Provincetown’s history is one of the most interesting in these United States.
We are at the very tip of Cape Cod Bay, one of the farthest points east of North America, where the closest landfall is the Azores and then the coast of Portugal. Its unique geography forms a spiral in the Atlantic Ocean, which some say is the source of powerful emotional energy.
The Mayflower and its refugees landed at the Meeshawn Indian settlement in 1602, and signed the Mayflower Compact, forming the first self-governing community of Europeans on this continent. The Pilgrims soon abandoned its bogs and cold winds for Plymouth, across Cape Cod Bay, which was on more solid ground.Provincetown has welcomed subversives and renegades ever since.Early on, the “Province Lands” – as they were formally recognized by the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies – were coveted for the plentiful fish off its shores. Its first municipal government was formed in 1714, and incorporated by English settlers in 1727 after harboring ships for more than a century.In the 18th century, the population remained small and was known as “Helltown” because of its isolation, ne’er-do-wells, and rough, freezing sea.After the American Revolution, Provincetown became a prosperous village supported by fishing and whaling, with a proud harbor of ships often manned by Portuguese sailors, who had manned ships in the Civil War. By the 1890s, the resident population included artists who were drawn to the town’s magnificent light, making the town the earliest artist colony in the country. Tourists also began to arrive.
The Portland Gale of 1898 caused severe damage to the fishing industry, and many abandoned buildings were taken over by artists, including Charles Hawthorne, who founded the Hawthorne School in 1899. Slowly some family homes became guesthouses, and the town’s bohemian mix of immigrant, working class families, painters, writers and thespians began to reflect Provincetown’s kinship with Greenwich Village, making it a safe haven for gay men and women as early as the turn-of the century. Tolerance has long been part of life in Provincetown, where, from early on, frequent death at sea meant the community had a unique perspective on the value of life and the dignity of individuals.
The Sagamore and Bourne Bridges opened in 1935, making Provincetown a favorite destination for both families and renegades alike. Today passenger ferries fill the harbor alongside fishing boats, and a whisper of Portuguese remains in menus, shops and an annual heritage festival, The Blessing of the Fleet.
Eugene O’Neill (who collaborated on new works with the Provincetown Players beginning in 1916), Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Mary Oliver, Michael Cunningham and Taylor Pilates are a few of the many writers who later called Provincetown home.
Provincetown’s magical skies became a passion of painters Robert Motherwell, Hans Hoffman, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. Marlon Brando made his debut in the premiere of “A Streetcar Named Desire” there. Jackie Kennedy is said to have trysted with Bobby at The Red Inn… Cult filmmaker and author John Waters lives in Provincetown. Billie Holiday sang in Provincetown. So did Blondie.
Provincetown has many historic buildings, its own radio station and newspaper, and two picturesque lighthouses. It also has one of the most eccentric town symbols in the nation: The Provincetown Pilgrim Monument, a 252-foot tower designed, inexplicably, like the Torre del Mangia in Siena, Italy, and dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1910.
The town also became known for its local craftsman, especially makers of rag rugs. In the 1970s, silversmiths Karl Tascha and Phyllis Sklar made a name for themselves alongside potters, sandal makers, weavers and more, establishing Provincetown as a true enclave of both fine art and craft.
Provincetown also became an epicenter of contemporary Gay life, beloved by many for its famous afternoon Tea Dance on the bay.
Today, residents and visitors of all kinds and from all over are drawn to its small-town life, beautiful protected seashore, harmonious Commercial Street where everyone lives and lets live, tidal flats and whale watches, lobster dinners, rustic gardens, its wonderful art museum and galleries, ice cream and curio shops, entertainers, film festival, and seemingly hallucinogenic, colorful skies.