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The Origins of Orleans


The history of the town of Orleans is inexorably linked to the town of Eastham, and has deep roots in the original Plymouth Colony established in 1620. For some time, the colonists there had considered moving the colony to a better location due to the “straightness and baroness” of the land at Plymouth. In 1644, serious consideration was given to moving the colony, and what was then called Nauset was a prime option. After deciding that Nauset was too small and remote, the idea was abandoned, but seven freemen and their families set out to establish a new town in that location. These freemen were Thomas Prence, Nicholas Snow, John Doane, Edward Bangs, Richard Higgins, John Smalley, and Josias Cook. With their families, the entire town consisted of 49 persons.


On March 3, 1645, the General Court of the colony granted to the Plymouth Church “or those that goe to dwell at Nosett,” the lands from the Purchaser’s bounds at Namskaket to the Herring Brook at Billingsgate. On June 7, 1651, the General Court ordered that the name of the town of Nauset be changed to Eastham. For the next 152 years, the tract of land that became Orleans existed as a portion of Eastham, eventually being referred to as the South Parish or the South Precinct.


The Incorporation of Orleans


The Town of Orleans was born in 1797. On March 1, both houses of the Massachusetts legislature passed, and on March 3 Governor Samuel Adams signed “An act to divide the town of Eastham in the County of Barnstable and to incorporate the Southerly part thereof into a town by the name of Orleans. The division of the towns resulted from long standing differences in interests and demographics, and there is evidence that the South Precinct had been operating somewhat independently since about 1717. The larger portion of the population of Eastham resided in the South Precinct, and at the time of the division, only one of the three selectmen resided in the northern portion of the town. This official was Joseph Pepper. Selectmen Hezekiah Higgins and Heman Linnell both resided in what became Orleans. At the time of the separation, the population of Eastham was about 475, while the population of Orleans was more than double that. Historical evidence suggests that both entities petitioned the state legislature in support of the separation.


The March 3 Act of Incorporation authorized Isaac Sparrow, justice of the peace of Eastham, to issue his warrant to a “principle inhabitant” of the new town for its first town meeting, and Selectman Higgins was selected. This meeting was held on March 16, where organizational issues were settled and the new town began to conduct routine business. Hezekiah Higgins and Heman Linnell from the old Eastham Board of Selectmen along with Judah Rogers, became the first Selectmen in the new town. Among the first items of business was the appointment of ten fish wardens for the protection of the town waters from encroachment by other towns. The town was also divided into three districts, with the construction of a schoolhouse in each district, the appropriation of $333.33 for support of the schools, $300 for support of the Gospel, and $366 for the support of the poor. The new town of Orleans was quickly in business for itself.


Orleans’ First Resident?


Strictly speaking, each of the nearly 1000 persons residing in Orleans at the time of incorporating act were among the first residents of Orleans. But did they have a predecessor? The historical record indicates that Governor Prence and others of the first seven families established their homesteads within the boundaries of what remained Eastham. Only Nicholas Snow, who established his homestead at Namskaket, was on the Orleans side of the division line of 1797. Nicholas Snow arrived in Plymouth on the Ann in 1623, and married Constance Hopkins, daughter of Mayflower passenger Stephen Hopkins. After relocating to Nauset/Eastham, he held the positions of surveyor, deputy, tax collector, constable, and selectman while there. He died in 1676, well before the separation, but can we claim him as our honorary first citizen?


How Did Orleans Get Its Name?


The fact that our town has a French name may seem like an oddity today, as most of the other Cape Cod towns are named after counterparts in England. However, it’s not so surprising, given the context of the times that the name selected was considered.


In 1797, pro-French sentiment was very strong in the new United States both in gratitude for French assistance during the Revolutionary War, and in admiration for the pro-liberty struggles that were occurring in France at the time. Revolutionary War patriot Isaac Snow had been captured twice by the British during the War and was sent to England where he was confined to prison. He managed to escape twice, and at one point made his way to France, where, while waiting to return to America, likely became aware of the highly popular Louis Philippe Joseph, duc d’Orleans (Duke of Orleans). At the time, Orleans was a 30 year old naval officer, cousin of the King, and one of the wealthiest men in France. He was then and remained a strong proponent for the cause of liberty. It is said that it was Isaac Snow’s suggestion that prompted the local committee and the State Legislature to name the newly incorporated town in honor of the Duke of Orleans.


Text courtesy of Orleans Historical Markers Committee, a project funded by Town of Orleans Community Preservation Funds.

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