Although cooler fall weather sees a decrease in Cape Cod’s crowds, summer visitors confronted space congested with the peoples of the world. Tourists from England, Germany, Canada, and Scandinavia rubbed shoulders with doctors and lawyers from cities across the nation, while locals complained about offshore recreators upon whom many depend for their economy. The peoples of Cape Cod have changed significantly over the last 350 years and the diversity of its population has also shifted with time.
The arrival of European settlers on the Cape in the middle of the seventeenth century proved disastrous for the local population of Native Americans. But during the period between 1630 and 1690 Cape Cod was a place of diverse peoples and cultures. Sadly war, disease, and shifting control of natural resources from Native people to whites ended this diversity of peoples. Increasingly for the next hundred years Cape Cod became a place of whites of moderate means. That population slowly began to change at the end of the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century. The labor needs of the whaling and fishing industry brought a new diversity to many Cape towns, particularly Falmouth and Provincetown, as sailors and whalers from Spain, Italy, the Azores, and the South Pacific came to call Cape towns their home and brought over other family members.
The Cape’s population and its diversity declined in the second half of the nineteenth century with the shrinking of its economy as fishing, farming, and related industries fell on hard times. At the turn of the twentieth century newcomers looked to the Cape as a place to recreate. These visitors to the Cape came mostly from the world of privilege and reflected the racial and ethnic background of that world: white, mostly protestant, of Western European stock. Ethnically they differed little from most Cape Codders, but socially and economically they were very different.
The automobile, state highways, and the increased prosperity of the post-war period brought a new wave of visitors and settlers to the Cape. These were mostly of the middle classes, and they reflected the general ethnic mix of the middle-class of mid-century America. It was during this period when Cape Cod became the iconic American beach vacation spot, as well as a home for retirees. It was a mostly white and ethnically and socially diverse population of vacationers mixing with permanent residents of retirees, fishermen, and those who worked within or supporting the tourist industry.
The Cape’s success as a vacation destination has increasingly put pressure on the social diversity of its population. Land values and subsequently housing prices have soared beyond the means of the middle class. Those working on the Cape are having a harder and harder time finding housing. Middle and working class retirees can no longer find affordable retirement cottages. The Cape’s population is shifting again. This time it is shifting away not from ethnic diversity, but rather from social diversity. How the Cape deals with this is a major concern for towns across Cape Cod.
John T. Cumbler is professor of history at the University of Louisville and spends half of the year in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. He is the author of numerous books, including Cape Cod: An Environmental History of a Fragile Ecosystem (UMass Press, 2014).