Penikese Island is located at the southwest end of the Elizabeth Islands off the southern coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in Buzzards Bay, one mile north of neighboring Cuttyhunk and eight miles south of New Bedford.
The Island was geologically formed by receding glaciers approximately 21,000 years ago. Second largest glacial erratic (large bedrock boulders left by the receding glacier) in southern New England is located on the Island. Also known as “The Plow,” the boulder measures 16 feet high, 25 feet wide, and 39 feet long.
Wampanoag Indian legend states that the Elizabeth Islands were formed by a great giant, Maushop, when burying his sons after they were killed by Pukwudgees. The Pukwudgees were little people – ten inches tall, who were tormenting the Wampanoags. Maushop and his sons were asked to rid the Cape of them.
The Island’s name is thought to come from the name of a Pokanockets Indian (of the Wampanoag Algonquin Nation), called Penachason.
Viking Norseman likely visited the Island during their journey around the Cape, circa 1015-1016.
The Elizabeth Islands were once heavily forested with hardwoods and cedar trees, but were deforested for building and grazing early in the Colonial Era. Because of its small size and exposure to the wind, Penikese was covered in shrubs and much smaller trees.
A collection of Indian artifacts, including arrowheads and an atlatl (a pestle for grinding grains), were recovered from Penikese Island and are on display at Cuttyhunk Historical Society’s Museum of the Elizabeth Islands.
Other early explorers to the area included fisherman from the Azores, Arctic, and Ireland in the 1400 to 1600’s.
First recorded visitor to the Island was Bartholomew Gosnold of Falmouth, England in 1602. Gosnold was on a voyage to Virginia to establish a settlement there. He is credited with the naming of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Elizabeth Islands.
Thomas Mayhew and his son were the first white owners of Penikese Island in 1641. Their plan was to lease the Island to settlers and convert the local Indians to Christianity.
In 1807, three families and 150 sheep occupied the Island. In 1865 a fish oil factory was on the Island.
A wealthy New Yorker, John Anderson, bought Penikese Island in 1867. Anderson started the first news stand and cigar shop in New York. He also ran for mayor against the Boss Tweed regime, allegedly hiding Tweed’s enemies on the Island in his large house there.
In July of 1873, Anderson donated Penikese Island and $50,000 to Louis Agassiz, a well-known Swiss naturalist who developed the Glacial Theory, to start a school of natural history where students could “study nature, not books.” The school ran during th3 summers of 1873 to 1875. One of the students went on to establish the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, MA.
In 1905, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts started a leper colony to serve as a regional hospital for those afflicted by Hansen’s Disease. The facility was in operation until 1922. There are remains of residences, a laundry facility, and a cemetery with 14 residents buried there.
The Island became a bird sanctuary in 1924, and was originally used to raise game birds and cottontail and snowshoe rabbits. The Department of Conservation also encouraged the breeding and protection of wild geese, ducks, and terns. Because of this, the collection of tern eggs, a delicacy at the time, was forbidden.
In 1933, it was discovered that the rare Storm Petrel, a bird common to climes much farther north, was nesting in an old retaining wall. At that time, it was not believed that any Petrels were nesting south of Maine. Penikese and nearby Norman’s Island are still considered the farthest known nesting sites for the Storm Petrel in North America, and even today nesting pairs return every April and May to Penikese Island to nest in the same stone wall. Nocturnal and furtive, Petrels are rarely seen but evidenced instead by their fluttering calls from deep within their burrows on moonless or overcast nights.
From 1945 to 1973 the Island was uninhabited and unmanaged, although hunting, fishing, and camping was common.
The Penikese Island School, founded by George Cadwalader, opened in 1973 and closed in 2011. Penikese Island School was a publicly funded residential school for delinquent boys. The School had an agreement with the Commonwealth to maintain the Island and nesting areas, keeping them undisturbed, thus promoting growth of native bird populations.