There’s history — and mystery — beneath the waters off Wellfleet
The fascinating story of Billingsgate Island.
There is simplicity in the beauty of Wellfleet. The town is full of rich history, and there’s an authentic nature about those who have lived in this small community on the far reaches of Cape Cod. Looking out over the horizon of Wellfleet Harbor evokes a feeling of nostalgia. One feels a sense of history, a stillness in time. And just over a century ago, a gleaming light emanating from Billingsgate Island off the coast represented an efficient fishing village full of hardworking families and boaters. As the reader may know, however, the life, the future, and the very existence of that Wellfleet village would be snuffed out by the caressing waves of the ocean.
Today, all that remains of Billingsgate Island is an occasional sandbar a few miles off Wellfleet’s Jeremy Point. But that’s not to say Cape Cod’s ‘mini Atlantis’ has disappeared from the local consciousness. In this article, we look at the history of the island and the people who lived there and examine the efforts many have made to keep Billingsgate’s memory—and legend—alive.
When the Pilgrims arrived in the region in 1620, the town of Billingsgate (which at the time included Eastham and Wellfleet—and the 60-acre island) was home to the Punonakanit people—members of the Wampanoag Federation. In Of Plimoth Plantation, Mayflower scribe William Bradford describes the island as “a tongue of land, being flat, off from the shore, with a sandy point.” According to A History Of Billingsgate by Durand Echeverria, the Native Americans and the Europeans who settled in the Billingsgate community coexisted peacefully until smallpox eventually shrunk the Billingsgate Punonakanit population to just 11 in 1694.
Originally settled by the Europeans as a fishing village, the island was most likely named after the famous Billingsgate fishing market of London. Over time, fishermen living in Wellfleet and Eastham brought their families onto the island where they would fish from early spring to the start of winter. These fishermen reeled in their catch using a variety of tools including gillnets, pounds, and weirs.