Wednesday, July 15, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Samuel de Champlain and Port Fortune

     “What’s in a name?”

     It is part of a famous quote from legendary scribe William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Every person, place, and thing has a name that becomes synonymous with them. In most cases when something is named that name remains unchanged through time. Cape Cod gained its name in 1602 through English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold. It has remained unchanged for more than four centuries.

    Village names on the Cape came as communities were established, mostly based upon English towns. Sandwich, Yarmouth, Falmouth, and others were named for places across the Atlantic.

     It is a rarity that a town changes its name once it has been decided upon. There have been some examples like when Hot Springs, New Mexico became Truth Or Consequences after the game show, or when Clark, Texas became DISH after the satellite television company. One change of interest locally came in 1997 when the town of Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard was changed to Aquinnah. Another name change was bandied about on Cape Cod that not many may be aware of. It was a name given to a Cape Cod town by another famed explorer. This is the story of that explorer and his journey to the Cape.

     Only a few years after Gosnold explored and gave Cape Cod its name another world famous explorer found his way to the peninsula. French explorer Samuel de Champlain made at least 21 voyages across the Atlantic Ocean to North America beginning in 1599. His first voyage was to check on the colonies in the West Indies (Caribbean) for the Spanish government. His second trip in 1603 led Champlain to present-day Nova Scotia and the St. Lawrence River in Canada. It was his third New World trip in 1604 which led him to Cape Cod for the first time.

    After beginning the exploration of North America once again in Nova Scotia the expedition of three ships, including Champlain’s ship Don de Dieu, began venturing south. In the spring of 1605, after enduring a harsh Canadian winter, Champlain and the rest of the expedition headed south, mapping the coastlines of Maine, New Hampshire, and into Massachusetts. The venture was to find a suitable location for a French settlement.

     The initial contact with Cape Cod for Champlain occurred as he landed in present-day Eastham. He likely sailed into Pleasant Bay and could have landed between the location of the Salt Pond Visitors Center and Fort Hill. The stay was very brief and Champlain’s crew returned north. Ultimately a settlement was established near the mouth of the Annapolis River in Nova Scotia at the end of the summer of 1605. It was named Port Royal and became the home base for further exploration of the North American coastline.

    A voyage south to Florida in the spring of 1606 failed due to weather and lack of supplies among other things. The next trip returned Champlain to Cape Cod in the fall of 1606. It was this time that he became the first European to visit what is today known as Chatham.

Champlain's Map of Stage Harbor with Harding's Beach Point along the bottom.

     In October 1606 Champlain first returned to Eastham and was greeted in a friendly manner from the Natives. After a short visit they continued south and were nearly wrecked on the shoals surrounding Monomoy Island. Eventually they entered present-day Stage Harbor and docked. Champlain would sketch out the area and even dubbed it initially ‘Port Fortune.’

     The crew stayed on shore with the Natives for more than a week. It was initially a pleasant stay but eventually turned hostile as the Natives felt the French had overstayed their welcome. An early morning attack by the Natives on their last day at Port Fortune left four of Champlain’s crew dead and the rest of them lucky to escape the bloody skirmish. Later on Port Fortune would be referred to as ‘Misfortune’ due to this event.

Present-day view of Stage Harbor with Harding's Beach Point along the bottom. (Google Maps)

     The expedition continued on southwesterly until they gained sight of Martha’s Vineyard on October 20, 1606, although Champlain was not certain if this was part of mainland Cape Cod. A strong storm forced the ship to turn back and reluctantly dock in Stage Harbor again. It was here while awaiting favorable winds that Champlain’s crew enacted revenge on the Natives killing several of them while under the guise of friendship. 

     Once the weather was up to par the expedition left Stage Harbor and, except for a brief return to Eastham on the way back to Port Royal, would never see Cape Cod again. Champlain became the first European to visit Chatham and no other would step foot there for fifty years until William Nickerson arrived in 1656.

    Samuel de Champlain died on Christmas Day in 1635 in Quebec City. He had returned there in 1633 and acted as governor until his death. His legacy was as the ‘Father of New France’ for his cartography of much of the eastern coast from Nova Scotia to Cape Cod and his establishment of Quebec in Canada. However Champlain’s connection to Cape Cod came back to the forefront three centuries after his death.

     In 1937 the Port Fortune Society was formed with the intention of changing the name of Chatham to the name originally given to the land by Champlain upon his arrival. The idea for the change came from the minds of two people. There was Chatham artist Harold Dunbar who thought the name change would be a way to honor Champlain as the ‘grandfather of our country.’ The second was retired Professor Carol Wight of Johns Hopkins University who did not see the appeal in honoring William Pitt the English Earl of Chatham who never stepped foot on the land.

     Their cause was championed by Ben Adams Buck who was president of the Port Fortune Society, a lifelong Chatham resident and Cape Cod historian. In April 1937 the group’s intentions were declared in a long newspaper article. Though initially making waves with its declaration nothing came of the name change attempt and the Port Fortune Society became a mere footnote in Cape Cod history.
The Champlain stone marker near Stage Harbor.

     In the end the Port Fortune name did end up being a part of Chatham. There was the seasonal restaurant and lodge on the corner of Main Street and Hallett Street called The Port Fortune. It started as a restaurant in the 1930’s and later became a bed and breakfast called the Port Fortune Inn. This existed until just after the turn of the 21st century when it became a private home.
Samuel de Champlain’s connection to the Cape today still remains.

     Though unsuccessful at changing the name of Chatham to Port Fortune Carol Wight succeeded in having a stone marker commemorating Champlain’s Cape Cod visits created near Stage Harbor in the 1930’s. Champlain’s detailed map of Stage Harbor can still be viewed and some fixtures of Chatham’s landscape like Mill Pond and Oyster Pond can be made out in the sketches.

My first eBook in 10 years, In Their Footsteps, featuring the interesting stories of Cape Cod's history, is on sale at

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