Before Provincetown, there were the Province Lands, America’s first great tract of public land, a fitting 17th-century precursor to the Cape Cod National Seashore, into which the Province Lands State Reservation was merged in 1963.
Plymouth Colony held title to the cape tip under a 1630 patent. The land was purchased from the native inhabitants and “assigned for the Collonies use for ffishing Improvements.” In 1692, Plymouth Colony was subsumed into the Province of Massachusetts Bay and the common acreage came to be called the Province Lands. As such, it passed into the hands of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
The minor detail that the state held title to the land underneath them didn’t deter the fine people of Provincetown (established within the Province Lands in 1727) from occupying and conveying properties. The state periodically reasserted its claim, declaring in 1854 that “no adverse possession or occupation … shall be sufficient to defeat or divert the title of the Commonwealth.” Such measures didn’t clear up the confusion but did aggravate despoliation of the unsettled areas of the Province Lands, since no one knew who was responsible for what.
Reality on the ground was at last codified in the Statutes of 1893, Chapter 470. This effectively split Provincetown from the 3,200-acre area north and west of the town, which remained Province Lands. Private ownership was preserved of the “Great Lots” in the East End; spaghetti-thin parcels that stretched from harbor to ocean along a 25-degree, north-northwesterly angle.
(An enduring remnant of all this legal confusion is the fact that Provincetown property deeds — down to the present day — are typically of the quitclaim type, in which sellers formally relinquish their own claims to a property without expressly warranting that the title is clean and quiet.)
During the planning of the National Seashore in the late 1950s and early ’60s, builders and business leaders, supported by the town manager, Walter E. Lawrence, made a concerted run at the Province Lands. They wanted the state to transfer much of the public acreage to the town, rather than to the federal government. The town would then carve those lands up into development parcels. For instance, the architects Shurcliff & Merrill drew up a plan calling for 417 house lots, a shopping center, a golf course, five motels, parking, and a bath house on Clapps Pond, which would be dredged and made into a swimming and boating area.
Ross Moffett and Josephine Del Deo led the opposition. They had an ally in the White House, which said in February 1961 that President John F. Kennedy hoped the Province Lands could “be preserved for the future in their natural state.” A month later, at Town Meeting, the voters said no to any plans compromising the Province Lands, which were conveyed intact to the United States in April 1963. The National Seashore was dedicated in May 1966. Construction in the Province Lands since then has largely been in the service of parkgoers. ¶ Updated 2013-11-01