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

Whale of a Time, July 2017 Cape Cod LIFE |

This sign points the way to the tavern site on Great Island. Years ago, another sign nearby is said to have read: “Samuel Smith, he has good flip, good toddy if you please. The way is near and very clear, ‘tis just beyond the trees.” Photo by Matt Gill

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.

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