Chatham, Massachusetts is located at the southeast tip of Cape Cod. If the Cape is viewed as a bent arm, Chatham is at the elbow. To the east is the Atlantic Ocean, to the South is Nantucket Sound, to the north is Pleasant Bay. The only adjacent town (located at both the north and west town line boundaries) is Harwich. Major geographical features of the Town are hilly, wooded uplands, extensive barrier beaches and spits, harbors, numerous small estuaries, and salt and freshwater ponds.
Mainland features are the result of glacial action during the last Ice Age and consist of ridges, knobs (hills), outwash plains, and kettles (depressions and ponds). Several ponds formed by melting glacial ice have become salt ponds because of rising sea levels. The Town’s coastal dunes and beaches have been formed through thousands of years of erosion of scarps (cliffs) and movement of the material from the north and west.
Strong Island in Pleasant Bay marks the Town’s northern boundary. Morris and Stage Islands mark the extent of developed area on the south. The Red River is the boundary on the west and the Muddy Creek (or Monomoy River) on the northwest. The highest point (131 feet) in Chatham is "Great Height", long a landmark for vessels offshore.
In 1606, Samuel de Champlain, the first European known to have explored the area, encountered the Monomoyicks, a Native American tribe of about 500-600 members. The topography he mapped and described is still recognizable, as are the varieties of plants, fish, shellfish, and game birds. The Monomoyicks sustained themselves with well-established farms, hunting and fishing.
The arrival of English colonists began about 1656 when William Nickerson, an English emigrant working as a land surveyor and weaver in Yarmouth on Cape Cod made the first land purchase from Sachem Mattaquason of the Monomoyicks. Nickerson failed to get permission for the purchase (a requirement at that time) from the Plymouth General Court. As a result, the Court confiscated his land except for a 100-acre Homestead. But, after 10-12 years of litigation, he regained ownership. With additional purchases he ultimately owned all of what is now Chatham with the exception of some land east of Old Harbor Road which had been reserved for the Monomoyicks. In 1664 Nickerson settled his family on the west side of Ryder’s Cove.
By the 1690’s, 17 families lived in Chatham, and that number slowly grew to 50 families in the early 1700’s while the native population dwindled to 50-70. Before being established as a Constablewick in 1696 known as "Monamoy", the settlement had belonged to Yarmouth and then Eastham. Chatham was incorporated in 1712 and quickly organized school districts and church leadership.
(In the early 1700s) "...the outlook for the place was not considered bright. It was small in area and the General Court had refused to increase its territory. According to the ideas and mode of life at that time, it could never accommodate many settlers. Moreover, its location was thought to be unfavorable, in those times when England was almost constantly at war with France, as it was considered to be peculiarly exposed on two sides to attacks from French privateers who occasionally hovered around the coast and threw the people into a panic."
-William C. Smith, A History of Chatham, Massachusetts, 1947
Chatham’s early prospects were not promising. The first 100 years of recorded history reveal a struggle to establish an economy and a stable population. Situated at the end of a primitive road from Yarmouth and surrounded by open ocean, Chatham was vulnerable. Farming yielded little beyond the needs of the residents, and fishing, the mainstay of the early economy, was often disrupted by war ships, first the French and later the British. The 1750 natural closing of the entrance to Pleasant Bay forced maritime activities farther south. The French and Indian Wars and the 1760 smallpox epidemic took both men and money. By 1765 the census listed only 678 persons in 105 families.
It wasn’t until after the Revolutionary War that Chatham stabilized and grew. Industries such as fish export, ship building and salt production brought life to the economy. Agriculture, fishing, whaling and aH maritime enterprises flourished. In 1830, during the height of salt works production, the population was 2130.
In 1851 a breach of North Beach occurred affecting the stability of the fishing trade, but fishing, ship building and salt-making still occupied most of the Town’s population. Some greater diversity of religious and cultural groups appeared in the years prior to the Civil War, and government services including post offices were upgraded. The population peaked in 1860 at 2710, but dropped to only 1300 following the Civil War.
Change to a Resort Area
In the late 1800s the growing popularity of seaside summers and the development of resorts attractive to a wealthy clientele provided a new basis for economic growth, especially after the railroad was built in 1887. The Life Saving Station, Stage Harbor Light, a local newspaper, telegraph and telephone service were added, and the first auto license was issued during this period. Coastal erosion forced the moving of the Twin Lights at James Head to the site where the Lighthouse Overlook is now located. Two new schools were needed, and the first public library was established in 1875 in South Chatham. In 1896 Marcellus Eldredge, a native son, donated Eldredge Public Library to the townspeople.
The airport was built in 1930, road service was upgraded, and automobile travel soon became common. In 1950 the summer population of 5,000 greatly outnumbered 2,457 year-round residents.
Since World War II, Chatham has experienced rapid growth and has become a popular place for retirement. Housing construction has continued steadily since the war with about 1,000 new houses built per decade. Many are second homes. Currently only about one-half of the Town’s 6300 housing units are occupied year-round; the other half are occupied seasonally. The 2010 federal census lists a population of 6,125.
Despite precarious beginnings, Chatham has developed over the years into a highly desirable place to live in or visit. Today its small-town qualities are well suited for families and retired residents. A spectacular coastline and out-of-the-way location have kept generations of summer residents coming back each year. With its old Cape Cod quaintness relieved by the vast pristine beaches and surrounding ocean, Chatham has great appeal. Visitors in July and August now number 20-25,000 annually.
The Town’s development as a high quality mecca for retirees, summer residents and tourists depended on two factors which in the early days of European settlement had been liabilities: its isolation and its exposure to the ocean. Today, Chatham prospers because of these factors and struggles to maintain its character in the face of its economic success.