An aerial photo of Cape Cod overlaid with the approximate location of the town lines and their extensions. Poole included only those lines that were applicable to this discussion; later town divisions have been omitted.

In 1620, the Pilgrims rounded the north tip of Cape Cod and anchored at what is now Provincetown Harbor, Mass. During the next few days, explorations were made from this harbor by Myles Standish and company culminating in the discovery and subsequent theft of corn at what we now call Corn Hill in Truro. That theft caused the “first encounter” with the Native Americans at First Encounter Beach in Eastham, Mass. Much of this is taught in our history classes and is common knowledge. What isn’t so well known is that William Bradford of the Mayflower noted that “The bay is so round and circling, that before we could come to anchor we went round all the points of the compass.” [1]

In the late 1970s, 350 years after the Pilgrims’ first landing, an architect by the name of H. Morse Payne (a descendent of Thomas Payne) was reviewing a map of Cape Cod at his home in Yarmouth, Mass., when he suddenly realized that the town lines appeared to intersect in the near-middle of Cape Cod Bay. This seemed to be more than a coincidence, so Payne pursued it further. He found that the line between what is now Brewster and Dennis appeared to run northerly to the tip of Cape Cod at Race Point. He also found that the magnetic bearing on that line was about due magnetic north. After taking some time to investigate magnetic bearings, Payne found out about declination and yearly variation. He was able to discover that magnetic declination was not charted in New England until the 1700s. He extrapolated the declination back to the early 1600s and found that, in fact, through its yearly change, it was about 13 degrees west of north -- the same as the boundary line between Dennis and Brewster!

A town line stone between Brewster and Harwich, Mass.

The Cornerstone Project

Jump forward to 2008. While browsing a collection of books on the Cape, Michael Farber, a retired attorney from West Virginia who moved to Cape Cod to oversee the renovation of his family’s home in Brewster, discovered an article by Payne published in 1985 in a commemorative book on the history of Barnstable County. Farber was so taken by the theory described in the article that he contacted Payne to find out more. Intrigued that “the first cornerstone of the New World might still stand out there undiscovered on the seafloor in 100 feet of water,” Farber enlisted the assistance of the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School and its eighth-grade class under the instruction of Daniella Garran and Paul Niles. Together they created an elective semester-long project for interested students. The Cape Cod Chapter of the Massachusetts Association of Land Surveyors and Civil Engineers got wind of project and joined the team as did the Cape Cod Astronomical Society and the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History.

This conglomeration of groups serves as the foundation of a community partnership called The Cornerstone Project. The partnership is dedicated to finding the facts necessary to prove Morse Payne’s hypothesis that the Cape was used as a natural compass rose in the layout of the towns. One line of thought is that the Pilgrims -- William Bradford and Myles Standish -- intentionally laid out the town lines at the time of their investigations of Cape Cod in 1623. Some of the members of the project believe that this was accomplished by anchoring a ship in the center of the bay and illuminating it while keeping an eye on “night riders” on the beach. The concept would have involved signaling the riders with a cannon when they reached that special point on the shore. Paul Niles at the Light House Charter School heads The Cornerstone Project committee. The research aspects of the project fall to Farber and Daniella Garran and her students -- with gentle guidance from the surveyors and astronomers under the stewardship of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History.

Students at a “remarkable” rock in Dennis, Mass., preparing to run a magnetic line southerly with the K&E Paragon Transit.

A Surveyor's Perspective

When the story of The Cornerstone Project was published in the Cape Cod Times in August 2008, the news angle was based on the “discovery” of a rock in Town Cove, Orleans, and an “X” that appeared on the rock. As a surveyor, I was confident that the “X” was a normal cracking of the rock and, most likely, was not set by any surveyors. When the article failed to mention any involvement by surveyors, I realized that the project was without any guidance from our profession. I felt I could provide a service to the group and also expose the students to land surveying at the same time, which I’ve done with other eighth-grade students.

Last fall, I accompanied the students and Farber on a field trip to investigate a particular rock at the beach that some believe has significance in Payne’s theory. As a land surveyor, however, I disagree since we don’t have any descriptions calling for this 10-ton boulder -- and rocks with holes in them are not uncommon to the Cape. This particular rock sits alone and has a hole in the top about the size of a quarter. It is at least 4 inches deep and is apparently an old tie-off for a mooring line.

Nevertheless, it was a valuable opportunity to demonstrate surveying techniques. I brought my old Keuffel & Esser Co. Paragon transit along to show the kids. With the help of Russ Holden from Ryder and Wilcox, of Orleans, we set the transit up on one of the “remarkable” rocks that were noted in an original deed from William Bradford’s widow. This deed described one of the original tracts on Cape Cod, which also lies on the Brewster-Dennis town line. This is the baseline and potentially one of the keys to unlocking this quest. We took magnetic bearings, let the students look through the scope, backsighted another “remarkable rock” to the north that is a known boundary line, and then extended that line southerly to see where it led. The students had fun looking through the old transit and learned how to measure distances with a stadia rod.

Figure 1: YB Stone is the “suspected” stone called for in the 1641 order of the court to layout Barnstable and Yarmouth.

Coincidence or Design?

A tremendous amount of research, both historical and on the ground, has gone into the project to date, not even including all the work previously accomplished by Payne. William Bradford’s “Of Plimouth Plantation,” which is the most complete authority on the Pilgrims and the early years of their colony, has been read and re-read; “Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims in Plymouth,” which details what happened from the landing of the Mayflower in November 1620 through the arrival of the ship Fortune in November 1621, has also been exhaustively researched as has virtually any publication of the era regarding the settling of New England.

This research has led to important -- if yet not fully understood -- discoveries. For example, upon finding the first mention by the General Court of Plymouth in 1641 of a town layout, specifically a 1641 court order for Myles Standish and company to define the Yarmouth-Barnstable town line, Farber contacted the town surveyors in the towns of Sandwich, Barnstable and Yarmouth. The town surveyors, in turn, directed Farber to the town atlas book of 1907, which identified a stone that may have been set by the party of Standish, Winslow and Bradford (see Figure 1). This stone may represent the 1641 court order, which would make it the first monumented corner on the Cape.

Poole setting the GPS unit on the other end of the Brewster-Harwich town line.

This stone was uncovered by The Cornerstone Project, and the carving Y/B was found intact on its surface. Was this stone found and carved in 1641? Although it is accurately placed, we lack an actual written description for its origination. Suffice it to say that the first dividing line on Cape Cod that The Cornerstone Project has so far discovered is the Barnstable-Yarmouth town line laid out in 1641 by the General Court in Plymouth. Whether the stone is a direct result of that order and was in fact set by Standish and company has yet to be determined.

The next important line is the Dennis-Brewster line. Formerly the Nauset-Yarmouth division line, this is the line that served as a baseline for the towns to the east, and the radial intersection of the other towns falls on this line. Payne figured that out, and it is the basis of the rest of the hypothesis. At the time of its creation, this line was actually the Nauset-Yarmouth line long before the creation of the individual towns of Orleans, Brewster, Harwich and Dennis, which came out of those two towns.

One very interesting concept already laid forth by Payne is that the original baseline, laid out as that magnetic line from the Dennis-Brewster town line to Race Point at Provincetown, was magnetic north at the time of its inception. Further, the town lines to the east of the baseline are approximately at 90 degrees to that line, and the radial lines on the west side of the base line appear to be at 22 ½-degree increments. These, Payne concluded, were based on the compass and its “points.” Each point of the compass has a name such as “east by south east,” and these were in increments of 11 ¼ degrees so that four “points” made up a 45-degree angle. Is this by coincidence or design? The answer is unclear. What we do know is that the later town lines were laid out slightly differently as the towns developed. Brewster, for instance, separated from Harwich in 1803; Orleans and the other outer Cape towns were created from the original “Nauset.” But these current town lines still bear a striking resemblance to the hypothesis laid out by Payne.

While I believe that the layout of the town lines is beyond simple coincidence, I do not believe that the Pilgrims conceived it in 1623. I do think that someone, somewhere came up with the idea that they should use the baseline of the Yarmouth/Nauset line and then create the other lines as either perpendicular to that line or at a radial direction from the center point and using the compass points. The “artifact” that I believe in is the point in the bay where the lines meet. I believe this intersection was by design, not by accident.

While there are many questions that may never be fully answered, it is known that John Smith charted Cape Cod (see Figure 2) and that the tools necessary for such a layout existed for the Pilgrims. The Cornerstone Project, in fact, discovered that William Bradford, in the inventory of his will, owned two different texts related to land surveying. The navigators of the time also had the necessary tools to determine location and provide the services required for such a layout.

Figure 2: The John Smith Map was created by John Smith based on his mapping of New England.

Beyond Cape Cod

The research by the community partners of The Cornerstone Project is ongoing and has stretched from Maine to the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. We have an “Open Source” philosophy and encourage (as well as require) public input and assistance. This project now has a wide-ranging network of collaborators, including one inland surveyor who became interested and is currently researching the town lines of middle Massachusetts.

There are also investigations going on now that may determine the line between the Pilgrims at Plymouth and the Puritans at Boston-that great dividing line between the Plymouth Colony and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Cornerstone Project committee is researching the conflict between the Puritans and the Pilgrims and the necessity of firm boundaries dividing them. It is accepted that the Pilgrims of Plymouth and the Puritans of Boston and their differing beliefs caused internal conflict. Allegedly when the Puritans started to settle in Barnstable, the Pilgrims of Yarmouth were so discouraged when the town line was established that they took 17 houses and relocated them to Yarmouth. This conflict may, in fact, be the driving force in the 1641 Plymouth Court order dividing the towns of Yarmouth and Barnstable in Cape Cod.

The Cornerstone Project is entering its second year of research and discovery. I understand it to be on ongoing project, and I hope it will entertain and educate future eighth-grade classes as they delve into the mysteries of the past. And although the written evidence is hard to find that will document the artifacts that we have uncovered, one artifact is obvious when you look at a map of Cape Cod: That central point in Cape Cod Bay leaps out! Thank you Morse Payne for this delightful discovery and elegant hypothesis.

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1- (Mourt’s Relation, 1622)