the coast of Provincetown in 1614, charting the area and naming its harbor Milford Haven. He also named Cape Cod Bay as Stuart's Bay and the Cape itself as Cape James.

The charts Smith created would later be used by Christopher Jones, captain of the Mayflower, when navigating the area.

As for the Mayflower, it landed in Provincetown Harbor in 1620 with the Pilgrims on board. The Pilgrims only stayed in the area for a short period, leaving for Plymouth after clashing with members of the Paomet tribe after stealing from their corn stash.

Helltown and Incorporation

The 1600s were an interesting time in present-day Provincetown because the area was kind of like the wild west. The harbor became a port of call for fishermen and seafarers, with drinking and gambling becoming the most common pastimes.

The region was also popular with smugglers and pirates, and its secluded nature made it an easy place to hideout. As a result, the area was referred to as Helltown by nearby Puritans.

By 1709, Cape Cod's population had grown enough that Truro was incorporated, and the dunes of Provincetown were included. This incorporation helped Provincetown calm its wild reputation, and more English settlers arrived on its shores as a result.

In 1727, Provincetown was incorporated, creating the town that remains to this day.

The Whaling Industry

In the coming years, the whaling industry drove much of Provincetown's economy. While whaling when through downturns in parts of the 1700s, it returned late in the century, helping spawn an economic revival in the community.

The War of 1812 also positively impacted Provincetown because its deep harbor made it an important strategic location. This influx of visitors and the thriving whaling industry turned Provincetown into the wealthiest town in Massachusetts by the 1870s.

The Artists' Colony

By the 1890s, Provincetown's wealth was beginning to disappear because the oil industry started replacing whaling as the region's most influential. However, many affluent residents remained, helping turn the community into a tourist destination. The arrival of the railroad also helped by making Provincetown easily accessible.

This period was also when Provincetown got its start as an artists' colony. It all began in 1899 when Charles W. Hawthorne opened the Cape Cod School of Painting.

The school was an immediate hit, as students from across the East Coast flocked to the area for the opportunity to paint the dunes and ocean vistas that only Provincetown can provide. Other schools and artists' retreats would soon follow.

By the time World War I began, Provincetown had a well-established reputation and was attracting well-known artists like Hans Hofmann and writers like Norman Mailer and Eugene O'Neill.

Ptown had reinvented itself once again.

The LGBTQ+ Community

Ptown's final reincarnation is as a destination for the LGBTQ+ community. This trend dates back as far as the artists' colony but has evolved dramatically since the 1960s, helping Provincetown turn into the community that's present today.

Generally, vacationers have been drawn to Provincetown because of its feeling of freedom and acceptance. This feeling goes along with its reputation as a bohemian art community.

When the AIDS epidemic caused significant issues for the gay community in the 1980s, Provincetown became a place of refuge, where members of the community could be themselves and receive support.

In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriages, turning Provincetown into one of the country's top wedding destinations.

Living in Provincetown

As you can see, Provincetown has undergone many changes over the years, but one thing that has remained the same since the late 1890s is its reputation as an accepting and diverse community.

Buying a home in Provincetown puts you in a location where locals will always welcome you, no matter your identity or preferences. This feature makes the town one of the most idyllic places to buy a home on the Cape.


Published April 23, 2021 in Get to Know Cape Cod