History of Harwich

The history of Harwich is richly written in the sandy soils of Cape Cod and on the watery depths of the world’s oceans.

The Exchange BuildingThe town of Harwich was settled as part of the “plantation of the old-comers, or purchasers”, when the Plymouth colony relinquished its charter and was absorbed into the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Lands were purchased from the remaining Indians in several large units, which became the modern towns of Harwich, Brewster, Chatham, Orleans and Eastham.

The town of Harwich, incorporated originally in 1694, included the present day town of Brewster, known then as the north parish, which was separated from the South parish in 1803. Josiah Paine’s “History of Harwich” is a thorough treatise on the early history of Harwich, and recommended reading for a more in-depth understanding of the tensions between the two centers.

Harwich is a diverse town, consisting of several distinct villages. Each is unique in its own way, yet all share a sense of community that makes Harwich as interesting today as it was in the past.

Much of the community life in Harwich takes place in the village of Harwich Center.

The Brooks buildingFrom the earliest settlement of the South Parish, the Brooks family contributed to the identity of Harwich.

Originally Broadbrooks, the family name, was changed to Brooks by an act of the Massachusetts legislature.

On the western end of Main Street is the Brooks Academy Museum, home of the Harwich Historical Society.

On the eastern end, where many years ago the road faded to a dirt path through the woods connecting Harwich Center with the distant towns of Orleans, Chatham, and the rest of the lower cape, are the Brooks Free Library and Brooks Park. These cherished institutions remain today the bookends that make Main Street, Harwich Center, one of the most recognizable on all of Cape Cod.

From the village of West Harwich, bounded in part by the Herring River, came Caleb Chase, famous merchant and cofounder of Chase and Sanborn Coffee.

People on the beach next to the Harwichport wharf

Along the waterfront, the village of Harwich Port gained prominence as wharves were constructed far into Nantucket Sound, to allow costal trade along the shore in a town devoid of deep harbors.

South Harwich and East Harwich were somewhat more isolated and today, despite the pressures of modern development, both these villages retain their rustic, or rural charm.

South Harwich benefited, after the Civil War, from the extension of the railroad spur line from the main track traversing the Cape to the elbow town of Chatham.

Pleasant Lake also benefited from the rail road. Located on the road connecting the towns of Harwich and Brewster (route 124), Pleasant Lake lies north of the mid-cape highway.

At the turn of the 20th century, North Harwich became home to many Cape Verde people who first worked in the cranberry industry, and then became bog owners and prominent members of the Harwich community.

Painting of Pleasant Lake railroad crossing
Painting of herring fishing