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Pages of History: What’s in a Name?

“Gosnold at Cuttyhunk” painting

“Gosnold at Cuttyhunk,” painting by Albert Bierstadt (1858). Photo courtesy of Cuttyhunk Historical Society

On the 15th of May, in 1602, 18 years before the Pilgrims arrived, British explorer Bartholomew Gosnold landed in what’s now called Provincetown. He and the crew of his ship the Concord perceived the peninsula as an island, and they initially called it “Shoal Hope.” Although this initial name lives on today in such businesses as Shoal Hope Ciderworks (est. 2015), Gosnold changed it before it really took hold. He wrote that, “Near this cape we came to anchor in fifteen fathoms, where we took great store of codfish, for which we altered the name and called it Cape Cod.” According to the New England Historical Society, Gosnold spent little time in Provincetown, but instead sailed on until he reached a large island where “they spent two days sampling strawberries.” Before departure, Gosnold named the island after his daughter Martha, who had perished in infancy. The Concord next landed on Cuttyhunk, where “they found abundant trees, herbs, fruit and, of course, fish. Most intriguing was the sassafras, then commanding a high price because it supposedly cured syphilis.” Gosnold and his men commenced trading with the local Native Americans, harvesting sassafras, and began building a fort before he decided to sail off for unknown reasons, leaving eight men behind for three days. When he returned, he and the entire crew took a vote as to whether or not they should remain in Cuttyhunk for a year or return directly to England. They chose the latter, most likely because, according to John Brereton, an English gentlemen who kept a diary throughout the voyage, “our bark had taken in so much sassafras, cedar, furs, skins and other commodities as were thought convenient.” In other words, the men thought the ship was full enough, and now it was time to get paid. Five years later, Gosnold would return to North America and help found Jamestown, where he died just months after arrival. His legacy continues, however, because the Pilgrims would follow his route to Cape Cod, and they would eventually name a town that encompasses the Elizabeth Islands, including Cuttyhunk, after him. His name also carries on in countless other places in the area, including one of the best-known centers in Massachusetts for “the prevention, treatment and recovery of mental health and substance use disorders.”

One of the towns close to Gosnold, just across Buzzards Bay, is Bourne. Perhaps most famous for the bridge bearing its name—along with the droves of cars in the summer—the town’s eponym, Jonathan Bourne Sr., descended directly from a Pilgrim named Richard Bourne, the first English minister to work with the Wampanoag Indians. Richard Bourne was one of the earliest settlers in Shawmee, which became known as Sandwich in 1637, and he was married to Bathsheba Hallett (another longtime Cape surname). He became a political leader and a missionary in conjunction with John Eliot of Plymouth, who believed that “the principall Ende of this plantation wynn and incite the Natives of [the] Country, to the Knowledge and Obedience of the onlie true God and Savior of Mankinde, and the Christian Fayth.” The mid-17th century was a time of rapid growth in the settlements of Massachusetts, and the Native American populations had been in decline due to disease following earlier contact with Europeans. Mark Nicholas of Lehigh University writes in his graduate thesis that the Puritans established plantations or “praying-towns” that were geographic areas designed to become formal towns once they had “become settled by sufficient numbers of English-speaking ‘freemen.’” Based upon the model that Eliot had laid out in Natick and in other communities, Richard Bourne established the Mashpee Plantation. An important first step in this process was to transfer ownership of land back to the Native Americans. Bourne used 10,500 acres to this effect. Nicholas states, “The area’s principal sachems, Tookonchasun and Weepquish, in signing it also acknowledged that the plantation would be the homeland to a Christian group of Indians. The deed further assured any land within Mashpee’s limits would not be sold without the entire community’s consent.” Bourne learned the Algonquian language, established schools for Wampanoag people, taught English, and enjoyed overall success in his missionary work. He was also instrumental in helping to maintain peaceful relations among the Puritans and Native Americans. King Philip’s War, waged from 1675-78, caused deep rifts throughout the region, and Nicholas notes that Bourne convinced “a group of Indians from Mashpee not to attack the small town of Sandwich in the early 1680s.” In addition, most of the Native Americans who had learned English had sided against King Philip; had they joined him, it’s likely that the entirety of Plymouth colony would have been wiped out.

Jonathan Bourne Sr. actually rose to prominence in the whaling industry of New Bedford, but he maintained a second home here on the Cape, and the town of Bourne was named for him when it became incorporated in 1884. In the decades leading up to this, however, dozens of families sailed directly out of the Cape, and the homes of many prominent ship captains remain today, both as private residences and as museums. Entire books explore the rich seafaring past of these harbors, but the Nickerson family name is one that became both associated with sailing and nearly ubiquitous throughout Cape Cod and the Islands. A number of Nickersons captained ships out of Cotuit in the 19th century, including Captain Carlton Nickerson, who operated a boatyard in the inner harbor, and Captain Willard Nickerson. Willard’s son, Captain Edson Nickerson, became master of several schooners. Captain Seth Nickerson and his wife Rozilla may be the most famous of the Nickersons from this area, however, because their granddaughter, Clara Nickerson Boden, wrote a romantic novel, “The Cut of Her Jib,” based on their experiences. In their book “Cotuit and Santuit,” authors James W. Gould and Jessica Rapp Grassetti detail the tragic story of “The baby brought home in a cask of rum.” During a three-year whaling voyage, Ella, the daughter of Seth and Rozilla, died at the age of 13 months while aboard vessel. Her parents preserved her body in a cask of rum, which they towed back to Cotuit, where they buried her body in Mosswood Cemetery.

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