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Pages of History: What’s in a Name?

Nickerson family

The growing Nickerson family in front of their Brewster home, now the site of Ocean Edge Resort. Through the years, large families such as this settled across the Cape and still have an impact today.

Rewinding back in time, William Nickerson, who would found the town of Chatham, was not a ship captain, though a number of his descendants would take on that vocation. Instead, he was a weaver. A plaque located on Orleans Road at the Nickerson Family Association tells the story of the Nickerson family. It reads: “William Nickerson, founder of Chatham, arrived in Salem in 1637 aboard the ship, John and Dorothy, with four children, his wife, Anne Busby and her parents. … After first settling near Little Bass Pond in Yarmouth, he bargained with Monomoyick tribal sachem, Mattaquason, for a parcel of land at Monomoit (now Chatham) in 1656. A shallop (a dory-like boat),  cloth, kettles, axes, knives and wampum served as payment. By 1664 William, Anne and eight of their nine children and their families were living in various parts of the 4000 acres of Monomoit. However, because it was illegal to purchase tribal lands directly, it wasn’t until 1682 with a payment of ninety pounds and a Plymouth Colony Court settlement that the purchase was made legal.” Today, the Nickerson House serves as the headquarters of the family’s association, which the eighth descendant of William founded in 1897. This descendant, William Emery Nickerson, also happened to invent the safety razor and to co-found the Gillette company.

Nickerson State Park, the first such public space in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, is the gift of Addie Nickerson. The land had previously belonged to Samuel Mayo Nickerson, a founding member of the First National Bank of Chicago. He built a mansion called Fieldstone Hall here in 1890 for his son Roland and wife Addie. This home burned to the ground in 1906, however, and Roland, who already suffered from heart disease, passed away two weeks after the fire at age 51. Their son, also named Roland, served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and died of influenza during the 1918 epidemic. In 1934, Addie donated the land for use as a “state forest park,” and it has since become the second most visited natural attraction on Cape Cod, after the National Seashore.

Since Gosnold’s naming of Cape Cod over 400 years ago, the area has transformed in a number of different ways. It served first as a settlement for Pilgrims, or “freemen,” whose primary focus was religious. Then came the age of sail, and of the whaling industry. The 19th century gave rise to summer communities. But throughout the Cape’s history, dozens of families have maintained roots here, each with stories of successes and tragedies. The Cape Cod Museum Trail includes over 50 sites, and about 20 of these bear family names, from the Atwood House and Museum in Chatham to the Wing Fort House in Sandwich. Beaches like Cahoon Hollow and Chapin are but two more “roses” in the bouquet of Cape Cod names, and with dozens of monuments and memorials, one could spend years taking time to stop and breathe in the entirety of this historical garden.

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