Firing a cannon on the Fourth of July is a long-time tradition – a celebration that predates the parades and fireworks of today. This past winter, in reviewing the archive of the Cape Cod Genealogical Society’s monthly Bulletin, I came across an article that Mary Stubbs Magenau wrote as she was researching her grandfather’s land ownership. She wrote about South Wellfleet’s Major John Witherell, a Revolutionary War veteran, on whose hill the cannon was fired, a tradition for some time until it was moved across Blackfish Creek. I’d forgotten we had a Cannon Hill on the south side of Blackfish Creek until Erick Eastman casually mentioned it at dinner one evening last month. That single remark helped me locate Major Witherell’s property, and that helped me to better understand Mrs. Magenau’s article.
Our Cannon Hill is to the left of Old Wharf Road as it turns into a sand road, and with its tree cover is less conspicuous as a hill than it appeared years ago. Other than Mrs. Magenau’s remark about the cannon, there is no proof that this happened – in fact, she learned about it from her uncle. Nevertheless, we can imagine that Major Witherell would oversee such an activity as it celebrated his generation’s victory in the Revolutionary War. The Major came from a family that had left England soon after the settlement at Plymouth, arriving in Duxbury in the 1600s. The first colonial Witherell became the pastor of the Second Church in Scituate. A few generations later, they were in Eastham where the Major was born in 1753.
As a young man, Major Witherell joined the Sea Coast Defense, the colonists’ solution to the lack of a navy. Shortly after the battles at Lexington and Concord, Barnstable County authorities took measures to secure all boats that could be of use to the enemy, hiding them when and wherever they could. In June and July 1775, Wellfleet organized Captain Joseph Smith’s Seacoast Company of militia, and they were stationed there until the middle of 1776. After February 1776, they marched to Truro — which had called for more help — joining another company already located there. Witherell was a Sergeant when he first joined, according to his pension application. Another source indicates he was a First Lieutenant when he served the Seacoast Defense in 1780. I have not found any record proving that he became a Major, but from the records in Wellfleet recording the births of his children, he was listed as “Major Witherell.”
The Seacoast Defense was involved after the stranding of the British ship Somerset in November, 1778, off Truro, north of the Clay Pounds. This is the ship whose wreckage is still exposed from time to time, first recorded in 1885,and again in 1973. There were nearly 500 prisoners taken off the ship who had to be marched to Boston and fed along the way. The Wellfleet Historical Society possesses one of its cannonballs.
In September 1778, Witherell participated in a march to Falmouth along with many Wellfleet men, in response to the needs there, but their time of service was limited to just two days, when the enemy turned to Martha’s Vineyard to harass the coast.
Major Witherell married Azubah Gross in 1775. They lost four of their children at young ages, but three daughters survived into adulthood. Major Witherell’s brother, Whitfield, was an upstanding Wellfleet citizen also, and the Witherell family had a presence in South Wellfleet throughout the 19th Century.
According to Mrs. Magenau’s research, Major Witherell purchased his land, a homestead, and other buildings from Ezekiel Harding in 1789. Major Witherell married Ruth Arey Wiley in 1822, two years after his first wife died, and after Ruth’s first husband, David Wiley, had died. They were neighbors in South Wellfleet. In his old age, Major Witherell lived with Ruth and his daughter Betsy, who was married to Simeon Smith. Another daughter, Polly, who had married Samuel Smith, lived nearby.
In September 1831, Major Witherell sold a portion of his coastal land to Leonard Battelle, Robert Little, and Richard Arey, the land that later became the South Wharf and its stores. After Major Witherell died in 1838, his wife Ruth sold other pieces of his estate to settle his debts. She died in 1844.
The cannon that came to be located on the north side of Blackfish Creek — on the Cannon Hill that once belonged to Captain Isaiah Hatch — was described by one local historian as belonging to a British warship that wrecked on the backside during the War of 1812. We do not know if this was Major Witherell’s cannon. The other “Cannon Hill” is the topic of many stories of the Wellfleet boys from the north part of town who stole the South Wellfleet cannon presumably for their Cannon Hill near Uncle Tim’s Bridge. The cannon was recovered later by the South Wellfleet boys. It was buried at one point early in the 20th Century. The living relative who knew the burial spot revealed it in time for the Bicentennial when it was officially presented to the Town and installed on the Town Hall lawn.
Mary Stubbs Magenau “A Vignette of Wellfleet History” Cape Cod Genealogical Society Bulletin VOL XIV no 2, page 37.
Elizabeth L. Cole, “Wellfleet Soldiers and Sailors of The Revolutionary War” Wellfleet Bicentennial Committee, 1976 (paper held by the Wellfleet Public Library).
David Kew’s Cape Cod History site: www.capecodhistory.us.
Barnstable County Deeds available at www.barnstablecountydeeds.org.
R.E. Rickmers, Wellfleet Remembered Volume 6, Blue Butterfly Publications, Wellfleet, Mass. 1986.