Penikese Island entered the historical record in 1602 AD when the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold and some of his crew visited the island.
Ownership changed hands several times before the island was purchased by John Anderson, a businessman, who used it for vacationing.
In early 1873, Louis Agassiz, the famous Swiss-American naturalist, persuaded Anderson to give him the island and $50,000 to endow a school for natural history where students would study nature instead of books. The school opened in July 1873, initially headed by Louis Agassiz. Following his death in December, his son Alexander Agassiz ran the school. The school was closed following a fire in 1875, but some of the former students opened in 1888 the Marine Biological Laboratory, in nearby Woods Hole.
In 1904, following local opposition to two previously selected sites on the mainland, the state of Massachusetts purchased the island for $25,000 to use as a leprosy hospital to isolate and treat all Massachusetts residents with the disease. The residents with the disease were called "lepers", because they had leprosy. When opened, the Penikese Island Leper Hospital had five patients. After being open for 16 years, it was closed in 1921 and the thirteen patients were transferred to the federal leprosy hospital in Carville, Louisiana.
From 1973 to 2011, the Penikese Island School, Inc, operated a non-profit private residential school for troubled boys. The school acted as an alternative to juvenile detention, and earned a reputation for its intimate size, quaint setting, and "choice and natural consequences" philosophy, attracting media attention and countless documentaries about the program. The school's mission served teenage boys who had not recovered in more traditional programs.
From 2012 to 2018, the Penikese Island School acted as stewards of the island and helped to facilitate the important ongoing work of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife. In addition, during this period, Penikese Island School provided assistance to third-party non-profit organizations seeking to embrace the healing powers of Penikese Island to deliver youth-focused substance abuse treatment programs.
Today, the Penikese Island School, offers experiential educational programs, like Penikese Island Discovery, that deliver STEAM programing outside of the classroom with a focus on utilizing the natural island laboratory that is Penikese Island to make these subjects interesting and meaningful for students that spend time on Penikese Island.
Originally tree covered, at some later time the tree cover was lost, and the island was later used for pasturing sheep. To this day, it remains primarily grass covered.
The Penikese Island wildlife sanctuary with its crystal-clear waters, abundant bird populations, and a sense of quiet solitude remains unlike any other place on Buzzards Bay.
Habitats & Wildlife
Penikese Island has some of the healthiest waters in Buzzards Bay. Lush eelgrass meadows carpet the shallows, providing an important habitat for fish and shellfish. Because of these pristine waters, Penikese is one of the best places on the Bay to go snorkeling – hop in to see what underwater creatures you can find!
The island’s grassy hills and rocky beaches serve as a critical nesting colony for seabirds – particularly gulls and terns, including the endangered roseate tern. These birds are sensitive to disturbances, which makes remote Penikese Island an excellent place for them to breed. For birders, the island is a hotspot for dozens of species of seaducks, shorebirds, and songbirds.
Penikese Island is undergoing active habitat restoration, and the Penikese Island School, Inc. (and Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife staff during spring and early summer) act as stewards of the island in the management of the birds.
The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife is responsible for the conservation – including restoration, protection, and management – of fish and wildlife resources for the benefit and enjoyment of the public.