Whalers once headed to Smith’s Tavern in Wellfleet for food, drink and fun
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.
Bill Burke, historian and cultural resources program manager for the Cape Cod National Seashore, suggests that Smith saw a social scene developing on the island, and decided to turn a profit there. “Without the whalers, there probably wouldn’t have been a tavern,” Burke says. “It was similar to setting up a popcorn stand outside a circus.”
Today, all that remains of Smith’s Tavern is a plaque on Great Island and the remnants of the structure’s stone foundation. However, the Salt Pond Visitor Center in Eastham provides access to more information, including interpretive displays, artifacts from the site, and a book detailing the archaeological dig that took place in 1969-1970. This was a total excavation, says Burke. “They went corner to corner and took everything out.” A year after the operation, in 1971, lead archaeologists Eric Ekholm and James Deets published an article in Natural History Magazine entitled “Wellfleet Tavern.”
The National Park Service, which manages the Cape Cod National Seashore, hired Ekholm and Deets of Plimoth Plantation to conduct the dig. At the time they visited Great Island in 1969, folklore in Wellfleet held that a tavern had once inhabited the headlands there, overlooking the harbor. According to Ekholm’s and Deets’ article, some evidence for this claim did exist. “Previous unauthorized digging had turned up a 1723 English coin,” the article states, “as well as some spoons and clay pipe stems.” A few rocks also protruded from the ground that hinted at possible building foundations.
Wellfleet town records from 1794 and 1831 show that no businesses or homes had existed on Great Island at either of those times, but National Park Service archaeological surveys have revealed evidence of Native American sites on the island. “These surveys also discovered the remains of some kind of structure,” the archaeologists write, “apparently built during the colonial period.” It was this finding that prompted their excavation of the area in 1970.
Writing of the dig in their book Archeological Collections Management of the Great Island Tavern Site, Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts (1984), authors Alan Synenki and Sheila Charles report that the archaeologists discovered 29,966 artifacts in the “ceramics” category alone, along with nearly 12,000 pieces of glass and 9,400 tobacco pipe fragments. They also found 8,547 pieces of whalebone along with thousands of metal and brick artifacts. “The artifacts were taken to Plimoth Plantation,” Burke says, “and held there for decades.”
In their writing, Ekholm and Deetz also noted that Smith’s patrons consumed so many oysters that the volume of shell remains could have led investigators to mistaken the site for a Native American shell midden, or heap. In addition, they discovered the foundation and remains of the tavern itself and concluded that the public house had been a two-story structure with a footprint that spanned 50 feet by 30 feet, facing south. Ekholm and Deetz also believe the building had clapboard siding with diamond-shaped windowpanes. There had been two main rooms with a large chimney between them, the base of which remained. Another, smaller room had been built off the back.
The team also found two cellars, presumably used for storing food. However, the trove of whalebone fragments that they found in one celler—along with some whole pieces—provided evidence supporting the theory that the purpose of the tavern was to support the whalers of Wellfleet. “The hours between whaling sorties were almost certainly occupied by partaking of the tavern’s hospitality,” the archaeologists wrote. In addition, fragments of intricate ivory fans suggest that “friendly ladies,” as Ekholm and Deetz put it, may also have worked there—“ladies who entertained the whalers at the tavern.” The findings suggest patrons likely imbibed “toddies,” rum and syrup drinks served hot; and “flip,” a more elaborate concoction of eggs, molasses, ale, rum and spice. According to the website Serious Eats (seriouseats.com), “Flip was usually mixed in a pitcher and then whipped into a froth by plunging a hot fire poker (called a flip-dog) into its midst.”
Archaeological findings on Great Island lined up with historical information to explain why the tavern likely operated from about 1690 to 1740. First, whaling was a successful industry in Wellfleet during that timespan. Wellfleet historian Levi Whitman, recalling the days of his youth, wrote in 1793 that, “When [whales] come within our harbors, boats surround them. They are as easily driven to the shore as cattle or sheep are driven on land. The tide leaves them, and they are easily killed.” The New Bedford Whaling Museum, in an online article entitled “Yankee Whaling,” describes another technique that colonialists used to hunt whales. “Whales were captured using harpoons with wooden floats attached to long ropes. After the animals were exhausted from dragging the floats, they would be killed with long lances and towed to shore.” However, National Park Service archaeologist Joel Dukes points out that: “In 1742, they quit whaling in Cape Cod Bay.”
Based in Lowell, Dukes works for the park service’s northeast region. He explains that he “jumps from park to park.” In the spring of 2017, Dukes completed a study of pipe stems recovered from the Wellfleet Tavern. He had been working at the excavation of Boston’s Faneuil Hall when he read some articles about the tavern site. He concluded that, “Nobody had really done much with the pipe stems.” It was fairly typical, Dukes says, for excavations to clean out sites, but many years would often pass before anyone could analyze the findings. “There’s been a push lately to re-analyze collections,” he explains.
Dukes’ study of the pipe stems produced a number of interesting findings. “I was surprised at how homogeneous they were,” he says of the smoking implements. “There were really two types.” Makers’ marks revealed that the R. Tippet Company in England had manufactured most of the 9,400 pipes. These would be shipped across the Atlantic packed in kegs with straw to prevent breakage. Determining the diameter of a pipe’s bore—the hole one draws smoke through—is a common method that archaeologists use for historical dating. For example, Ekholm and Deetz write that a bore’s diameter of 5/64 inch “indicates a date from 1710 through 1750,” but stems with 6/64-inch bores date from 1680-1710. The dates of the ceramics found at the site—from eight types of English and German pottery—coincide with those of the pipe stems. Of the pipe artifacts, one part usually remains. “The tips vastly outnumber bowl fragments,” Dukes says, adding that teeth marks are commonly found on these pieces. With this information, Dukes makes a unique conclusion: “Many of the people at the tavern were deliberately shortening them so they could hold the pipes more easily in their mouths as they worked.”
Dukes adds that location, geography and exposure buried this story for awhile—but also helped preserve it. “The shifting sands kept the tavern site preserved for a few hundred years,” he says, and might explain the success of the complete excavation that Ekholm and Deetz carried out in 1970.
Though little trace of the tavern remains today, visitors can hike the lengthy Great Island Trail, pause at a point on the eastern side of the island, and imagine the scene of what was likely the Cape’s first beach bar, where barmaids and whalers downed oysters and spicy flip while frolicking their nights away in the glow of whale oil lamps.
In the mood for some tasty tavern fare?
Coinciding with our article on Smith’s Tavern in Wellfleet, we asked three Cape and Islands restaurants to share with us some recipes for great-tasting tavern food. In Woods Hole, Quicks Hole Tavern told us about their Pig Candy, a sweet and spicy pork belly appetizer, while a few miles away on Main Street in Falmouth, The Quarterdeck submitted instructions on how to prepare one of their favorites: mussels! Finally, The Rose & Crown on Ye olde Nantucket revealed to us the recipe for their popular and mouth-watering clam fritters, a perfect dish for a rainy day, a summer evening or pretty much any time at all. Bon appetit! – Matthew J. Gill
Check out these three tasty tavern recipes, below!
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