For geographic and demographic information on specific parts of the town of Mashpee, please see the articles on Mashpee Neck, Monomoscoy Island, New Seabury, Popponesset, Popponesset Island, Seabrook and Seconsett Island.
After English colonists arrived, they began to settle Mashpee in 1658 with the assistance of the missionary Richard Bourne, from the neighboring town of Sandwich. In 1660 the colonists allowed the Christian Wampanoag, who had been converted, about in the settlement. Beginning in 1665, the Wampanoag governed themselves with a court of law and trials according to English custom (they had long governed themselves according to their own customs).
Following their defeat in King Phillip's War (1675–1676), the Wampanoag of the mainland were resettled with the Sakonnet in present-day Rhode Island or brought, together with the Nauset, into the praying towns in Barnstable County. Mashpee on Cape Cod was designated as the largest Indian reservation in Massachusetts. The town's name is an Anglicization of a native name, mass-nippe: mass is "great", or "greater" (see Massachusetts), and nippe is "water." The name has been translated as "the greater cove" or "great pond," or "land near great cove", where the water being referenced is Wakeby Lake, which is greater at one end.
In the year 1763, the Crown designated Mashpee as a plantation, against the will of the Wampanoag. The colony gave the natives the right to elect their own officials to maintain order. The population of the plantation declined steadily due to the conditions placed upon the Wampanoag. Designation as a plantation meant that the area governed by the Mashpee Wampanoag was integrated into the colonial district of Mashpee.
Following the American Revolutionary War, the town in 1788 revoked Mashpee self-government, which American officials considered a failure. They appointed a committee, consisting of five European-American members, to supervise the Mashpee.
In 1834, the state returned a certain level of self-government to the Wampanoag, although they were not completely autonomous. With the idea that emulating European-American farming would encourage assimilation, in 1842 the state broke up some of the Wampanoag communal land. It distributed of their property in allotted parcels to heads of households, so that each family could have individual ownership for subsistence farming.
The legislature passed laws against the constant problems of encroachments on Wampanoag land by European Americans, but did not enforce them. The competing settlers also stole wood from the reservation. It was a large region, once rich in wood, fish and game, and desired by white settlers, who envied the growing community of Mashpee. The Mashpee Indians suffered more conflicts with their white neighbors than did other more isolated or less desirable Indian settlements in the state.
Ultimately the Wampanoag lost their land and self government, although many of their descendants have remained in the area. (A 1999 video, Mashpee, describes the impact of 1970s land claims by the Wampanoag.)
In 1870 the state approved the incorporation of Mashpee as a town, the second-to-last jurisdiction on the Cape to undergo the process.
Today the town of Mashpee is known both for tourist recreation and for its distinctive Wampanoag culture. The Wampanoag hold an annual pow-wow at which they display traditional activities and crafts.