A brief history of a tiny coastal community some folks call “paradise”

Have you ever heard of Mashnee Island? | Cape Cod Life JULY 2016

Photograph by Paul Rifkin

Four miles from the Bourne Bridge, and tucked on the far side of a causeway jutting out into Buzzards Bay, is the small, serene community of Mashnee. Surrounded by water, Mashnee overlooks Massachusetts Maritime Academy and the Cape Cod Railroad Bridge to the north, Onset and the other islands of Wareham to the northwest, and Phinneys Harbor and Monument Beach to the east.

Part of the Gray Gables village of Bourne, Mashnee may be unknown to many—even native Cape Codders—but the residential community features scenic views, approximately 140 houses, and a remarkable history. To begin, Mashnee was not always attached to the mainland. Whereas residents and visitors can drive across the one-mile causeway today, in years past they had to sail or swim because prior to 1939, Mashnee was an island.

The 50 acres that comprise Mashnee have seen many changes since the land was owned by Native Americans; over the centuries the land has been used to graze sheep, harvest salt, teach boys how to sail—and during World War II as a lookout spot where servicemen continually scanned for German submarines. After the war, Mashnee was developed as a summer cottage resort, and many  families returned year after year. A number of those cottages remain today as private residences, while others have been razed and larger properties built in their place.

Despite the changes, one general sentiment about the place seems to remain. “Mashnee has that old Cape Cod relaxation feel,” says El Murphy, a lifelong summer vacationer who moved to Mashnee permanently in 2014. “It’s a feeling of going to the beach and riding bikes. The biggest decision is deciding what’s for dinner and which house we’re going to eat at.”

The earliest records of Mashnee date back to the 1600s, when a group of Wampanoag Indians, known as Manametts (or Manomets), owned the land. The Manametts also owned nearby Hog Island and Tobey Island. To trade with the Dutch, and the Indians who owned these islands, the Pilgrims built the Aptucxet Trading Post in 1627. The island is mentioned in Plymouth Colony’s records because the Manametts of Mashnee traded essential food to the English settlers on the mainland.

Richard Bourne, a minister from Sandwich, befriended the Indians by preaching Christianity to them, says Donald “Jerry” Ellis, a member of Bourne’s board of selectmen and a past chair of the town’s historic commission. Because of his relationship with the Indians, Bourne was granted by Plymouth Colony the right to graze sheep on Mashnee.

Ellis adds that at the turn of the 17th century wolves heavily populated the region. The people of the area, which was then part of the Town of Sandwich but is located in present day Bourne, contemplated building a fence all the way from Buzzards Bay to Cape Cod Bay—two centuries before the canal—to thwart the predators. During this time, about 100 head of sheep were transported to Mashnee, by boat, to ensure the animals’ safety.