Cape Cod


By William Martin

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“Engrossing…entertaining…the perfect book to take to the beach.” – Boston Herald

Two families, both carried by the Mayflower across stormy seas… both destined to generations of proud leadership, shameful intrigue, and passion for the sandy crest of land that became their heritage…
This is the story of the Bigelow and Hilyard clans, from their first years on America’s shores, through the fury of her wars and the glory of her triumphs, to our own time when young Geoff Hilyard must fight to save both his marriage to a Bigelow heir and the windswept coast he loves. It is a struggle that will take him deep into the past, to a centuries-old feud that never died..And on a dangerous quest for a priceless relic of American history that has lain hidden in the Cape for over two hundred years.


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The novel you are about to read begins, it is safe to say, where no novel has begun before or since: in the mind of a pilot whale, in Cape Cod Bay, on an autumn afternoon about a thousand years ago.

But we don't stay there long.

Soon we're aboard the Mayflower on a bleak November morning in 1620. The little ship has been pounding the Atlantic swell for six weeks. The passengers and crew are exhausted. And before them rises a great bluff, the sandy brow of the immense American wilderness.

And soon after that, we're stuck in traffic in a minivan on the July Fourth weekend. The Sagamore Bridge glimmers in the heat haze ahead. The kids are bickering in the back seat. Mom and Dad are losing patience.

This book covers a long span of time. But so does the history of the Cape.

When I finished it back in 1990, I suggested to my editor that a good one-line description might be: The story of Cape Cod is the story of America. It was true then, and it's true today.

That fragile spit of sand, dumped by the glaciers ten thousand years ago and sculpted by the sea every day since, has seen every movement of American history from the Pilgrim settlement to the real estate booms and busts of the last thirty years. But what makes the Cape unique is that nature has not simply affected human lives there. It has defined them.

In winter, the wind scours the sand and drives even the heartiest locals indoors. In summer, the sun brings joy to vacationers, while the rain clears the beaches and fills the shops and brings money for the merchants. But there are deeper rhythms, too. The tides flood the estuaries and marshes twice a day. The birds and fish keep to migratory patterns established thousands of years ago. And surrounding it all is the ocean, a tangible presence, a living god, sometimes benign, sometimes angry, giving all who gaze upon it a sense of limitless possibility and insignificance, too.

The Pilgrims and their descendants set out to tame the world they found on Cape Cod. They saw it as part of God's plan. They harvested the whales on the beaches and hunted the whales in the bay. They stripped the trees for lumber and firewood and burned the forests to clear their fields. They struggled, sometimes violently, with the Wampanoag Indians, whose name means "children of the dawn" and whose gods were as real to them as the Christian God was to the Pilgrims.

Generations of shipwrights, seafarers, and fisherman followed. They built the neat villages and towns of Cape Cod. But they seldom built houses looking out to sea because, as one old Cape Codder told me, "The sea was a place of work and death."

Then Henry David Thoreau came for a visit just before the Civil War. He looked out to sea and into the future. And he wrote, "The time must come when this coast will be a place of resort…" He was right. Before long, the wealthy were building mansions at the ocean's edge. And then vacationers arrived for those two-week summer rentals that are as much a part of the Cape's seasonal rhythm as the migration of the whales.

I've been in love with the Cape since boyhood, and once I began to write novels, I knew that someday I would tell the story of the place and its people and their unique relationship to nature.

I decided that I would tell it from the beginning… or from before the beginning. That's why the book opens as it does, with a whale stranding observed by… well, read the book to find out. And I knew I could not tell it without the Pilgrims, the first of so many who came to the Cape to find freedom or fulfillment. And I would close the narrative circle by bringing the story all the way to the present, to a family of Pilgrim descendants struggling over their ancient birthright.

A hundred people sailed on the Mayflower. They called themselves Saints and Strangers. Some were religious separatists. Others had joined the voyage just for profit. Fifty survived the first winter, and while many of them were filled with piety, all of them were tough, resilient, and resourceful. The proof is that today, more than ten percent of the American population can trace their ancestry back to those fifty.

They were like us in some ways… but very different, too.

The senior historian at Plimoth Plantation, the Pilgrims' living history museum, put it best. He said that the Pilgrims had all the big things figured out. They understood their relationship to God and eternity. It was only the little things that troubled them, the daily problems of shelter, fuel, and food. We, on the other hand, have most of the little things settled, but it's our place in the cosmos that leaves us wondering.

If this novel has a theme, a big idea, it's in that observation.

But don't bother yourself too much about the big ideas. I'm a storyteller. My job is to keep you up past your bedtime. And it's the story that has kept readers turning these pages for two decades. Let the thousand-year plot wash over you while the characters in the smaller plots—Saints and Strangers, praying Indians and Wampanoag warriors, rebels and royalists, slave runners, rumrunners, show runners, whaling men, fishermen, oystermen, real estate agents, developers, and conservationists—swirl around you and sweep you through time.

They're all after a secret. The secret is in a lost book. The book is the log of the Mayflower. It reveals the truth about the first scandalous death in the New World, and perhaps something more. Yeah, it's juicy. Enjoy it. But remember that while I aim for historical accuracy (this is one of the few novels ever offered for sale at the Plimoth Plantation museum bookstore) not everything that you'll read here happened as it's described… or even happened at all.

Looking back, I am happy to say that I have forgotten the fourteen-hour days, the seven-day weeks, and the last two months when I never left the house. A writer always forgets the hard part once the work is done.

Instead, I can recall dozens of experiences begun as research that became cherished memories. I see my wife and little children in the bright summer sun. We are wandering the paths and dunes of Wing Island in Brewster, the inspiration for the fictional Jack's Island. Or I am standing with my father in the meetinghouse at Plimoth Plantation. We are marveling that they made their house of God a strong fortress as well.

The kids are grown now, and my father has passed, but I see all those scenes in the present tense because there is something perpetually present about the Cape. The cycles make it so.

Things have continued to change on Cape Cod since this book was published. More commuters ride the bus every day to Boston. More traffic lights flash. More condos and trophy houses rise in places where once there were small cottages. The struggle to accommodate the needs of a modern population in an ecologically fragile place goes on. The business cycle of boom, bust, and boom still turns.

But the earth still turns, too. The light falls exactly as it did when the Pilgrims walked the shore in spring or fall. The summer people come every Fourth of July. The tides rise and fall and sometimes confuse the pilot whales that stray too close to shore.

In the mild winter of 2011-2012, Cape Cod beaches saw several huge dolphin strandings. Why were the dolphins, close relatives of the creatures that appear in the first scene of this book, hurling themselves onto the beaches? Was it disease, global warming, or just another of nature's relentless and sometimes heartless cycles? No one knows.

The generations may come and go, but on Cape Cod, the deepest mysteries remain, and so do the deepest memories.

William Martin

March 2012


June 30, 1990

Old Men

One of them had seen every year of the century, the other a full three score and ten. One had trouble sleeping. The other wondered where the years had gone. Neither ever awoke without a new pain somewhere or an old pain somewhere else. And neither could drink much anymore, or he'd spend the night at the toilet, pissing out ineffectual little dribbles that wouldn't even make a satisfying sound.

But in these things, they were like old men everywhere. Other things bound them like brothers.

Both were descended from the Mayflower Pilgrims. One was grandfather, the other great-uncle, to the same two children. They walked on the beach between the creeks because each owned half of it. And they had detested each other since the administration of John F. Kennedy.

Rake Hilyard walked at dawn. The world was changing quickly, but he found perspective on the beach. Seasons passed, birds migrated, and tides flowed according to laws laid down long before the foolishness began. In the dunes, Indian shell heaps gave evidence of the first men. In the marsh mud, the bones of ancient pilot whales told of the first standings. Even the sea-smoothed boulders on the tideflats recalled the glacier that left them. And all of it made a ninety-year-old man feel a little younger.

Dickerson Bigelow did not come out as regularly. But after the heart attack, his doctor had told him to walk more, and on the beach, he could work even as he walked. If the tide was low, Dickerson walked on the flats, studied the island from a distance, and imagined what the last development of his life would look like. When the tide was high, he simply walked, his eyes fixed on the sand between his toes, his soul coveting the land on the Hilyard side, his brain scheming to get it.

At high tide on this summer morning, the beach was no more than a twenty-foot strand from wrack line to dune grass, which meant the old men could not avoid each other. But neither would turn back. They had been trespassing on each other's beaches for decades, like warships showing their flags in foreign straits. So they ran out their guns and steamed on.

Dickerson fired first. "Mornin', you old bastard."

"What's good about it, you son of a bitch?"

"We're alive and can walk the beach. How's that?"

"If it was up to you, only one of us'd be alive. Then you'd fill the creeks and hot-top the beach."

Dickerson Bigelow laughed and ran a hand through the beard that fringed his face. He shaved his upper lip, in the style of an old shipmaster, so that whenever he bought property or petitioned for a permit, he would seem to have sprung from the Cape Cod sand itself, a modern man with the shrewd yet upright soul of a Yankee seafarer.

Next to him, Rake looked like the original go-to-hell dory fisherman—leathery face, dirty cap, dirtier deck shoes, and flannel shirt stuffed into trousers so dirty you could chop them up and use them for chum.

Rake glanced at Dickerson's bony bare feet, the same color as the sand, at the gray trousers rolled up to the calves, the windbreaker draped over the barrel chest, and the knot of the striped tie. "Men don't wear ties to the beach 'less they come on business."

"Our families have quite a resource here, Rake."

"Answer's no."

"Magnificent spot." Dickerson stepped to the top of the dune and looked around.

"Mind the dune grass. That's Hilyard property. Don't want it blowin' away."

"It is blowin' away. The whole Cape's blowin' away, washin' away, every day. Time to sell, 'fore any more of it goes."

When the Pilgrims came, the land between the creeks had been surrounded by a wide marsh. Then someone dumped some sand in the marsh to make a cart path, then more sand to make a causeway, and later, macadam for a modern road, but the seventy acres of upland, dune, and beach was still called Jack's Island. It nestled in the crook of the Cape's elbow, safe from the rage of the Atlantic, sheltered from the northeast wind, but fully exposed to the two families who'd lived on it and fought over it for three and a half centuries.

"Won't sell. Sister won't sell." Rake Hilyard started walking again. "And with any luck, town'll take it all. My side and yours."

"Don't be so sure of that." Bigelow went after Rake. He was taller and heavier, but from a distance, he looked like a balloon that the kid in the dirty pants tugged along behind him. "For all the centuries our families have suffered here, Rake, the Lord's givin' us the chance to get somethin' back. Think of the future."

"The future," Rake stopped. "Most men think the land's somethin' they inherit from their fathers. The smart ones know they're just borrowin' it from their kids."

"The future's now, and there's some in your family who agree."


Dickerson scratched at his beard.

"You're bluffin'," said Rake.

"The town meeting won't take this land. Too many strings. And if I have to buy you out a parcel at a time, it could take years. Then it might be too late for all of us."

"Too late already, 'cause if the town won't do it, I'm buyin' you out."

"With what? Old lobster pots? The only Hilyard with more than two grand cash money's married to my own daughter."

"Nobody's perfect."

"So what do you have to buy me out?"

"The truth." Rake poked a finger at Dickerson. "Straight from history."

"Now you're bluffin'."

"History don't lie. 'Specially in a book written by a man who was there."

"What man? What book?"

Rake pulled his cap down and turned toward Eastham.

"You're gettin' senile, Rake." Dickerson watched until Rake disappeared into the glare of the rising sun. He had come to upset his old adversary, to leave him wondering about the loyalty of his family. Instead, he was left wondering himself. As he walked back to his son's house, his eyes fixed on the sand between his toes, his soul frustrated once more in its coveting, his mind traveled back through the story of the Hilyards and Bigelows in search of "a book written by a man who was there."


November 1620

The Book

November 9. Sixty-fourth day. Cold unto freezing yet another day. Position not fixed as clouds cover sky, but soundings show forty fathoms, shallowest since England. The Saints pray hard and regular after sight of land, and God may soon give them heed. In the beginning, I bore them no sympathy. They were like as any cargo, and no better, for all their prayer, than those they call Strangers. But the Saints have gained my respect, the Strangers as well.

Christopher Jones did not bestow respect blithely, especially in his sea journal. He had been a mariner too long, had known too many men to wither in their first heavy gale. He had expected his passengers to wither before the wind ever blew, but they had faced the sea with more bravery than his sailors.

And now they were praying. Perhaps that was the reason for their bravery. The prayer, this bleak November dawn, was the Twenty-third Psalm. Jones considered it a good prayer, though he was not a godly man. He professed belief in the holy Church of England, the prudent course in a world where a man's faith determined his future on earth as well as in heaven. But first and foremost, Jones was a seaman. He put his faith in the compass and the chart, in the stars and the sun, in his own strong hand on the whipstaff and England's strong oak in the keel.

The Saints put theirs in God and their own understanding of his word. They believed that the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church still festered in its English bastard and would not be cut away until the bastard purified itself of ceremony, of statues, of priests, of all save the Scripture. The English church showed no interest in taking such cure, so the Saints became Separatists, and Separatists quickly became outcasts.

They were simple people, these Saints, simple in their lives and simple in their faith, and their simplicity, thought Jones, had kept them strong.

They did not wither during years of persecution by English bishops and sheriffs, nor after years of exile in Holland, where they found freedom while their children lost their English identity, nor after months of struggling to organize a voyage to the New World. And when their financial backers forced them to accept outsiders because there were not enough of them to build a colony, they did not wither then, either. They dubbed the outsiders Strangers, declared their sovereignty over the venture, and looked west at last.

It should not have surprised Jones, then, that the Saints had not withered during ten weeks at sea.

The Mayflower had left Southampton in August, in the time of good sailing. From her years in the wine trade, she had come to be known as a sweet ship in that the ullage from the casks made her bilge smell like a French fermentation cave. But no amount of sweetness could soothe the misery of seaborne motion in Separatist bellies, nor stop a stream of half-stomached salt meat, pickled beets, hardtack, and beer from frothing into the wake, nor overcome the stink of full slop buckets and the stench of seasick vomit that raised more vomit in even the strongest of stomachs.

It was in the nature of men to endure such things for commerce, adventure, or faith, thought Jones, but what pain to modesty it must have been for the women to use the slop buckets without privacy, or to see the sailors hang their arses and balls in the bow ropes and let fly with whatever was in them. After all, these were not tavern wenches or London whores, but goodwives. And what worry the future must have held for any woman who came with children. Indeed, what worry for any woman who had left the safety of a warm hearth, whether for prayer or profit. But they seldom complained and they would not wither.

When the autumn westerlies began to blow, the Mayflower went on the tack. For weeks she pounded like a mill hammer against the wind. Those who had recovered from seasickness grew sick again, then sicker still as the westerlies gave way to storms that swirled from the southwest, driving the Mayflower off course and leaving her to hull through days and nights of miserable waterlogged beating.

Half-seas over, they were struck by a storm that dwarfed all the rest. Mountains of green water rose with the wind, over the decks, over the spars, over the masts themselves, then rolled over the ship again and again until her seams opened and her main beam buckled with a terrifying crack. Good English oak split amidships and splintered to starboard and port. With every wave, water poured through the boards above the beam, and the sailors feared for the ship. But the Saints brought from their luggage a great iron screw jack and shored the beam. Then they implored Master Jones to press on, for God was with them.

And perhaps he was, but all the same, it grew more miserable each day. Every league closer to the New World was another hour closer to winter. The feeble cookstoves in the fo'c'sle and on deck did nothing to keep them warm, nor did the damp woolens they had been wearing for over a month, nor the bedding that never dried out. But now the closeness of their bodies between decks begat a fetid warmth that kept them from withering awhile longer.

It was good that they had not withered yet, thought Jones, for the worst still lay ahead.

He wiped the quill and blotted the page. He had written enough. His attention was turning, as it did each dawn, to the dark western horizon. He pulled on his sea cape, took his glass, and went out onto the half deck.

"Anovver cold mornin' in the valley of the shadow of death, sir," said Mr. Coppin.

On the main deck, a dozen passengers clustered around one of the elders and read from their Bibles. Their faces were pallid and drawn, their clothes worn and many times mended. Their matted, salt-caked hair and beards crawled from under their hats and across their faces like seaweed. But when they prayed, their voices never faltered.

"Don't begrudge 'em prayer, Mr. Coppin. 'Tis a great comfort, to them what have the gift."

Jones raised his newfangled and most expensive spying glass to his eye and studied the horizon. Smoke gray sky sat atop slate gray sea, and beyond the line that divided them lay America. Only three aboard the Mayflower had been there. For Jones and the rest, it remained a collection of words in a few books or a handful of stories from the sailors who had seen it, a new and shining land where men could live in God's bounty or a frightening immensity filled with savages and wild beasts.


In the shadows of the tween-decks, a man named Jack Hilyard thought about America while he waited for the prayer to end above him. In his right hand he held the slop bucket used by the four families at the bow of the ship, and in his left hand he held his nose.

The ship hit a swell, and a few drops spilled from the lip of the bucket.

" 'My cup runneth over,' " came the voices from above.

With his boot, Jack Hilyard smoothed the liquid into the boards. None would see it, and in the stench of the tween-decks, neither would they smell it.

" 'Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.' "

Hilyard heard the voice of Ezra Bigelow, one of the holiest of the holies, rising above the others. He laughed to himself, and his eyes searched the tween-decks for some trace of goodness or mercy.

Curtains and canvas rags hung everywhere, forming tiny rooms with walls that waved as the ship rode the swells. Feeble shafts of light illuminated scenes behind the curtains, like tableaux vivants at a country fair. A mother tried to suckle her three-year-old, who had stopped eating the salted food. A man crouched by a porthole, held an inflamed wrist to the light, and with his knife, pricked at a pustulant saltwater sore. An old woman wrapped her arms round her waist and coughed. When she stopped, the sound seemed to echo down the length of the ship, but it was other people coughing behind other curtains.

Then Hilyard glanced at his own space, where his wife folded the bedding. She had withstood the voyage better than most, he thought, perhaps because she had more bulk than most. She was strong, and he was rugged, and their son Christopher had the constitution of a sailor. They came from stock that endured, and before long, she would thank him for bringing them to the New World.

The prayer above was nearly completed. " 'And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever…' "

"Or die of the stink therein," muttered Hilyard to himself, and he stumbled up the ladder to the fresh air. He tripped on the hatch coaming and more of the slop splattered on the deck.

"Amen and apology," said Jack Hilyard to the group.

Elder Ezra Bigelow watched the brownish liquid roll toward his boots with the roll of the ship. Then he slapped his Bible shut. "A better course would be to join in the prayer."

"I prays every Sunday." Hilyard went to the side and dumped the bucket. Then he tied a rope to the handle and dropped the bucket into the sea to rinse it. "If God hears me prayer on Sunday, I needn't bother him the rest of the week. If he don't listen then, he'll for certain ignore me on days he don't claim as his own."

"Every day is his own," responded Bigelow. "And respect should keep thee and thy stinking bucket below until the morning prayer have finished."

"Every day is his own"—Hilyard raised a bucket of clean seawater—"and every day he makes the sun to rise and the tides to turn and the bowels to move." Hilyard dumped the water onto the brownish stain. " 'Tis our duty to answer his call in the great things and in the small. That be a form of prayer, too."

"That, sir, is blasphemy," said Ezra Bigelow with a small note of triumph, as though he now knew the fate of this man's soul.

"Be not so quick to judge," said Bigelow's brother Simeon. "If Master Hilyard believe he serve the Lord when he empty the night waste, mayhap he does."

"He'll serve more better," said Christopher Jones, "if he holystones that shit stain."

Hilyard turned to Jones, and in the manner of a good English seaman, tugged at his forelock.

While the Saints considered Hilyard one of the most obstreperous of the Strangers, Jones held a higher opinion of him. He knew Hilyard from the North Sea whaling trade. Hilyard's shipmates had called him the Rat because he was as slender as a ratline and just as strong. And whaling masters had allowed him his independent spirit because few men could better place the lance. Few men on this ship, thought Jones, were better equipped for America.

"The buckets are not to be emptied until after we say amen to the morning prayer," said Ezra Bigelow to Jones.

"Master, you'll forgive me," said Jack Hilyard, "but one of the ladies got the flux. It raise a stench tween-decks and start the others to retchin'. God won't mind if we breaks a rule to stop a bit o' retchin'. "

Ezra Bigelow stepped up to Hilyard. He was taller than anyone else on the ship, and whenever he argued, which seemed quite often, he used his own height and the holy height of Scripture to make his points. "What can such as thee know of God's mind?"

"As much as thee, sir, wif all thy learnin'."

"Thou wilt show respect and use the proper form of address. When thou speakst to thy superiors, address them as you."

"When thou shows respect to me, I'll show it to thee."

The savages might destroy this colony, thought Christopher Jones, or the colonists might starve before bringing in a harvest. But it was as likely that they would come apart because Saints and Strangers disagreed over something as petty as the disposal of the morning slop… or which word to use for the second person pronoun.

The Saints had recruited some of the Strangers. Others, like Jack Hilyard, had been brought on by the London Adventurers, the financial backers. Most were decent, some devout, and all had accepted the same terms—seven years of contracted labor—forced upon the Saints themselves. But some Strangers had come seeking their fortune first, not their God, and that might be the undoing of them all.

Saint and Stranger faced each other across the mouth of the slop bucket, and for a time, the only sound was the rush of the wind through the sails. On a small ship and a long journey, hostility was unwelcome but inevitable. All waited to see who would strike first, Ezra Bigelow with his lofty rhetoric or Jack Hilyard with his slop bucket.

Then a gull cried. Master Jones did not notice, for the cry of a gull was a common sound to men who plied the European coastal trade. But when the bird cried a second time, Jones felt it at the base of his spine before he heard it. He saw the bird at the same moment that a wild cry echoed from the foretop: "Land! Land ho!"

Jack Hilyard and Ezra Bigelow looked up, and Hilyard leaped for joy, because the voice crying out the sight of land belonged to his own son, Christopher.

Bigelow seemed to smile, although his face barely moved. "God gives thy son a great gift, the first sight of our promised land."


  • "Engrossing...entertaining...the perfect book to take to the beach."—Boston Herald
  • "Teems with memorable characters...suspense, authenticity, conflict."—Chicago Tribune
  • "Packed with history and incident...Martin gives Michener a run for his money in this rousing tale."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Ingeniously schemed...riveting."
    Christian Science Monitor

On Sale
May 29, 2018
Page Count
784 pages

William Martin

About the Author

William Martin is the New York Times bestselling author of eleven novels, an award-winning PBS documentary, and a cult classic horror movie. His first novel, Back Bay, introduced treasure hunting hero Peter Fallon, who has now appeared in five novels, and spent fourteen weeks on the New York Times list. Since then, Martin has been telling stories of the great and the anonymous in American history, from the Pilgrims to 9/11. His novels, including Cape Cod, Annapolis, City of Dreams, and The Lincoln Letter, have established him as “a storyteller whose smoothness equals his ambition” (Publishers Weekly). He lives near Boston with his wife and has three grown children. In 2005, he was the recipient of the prestigious New England Book Award, given to “an author whose body of work stands as a significant contribution to the culture of the region.” In 2015 he received the Samuel Eliot Morison Award.

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