A Deep Dive Into Orleans’ Native American History

by Ryan Bray
The Peck property in Orleans was the site of a recent archeological survey that has helped shed more light on the town’s Native American origins.  RYAN BRAY PHOTO The Peck property in Orleans was the site of a recent archeological survey that has helped shed more light on the town’s Native American origins. RYAN BRAY PHOTO

ORLEANS – Located off of Areys Pond, the Peck property is a popular spot for walkers, hikers and nature enthusiasts. But to the Orleans historical commission, the property had something more to offer beyond passive recreation. There was reason to believe the 10-acre conservation parcel could reveal something about the town’s Indigenous history.

The commission recently completed an archeological survey of the property and surrounding land within a one-mile radius, the findings of which provide more insight into the land’s Native American history that predates the first European settlers by thousands of years.

“In the last couple of years, we’ve been talking about how the Native American history of Orleans is pretty neglected and is not well known,” said commission member Ed Marcarelli. “There’s a lot that’s known about the contact period, but there’s not really a lot that’s known before that.”

The commission secured $7,500 in Community Preservation Act funds in May 2023 to conduct a “reconnaissance survey” with the help of Hyannis-based archeologist Dan Zoto. Marcarelli said the survey was conducted in such a way as to limit the amount of physical disturbance to the property, which has been under the stewardship of the Orleans Conservation Trust since 2006.

‘It’s very non-intrusive,” he said of the survey. “You can do some poking with this instrument that lets you stick it into the soil, but for the most part you’re looking around at the surface trying to understand what was there.”

The historical commission settled on studying the Peck property because it has never been developed. But through the survey, the commission found that a number of what Maracrelli called “amateur archeologists” had made past attempts at studying and digging into the land to see what they could find. Old tools, notes and other left-behind items were found during the most recent survey, he said.

“There’s a hiking trail around [the property], but to actually go through it…you wouldn’t expect people would get in there with shovels and rakes and go looking for things,” Marcarelli said.

The commission’s landing page on the town website includes an overview of the survey’s findings. The area of Areys Pond was the site of a Portanumicut Indian Village in the 17th and 18th centuries. But the area’s Native American roots go back much farther, the survey found. Shells, burials and wigwam and wetu sites identified during the survey show evidence of Native American life dating back as far as the Late Archaic period 3,000 to 6,000 years ago. There was also evidence from the later Woodland period (500 to 3,000 years ago) and the point of first contact by English colonists.

“Collectively, they demonstrate a continuous use of the estuary by Native Peoples for at least the last 4,000 years,” an overview of the survey reads.

The survey also shed some light on how the area’s Native Americans evolved into more sedentary communities from their origins as hunters and gatherers.

“One of the things that allowed people to be more sedentary was the abundance of the shellfish,” Marcarelli said. “The ability to have that food source right there led it to become more of a sedentary dining community.”

In a statement, the commission said that “project materials” found through the Peck property survey will be donated to the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster. With the survey complete, the commission is now turning its focus toward public education. Marcarelli said that could take different forms, be it through a podcast or in-person presentations at venues such as the Snow Library.

"We are excited by the results of this project and gratified by the amount of interest it has drawn from those we have discussed it with,” Ron Petersen, who chairs the historical commission, said in the statement. “We look forward to making this important but often neglected aspect of Orleans history accessible to a wider audience.”

The commission’s work to better educate people on Orleans’ vast Indigenous history that long predates the arrival of the first English settlers dovetails with others being made to similarly recognize the town’s Native American culture. In October, an article passed at the special town meeting committing $15,000 to start the process of improving education and outreach about the town’s Native history, possibly with the help of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and other Indigenous groups.

“We don’t want the history to start at when the colonists arrived,” Marcarelli said. “We want to show a certain amount of respect and understand that that’s not where the world began. This is definitely our way of saying we want to pay that kind of respect to the people that were here.”

But the commission’s work isn’t done. The group has applied for an additional $25,000 in Community Preservation Act funds for the upcoming May 13 annual town meeting. That request has been supported by the community preservation committee and will appear on the town meeting warrant.

Specifically, Marcarelli said a similar reconnaissance survey will be conducted on town property in East Orleans, which he said is known to have once been a “thriving, fairly densely populated Native American community.”

“I don’t know where we’ll go after that,” Marcarelli said, noting that plans to survey more land in town could evolve with time. In its posting of the survey’s findings, the commission described the survey work as a “multi-year effort.”

Email Ryan Bray at ryan@capecodchronicle.com