Join the Ranks of the Great Explorers and Discover Rockport at the Tip of Massachusetts' "Other Cape"!

Long, long, long (did I say 'long'??) before Rockport became one of the most picturesque and quaint seaside villages in Massachusetts and easy to get to from the Hawthorne Hotel via either MBTA Commuter Rail or car, it was the destination of some of the world's greatest explorers.

Almost two decades before the Pilgrims landed on the tip of Cape Cod and eventually built Plimouth Plantation thus beginning the history of permanent European settlement in New England, the northern coast of Massachusetts was being explored by Samuel de Champlain, a French navigator, cartographer, draughtsman, soldier, explorer, geographer, ethnologist, diplomat, and chronicler who became known as "The Father of New France".

In 1605 and 1606 - a really long time ago - Champlain explored the North American coast as far south as Cape Cod searching for sites for a permanent settlement for a new French Colony. In July of 1605, that exploration brought him to the peninsula that forms the northern edge of Massachusetts Bay where Rockport is located which he named "Cap Aux Isles" - Cape of Islands - before continuing further south in his explorations after parlaying with the Agawams, the local natives who came to the rocky area to hunt, fish, and dig clams.

In 1614 - still a really long time ago! - the next explorer to come to the area was John Smith, an English soldier, explorer, and author best known for his role in establishing the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown, Virginia, as well as his brief association with the Virginia Indian girl Pocahontas. In 1614, Smith made a voyage to the coasts of Maine and Massachusetts Bay and named the region "New England". Part of his voyage brought him to the land that de Champlain had previously named Cap Aux Isles, an area that included the site of what would eventually become the Town of Rockport. Anchoring in what would later be called Sandy Bay, Captain Smith cast his eyes over the landscape before him where he saw the homes of the Agawam Indians in the distance and before him the coast which he declared to be a "fair headland...fronted by three isles."

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Either not knowing or not caring that the area had already been named once, Smith named the area “Cape Tragabigzanda” after a Greek maiden who had been kind to him in Constantinople while the Turks held him captive as a slave following a 1602 skirmish with the Ottoman Empire. The three islands off the coast of the Cape he dubbed as “Turk’s Heads” in memory of his triumph over three Turkish commanders he is reputed to have defeated, killed and beheaded in three separate duels for which he was knighted by the Transylvanian Prince Sigismund B├íthory and given a horse as well as approval to symbolize the three Turks in the Smith Family Coat of Arms.

Upon completion of his explorations, Smith presented his map of the area to Charles I of England and suggested that Charles should feel free to change any of the "barbarous names" (meaning the many Native American names) for English ones instead. King Charles did just that making many such changes, only four of which survive today including the change from Cape Tragabigzanda to Cape Ann, which Charles named in honor of his mother, Anne of Denmark, the queen consort of Scotland, England, and Ireland as the wife of James VI and I. The three islands that lie off the coast of Rockport which Smith named the "Turk's Heads" eventually became known as Straitsmouth Island, Thacher Island, and Milk Island.

The first white settlers to the area, Richard Tarr along with his wife and two children, moved from Marblehead and made Sandy Bay their home in 1690 where they lived pretty much by themselves for ten years until John Pool along with his wife Sarah and their five children left Beverly to also move to the tip of the Cape Ann peninsula. Even though Richard Tarr may have thought, "there goes the neighborhood", for more than 100 years Sandy Bay was primarily an uninhabited part of the Town of Gloucester which was one of the first English settlements in what would become the Massachusetts Bay Colony; founded in 1623, Gloucester predates both Salem in 1626 and Boston in 1630 but we'll get to Gloucester another time as right now we're talking about the area that eventually became Rockport!

Located directly east of Gloucester and surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic Ocean, the Sandy Bay area was primarily used as a source of timber - especially pine used for shipbuilding as well as the timber used to build Long Wharf in Boston. The waters around Cape Ann were also one of the best fishing grounds in New England so as such, fishing also became a big local industry. For those purposes, in 1743 a dock was built at Rockport Harbor on Sandy Bay which was used for both the shipping of timber and the business of fishing.

By the beginning of the 19th century a major change came to the small fishing village when the first granite quarries were developed; by the 1830s, the high quality granite that was in abundance in the area was being shipped to cities and towns throughout the East Coast of the United States. Located directly on the ocean, the transportation of the granite was easier than from an inland location and Sandy Bay began furnishing most of the country's granite while the town's inhabitants became known as the "quarry people." Granite from the area was used in the Custom House Tower in Boston, said to be the tallest building in the country without a steel frame, as well as in the locks of the Panama Canal. After 1900 use of newer construction materials like concrete caused the granite industry to die out but that's a story for another post.

While Gloucester became increasingly urbanized, the area of Granitetown as it was increasingly called, consisted mostly of large estates, summer homes, and a small fishing village. In 1840, with a population of nearly eighteen hundred, over four-score fishing schooners and coasting vessels, several churches and schoolhouses, and an established post office, its residents desired a separate enclave with an identity all its own. A petition was made, the area was set off as a separate town from Gloucester, and Sandy Bay was officially renamed as Rockport following a vote by the citizens whose choices were East Gloucester, Granite, Brest, Cape Ann and Rockport. Thus the Town of Rockport came into existence 235 years after Samuel de Champlain first passed through on his explorations and watched the natives dance.

Being an extremely picturesque area, it was around that same time that artists came to Rockport to paint not only the red fishing shack on Bradley Wharf that became known as Motif #1, but also of the fishermen working on their vessels and the quarrymen cutting and moving granite. Drawn to the area because of its rocky, boulder-strewn ocean beaches, its quaint fishing shacks, a harbor filled with small, colorful fishing boats, and that uncommonly magical light that has inspired painters for years, the area that was known primarily for its granite and fishing also became known as an Artists' Colony. No one is certain who the first painter was to discover this special place, but as word of mouth got out, by 1900 many artists were arranging to spend their summers in studios on Bearskin Neck. Artists such as Winslow Homer, Frederick Childe Hassam, Fitz Hugh Lane, Edward Hopper, and John Marin are just some of the many that made their way to Rockport.

One of those artists to come to Rockport was Aldro Thompson Hibbard, a prominent American plein air (open air) painter who was born in Falmouth on Cape Cod but who lived most of his life in Rockport.  In town merely a year, on July 22, 1921, Hibbarb, who became known as the "Painter of New England Winters", and a small group of artists who were attracted by the beauty and hospitality of the town, founded the Rockport Art Association in his studio as an artist cooperative and social gathering place for artists and art lovers.

On July 12, 1929 the Rockport Art Association moved into its permanent home at The Old Tavern Building located on 12 Main Street. Built in 1787, the building was originally a sea captain’s house and over the years also saw use as an inn, a tavern and a stage coach stop. With a current membership of approximately 250 artist and photography members which are selected through a jury process and 800 contributing members, the Rockport Art Association is one of Cape Ann’s most prominent cultural beacons as one of the oldest and most active art organizations in the country with a long and distinguished history that has spanned over 90 years. For information on the RAA's hours of operation and a schedule of upcoming exhibits which are always free to the public, be sure to check their website where they also have a calendar listing upcoming demonstrations.

Just down Main Street a short walk from the Rockport Art Association is Bearskin Neck, a small neck of land that juts out of the town center into Rockport Harbor. Though there's a historical marker that was erected in 1930 with one story, there are several legends as to how the Neck got its name. The first is that the small peninsula is so-named for menacing bears that early settlers routed onto the neck and hunted while a second says it is so named because a bear reportedly got caught in the tide during a storm and washed up on the rocks; after John Babson found the bear, skinned it and laid its skin out to dry on the rocks at the end of the neck, fishermen who saw it gave the area its name. Still another has it that in Revolutionary days one Henry Witham, then quite an old man, was attacked by a bear upon this shore. Having no gun, he stepped into the water and gave battle to the bear with his knife, killing him and spreading his skin to dry upon the rocks. No matter which story is correct, though, Bearskin Neck is definitely the epi-center of the downtown area and as a major attraction for tourists not to be missed!

Once a very busy commercial dock area during Rockport's early heyday of fishing and the granite industries, the tip of Bearskin Neck actually housed a fort during the War of 1812 which was built with the cost being borne by public subscription as protection against attack by English privateers. The fort was manned by the Sea Fencibles who were members of the Sandy Bay Militia, a locally-sponsored home guard for coastal defense established during the War of 1812. Built of stone, the fort was of a formidable appearance and was mounted with several cannon looking to all the world like a government fort to British ships passing by which apparently made it just too tempting of a target to pass up.

The old stone fort is no longer there; instead in its place stands a nice piece of rental property which was originally a historic transit tower that was erected in 1892. The building is adorned with several signs to commemorate the fort that stood there while down at the beginning of Bearskin Neck is a building that was constructed in 1804 and was the barracks of the Sea Fencibles in 1812.

After midnight on September 9th, 1814, the HMS Frigate Nymphe landed a party of twenty men in barges nearby the fort taking the nine Sea Fencibles inside as prisoners then spiking the cannon while the watchman slept. During the encounter one of the barges fired at a sloop's mast which alerted the citizenry of the town to the attack as the church bell in the 1803 First Congregational Church rang out an alarm. The barge fired another shot which lodged in one of the steeple posts but the discharge from the shot opened a seam in the bow of the barge and it began to sink. When the crew was forced to pull ashore, thirteen of them were taken prisoner by the townsmen who hurled rocks at them using their stockings as slings. To this day the church belfry is frequently called "Old Sloop" and "Tell-Tale" by the locals familiar with the story of the failed attack. If you look closely, you can still see the small cannonball embedded in the church's steeple.

Inscription reads:  "This British carronade was captured during the repulse at Sandy Bay of a landing party from His Majesty's frigate Nymphe in the early morning of September 9, 1814"

Today the Neck is known for its artists who set up their quaint little shops in the fishermen's shacks of the past mixed in with a number of specialty shops and restaurants that line its narrow roads. Visitors who continue out past the shops to the rocky end of the Bearskin Neck jetty are afforded a fine view of both Sandy Bay and the Town of Rockport as well as a great view of the rear of Motif #1 from behind the Rockport Fudgery where you can watch Fudgemasters practice their candy-making craft as they pour fresh cream, milk and pure cane sugar into giant steam kettles. Once the proper temperature is attained, the batch is poured into large copper kettles to begin the cooling process then Fudgemasters hand-whip the mixture with wooden paddles to achieve a smooth and creamy texture adding nuts, flavorings and mix-ins. When the mixture suddenly changes color and consistency, the extra creamy fudge is poured into fudge pans to cool on the Fudgery's marble tables to await selection. If fudge isn't your thing - though it may very well be once you get a taste of it! - you can step into the back area of the shop to purchase a handmade chocolate turtle or an elephant ear pastry which is not inappropriately named at all as they're huge!

As for the history of Motif #1, a favorite subject of painters and photographers alike due to the composition and lighting of its location as well as being a symbol of New England maritime life, the original dark red fishing shack was built in 1884 and had to be rebuilt several times due to the ravages of weather along the coast. In the 1930s, painter John Buckley used the shack as his studio before selling it to the town in 1945 which dedicated it "... as a monument to Rockporters who had served in the Armed Services." During the Blizzard of '78 the shack was destroyed when it was knocked into the harbor but the town wasted no time and built an exact replica that same year. Sticklers for detail call the fishing shack Motif #2 as the original building was destroyed but most everyone else still calls it Motif #1.

No longer in service as a fishing shack, the building has been retained by the town as one of the most recognized symbols of New England. Recognizing its iconic value, the Town of Rockport has taken pains to preserve both its structure and appearance including finding a red paint which appears weather-beaten even when new and keeping the area clear of overhead wires, traffic signs and advertising. The old fishing shack, which has been used to market Rockport for a century including on a big sign leading into town that is displayed at the beginning of this post, was featured on the Massachusetts stamp in 2002 as part of the "Greetings from America" postage stamp set and also had a starring role in Sandra Bullock's hit movie, "The Proposal" in which it was decorated with a sign touting the film's setting of Sitka, Alaska.

According to a story in John Cooley's "Rockport Sketch Book", the building received its name in an impulsive exclamation by Lester Hornby, an illustrator and etcher who lived in Rockport with his wife until his death in 1956. According to Cooley, Hornby, who taught in Paris in the winter and during the summers in Rockport, named the venerable old fishing shack in the following manner:
"He (Lester Hornby) had taught in Paris, where his student's assignments included drawing standard subjects, or motifs. At his Rockport School he used the same method, with the result that many pupils, walking out of their classroom, saw the ancient fish house and drew it. One day Hornby, confronted with a new likeness of his architectural neighbor, knew that he couldn't face another. "No, no, no!" he exclaimed. "Not Motif No. 1 again!" It's been that ever since."

As you can see, everyone - including Nathaniel - likes to have their picture taken with Motif No. 1 - even if it's not the Motif No. 1!

Speaking of Nathaniel liking to have his picture taken, he did just that when we came across this cannon from the USS Constitution that was presented to the Sandy Bay Historical Society by the family of Rockport's first settler, Richard Tarr.

The cannon, which saw action on board the USS Constitution during the War of 1812, was originally placed on the T-Wharf overlooking Rockport Harbor but now resides on the grounds of the Rockport Community House at 58 Broadway.

For more to see and do when visiting the quaintest seaside village in all of New England, be sure to read the posts that follow about Rockport including those about Halibut Point State Park and the Babson Farm Quarry as well as about a house made completely of paper!

Copyright © - Travels With Nathaniel/Linda Orlomoski/Hawthorne Hotel. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Travels With Nathaniel/Linda Orlomoski/Hawthorne Hotel is strictly prohibited.


  1. Already looking forward to the next posts :)

    Loved learning about Cape Ann, especially the Pocohontas/John Smith connection! Very interesting.

    I can also see why artists/photographers flock there!

  2. Wow you really make a person want to visit Rockport and its environs. It all looks so quaint and so well-kept.

    Beautiful scenery, especially Motif #1 and the waterfront.

    You do know that the War of 1812 hero Commodore Isaac Hull was born in Derby, right? ;-)

    Never heard the term Fudgery but I do like it.

    Another interesting post, Linda!


Thank you for your feedback; it is greatly appreciated!
~ Nathaniel and Linda