Provincetown is a New England town located at the extreme tip of Cape Cod in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, in the United States. A small coastal resort town with a year-round population of just under 3,000, Provincetown's summer population increases as high as 60,000. Sometimes called "P-town" or "P'town", the town is known for its beaches, harbor, artists, tourist industry, and its status as a vacation destination of gay men and lesbians. Provincetown has the highest concentration of same-sex couple households of any zip code in the United States.
The area was originally settled by the Nauset tribe, who had a settlement known as Meeshawn.
Bartholomew Gosnold named Cape Cod in Provincetown Harbor in 1602. In 1620, the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact when they arrived at the harbor. They agreed to settle and build a self-governing community, and then came ashore in the West End.
Though the Pilgrims chose to settle across the bay in Plymouth, the outermost portion of Cape Cod enjoyed an early reputation for its valuable fishing grounds, and the harbor was considered the best along the coast. In 1654, the Governor of the Plymouth colony purchased this land from the Chief of the Nausets, for a selling price of 2 brass kettles, six coats, twelve hoes, twelve axes, twelve knives and a box.
The land, which spanned from East Harbor (Pilgrim Lake) – near the present day border between Provincetown and Truro – to Long Point, was kept for the benefit of Plymouth colony, which began leasing fishing rights to roving fishermen. The collected fees were used to defray the costs of schools and other projects throughout the colony. In 1678, the fishing grounds were opened up to allow the inclusion of fishermen from the Massachusetts Bay colony.
The first record of a municipal government with jurisdiction over the Province Lands appeared in 1714, with an Act that declared it the "Precinct of Cape Cod", annexed under control of Truro.
On June 14, 1727, after harboring ships for more than a century, the Precinct of Cape Cod was incorporated as a township. The name chosen by its inhabitants was "Herrington", which was rejected by the Massachusetts General Court in favor of "Provincetown". The act of incorporation provided that inhabitants of Provincetown could be land holders, but not land owners. They received a quit claim to their property, but the Province retained the title. The land was to be used as it had been from the beginning of the colony — a place for the making of fish. All resources, including the trees, could be used for that purpose.
The population of Provincetown remained small through most of the 18th century.
Following the American Revolution, however, Provincetown grew rapidly as a fishing and whaling center. The population was bolstered by a number of Portuguese sailors, many of whom were from the Azores, and came to live in Provincetown after being hired to work on US ships. By the 1890s, Provincetown was booming, and began to develop a resident population of writers and artists, as well as a summer tourist industry. After the 1898 Portland Gale severely damaged the town's fishing industry, members of the town's art community took over many of the abandoned buildings. By the early decades of the 20th century, the town had acquired an international reputation for its artistic and literary output. The Provincetown Players was an important experimental theater company formed during this period. It was an example of intellectual and artistic connections to Greenwich Village in New York that began then.
In the mid-1960s, Provincetown saw population growth. The town's rural character appealed to the hippies of the era; furthermore, property was relatively cheap and rents were correspondingly low, especially during the winter. Many of those who came stayed and raised families. Commercial Street, the town's equivalent to "Main Street", gained numerous cafés, leather shops, head shops – various hip small businesses blossomed and many flourished.
By the 1970s Provincetown had a significant gay population, especially during the summer tourist season, when restaurants, bars and small shops serving the tourist trade were open. However, there had been a gay presence in Provincetown as early as the start of the 20th century with the introduction of the artists' colony. Drag queens could be seen performing as early as the 1940s in Provincetown. In 1978 the Provincetown Business Guild (PBG) was formed to promote gay tourism. Today more than 200 businesses belong to the PBG and Provincetown is perhaps the best-known gay summer resort on the East Coast. The 2010 US Census revealed Provincetown to have the highest rate of same-sex couples in the country, at 163.1 per 1000 couples.
Since the 1990s, property prices have risen significantly, causing some residents economic hardship. The recent housing bust (starting in 2005) has so far caused property values in and around town to fall by 10 percent or more in less than a year. This has not slowed down the town's economy, however. Provincetown's tourist season has expanded to the point where the town has created festivals and week-long events throughout the year. The most established are in the summer: the Portuguese Festival and PBG's Carnival Week.