The Land Called Nauset
As an English colonial settlement, the land that became Orleans had its roots in the Mayflower landing of 1620 and the establishment of Plymouth Colony. From the beginning of the settlement, the colonists that settled in Plymouth were concerned about the suitability of the location for the long-term sustainability of their town. The land was not ideal, being sandy and rocky, and the demand for land forced some colonists to leave and form new towns. Duxbury was the first of these, and they attracted such notables as Myles Standish, John Alden, and Elder William Brewster to leave. By 1643, Plymouth was still the largest town in the colony with 147 men aged sixteen to sixty, but seven other settlements had grown sufficiently to be called towns.
In 1644, serious consideration was given to moving the Town of Plymouth altogether. Dissatisfaction with the location continued, with Governor Bradford writing of “the straightness and barrenness of the land” and commenting on the desire of many of the colonists to find a better location. Meetings were held, and attention was given to Nauset at the elbow of Cape Cod, one of the three areas that had been reserved to the purchasers. A committee, led by past and future governor Thomas Prence, was sent to Nauset to evaluate the possibility of moving the town of Plymouth there.
The colonists had visited Nauset and had some familiarity with it. During the summer of 1621, they sent a party to recover a wayward boy who had wandered off from Plymouth. During this visit, they entered into a peace agreement with Aspinet, Sachem of the Nauset Tribe, and also made arrangements to repay the corn that they stole during the winter of 1620. In 1626, they returned to recover the passengers of the Sparrow-hawk, which had wrecked off of Pleasant Bay.
The committee’s report determined that Nauset was too small and remote to accommodate the entire town of Plymouth, but it was decided to establish a settlement there. Seven freemen and their families, a total of forty-nine people, set out to form the new settlement that they called Nauset. The seven freemen were Thomas Prence, Deacon John Doane, Edward Bangs, Richard Higgins, Nicholas Snow, John Smalley, and Josias Cook. Nicholas Snow and his wife, Constance Hopkins Snow (a Mayflower passenger) were granted the southernmost tract of land that ultimately became Orleans 153 years later. Their land grant, like the other six, ran from the bay to the ocean and was called Namskaket, a name which prevails today. Thus, the Snows’ can be considered the first colonial residents of the land that became Orleans.
Namskaket was purchased from Mattaquason, Sachem of the Monomoyick tribe, and the remainder of the land, from Pochet north was purchased from George, Sachem of the Nauset tribe and successor to Aspinet. Pochet Island was excluded from the purchase, and a strip of land by the harbor at the east side of the tract was reserved for the Nausets to grow corn and harvest shellfish. This arrangement continued for decades, and the land is now called Nauset Heights in Orleans.
One of the first tasks of the new settlers of Nauset was to establish a church. A small meetinghouse was built on the north side of Town Cove and the church was up and running quickly. They were not able to support a regular minister and appointed lay teachers to oversee religious matters for the first two decades. Today’s Federated Church in East Orleans is the direct descendent of this first congregation, and timbers from the original meetinghouse were used in the construction of a home on Canal Rd that still stands today.
The settlement became the Town of Nauset, and the first Town Meeting was held in 1646. Nicholas Snow was one of the first officers elected in the new town. In 1651, the name of the town was changed to Eastham.