Learning to love Cape Cod's history by writing it

I'm an artist, not a writer

By Kathryn Kleekamp

I'm an artist, not a writer, but I've always been under the impression that writing, like painting, is a very solitary process. I imagine this to be particularly true for writers of fiction who must shut themselves off from outside influences to create their imaginary worlds and dialogue.


A typical painting by MS Kleekamp is the Captain Edward Penniman House above. Penniman was one of Cape Cod's most successful whalers. He sailed the world, often taking his family with him. He was able to retire at age 53 and build his grand French Second Empire style house in Eastham on Cape Cod in 1868. Today's visitors to this historic house, now operated by the National Park Service, can still smell and taste the salt air at its stunning location on Fort Hill overlooking Nantucket Sound. See her galleries here.

So when I signed a contract with a major publisher to write my book, Cape Cod and the Islands: Where Beauty and History Meet, I expected to spend many months with my computer as only companion. I also faced an additional challenge. As one who abhorred every history class I ever had to take, could I really spend hour upon hour sifting through wordy documents, genealogical charts, town histories and the like, to create a volume that would come alive for the reader? I had an advantage of using my art to illustrate the book, 50 oil paintings done over five years, but I still needed to find a way to engage the reader's interest . . . and my own!

What I learned from undertaking the challenge of creating the book was an unexpected and delightful surprise. My research and writing world, although solitary, was not lonely. It became filled with fascinating and impressive players. Beyond dates and events, I was drawn back in time into the lives of real people . . . their dreams, struggles, and outcomes of their life decisions. Although I've visited Cape Cod over the last 30 years and have lived here since 1997, I never realized until writing the book, how significant a role this area played in our country's development. Onward from the very first settlers, the farmers, shipmasters and visionaries were individuals whose courage and persistence led to America's progress and success.

After the Mayflower dropped anchor in Provincetown Harbor, in 1620, and several expeditions had been made to explore the local area, 16 of its men boarded the ship's shallop, a small boat that can be rowed or sailed. Desperate to find a suitable place for settlement, they sailed along the northern coast of Cape Cod. In numbingly cold December weather that froze their clothing "like coats of iron," the rudder broke, the mast snapped and the sail fell overboard.

One of those explorers, William Bradford, would later write in his journal, "That which was most sad and lamentable was that in two or three months time half of the men on the shallop died." Were it not for those stalwart explorers, it's easy to imagine the entire boatload of newcomers would have perished in Provincetown.

"That which was most sad and lamentable was that in two or three months time half of the men on the shallop died."
          -William. Bradford, 1620

While those early colonists thought they discovered a new land, it was actually an ancient and sacred site. For thousands of years the Wampanoag Nation inhabited the entire southeastern Massachusetts region and parts of Rhode Island. Today's visitor to the Cape and Islands finds Wampanoag names at every turn: roads, ponds and villages . . . many exotic tongue twisters. I now have a much better appreciation of the contributions and, ultimately sacrifices, the Wampanoag tribes made enabling early settlers to survive. The affability of the natives, their hunting and farming skills, the vast acreage of woodlands they cleared, all proved invaluable to the survival of the newcomers. A letter back to England penned by Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow, related, "We have found the Indians very faithful in their covenant of peace with us, very loving and ready to pleasure us. We, for our parts, walk as peaceably and safely the wood as in the highways in England."

Cape Codders and Islanders went on to establish towns, farm the land and harvest the sea. Men such as Capt. John Sears of Dennis, who thought that he could produce salt from seawater by solar evaporation, were derided as dreamers full of folly. But he succeeded and the salt produced was invaluable for preserving fish carried to distant ports. Other visions became reality and had international significance, such as the Cape Cod Canal and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In 1903, high on the cliffs of Wellfleet, Guglielmo Marconi brought to fruition wireless communication. President Theodore Roosevelt sent well wishes 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to King Edward VII. To this last feat, we owe today's cell phones, satellite TV and iPODS.

More recent history and the fact that the Cape and Islands have become a refuge for those seeking sanctuary and untamed beauty, bring us to the writings of such authors as Henry Beston and Nan Turner Waldron. At different periods, both spent time secluded in a tiny beach cottage in Eastham that Beston built and immortalized in his 1928 literary classic, The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod. Coincidently, my own book project led me to Nan's daughter, Les Waldron, who shared her recollection of being isolated in the natural world:

"Outermost wasn't just a cottage. It had a different purpose . . . a very different reason for being. It was a courageous little safe-harbor far along a spit of sand with no electricity or amenities save hand pump and gas lights. One chose to stay there (without cell phones) knowing there was not imminent rescue or neighbor to call. The house, and its guests, endured, baked by the sun, plagued by insects, beaten by rain, ice, tides and pelting sand. It was the symbol of modest human presence slipped into the raw world of natural wonder . . . humbling to say the least."

Those last five words easily apply to the experience I had writing my book. Taking time to discover the "story" in history, I found a treasure trove of learning and enrichment. Perhaps most important was the emotional connection and appreciation I felt for others who, although distant in time and place, experienced feelings very much like my own. Leo Tolstoy once said the purpose of history is to teach nations and humanity to know themselves. I must agree.

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