The Santuit River (also less commonly known as the Cotuit River on early USGS maps) roughly delineates the border of the village of Cotuit on the east and the town Mashpee to the west and marked the western-most line of the 1648 land transaction between the Wampanoag headman, Paupummunck and Captain Myles Standish. The border between Cotuit and Mashpee was extended to the east of the river north of the present-day Route 28 by Richard Bourne in 1670, when he acquired the lands that comprise Mashpee for the benefit of the tribe and wanted to insure the ancestral lands around the eastern shore of Santuit Pond were included within the borders.
The etymology of the word “Santuit” from the Wopanaak language (a dialect within the Algonquin family of native languages), and is probably best defined as “Place of the Sachem.” The suffix “-tuit” means “place” (akin to appending “-ville” or “-berg” to a place name). The prefix, “San-” or “Sanq” means sachem, or wise man, according to Cotuit historians James Gould and Kenneth Molloy in a history of Santuit written for the Cotuit-Santuit Historical Society.
The river begins at the southern end of Santuit Pond and runs about three miles south to the sea. More a stream than a river — it is no more than six feet wide on average and about one foot in depth — but has a strong place in local history, Wampanoag legend, and is of ecological and economic significance as a once thriving herring run for alewives and blueback herring and irrigation source for the cranberry bogs it traverses.
The Santuit River was also once known as a trout stream, with historic luminaries such as Daniel Webster and President Grover Cleveland fishing its waters for brook trout and native sea-run brown trout. A contemporary account of fishing the Santuit can be found on the blog, Trout Grave:
"I drove down to the little bridge next to the Horse Farm on Sampson’s Mill Road, where the river forms the town line between Mashpee and Barnstable. This was the terminus of my trout fishing expeditions that started at the concrete flume on Factory road, where I waded the length of the river between those two points catching 7″-10″ pan sized brookies with worms and wet flies. The river was never more than chest deep. It was clean though, unlike today."
The Wampanoag Indians’ legend attributes the source of the Santuit to a man-sized trout — The Great Trout — who, beguiled by the sound of a beautiful maiden singing on the shores of Santuit Pond, worked his way arduously up from Shoestring Bay, through the forest before expiring, unrequited, less than a mile from his romantic goal. Historians place the location of the Great Trout’s grave at two locations. One is behind 31 Main Street in Santuit, the other is across Route 28 and north of the cranberry bogs about a half-mile south of the herring ladder at the southern end of Santuit Pond.
The latter location, known as the Trout Grave, is described in “Son of Mashpee,” by the Wampanoag historian, Earl Mills Sr., Chief Flying Eagle, and was once a scenic attraction for tourists. To the north of the Trout Grave, is the site of the “ancient” village of the Wampanoags as noted on a map drawn by Yale President Ezra Stiles during a visit to Mashpee in the late 1700s. The spot lies between the present site of the Santuit River herring ladder and an abandoned cranberry bog that formerly was operated by the A.D. Makepeace Company (aka “Oceanspray”). It is unknown if any archaelogical projects have been performed there to confirm the location of the village as described by Stiles.
To the west of the herring run is the site of the former Marshpee Basket and Broom Factory, an enterprise founded in 1866 by a partnership of Wampanoags that included the Rev. John E. Wood, Solomon and Benjamin Attaquin, Mathias Amos, Oakm,s Coiombs, G. Sewall and Samuel Godfrey. The company bought the land near the headwaters of the Santuit River, began operations but eventually transitioned into the cranberry business.
Cranberries were an important industry along the northern reaches of the Santuit River and doubtlessly, as seen in other south Cape rivers, had a significant environmental impact on the natural course of the stream. Cranberry bogs naturally occur in the bottom of the kettle holes, geological depressions formed by the uneven melting of ice masses during the recession of the Laurentian ice-cap more than 12,000 years ago. The cranberry, known as one of the few native American fruits (along with the blueberry and Concord grape), is cultivated in bogs but must have a dependable source of fresh water and sand as the berries need to be seasonally submerged, and then covered with a thin layer of sand to promote a profitable harvest.
The rivers of the south Cape — from Falmouth through Barnstable — were a convenient source of the water the cranberry industry depended on, and the subsequent diversion and damming of those streams (such as the Coonamesset, Quashnet, Quaker’s Run, Santuit, Mills, Little and Skunknet Rivers) had a negative impact on the native fish populations ranging from alewives to searun brown trout to smelt.
Today a series of abandoned cranberry bogs lies to the south of Santuit Pond, from the site of the broom factory, past the Trout Grave and down to Route 28 and the intersection with Route 130 at the colonial center of Santuit. This area was slated to be developed into a golf course in the 1990s, but alarmed conservationists were able to acquire the land with state and local funds to preserve the area as open space.
The river flows under Route 28 and then passes behind Santuit village to Old King’s Road, also known as Sampson’s Mill Road the site of the former Maushop Stables, a horse stable. At this site stood a grist mill built by Josiah Sampson in the early 19th century. All that remains of the Mill are the granite blocks from the original stone foundation re-used in the construction of the present bridge and culvert over the stream.
From Sampson’s Mill the river runs south through thickets adjacent to the Willow Bend golf course and was is noted on an old USGS map as the “Santuit Golf Course” before opening up into a large open saltwater marsh abutting the Cotuit Bay condominiums (constructed about thirty years ago by local developer Stuart Bornstein). It finally ends at the bridge between Cotuit and Mashpee on Quinnaquisset Road, variously known as the “Crabbing” bridge because of the blue crabs that could be harvested there in the past before the eutrophication of Shoestring Bay occurred due to over nitrification caused by over-development, septic systems, lawn fertilizer and other man-made sources of nitrogen.
- The Mashpee Environmental Council has an excellent historical and environmental overview of the Santuit River and Santuit Pond in its online library. “The Sachem’s Place: Cotuit/Santuit Watershed”
- Wikipedia has a sparse definition of the Santuit River, but is illustrated with an old USGS topographical map that refers to the “Cotuit River.”
- The papers of the Cotuit-Santuit Historical Society are available at the Cotuit Library. The paper by James Gould and Kenneth Molloy is entitled, “A History of Santuit