Thursday, January 12, 2006
History of Harwich
Like all of Cape Cod, Harwich was home to local Indians, in this case the Nauset Indians of Harwich, consisting of the Sauquatuckett tribe to the north and the Monomoyick tribe to the south. These Indians lived in unspoiled beauty, undisturbed for many centuries and even for the couple of decades after the settlements of Yarmouth to the west and Eastham to the east. This land was the Cape's last wilderness until white settlers began to arrive toward the end of the 1650s.
In 1656, John Wing became the first settler to tame these wilds. He was a converted Quaker from Sandwich who apparently tired of the persecutions in that town and left to build a life elsewhere. He settled in the part of old Harwich that would eventually become what is Brewster nowadays. Wing was followed by John Dillingham and later, Gersham Hall, who in the 1660s became the first to settle in the southern area of old Harwich (the section that would remain the Harwich of today). More families followed, and, by 1690, there were enough living in the area to establish a church. In 1694 this area became incorporated as Harwich and contained the present towns of Harwich and Brewster as well as parts of Eastham and Orleans.
Harwich of the 18th century was a town in separation. Residents in the southern part of town grew weary of traveling to the Church parish in the north, so in 1744 they appealed for the building of a church in the south. Two years later permission was granted and a church was built. This southern parish later saw itself being split into some 15 splinter churches as a religious revolution of sorts took place in town. These religious groups included Congregationalists, Baptists, New Lighters, Come Outers (those who "came out" against slavery), and Standpatters (those who were not abolitionists).
In the 18th century the town itself began to come apart. The areas known as Portonumecot and Namecoyick became parts of Eastham in 1772, later becoming South Orleans. About a quarter of a century later the remaining part of Harwich split in two, the northern part becoming Brewster in 1803.
The earliest settlers were farmers who occasionally shored a whale. Harwich would later become one of the Cape's major fishing ports, reaping huge harvests of cod and mackerel. Other industries included the fishing for alewives, or young herring, from a number of streams as well as the harvesting of cranberries from the many bogs. This latter industry was developed in town by Alvin Cahoon who was instrumental in making cranberries a harvestable crop. Meanwhile, Harwich's Major Nathaniel Freeman gave the saltworks industry on the Cape a big boost by utilizing windmills to pump seawater into the salt vats. In fact, so profound was Harwich's contributions to the industry that it became home of the Massachusetts Salt Works Company established in 1797. The industry peaked during the 1830s only to see its decline a decade later when salt mining in the Midwest provided a more cost-effective alternative.
Two structures in Harwich of historical interest are the South Harwich Methodist Church on Chatham Road and the Captain James Berry House on Main Street, both on the National Register of Historic Places. You can see other historic sites at the Herring River in West Harwich and Muddy Creek between Harwich and Chatham.