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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 |

In the summer of 1970, a team of archaeologists excavated the site of a tavern on the east side of Wellfleet’s Great Island. The dig uncovered some 80,000 artifacts including ceramic pieces, buttons, buckles, whalebone fragments and countless pipe stems. Photo courtesy of Cape Cod National Seashore archives

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 (, “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.”

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