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Whalers once headed to Smith’s Tavern in Wellfleet for food, drink and fun

Smiths Tavern Wellfleet

This southward-looking aerial photo shows Great Island in Wellfleet, with the location of the Smith’s Tavern site circled in red. Great Island serves as a barrier beach for Wellfleet Harbor, which can be seen at left in the photo. The Herring River is in the foreground, and Jeremy Point, the island’s southern tip, is at the top. Photo by Chris Seufert Inset: An 1893 map of Wellfleet Harbor.

Excavation in 1969-1970 found evidence of a tavern on the Outer Cape in the early 1700s

Editor’s note: Prior to 1763, Wellfleet was part of the town of Eastham, but for the purposes of this story we refer to the area—before and after—as Wellfleet.

In 1690s Wellfleet, early English settlers lacked the luxury of catching a game at the local pub or seeing bands such as Bim Skala Bim or King Yellowman play live at The Beachcomber. Entertainment and recreation during this era were limited, and more closely tied to work, hence the proximity in many fishing towns of taverns and the docks. Two of Wellfleet’s early colonial-era industries were oystering and whaling, though back then the pursuit of “blackfish,” as they were sometimes called, bore nothing in common with Captain Ahab’s infamous hunt of Moby Dick. One needs inhuman patience to derive entertainment from watching oysters grow, but tracking whales is another matter, evidenced by the popularity of whale watching voyages even today.

Around the turn of the 18th century, whales frequented Cape Cod Bay in vast numbers, and many pods would even cruise their way into harbors, such as the one in Wellfleet. It must have been quite a sight—dozens, or even hundreds of whales bursting the water’s surface—and for this attraction Great Island, one might say, was the Wellfleet Drive-In of the late 1600s.

Today, this outcropping of beach and dune is actually a peninsula that extends south for about three and a half miles from the mainland. Back then, however, it was a true island. Whalers would row or sail boats to the island, climb tall dunes, ascend lookout towers and turn their eyes to the waves, scanning the crests and troughs for whale signs.

Observing an opportunity at the nexus of the sands and Cape Cod Bay, local businessman Samuel Smith decided to liven up the beach and raise the community’s spirits by opening a tavern. Now, spotters could enjoy “flip” and “toddies”—popular drinks of the time—as they awaited the behemoths of the deep. Also, the men processing their catches on shore could easily replace a broken tobacco pipe without straying far from their tasks. In fact, for many of the whalers’ needs, they could simply walk over to Smith’s Tavern rather than rowing all the way back into town.

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