Pleasant Bay Woodlands: Unearthing the Story Beneath Our Feet
By Scott Ridley
As we come to understand the history of a place, driving along a road, or walking a trail becomes a very different experience. We get to see another dimension in a landscape or neighborhood. Sometimes if we are lucky, we find that buried beneath our feet is a fascinating story about someone who stood in this place before us, and we catch a glimpse of the world they inhabited.
It’s rare, however, to have a chance to see the full story—a panorama of how things have changed and lives intertwined in a single place over time. So we are fortunate that among HCT’s purchases is Kendrick Farm in East Harwich, now known as Pleasant Bay Woodlands. It’s a unique piece of land that was held within the same family for more than 250 years. The family patriarch, Edward Kenwrick, bought the first tract in the 1730s from great-grandchildren of Mattaquason, the Monomoyick leader who provided much needed aid to the Pilgrims. Edward gave the land to his son Solomon, an early whaler. And Solomon’s son, the American explorer John Kendrick, was born and grew up here, but he is only part of a larger story.
A little more than a thousand feet back from Pleasant Bay, the 49 acres of upland and white cedar swamps offer a rare window into history. Nearly all of Barnstable County’s recorded deeds were destroyed by fire in 1827, wiping out much of the public memory of early land transactions on the Cape. For this piece of land, however, we know the succession of individuals who held it all the way back to Mattaquason. This gives us a chance to measure out history in the span of specific lifetimes. It’s an opportunity for a detailed understanding of how the land and people’s lives changed and their stories intertwined, generation after generation.
In Kendrick family papers saved in two tin boxes, along with aged documents in state and local archives, there is a paper trail that leads us back to the beginning of recorded memory. We know how purchases of land and settlement into farms began, spreading from the Ryder’s Cove area of Chatham across Muddy Creek in the late 1600s. And how settlers from Yarmouth and Nauset (Eastham), such as Edward Kenwrick, traded for land located in what was known as the “Indian Range.” We can see remnants of paths and ancient tribal boundaries, and their transformation as lots were fenced off. We can also see settlers marrying into native families, or specific native people adopting Anglicized names to suit the world changing around them.
Following the paper trail, we find mixed native and settler crews aboard early whalers in the 1750s and 1760s. In another generation, the Kendrick schooner Morningstar is moored in Pleasant Bay, fish flakes for drying cod extend along the shore, and 2,000 feet of salt works stand in the marsh at Round Cove. As steam ships took over, the next generation came in from the sea and began cranberry farming. In their penciled account books we find payments to local laborers and Cape Verdean sailors to help trench the cedar swamps and turn them into bogs. And in small farm journals of the 1920s we see daily life on a Cape Cod farm, deliveries of firewood and eggs, and an evening of cards with local bird carver Elmer Crowell. And then gradually, records for the sale of lots appear as “summer people” began to trek down to the Cape.
Beyond the paper trail, the story extends into the soil, to the bones and stone tools and shell middens of Mattaquason’s people and ancestors. Here, rich details on the lives of native people and settlers can be gleaned from vital archaeological work that is just beginning on Pleasant Bay Woodlands. More will be shared on that in the future as work evolves.
What is waiting to be discovered beneath our feet is more than just artifacts. In a larger context, Pleasant Bay Woodlands, and the neighborhood surrounding it in East Harwich, hold the story of the transformation of the region from thousands of years of native occupation to the farms of European settlers. The story is ours, revealing the experience of villages and families all across the Cape. It’s a micro-history that leads to where we are today and delivers something on a personal level. By unearthing artifacts and documents we gain a sense of the people who were here, and catch glimpses into what has changed or disappeared from this landscape we occupy. It adds a dimension to our lives that helps us to grasp the passage of time. With that, we might find insight or greater appreciation for the enduring ties that bind us. Or perhaps better, a reminder that we are just stewards, or travelers, adding our own history to this place we call home.