This harbor was the site of a War of 1812 skirmish in which the Orleans militia kept a British warship from docking. In the 19th century Orleans had an active saltworks, and a flourishing packet service between Rock Harbor and Boston developed. Today it’s the base of charter-fishing and party boats in season, as well as of a small commercial fishing fleet. Sunsets over the harbor are spectacular, and it’s a great place to watch the boats float past.
In early 1814, the arrival of British naval ships released from European war duties brought economic hardships to Cape Cod. Provincetown became the headquarters for the H.M.S. Newcastle, captained by Lord George Stuart, as well as the Acasta, Spencer and the Arab
Circumstances leading to the Battle of Orleans began off Wellfleet’s Billingsgate Shoal on the night of December 12, 1814 when the H.M.S. Newcastle ran aground. At daylight, the crew began rafting spars, rigging, and other marine equipment to lighten the vessel. The Orleans citizens later destroyed some of those materials that washed into Rock Harbor.
On December 13, Captain Stuart dispatched a yawl to seek the valued marine items. At the entrance to Rock Harbor, they discovered the sloop Camel full of provisions having evaded the bay blockade. The British commandeered the Camel along with the Newcastle’s lost materials, placing a captive American in charge to pilot. He grounded the Camel off Wellfleet, and everyone deserted ship. Five British prisoners were marched off to Boston and the provisions were re-captured by the militia patrol.
This small skirmish known as the Battle of Orleans, or Rock Harbor, was one of the last military incidents of the war. The peace treaty of Ghent, Belgium was signed on 24 December 1814.