The area was originally settled by the Nauset tribe, who founded a settlement called Meeshawn. Bartholomew Gosnold, an English settler, named Cape Cod in Provincetown Harbor in 1602. In 1620, the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact when they arrived at the harbor. They agreed to settle and build a self-governing community, and then came ashore in the West End. Though the Pilgrims chose to settle across the bay in Plymouth, Provincetown enjoyed an early reputation for its fishing grounds. The "Province Lands" were first formally recognized by the union of Plymouth colony and Massachusetts Bay colony in 1692, and its first municipal government was established in 1714. Provincetown was incorporated by these settlers in 1727 after harboring ships for more than a century.
Following the American Revolution, Provincetown grew rapidly as fishing and whaling center. The population was bolstered by a number of Portuguese sailors who were hired to work on US ships and came to live in Provincetown. By the 1890s, Provincetown was booming, and began to develop a resident population of writers and artists, as well as a summer tourist industry. The 1898 Portland Gale severely damaged the Town's fishing industry, after which members of the Town's arts community took over many of the abandoned buildings. By the early decades of the 20th century, Provincetown had acquired an international reputation for its artistic and literary output. The Provincetown Players was an important experimental theater company formed during this period. It was an example of intellectual and artistic connections to Greenwich Village in New York City that began around that time.
In the mid-1960s, Provincetown saw population growth. The town's rural character appealed to the hippies of the era; furthermore, property was relatively cheap and rents were correspondingly low, especially during the winter. Many of those who came stayed and raised families. Commercial Street gained numerous cafes, leather shops, head shops — various hip small businesses blossomed and many flourished.
By the mid-1970s the gay community began moving to Provincetown in large numbers. Actually, homosexuality had been prevalent in Provincetown as early as the turn of the century with the introduction of the artists' colony. Drag queens could be seen performing as early as the 1940s in Provincetown. In 1978 the Provincetown Business Guild (PBG) was formed to promote gay tourism. Today more than 200 businesses belong to the PBG and Provincetown is perhaps the best-known gay summer resort on the East Coast.
Provincetown's tourist season has expanded to the point where the town has created festivals and weeklong events throughout the year. The most established are in the summer: the Portuguese Festival and PBG's Carnival Week.
Provincetown has always been renowned for its spectacular scenery, pristine beaches, great hiking, long, winding bike paths, restaurants, art galleries, theater and night life. The sightseeing in Provincetown is arguably Cape Cod's finest, with three lighthouses, serene salt marshes, tidal flats, sand bars, rolling sand dunes, and one of the calmest harbors on the Cape. Provincetown is also blessed with beautiful beaches and dunes on the Atlantic side. Race Point Beach has often made the lists of “top beaches” in America. It is one of the few spots on the east coast where one can watch the sun set into the water!