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A Cape Cod Notebook can be heard every Tuesday morning at 8:45am and afternoon at 5:45pm.It's commentary on the unique people, wildlife, and environment of our coastal region.A Cape Cod Notebook commentators include:Robert Finch, a nature writer living in Wellfleet who created, 'A Cape Cod Notebook.' It won the 2006 New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.

What's In a Pond's Name

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The names of our local ponds, like those of our roads, were not always fixed. In fact, a certain ambivalence attaches to some of them today. On the Wellfleet-Truro border, for instance, there is a pond known to some local residents as “Ryder Pond,” but to others it is “Aunt Mary’s Pond.” The Ryder family was the first to build a house on that pond, so I suppose they have historical precedence for their name, though I have no idea who Aunt Mary was, and for all I know she has perhaps the better claim.

There is another pond in Wellfleet that I and every else I know have always called Dyer Pond, but on the 1858 map of Wellfleet, this pond is shown as Hopkins Pond. There is a residence marked “S. Dyer” on the map on the north shore of the pond, and by the time the 1880 Atlas of Barnstable County was published, Mr. Dyer, whoever he was, seems to have put his mark on the pond, which has been known ever since as Dyer – or sometimes Dyer’s - Pond.

But I had no real idea of the extent to which the Wellfleet ponds have changed identities over the years until my friend Chet Lay, who is a surveyor, gave me some copies of the 1848 U.S. Coast Survey, the first topographic map ever made of the coast of Cape Cod. It’s a fascinating map, full of a wealth of details, including roads, houses, barns, orchards, woodland, swamps, salt works, dikes, and even fences – since there weren’t enough stones in Wellfleet to build stone walls with.

The most fascinating aspect of this survey map, however, are the pond names, particularly those clustering around the head of the Herring River.  Of the seven ponds in this area, only three bear the names we know them by today.  Gull is still Gull Pond, Herring is still Herring Pond, and diminutive Round is still Round Pond.  What is now known as Higgins Pond, however, is not labeled at all, and what is now Williams Pond was known then as “Swett’s Pond.”

But the two names that caught my eye were what we today known as Slough and Horse-Leech Ponds. On my 1848 survey map these two ponds were known respectively as Newcomb’s and Long Ponds. Why, I wondered, would locals have changed two perfectly serviceable, if unimaginative names like Newcomb and Long to ones that are both off-putting and inaccurate? “Slough” implies a swampy, muddy body of water, and yet Slough Pond is anything but that, being one of the clearest and sandiest of all our ponds. The same is even more true of Horse-Leech, which, as far as I know, has never been a home to any kind of leech. Despite asking some of the older residents in town, I haven’t been able to determine exactly when and why the two names were changed – though I have an idea.    

My guess is that sometime during the 1920s or 1930s, when tourist traffic on the Outer Cape began to shift into high gear, some residents deliberately renamed two of their most attractive ponds with purposefully unattractive names in an attempt to discourage “outsiders” from seeking them out. Do I have any proof of this?  No, I don’t.  But I like to think that, even in those early days of tourism, some locals recognized that some of own natural treasures needed a disguise so that the “wrong” people” wouldn’t discover them.

Robert Finch is a nature writer living in Wellfleet. 'A Cape Cod Notebook' won the 2006 New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.