Town of Orleans Historical Commission


The Birth of Orleans


Eastham continued to grow at a steady pace. By 1655, the number of freemen had increased from the original seven in 1644 to twenty-nine by 1655. Agriculture was the principal source of the livelihoods of the inhabitants. In the years 1717-1718, a dispute arose among the residents of the town with respect to the location of the church meetinghouse. The original meetinghouse built in 1644 was too small, and its location on the north side of Town Cove was inconvenient for many residents of the growing town. An impasse on a new location was reached at town meeting on February 24, 1718, and the issue was resolved by deciding to build two meetinghouses, one in the north section of town, the other in the south section. The southern section became known as the South Parish of Eastham.

The Incorporation

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 Selectman along with Judah Rogers became the first Selectmen in the new town. Higgins was selected to be the moderator of the first Town Meeting, and Benjamin Taylor was selected as the first town clerk and treasurer. 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. In addition, a committee was appointed to ascertain and establish the boundary between Orleans and Chatham. The new town of Orleans was quickly in business for itself.


Strictly speaking, all of the nearly 1000 persons residing in Orleans at the time of incorporating act were among the first colonial 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, Constance in 1677, well before the separation, but can we claim them as our honorary first citizens? The grave of Constance Hopkins can be seen in the Cove Burial Ground in Eastham. The burial location of Nicholas is not known.


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 Orleans was chosen.

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. Eastham resident and 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 a prison ship. He managed to escape, and 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. This explains why Orleans is the only town on Cape Cod with a French name.