A Brief and Ever Growing History of the Town of Truro Massachusetts

(Taken from some writings in the Truro Chamber of Commerce Information brochures of years past, Rich's Truro, and writings of F. Wesley Garran.) 


Edited by Mark Peters, July, 2007

In November of 1620, the Pilgrims sailed into Cape Cod Bay and anchored in what is now Provincetown Harbor. Having lived under cramped, smelly, dirty conditions for the previous few months, many came ashore to look around. A group led by Miles Standish, (who had the nickname “Captain Shrimp”), wandered into what became Truro. There they found fresh water (Pilgrim Springs), a cache of maize (Corn Hill) and a place to camp out for the night, ( Pond Village). While tromping about in Truro the Pilgrims met a group of locals, Pamet Indians. Both sides fired on each other. Fortunately no one was hit and as honor had been satisfied, the locals and the “wash-a-shores” withdrew. A few days later the Pilgrims weighed anchor and sailed across the bay to what is now Plymouth. They would be back!

In 1709, Truro was incorporated as a town. The descendents of those Pilgrims, who had stopped by almost ninety years before, had returned. Initially Truro was part of Eastham, but Truro had some unique advantages that made settlement popular and with hard work, a good living could be realized. In those days the land which is now Wellfleet was swampy and marshy, and created a geographical barrier to the south. Communication was difficult by land and only slightly easier by sea. **

There was a good harbor at the mouth of the Pamet River and East Harbor, which is now Pilgrim Lake. In addition there was plenty of upland, which would allow for farming and pastures. With this prosperity the local citizens were able to build a church and pay a minister. Having a house of worship and supporting a minister for at least two years was a requirement to become a town. This was accomplished and on July 16, 1709, Truro was incorporated, and became an official town of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Through the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, Truro both participated and prospered. Gentlemen from Truro were sent to Nantucket to teach the islanders the art of killing whales and blackfish. Small shipbuilding in the harbor, fishing, salt-works through the use of windmills, combined with large gardens made for a good life in this small hamlet.

In the middle part of the nineteenth century the Pamet Harbor shoaled in. This ended the shipbuilding and the easy access to the bay with an all weather harbor for a refuge. Beach Point threatened East Harbor, which had become accessible only at the highest tides in the Fall and Spring. Framing alone wouldn’t sustain a booming economy, so Truro started getting smaller as many of the best and the brightest moved away.

Shortly after the Civil War the railroad came through Truro with its terminus in Provincetown. Transportation and access was now available on a more reliable venue than the weather, tide and sea. Those farmers left in Truro had discovered that sandy soil was excellent for growing asparagus and turnip. Asparagus for the Boston Yankees, turnip for the Irish, a swamp garden, a few cows and chickens, a lot of hard work and a decent living could be made. Another benefit from the railroad was the arrival of the summer tourist. Summer hotels quickly appeared near Truro Center, Highland Light and Pond Road, with many of the larger older homes becoming guesthouses. These people had to be fed, watered and carted – something which still goes on today.

The biggest event in Truro’s history was yet to come. Shortly after World War II, the Federal Government straightened and rebuilt Route 6. Millions and millions of people were now a days drive away from Truro. Route 6 was wider, smooth and modern; and they came. On many days during the summer season Truro may have as many as 15,000 people enjoying the sun, the woods and the beach. Another substantial factor in today’s Truro is the creation of the National Seashore in 1960. This has preserved almost 2/3rds of Truro in its natural state. Truro is very fortunate that much of what the Pilgrims saw and the Pamets enjoyed will be there for future generations of Truro citizens and visiting guests.

Everyday Life in Truro, Cape Cod
From the Indians to the Victorians
by Richard F. Whalen


By all accounts, the Pamet Indians were remarkably healthy, strong and happy, living an almost idyllic life for many centuries on the land that would become Truro. They fished off Truro’s shores, gathered shellfish from its tidal flats, planted crops in its fields, gathered nuts, berries and roots, hunted deer in the hardwood forests and lived in harmony with Nature. Their food was varied, plentiful and nutritious.

Families lived in loose clusters of dome-shaped wigwams that could be easily taken down and moved. Favored sites for their sojourns in Truro were at High Head, Great Hollow, Corn Hill, along the Pamet River and at the end of Tom’s Hill overlooking Pamet Harbor. (Truro, Ch. 1) They may well have set up dwellings at other spots, wherever there were waters to fish, berries to harvest and open spaces to till.

They numbered probably in the low hundreds. When Captain Martin Pring and his men spent seven weeks at Pamet Harbor in the summer of 1603, Indian men appeared several times in groups ranging from ten to nearly two hundred. (Truro, Ch. 2) The larger groups were probably Pamets joined by Indians from elsewhere on the Outer Cape who were curious to see the strange visitors from the two big sailing ships.

The Pamet men were tall, strong, swift and well-proportioned, according to Pring’s narrative, which contains one of the two earliest—and best—descriptions of New England Indian people and culture. (Truro, App. A) They appeared to him to have darkened their skin to a “tawny or chestnut color,” probably done with body-oil or paint or both over a tanned skin. They braided their long hair in four parts and tied it up in back, “in which hair of theirs they stick many feathers and toys for bravery and pleasure,” according to Pring. Indian men had no beards; if any hair happened to sprout, they pulled it out.

Their summer clothing was minimal. “They cover their privates only with a piece of leather drawn betwixts their twists [thighs] and fastened to their girdles behind and before whereunto they hang their bags of tobacco,” says Pring. Belts were of snake skin, mocassins of leather. In winter, they would wear capes of deer hide or other animal skins. English settlers marveled at the Indians’ tolerance for cold. William Wood, who studied the ways of New England Indians, tells of Indians in winter wearing “a deep-furred cat skin, like a long, large muff, which he shifts to that arm which lieth most exposed to the wind.” Apparently, the Indians did not wear headgear.

Pring saw only two women; he thought the men were “somewhat jealous” of them. The two women wore “aprons of leather skins before them down to the knees and a bear’s skin like an Irish mantle over one shoulder.” Other explorers and settlers in New England found the Indian women good-looking, graceful, well-proportioned, and modest. Wood says the “women’s modesty drives them to wear more clothes than their men.” Although Pring was understandably wary of the many Indians he saw at Pamet Harbor since he and his men were interlopers on Indian territory, both he and Wood found them quite friendly. Wood called the New England Indians “kind and affable . . . rather naturally cheerful.” (Excerpts in Selected Readings)

Pring, Wood and other English observers might have expected the Indians to be dirty and unhealthy because in their view the Indians were unlettered, uncivilized savages living a semi-nomadic life in the forests. But they did not. They almost always described the Indians as healthy, happy and generally agreeable unless they were provoked.

Their nutritious diet “contributed to a lithe and healthy body, vigorous and with stamina,” says Howard S. Russell in his book, Indian New England Before the Mayflower. “All explorers who visited New England shores testify to this, and the English who associated with the natives after colonization comment on the great agility and endurance of the natives. An Indian runner could cover as many as a hundred miles in a single day, and on the second day afterward return in the same time.” Their teeth, even those of the elderly, were strong and regular. Russell examined the jaw-bone remains of forty pre-colonial Indians and found that few showed signs of decay. Indian children were also in excellent health, exhibiting high spirits and vigor in contrast to the hard life of many English children. Too much freedom and a lack of discipline were the only criticisms made by early English observers.

The Indians did not entirely escape illness and injury, but they had a pharmacopeia considered more comprehensive than that of the English. They derived scores of remedies from roots, barks, and berries—and the tobacco plant. Tobacco was used as an antiseptic on wounds and as a pain killer, especially for toothaches. Usually smoked in a wooden pipe or lobster claw, recreational tobacco was only for the men, and it appears they smoked the addictive substance fairly often, not just as medicine or a “peace pipe.” The Indians’ pharmacologists were not “medicine men” but elderly women who passed on their knowledge from generation to generation. In addition to drugs, the sweat lodge was a popular treatment. The ailing Indian sat in a wigwam filled with steam from water poured on heated rocks. Relatives and friends crowded into the wigwam and joined in chants and singing. Then they all plunged into a cold stream.

Most of the Indians could look forward to a long and healthy life, probably longer than a European’s, according to Russell. Wood saw no Indians with birth defects and very few who were “decrepit.” They were not subject to the many infectious, devastating diseases that plagued Europeans for centuries. Historians suggest that the Indians in North America were less prone to these diseases because, unlike the Europeans, they did not live in densely populated towns or close to domesticated animals.

A rich stew or thick soup with a variety of ingredients was the Pamet Indians’ usual meal. Into the earthen pot went corn and beans and whatever else was at hand—squash, pumpkin or other vegetables, pieces of fish or venison, turkey; duck or some other game birds; perhaps some groundnut root for a thickener; sometimes roots of other plants, such as the yellow pond lily or the Jerusalem artichoke (which is neither an artichoke nor from Jerusalem). The women had dozens of ways to combine ingredients. Their cooking oil came from seals and pilot whales.

In one form or another, Indian corn was in almost every meal, often mixed with beans to make succotash. The cook also roasted corn and pounded the kernels into flour to make a thick porridge or dough that was baked in leaves in hot ashes or on stones near the fire. She also made nut bread from walnuts, hickory nuts, beechnuts and chestnuts. Cornmeal from kernels parched in hot embers was their only food on hunting trips or when they were moving their dwellings to a new site. They mixed it with water or snow and ate it uncooked. The Pilgrims found a quantity of parched acorns in a wigwam on Corn Hill. (Truro, Ch. 3)

For fruit, the Indians had wild strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, cherries, grapes and beach plums. They pressed them for juice, ate them raw and cooked and dried them for the winter. Although they did not cultivate berries, the Indians seem to seem to have at least maintained the larger strawberry patches by weeding them and clearing around them. Pring made special mention of strawberries, calling them “very fair and big,” and the Pilgrims saw “a great store of strawberries” on Corn Hill. Although not mentioned by Pring or the Pilgrims, there probably were grape vines in Truro. Indians elsewhere sometimes cleared bushes and tree limbs from encroaching on Nature’s vineyard.

Pring’s men dined on peas and beans with Indians at Pamet Harbor, but he adds that the Indians’ own food was mostly fish. Fish and shellfish were in the pot or on the plate almost everyday. The Indians ate oysters, clams and other shellfish raw, cooked in their stews and soups, and dried in smoke for winter. In the Corn Hill wigwam, the Pilgrims found pieces of fish and some broiled herring. They also found pieces of venison, which was 90 percent of the Indians’ meat. Other meat came from rabbits, raccoons, woodchucks, turtles, even skunks and frogs; also from game birds—ducks, geese, partridge, quail and the wild pigeons so abundant in those days but now extinct. If not put into the pot, fish and meat could be broiled or smoked.  The Indians had neither salt nor any sugar or sweeteners for their meals; briny oysters and clams put some salt into their diet. Fruits provided fructose. Their drink was water, sometimes flavored with the juice of a fruit. They had no fermented drinks, no wine or alcohol from grapes or corn. At mealtime, they sat on the ground and ate with their hands and wooden spoons from wooden bowls. They had no knives or forks. William Wood says that they ate “without trenchers [plates], napkins, or knives . . . impatient of delays . . . without scrupling at unwashed hands, without bread, salt, or beer, lolling in the Turkish fashion, not ceasing till their full bellies leave nothing but empty platters.”

Although their food and table manners might have seemed primitive, the Indians’ diet is considered to have been just as nutritious as that of the Europeans and perhaps better, given their physical appearance and stamina. Even without any dairy products, they had a diversified and balanced diet of protein and carbohydrates, which contained, says Russell, “all essential calories, vitamins, minerals, acids, and trace elements necessary for healthy, enduring bodies and active, ingenious minds.”

In contrast to the popular image of the Indian with bow and arrow stalking a deer, the Pamet Indians were primarily fishermen and tillers of the soil. Cape Cod Bay was full of cod, bass and great schools of mackerel and herring that could be trapped in weirs. The men snared them with purse nets in streams and estuaries and caught them offshore and in Truro’s ponds with a wooden or bone hook baited with lobster and fastened to a line made of hemp. They trapped eels in pots and weirs set in the Pamet River and Eastern Harbor. They harpooned sturgeon from canoes, and when the big fish were migrating up streams they caught them in strong netting. Wood says the shoals off Cape Cod were one of the best places to harpoon sturgeon: “Some of these be twelve, fourteen, eighteen feet long.” An Indian harpoon point was found in 1967 in shallow water off North Truro’s bayshore. It was barbed and made of bone, probably from a pilot whale. Fifteen inches long, it is one of the largest found in southeastern New England.

“There be a great store of salt-water eels,” says Wood, “especially in such places where grass grows.” The Indians caught them at night in traps they made out of osiers and baited with bits of lobster meat. They ate them fresh and salted some for use in winter. Wood did not think the New England eels tasted as good as those in England, but eels would be a favorite dish for Americans until the late 1800s.

The Indians fished offshore from canoes, both dugout and birchbark. Pring was impressed by the birchbark canoes he saw at Pamet Harbor. He described one as seventeen feet long and four feet wide, pointed at both ends and with the bow “a little bending roundly upward.” He said that although it could carry nine men, it weighed only sixty pounds, “a thing most incredible in regard to the largeness and capacity thereof.” The Indians propelled canoes “very swiftly” with six-foot paddles of ash or maple.

The Indians could easily net the herring migrating up the Herring River to ponds near South Truro. Many of the fish went straight to the Indians’ fields as fertilizer. Squanto, whom the Pilgrims met at Plymouth, would become famous for having taught them how to put a fish into the seed hole when they planted corn and beans.
Many generations of Pamet Indians harvested great quantities of oysters, clams and other shellfish from the flats of Cape Cod Bay. Oysters could be up to a foot long. The women did the shell fishing, using a large clam shell tied to a stick for a clam rake. Wood says that when food was in short supply the Indian women would “trudge to the clam banks when all other means fail.” The Pamet Indians left large piles of empty shells in Truro. At High Head, some were three feet deep.

Deer, the Indians’ primary source of meat, also provided hides for clothing, rawhide for cordage and bone for tools. They stalked deer but more often trapped them so they could get closer for the kill. The Pilgrims came across a rope snare baited with acorns and tied to a bent-over sapling. William Bradford unwarily triggered the snare and was caught in it by a leg. The Pilgrims also found a pathway, probably funnel shaped, that the Indians used to drive a deer to the narrow end where they could shoot it at close range from hiding places. To attract deer and make it easier to hunt them, the Indians regularly burned the old undergrowth in hardwood forests. The deer would graze on the new growth. The day before Pring left Pamet Harbor, the Indians set a fire that burned for “a mile space.” He seemed to think it was some kind of threat, but the fire was probably a controlled burn of undergrowth.

Pring admired their bows and arrows. The bows were five or six feet long and made of “Wich-hasell” wood (perhaps American elm) painted black and yellow. Three strands of rawhide twisted together made a bow-string thicker than that of the English. Their arrows were about four and half feet long and were “made of a fine light wood very smooth and round with three long and deep black feathers of some eagle, vulture or kite.” Their large, woven-rush quivers, a yard long and tapered, were decorated with diamond-shaped designs of red and other colors.

The Indian women did the farming. They planted and cultivated the fields of corn, beans and various kinds of squashes. Their tools were wooden mattocks and spades to loosen the soil and a clam-shell hoe for weeding. They had no metal for tools, no beasts of burden, no wheels for carts. If a wife had a baby, she worked with the baby strapped to her back. Older children, who also gathered berries and nuts, guarded the ripening crops against birds, deer, raccoons and other predators. Pring saw an acre under cultivation near Pamet Harbor. The Pilgrims noted five fields on Corn Hill that had been cultivated, one of them in fifty acres of open space “fit for the plow.” No one saw any Indians in or near the fields; they kept out of sight.

In the spring, the Indians used fire to prepare land for cultivation. They burned their fields and spaded the ashes into the top soil as fertilizer. To clear forest land for cultivation, they burned standing evergreens completely and spread the ash. In stands of hardwood, they sometimes girdled trees to kill them and let sunlight reach their crops.

In the fall, after the harvest, the women dried vegetables, fruits, roots and fish. Winter provisions were packed in woven bags and baskets and buried in underground storerooms lined with rush mats and covered with mats and earth. The Pilgrims dug up a basket with thirty-six ears of corn, “some yellow and some red and others mixed with blue” and a bag of beans. In their second “borrowing” on Corn Hill, they took ten bushels of corn from an underground granary.

Tobacco was the only crop cultivated by men. Planting tobacco seeds was a religious rite. The dried leaves, chopped or powdered, were not only a curative for pain but a sacred drug that was smoked during religious ceremonies and important social occasions. Pring noted tobacco growing with corn and squash near a deserted wigwam on the Pamet River, and the Pilgrims found tobacco seeds in the Corn Hill wigwam.

Their wigwam was not the tall, conical teepee of the western Indians. It had a rounded roof, like an arbor. The Pamet Indians made their wigwams of woven mats of rushes lashed to a frame of thin, flexible saplings or limbs driven into the ground and bowed over to make walls and the roof. Mats lined the inside walls, too. The door, about three feet high, could be closed with a mat. In the center of the earthen floor, under the smoke hole in the ceiling, was the cooking fire and spits for broiling meat and fish. Around the sides were platforms and mats for beds. Their blankets were animal skins. Wood said the wigwams he saw “denied entrance to any drop of rain, though it come both fierce and strong.” He claimed they were tight against the cold wind, too: “They be warmer than our English houses.”

The Indians had dogs to clean up garbage after meals and to retrieve game birds. Whether they were pets in the modern sense is not clear. A dog was with a half dozen Pamet Indians sighted by the Pilgrims at a distance; the Indians ran away, they said, “and whistled the dog after them.”  Not only did the women and girls do the farming and shell fishing, they also did all the work around the wigwam. Besides the cooking, they gathered the rushes and made the mats for their dwelling, installed them for siding and roofing, and hauled them to the next building site when it was time to move. They were the potters and basket weavers. They gathered fire wood and fetched water. They butchered deer with sharpened stones and the edge of clam or oyster shells. They made the family clothing from animal skins. And they took care of their babies and brought up the young children.

The English were surprised at the ease of childbirth for Indian women compared to Europeans. Infants were laid in a bed of cattail, milkweed fluff, duck feathers or sphagnum moss. A mother nursed her baby for about two years and carried the baby strapped to a board on her back. Baby food was a paste of nuts, squash and perhaps ground meat

Her husband and the young Pamet men hunted, trapped, fished, and felled trees. They made stone and wood tools, fish traps and weirs, bows and arrows, harpoons, dugout canoes and birchbark canoe frames. (The women sewed the bark onto the birchbark canoes.) Indian men seemed idle and selfish to the English because they spent so much time hunting, trapping and fishing in ponds and offshore, which the English considered sports. Russell says “they were emphatically not sports but often exhausting, body-wracking, tedious tasks and deadly earnest,” and, he says, there is little evidence that Indian women felt overburdened.

The Indians did have their sports and games. In contrast to the popular image of the grim-visaged Indian, they danced, played games and gambled. Pring described how they danced and sang to the music of a cither played by one of his crewmen. The Pilgrims at Plymouth also found Indian dancing noteworthy. Unable to understand its significance, Edward Winslow, a Pilgrim leader, compared their singing and dancing to the antics of English clowns. On his travels with them, he complained about their nighttime “barbarous singing” when, he said, they sang themselves to sleep.

Games ranged from an early version of lacrosse and something resembling soccer to dice-like games using stones, beans, small bones and bits of wood. Wood says they played their “football” on a flat, open surface of sand along a beach. The goals were up to a mile apart, and a game could last for several days. He notes their “swift footmanship, their curious tossings of their ball, their flouncing into the water, their lubberlike wrestling, having no cunning at all in that kind, one English being able to beat ten Indians at football.”

A Pamet family did not “own” its plot of land. The band of Pamets had their traditional territory on the Outer Cape, and there seems to have been plenty of land and resources for all to share peacefully and without encroaching. Rarely did the early commentators on the Indians note any evidence of crimes against person or property. The Pamets were no doubt like the other southern New England Indians, who “neither secured their wigwams nor concealed their personal possessions, and had no laws against theft,” according to Neal Salisbury in his book, Manitou and Providence. In addition to this remarkable honesty and morality, they were noted for their generosity and their sharing of goods and labor among themselves and with the English.

The Pamets were one of about thirty bands of Indians that were part of the Wampanoag, or Pokanoket, tribe, in southeastern Massachusetts. A tribe was governed by a sachem, usually an older man, sometimes a woman, who acted more as a coordinator, council moderator and ceremonial leader than as a autocratic ruler. The sachem governed through strength of character, ability to work with counselors and eloquence at council meetings rather than through physical strength or political maneuvering. The position was hereditary, sometimes “descending through the mother, perhaps to a sister’s offspring,” according to Russell. Nothing is known about the leaders of the pre-historic Pamets. In any case, they would have resolved disputes and made group decisions through councils of elders, both women and men.

The Indians saw spiritual values in all aspects of Nature, which was the great provider. They had various gods “to be pleased or appeased, not worshiped like idols,” according to Russell. Their ceremonies were elaborate and loud as they prayed to their gods to make rain for their crops, give them success in hunting or cure them of illness. They danced and chanted and smoked their sacred tobacco. They mourned the dead with “doleful cries,”according to Wood, and buried them with cherished possessions for the afterlife, their heads pointing to the southwest. The Pilgrims opened a grave on Corn Hill and found many artifacts, including a bow and some dishes.

Contagious diseases, advanced European technologies and zealous missionary work combined to doom the Indian way of life in New England. They had not built up immunities to European diseases ranging from measles and diphtheria to smallpox and the bubonic plague that the English explorers unwittingly brought with them to America. Their sweat-bath curatives perversely served only to spread the new and deadly diseases to everyone in the community. An estimated 70 percent of the Wampanoag Indians died during plagues in New England from 1616 to1619, fifteen years after Pring’s summer at Pamet Harbor and a year before the Pilgrims arrived. The remaining Indians had no idea that the advanced technologies of the English—plows, metal knives and saws, fabrics, guns, the wheel and beasts of burden—would overwhelm their culture so quickly and completely. Their belief in their gods was rapidly eroded by settlers who believed it was their religious duty to convert the Indians, teach them English and civilize them, that is, make them sober and docile citizens whose behavior would conform to the English way of life.

Greatly outnumbered by the newcomers from Great Britain who bought their land for trifling amounts, the Indians in New England were expected to quit their everyday way of life, which the English considered primitive, even savage, and adapt to the ways of the English settlers. In Truro, Indian grandparents in the mid-1600s saw their grandchildren abandoning their centuries-old culture under the pressure and attraction of new ways of living brought by the settlers. The Pamet Indians’ way of life in what would become Truro disappeared in fewer than two generations.