Many people think the Revolution began with the shot "heard 'round
the world" fired in 1775 "at the rude bridge that arched the flood"
The seeds of the Revolution were sown 14 years earlier by a fiery
West Barnstable patriot named James Otis. One of four
representatives of Boston to the provincial General Court in 1761,
Otis proposed a meeting of the representatives of all the colonies.
This led to the Stamp Act Congress of 1765 which eliminated the
taxes on stamps and other goods. John Adams credited Otis' plea to
the General Court as "the spark by which the child Independence was
born." Three years later, after the British retaliated with the
Townshend Act, another attempt to tax the colonists, the colonial
Assembly asked the British to rescind it. When the British demand
that the Assembly rescind its plea, Otis again spoke up.
"We are asked to rescind, are we?" asked Otis. "Let Great Britain
rescind her measures, or the colonies are lost to her forever."
Unfortunately Otis was not able to appreciate the fire that his
spark ignited. The year after he spoke against the Townshend Act he
was attacked by British revenue officers and received a head wound
that caused him to lose his mind and 14 years later he was killed by
Why do we start our history of Barnstable with this story about John
Otis? Because Barnstable is still the often turbulent center for
politics on Cape Cod. It is the seat of Barnstable County's
government, the home of the Cape Cod Commission and the Cape Cod
Economic Development Council. And John Otis, though killed by a bolt
of lightning, still has a stately presence, in bronze, proclaiming
the need for liberty from the lawn in front of the Superior Court
House. But, speaking of Barnstable's legacy of turbulent politics,
regardless of Otis' fiery oratory promoting Independence, thanks to
the opposing words of Judge Nymphas Marston, of the family for which
Marstons Mills is named, Barnstable was the only town on Cape Cod
that did not vote for independence in 1776.
Actually, Barnstable's history goes back more than a century before
James Otis came upon its scene. Barnstable began early in 1639 when
Parson Joseph Hull and his small flock, apparently not wanted in
Weymouth, came to settle in the land just east of the boundaries of
Sandwich. Then, in October, that same year, the Reverend John
Lothrop arrived with a larger flock of Congregationalists. We don't
hear much more about Hull and his flock but the Lothrop settlement
immediately incorporated itself as the Town of Barnstable (named
after Barnstaple, Devon, England). The original boundaries of
Barnstable included an area called Saconesset, which, in 1686 became
incorporated and in 1693 changed its name to Falmouth.
At first the young town of Barnstable was primarily a farming
community. Then its residents branched out to include fishing and
various trades into their economy. Shore whaling became big business
with try-works on Sandy Neck and this is why pictures of Barnstable
in those days show very few trees. Most of the native forest was cut
down to provide firewood for the try-works. It is interesting to
note that whaling is once again a major factor in Barnstable's
economy. Now, however, the emphasis is not on killing whales but
watching them from the big boat that leaves from Barnstable Harbor.
[Picture on file]And the trees have grown back.
While the village of Barnstable remains the center of government for
the county of Barnstable, the commercial center of the town
gradually shifted to the village of Hyannis. Ironically, Hyannis
grew commercially, not so much of itself but because Nantucket was
the major shipping port for the area. To get Nantucket's trade to
the mainland, the Old Colony Railroad built tracks to the nearest
point to Nantucket which was the shore of Hyannis Harbor.
Hyannis is also the center of government for the town of Barnstable.
The town offices moved from the old selectmen's office on Route 149
in West Barnstable to (now an art gallery) to a new Town Hall on
Main Street, Hyannis. This building was outgrown during the 1970s
and in 1979 the former Hyannis Normal School, which was renovated
for use as the newest town hall. This beautiful three story brick
building had served over the years since the Normal School was
closed as the first home of Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the
first home of Cape Cod Community College and the sixth grade school
for the town of Barnstable. It now forms the backdrop for the
Hyannis Village Green, a popular site for town celebrations and
concerts. The Town Hall on Main Street is now the JFK Museum, a very
popular site. Another popular site is the JFK Memorial off Ocean
Street, overlooking Lewis Bay, where JFK's admonition that "It is
important that this country not lie still in the harbor" is
Many visitors who walk down the Main Street of Hyannis do not
realize how close they are to the bustling waterfront of Hyannis
Harbor. This fact is being remedied by the completion of
Barnstable's Walkway to the Sea, a project of the town, the Hyannis
Area Chamber of Commerce and the Hyannis Main Street Waterfront
Association. The harbor is home to commercial fishing vessels, the
Hy-Line boats and the Steamship Authority boats.
Each of the seven villages of Barnstable have their own character,
mostly derived from their early histories. Cotuit is a village famed
for Cotuit Oysters, a business started in 1857 by Captain William
Childs, his son and two sons-in-law, to grow oysters in the purity
and chemical content of Cotuit waters.
Marstons Mills is named after Ben Marston who, in 1738, took over
the first fulling mill in America from Thomas Macy, the man who
built it. Osterville, surrounded by water, is home to the Crosby
boat yards and has become a beautiful residential area and a
specialty shopping center.
Centerville is home to the great beaches that curve around
Centerville Harbor and to Wequaquet Lake, the largest inland body of
water on Cape Cod. It is also home to the Eastern College Athletic
Conference, diagonally across South Main Street from the famous Four
Seas Ice Cream parlor, now in its 63rd year.