The spit of land at the entrance to Cotuit harbor, Sampson’s Island, is a favorite Cotuit beach of everyone, even, apparently, President Kennedy.

An old-timer from Cotuit told me that one summer day in the sixties he had spread out on the sandy beach, when two men in dark suits, shoes and ties told him he’d have to leave. The reason: national security.

In those days the presidential yacht “Honey Fitz” was escorted by a coast guard patrol – not against terrorists, just Russian agents. The crusty Cotuiter replied: “I’ve been coming to Sampson’s all my life, and I’m not about to leave.” The agents walked away puzzled, but returned shortly with a bottle of champagne, compliments of the president.

Who was Mr. Sampson, whose name the island bears? The answer is Squire Joseph Sampson (1754-1829), built Sampson’s Folly on Old King’s Road in Cotuit in 1809, a lavish mansion with the only bathtub and only ballroom on the west side of town. He inherited much of Cotuit, including most of the island, from his mother, Desire Crocker. Her great-grandfather, John Crocker had been given the lands by the proprietors in 1708. To the first settlers the marshes were valuable for the highly productive salt marsh hay that they fed to their cattle. When Sampson’s son sold part of the property in 1839 it produced two tons of hay.

The earliest map of Sampson’s dated 1787 shows a long island beginning at the mouth of Cotuit (Oyster) Bay, with a nearly mile-long tongue extending southwards as far as Rushy Marsh. The main entrance for ships from Osterville, Marstons Mills and Cotuit lay to the east, separating Sampson’s from Dead Neck Beach. This channel formed the boundary of the Osterville and Cotuit school districts in 1797, and persists today as the precinct line. It led out into “Deep Hole” in Nantucket Sound where newly built ships were fitted with masts and rigging brought from Sampson’s.

By 1831 storms had washed over the tongue, creating Gull Island, where cattle grazed on the salt marsh hay. Sampson’s Island itself had permanent upland at the north, beach on the east, and a saltwater creek leading into Bass Pond on the south, surrounded by fertile salt marsh. Daniel Childs, who was making salt south of today’s Old Shore Road, paid Sampson’s cousin Ezra Crocker $35 for the north 15 acres in 1837, and $70 for the more fertile south part from Josiah Sampson Jr. two years later. If Childs thought of building salt works here, we do not know, but the marshes provided fine hay until late in the 19th century.

After the Civil War, Dead Neck Beach, which stretched eastward for nearly four miles, was sold by the Osterville Lovells (who had bought it from the Indians in the forced sale of 1737) to Cotuit’s postmaster/storekeeper/architect/moderator Charles C. Bearse 80 acres for a dollar an acre. Since the 1830s there had been rumblings in Osterville about making a cut to end Osterville’s isolation, a move that Cotuit captains feared would radically reduce the flow through the Cotuit channel.

When salt hay was no longer gathered, the island became a favorite place for bird shooting by Boston Brahmin hunters like Judge Frank Lowell and Harvard’s president A. Lawrence Lowell. In 1885, a woman who summered in Cotuit paid Daniel Childs’ successors $275 for the island, which lay in view below her new house on Ocean View Avenue. The buyer was Charlotte Davidson, widow a New York merchant who traded with South America and was for ten years American Consul General in Buenos Aires and later Argentina’s Consul in New York. Schoolmaster James Morse had helped her lawyer son Charles Stewart Davison buy the Willard Slade house on the street, and turn it to face the Sound and the island in 1882. The view was perfect.

In 1891, Gull Island disappeared, after 60 years, reminding our schoolmaster Mr. Morse of Hamlet’s observation, “So runs the world away.”

Over Cotuit’s objections, Osterville finally got its “Cut” in 1899, and the next year the Corps of Engineers found only three feet of water in the historic channel, but it soon filled up, joining Sampson’s to Dead Neck to this day. It left a shallow pond, which Oyster Harbors residents call “Pirates Cove”, and Cotuit sailors call Cupid’s Cove” for its favorite rendezvous for the Moonlight Race. The Moonlight Race is an annual event of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club held under a full moon.

The tidal flow moved to the west of Sampson’s island, widening the gap to half a mile. To offset the possible damage of the Osterville Cut, the state dredged a ten foot Cotuit channel in 1910, at the cost of $27,000, of which Cotuit citizens put up $2000. Dredging had to be done again in 1917, 1928, 1949 and 1954. Over the twentieth century the westward current, which closed the old entrance, added 11 feet a year to the west end of the island, nearly closing the new channel.

In 1906 Boston textile manufacturer Horace Sears bought the Davison house and the island, and had Guy Lowell design the fine mansion that overlooks Sampson’s Island today. On his death in 1923, the estate, including the island, went to his secretary Harry L. Bailey. Alva Morrison, who built the first house on Rushy Marsh beach in 1924, was a “Global Bird Fancier” who donated his friend Henry Beston’s “Outermost House” to Massachusetts Audubon. He persuaded Mr. Bailey to give Sampson’s Island to Audubon as a bird sanctuary in 1953.

Audubon began systematic management in 1986, joined by Dead Neck’s Three Bays Preservation in 1996. The result has been a growth of nesting of endangered piping plovers to 26, and many more least terns and common terns. Many endangered roseate terns stop over here, and an oyster catcher has nested too. And Cotuiters love to picnic here, as they always have done.

Published in the Barnstable Enterprise 12 August 2012


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