The town at the elbow of Cape Cod was originally known as Monomoyick, named after the Native American tribe prevalent in these parts. In October 1606, when the French explorer Samuel de Champlain and his party arrived, the French sailors famously skirmished with the initially-friendly natives at the place later known as Port Fortune, now Stage Harbor. Champlain decided to depart the area but as a cartographer, he left valuable maps to posterity.
In 1603 or 1604, William Nickerson, destined to become “the Father of Chatham,” was born in England. William married Anne Busby, a woman about five years his junior, in 1627. While living in Norwich they had four children. A weaver by trade, Nickerson and his family set sail from Norwich, England on April 15, 1637, to avoid religious persecution. The six Nickersons and Anne’s parents boarded either the Rose or the John and Dorothy—the two ships were captained by a father/son team—and headed to Salem, landing on June 20. Five more children were born while the family lived in various places in the Boston area. By 1640 William and Anne found themselves in Yarmouth, among the town’s first settlers. And then in 1656 William made his fateful purchase of 1000 acres, or four square miles of Monomoit, from the sachem Mattaquason.
For this William paid a shallop, ten coats, six kettles, twelve axes, twelve hoes, twelve knives, forty shillings in wampum, a hat and twelve shillings in coins. But William failed to gain the consent of the colonial authorities in Plimoth Colony for his real estate transaction and so entered into sixteen years of wrangling with the Crown, finally settling the matter in 1672 for ninety pounds.
When William first arrived in what would become Chatham, “forests of huge oaks and pines adorned the hills now bare and infertile, while the swamps, now cleared for the cranberry, were almost impenetrable thickets, out of which rose a rich growth of towering cedar.” Settlers soon managed to deforest most of the pine, oak and cedar trees to feed their need for housing logs and fuel. Early on, erosion caused by the fierce ocean winds became a concern. In about 1664 Nickerson built his homestead near the head of Ryder’s Cove. Anne was in her mid-50s while William was about 60. William deeded land to his grown children and they, too, settled with their spouses and families in low-roofed cottages insulated with dried seaweed in the area around Ryder’s Cove.
For the next twenty-five years, the Nickersons settled down to farming and shellfishing, and Chatham was “but little more than a Nickerson neighborhood,” William Smith tells us in his History of Chatham.
Smith’s History tells the story of a small band of hardy souls who persevered against extreme hardship to thrive. They fought the climate and disease, but they were for the most part fortunate, as Smith does not record violence between the settlers and the local natives.
William had lofty aspirations for the area he was civilizing: He wanted the constablewick to become a town. One problem was that although William was running church services from his homestead, the area could not incorporate until it had a proper resident minister. And luring a minister depended upon maintaining a certain minimum population. The children and many grandchildren of William and Anne would eventually bring to fruition William’s dream of incorporating the town. On June 11, 1712 the constablewick of Monomoit was incorporated under the name of Chatham, named after a seaport town in England.
William and Anne occupied their homestead until their deaths in the late 1680s. Archaeological evidence suggests that the house may have been disassembled and brought to another nearby location.
By the time of the 1790 census, the population of the town was 1,140, with 193 families, 20 of which were Nickerson households and 26 of which were Eldredges. By 1915, the Nickersons were believed to have 50,000 descendants.