Eastham is one of the four original towns on Cape Cod. It was formed
in 1640 when Governor Bradford defined the area in the patent he had
received from the Earl of Warwick in 1630 as "Nawsett." Nawsett was
to be reserved for "Purchasers" and "Old Comers" (those who had come
over on the first three boats, the Mayflower, the Fortune and the
Anne). Nawsett encompassed what now is Brewster, Harwich, Chatham,
Orleans and Eastham. As Plimoth was getting to be crowded and the
land worn out, in 1643 a committee was sent to Nawsett to
investigate the possibility of moving the whole Colony to the new
wide open spaces. The committee couldn't make up its mind so a
second committee was sent to take a look. They agreed that Nawsett
could not support the entire Colony but they bought large tracts of
it from the Indians and many of the younger colonists moved. Led by
Thomas Prence, the new settlement grew rapidly and was incorporated
as a township in 1646. In 1651 it was named Eastham.
Then, in 1654 the western part of Eastham was given to Old Comers
who had claims on it and that area became the beginnings of Harwich.
Down at the elbow, at what is now Chatham, an enterprising fellow
from Yarmouth named William Nickerson managed to grab that section
of Eastham and, although his title was never clear for years, it was
no longer considered part of Eastham. Little by little, more chunks
of Eastham were broken off. Up at the tip, a large section became
Truro in 1709 and the tip of Truro became Provincetown in 1727. In
1718 those living in the area we now know as Orleans petitioned to
become a new South Parish and this became the town of Orleans in
1797. Meantime, in 1723 those in the area south of Truro petitioned
to become a new North Parish and this became Wellfleet in 1763.
By1797 the biggest town on Cape Cod had become the smallest and
apparently everybody in what remained of Eastham was happy about it.
Eastham had been primarily a farming community but years of strong
winds over the lands cleared for farming had taken their toll.
Topsoil gone, Eastham turned to the sea for fishing and salt making.
Eastham had some famous clipper captains. Thirty-eight-year-old
Freeman Hatch sailed the Northern Light from Boston to San Francisco
in a record 76 days, 6 hours in 1852.
When seafaring days waned, Eastham went back to farming. The land
was good for asparagus and grass for cattle and this led to dairy
farming and milk from Eastham went up and down the Cape on the
Dairy eventually petered out, as did the asparagus, but today
Eastham survived in its quiet way and now is best known as the
entrance to the National Seashore.