History of Cape Ann

Cape Ann, MA


In 1605 when the French explorer Samuel de Champlain stopped at Cape Ann on his way down the coast of North America he found a lush abundance of life on a beautiful rocky shore dotted with sandy beaches.  The water was pink with the petals of the wild rose, the air scented with them.  Grapes were ripening on the vine, walnut, cypress, oak, beech and sassafras trees abounded, and the native inhabitants were tending fields of corn and pumpkin.  He named it Le Beau Port.

Eighteen years later a group of ‘surplus’ men were dropped off at Cape Ann by a ship belonging to the Dorchester Company of England.  They were part of a radical new fishing concept where the extra crewmen carried on board fishing vessels to process the catch were to build a permanent encampment where they would over winter instead of returning to England with the rest of the crew at the end of the season.  They were called surplus men because they were not needed to sail the vessel.  This plan saved both time and money otherwise spent in building new drying racks each year, and avoided the necessity of double-provisioning the ships for the return voyage.  These men were the first non-native settlers of Cape Ann.

In 1625 the Dorchester Company disbanded and offered to bring the surplus men home, but about a dozen of them chose to stay in the New World, moving to the more arable land in the vicinity of Salem, where they were joined 2 years later by the first settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Company.

In the next 20 years, as the population increased and the farmland was no longer able to sustain them, new settlements were proposed with the area known as Cape Ann divided up into three distinct communities: Jeffryes Creeke, Gloucester, and Ipswich.  Initially each of these communities had to supply its own needs.  They had to have land to grow crops, pasture for animals, thatch lots for roofing material, timber to build houses and fishing vessels, sawmills to process the wood, grist mills to grind the grain; and every household supplemented their diet by hunting wild game, fishing, and digging for clams.


In 1642 the Massachusetts Bay Colony set aside the rocky land beyond the Annisquam, and named it Gloucester.  The new settlers homesteaded and fished, but the area was also thickly wooded, so initially timber, not fish, was Gloucester’s primary export.  It was so important that in 1667 settlement in the area that was to become Rockport over a century later was forbidden, in order to protect the forest.

About 40 of these early settlers built houses in the heart of Cape Ann in an area called Dogtown, a place of myth and mystery even today.  In the 1700s it was occupied by some of our wealthiest citizens, and provided a safe refuge from both the occasional pirate and marauding French and British ships.  By 1830 its last inhabitant had been taken away to the Poor Farm and nothing now remains of this once thriving community but the cellar holes.  During the Great Depression local philanthropist Roger W. Babson hired out-of-work stone cutters to carve inspirational sayings into 23 of the large boulders dotting the area.  At the same time he donated 1,150 acres of Dogtown to the City of Gloucester for use as a park and watershed, which currently offers rich recreational opportunities to hikers, bikers, dog-walkers, cross-country skiers, horseback riders and nature lovers.

Gloucester also had a good safe harbor with easy access to the rich off shore fishing grounds, so over time, as the trees became less plentiful, the major industry gradually changed to fishing and foreign trade.  In 1713 the schooner, which became the country’s foremost fishing vessel for more than 200 years, was first designed and built in Gloucester.  By the early 1800s shipbuilding was increasing and the fishing fleet was traveling to the Grand Banks after halibut.  In 1879 alone there were almost 450 fishing vessels in town employing over 5,000 men catching more than 91million pounds of cod, haddock, halibut, hake, pollock, mackerel and herring.  Sometimes you could not see the water in the harbor for the vessels moored there.  But all this came with a price.  That same year was devastating for the Gloucester fleet.  Thirty-two vessels and 266 men were lost, half of them in a single February storm.  In 1883 the young fisherman Howard Blackburn, adrift in his dory in a raging snow storm, rowed towards land for five days, his hands frozen to the oars.  He survived the ordeal but lost all his fingers.  Despite this handicap he later sailed single-handed across the Atlantic in his sloop Great Western (which can be visited at the Cape Ann Museum).  The names of 5,368 lost fishermen are inscribed on 9 bronze plaques where the famous Fisherman at the Wheel statue stands looking out to sea.  Gloucester fishermen continue to brave the seas today, making the city the oldest fishing community in the nation.

Gloucester has a thriving cultural heritage too.  Books have been written and movies made of and in Gloucester (among them Kipling’s Captain’s Courageous and Junger’s The Perfect Storm), and the city is featured in the popular TV series Wicked Tuna.  Rocky Neck, home to one of the oldest working Art Colonies in America, protects the inner harbor.  There, artists like Theresa Bernstein, John Sloan, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Frederick J. Mulhaupt and many others found both a home and inspiration.


Two years before Gloucester became Gloucester the community of 63 people residing in an area of Salem known as Jeffryes Creeke requested the right to form their own settlement.  This was granted in 1645 at which time they were also permitted to change the name from Jeffryes Creeke to Manchester.  In 1989 it was changed again to Manchester-by-the-Sea, which was actually an old nickname for the town dating back to the late 1800s.

At first, like all the other small communities, the residents were homesteaders, but gradually boat building, fishing, and boot and shoe making (always the winter industry of the fishermen) took over.  In the nineteenth century the town was also home to about 40 captains, masters of Boston and New York owned ships and brigs trading the world over.  The Manchester Historical Museum is housed in the home of one of these men, Captain Richard Trask who was master of the St. Petersburg until his retirement.  She was the largest ship ever built in Massachusetts at the time of her launching in 1839 and under Captain Trask carried cotton from New Orleans to Russia where it was traded for fine white feathers.  In the early 1800s fishing declined and fine cabinet making rose to the fore as Manchester’s primary trade.  At one point there were 43 cabinet shops, factories and mills working in the town, sending fine furniture to the houses of Boston, New York and as far south as New Orleans.  Among these cabinet makers was John Perry Allen who invented New England’s first steam-powered veneering saw which could slice a 4” thick piece of mahogany into 100 perfect sheets.  Unfortunately the loss of men to the Civil War and the economic depression that followed, combined with stiff competition from mid-western furniture makers, led to a decline in demand for their product.

With the arrival of the railroad in the mid-1800s residents of Boston and points south began to view the town as a summer colony.  As cabinet making waned towards the end of the century the number of summer visitors rose, with the building of summer cottages and the opening of boarding houses.  Delighted by the fresh air and sea views, wealthy families from as far west as Chicago and as far south as St. Louis, as well as foreign princes, ambassadors and theatrical stars of the day flocked to the town.  Junius Booth, Jr., brother of the infamous John Wilkes Booth, built a cottage overlooking Singing Beach in 1867 and converted it to a 300 guest hotel a decade later.  Called The Masconomo House Hotel it became the place to congregate. Today Manchester-by-the-Sea is enjoyed for its beaches, yachting marinas, rock climbing on Eaglehead and commercial lobstering.


Originally known as Chebacco, Essex was part of Ipswich from its settlement in 1634.  In 1719 Chebacco became the Second Parish of Ipswich and was set off as its own town in 1819, when it was renamed Essex.  From its earliest days as Chebacco the community was known for its boat building – home to the famous Chebacco boat, and the main builder of schooners for Gloucester’s fishing fleet.  More two-masted fishing schooners were built in Essex than anywhere else in the world – over 4,000.  In its heyday Essex boasted 15 working boatyards.  Today the Essex Shipbuilding Museum and the Lannonand the Ardelle, both charter schooners out of Gloucester and both built in Essex, remind us of that legacy.  As the demand for sail powered vessels declined in the late 1800s Essex turned to its rich mud flats, part of the largest salt marsh in New England, and the high quality shellfish they provided.

Known as the Great Salt Marsh it is 30,000 acres of coastal wetland stretching from New Hampshire to West Gloucester that is home and breeding ground to many species of fish, insects, shellfish, amphibians, mammals and birds, some of them rare.  It was an invaluable source of salt marsh hay to the early settlers who used it to roof and insulate their houses and feed and bed their livestock.  This vast network of wildlife refuges, beaches and waterways is enjoyed today by bird watchers, boaters, hikers, hunters, kayakers and beach goers.

The fried clam was purportedly invented in Essex and today’s visitors can enjoy a fresh, succulent, fried clam dinner in one of the town’s many restaurants.  Other attractions are the one remaining shipyard still building wooden vessels, the colonial-era farmhouse Cogswell Grant, home to an extensive collection of American folk art, and the numerous antique shops.  Essex boasts of having the most antique shops of any town in America.


Rockport, originally called Sandy Bay, started out as the source of timber for Gloucester but as the wood was cut the lots were sold, merged and homesteaders moved in.  In 1753 the residents of Sandy Bay were allowed to have a church and became Gloucester’s Fifth Parish.  Fishing became big business, and by the mid 1800s the granite industry was in full operation, attracting immigrants from Finland, Scandinavia and Italy to work in the quarries.  By the 1830s fishing was in decline but Rockport’s quarry industry was on the rise with granite being shipped up and down the eastern seaboard.  Rockport granite was used in the building of Fort Warren, the Custom House and Post Office in Boston, the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, the Masonic Temple in Philadelphia, Dog Bar Breakwater and St. Ann Church in Gloucester, to name but a few.  It provided the polished stone at the mouth of the Holland Tunnel in New York, the fountain bowls for the Union Station Plaza in Washington, DC, and thousands of paving stones for big city streets.  In 1872 the great keystone bridge that carries Granite Street in Rockport over an abandoned pit railroad was constructed.  It has a span of 65’, one of the longest in the state, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981.

As the granite quarry business rose the community gained in self-reliance, as did their desire to become self governing.  In 1840 the town was set-off from the rest of Cape Ann and named, by popular vote, Rockport.  With the development of concrete and the resulting decline in demand for granite in the early 1900s Rockport reinvented itself as a thriving artist colony and summer tourist destination.  This continues to today with opportunities to walk along the granite headlands on well-marked public paths, amble around the art galleries on Bearskin Neck, visit the Granite Museum at Halibut Point Reservation, the twin lighthouses on Thacher Island just off the coast, or just enjoy Rockport’s sandy beaches and quiet charm.