The earliest Cape Cod towns to be settled following the one month visit by the Pilgrims in 1620 were Sandwich (1639), Barnstable (1639), and Yarmouth (1639). All three towns are located on the bay shore of Cape Cod in what is called the Upper Cape. The first Lower Cape or Outer Cape (Atlanticfacing) town to be settled was Eastham (1644, incorporated 1651), followed by Truro (1703). Wellfleet Village was a part of Eastham from the mid1600s until 1763, when the town of Wellfleet was incorporated separately. Prior to this date, it was called the north precinct of Eastham. The first settlers of Wellfleet lived in upland areas cleared in the pitch pine scrub oak or broad-leaved forests, or they were a part of a small community of houses, stores, school and lighthouse on the island of Billingsgate at the southern end of Wellfleet Harbor. Early maps of Wellfleet show that Billingsgate was at the southern end of a series of islands - Bound Brook, Griffin, Great, Great Beach Hill, and Little Beach Hill islands - connected at various times by salt marshes and sand bars, including Jeremy Point. The Billingsgate settlement was abandoned by the mid1800s as eroding waters of Cape Cod Bay and Wellfleet Harbor wore down its uplands and reduced it to a remnant sandbar, now visible only at low tide.
In the early 1830s, the main Wellfleet settlement shifted from Billingsgate to the mainland, Wellfleet Village. The Village centers on Commercial Street, which runs along Duck Creek and Wellfleet Harbor to Mayo Beach, and Main Street, where the center of social life is found today. Commercial Street has changed substantially over the past 160 years, but a few of its original structures remain, including Simeon Atwood’s hardware store (now a gift shop), several other stores (now mostly art galleries), and homes (see maps of Wellfleet). Duck Creek is a small tidal creek to the north and east of Wellfleet Harbor, separated from it by Shirttail Point. Prior to 1870, the creek had a fairly wide opening to the harbor, and it flowed a circuitous path north through extensive marshland to surrounding uplands. In the 19th century, the construction of Route 6 through Wellfleet cut off the northernmost portions of the creek. The 1870 construction of a railroad trestle across the southern mouth of the creek narrowed this opening to Wellfleet Harbor substantially. As a result, the hydrology of Duck Creek was severely altered, and silts and sediments which previously had been washed out of the creek by twiceaday tidal action were deposited within the limits of the creek, a process which continues today.
Over the last 120 years the water depth inside Duck Creek has been reduced from the 1015 feet available to large sailing ships at high tide to today’s maximum 712 feet at high tide. Mud deposits 23 feet thick have developed throughout the creek. As the 1870 trestle prevented ships from entering Duck Creek, requiring them instead to discharge or pick up cargoes at Commercial and Mercantile Wharfs in Wellfleet Harbor, the loss of water depth in Duck Creek was of little consequence. The mud which has accumulated in the creek serves to trap any humanmade objects which have been thrown or dropped into the water, locking them in place near where they were originally deposited. My archaeological work in the mudflats, begun in 1970, focuses on the recovery of any artifacts from late 18th and 19th century life in Wellfleet. Digging by hand in thick mud deposits, I slowly move through a chosen area and remove any glass, earthenwares, metal work, or leather that is exposed to view. The process is very labor intensive, but each day’s work turns up an abundance of artifacts. I dig in the mud 1020 times a year, mostly during the summer, spending two to three hours at a time before running out of energy. Because the objects do go through some translocation in the mud from continual tidal action, there is little stratigraphic layering of objects at this site. The mud serves as a slowmoving soup which turns over objects and brings some of them to the surface from year to year. Other artifacts, trapped deeper in mud deposits, are found only by digging down to the sandy substrate which underlies all of Duck Creek.
A series of wharves used to jut in from the edges of Duck Creek in the 19th century, and artifacts are concentrated around the remnant pilings of these wharves. The richest deposits of artifacts, however, are found below Uncle Tim’s Bridge, a foot bridge which has connected Commercial Street to Cannon Hill and Route 6 since at least 1844. The house once lived in by Tim Daniels (1807-1893) is located on Commercial Street just opposite the foot bridge which bears his name. Daniels used to operate a ship chandlery business at the head of the bridge. A few wooden pilings jut out of the sand and mud to mark the location of the two chandlery buildings that once stood here (see early photographs).
I believe that the material trapped in Duck Creek mudflats originated as the trash of homes located along Commercial Street, as well as from the commercial buildings on the street and from seagoing ships tied up at wharves in the creek. The artifacts thus reflect the domestic and commercial life of Wellfleet Village for a period of two hundred years. For this study I have identified a small number of decorative objects and devices which will form the material culture basis of the unit. One object, a brass box iron, has been used in the seminar for an in-depth examination of an object, using the methodology developed by Jules Prown. I suggest ways in which students can conduct similar studies of additional artifacts from the Duck Creek site, as they consider changing technologies and technological devices. These study objects include a pewter rat tail spoon, a redware milk pan, a brass candle holder, a brass harbor telescope, two Sandwich Glass whale oil lamps, a whaling harpoon and a blubber flenzing tool, a wrought iron eel spear, a Staffordshire ironstone water pitcher, a collection of medicinal bottles, souvenir cups and plates, and children’s play things (a bisque doll’s head and doll chinaware).