Preserving the Great Beach: Kennedy and the Creation of Cape Cod National Seashore

President Kennedy signed a bill authorizing the establishment of the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1961. By learning about the creation of the Seashore, students reflect on the importance of land conservation and the role of the federal government in preserving natural and historical resources.

About this Resource

Grade Level
Time Required
1-2 hours
Curricular Resource Type
Lesson Plans & Activities
Curricular Resource Subject Area
Civics and US Government
English Language Arts
US History
Curricular Resource Topic
Civic Education and Engagement
Curricular Standards
Common Core
C3 Framework for Social Studies
National History Standards (UCLA)
National Council of Teachers of English
Massachusetts Framework - History and Social Science


Topic: Civic Education and Engagement, Geography, Environment

Grade Level: 3 - 6

Subject Area: Civics and US Government, English Language Arts, Science, US History

Time Required: 1 - 2 hours



President Kennedy signed a bill authorizing the establishment of Cape Cod National Seashore in 1961. By learning about the creation of the Seashore, students reflect on the importance of land conservation and the role of the federal government in preserving natural and historical resources.

Essential Question

Why is land conservation important and how does the federal government support it? 


Students will be able to:

  • explain the importance of Cape Cod National Seashore. 
  • read a map and identify key features. 
  • pose questions, gather information from a variety of source materials, and analyze the evidence.




Land development - making changes to natural land for a purpose such as farming, housing, business, or industry.

Land conservation - the protection and care of natural land resources such as coastal areas, farmland, and forests. Land conservation helps with protecting habitats, historic sites, and creating recreational opportunities. 

National Park Service - an agency of the United States government that takes care of  all national parks, most national monuments, national seashores, and other natural, historical, and recreational properties.

National seashore - coastal areas managed by the federal government to protect the land and provide recreational opportunities such as swimming, hiking, and biking.


Prior Knowledge and Skills

If students are not familiar with the National Park Service, share the definition. Have students explore parks in their state and the rest of the country on the National Park Service's interactive map

Historical Background and Context

 "We are tied to the ocean, and when we go back to the sea, whether to sail or to watch, we are going back to whence we came."  John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy spent some of his most joyous and nourishing time near the ocean: swimming, sailing, and relaxing with friends and family. Starting at age eleven, he spent summers in Hyannis Port on Cape Cod, the arm-shaped strand of Massachusetts land that juts out more than sixty miles into the Atlantic Ocean. The Kennedy family had a compound of three houses on beachfront property where he swam, played, and sailed from his pre-teen years through his presidency. He experienced firsthand the natural beauty of Cape Cod and sought its unique landscape for recreation, comfort, and replenishment.

By the time Kennedy was elected US Senator of Massachusetts in 1952, many Americans had more access to automobiles, highways, and leisure time. These changes led to fast-growing land development on Cape Cod. There was a growing concern among some residents, leaders, and the National Park Service about what would happen to the unique coastal habitats if hotels, housing developments, and tourist attractions took the place of the beaches, marshes, ponds, and forests. If all of the beachfront property was purchased by individuals, it would limit public access to the “Great Beach,” a stretch of over 40 miles of Outer Cape shoreline described in a 1954 National Park Service study, as “the longest unbroken and undeveloped beach in the country.”

The National Park Service had first studied the possibility of a national seashore in Massachusetts in 1939 and by the 1950s, made establishing Cape Cod National Seashore a priority. However, the idea faced widespread opposition from private property owners, land developers, and longtime residents. In 1958, Massachusetts Senators John F. Kennedy and Leverett Saltonstall proposed a bill which included provisions to allow property owners to keep homes that existed within the boundaries of the national seashore. It also included a process for local input on park decisions. Hastings Keith, a congressman representing Cape Cod, introduced an identical bill in the House of Representatives. The bills failed to pass but a similar bill was reintroduced in 1961 after Kennedy had been elected President of the United States. He signed the Cape Cod National Seashore bill on August 7, 1961. In his remarks after signing the legislation, Kennedy asserted, “This Act makes it possible for the people of the United States through their government to acquire and preserve the natural and historic values of a portion of Cape Cod for the inspiration and enjoyment of people all over the United States.” 

Cape Cod National Seashore conserves 44,600 acres of dunes, marshes, ponds, forests, and beaches, including forty miles of shoreline. The protected wetland, coastal, and upland ecosystems support over 570 species of amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and hundreds  of invertebrate animals. In addition to the natural world, the seashore protects historic sites and structures such as lighthouses and historic homes. As a national seashore, it allows public access and monitored regulated recreational activities such as swimming, hiking, and biking. With sea levels rising and the constant challenge of other environmental impacts, the land, water, and ecosystems preserved by Cape Cod National Seashore is more important than ever.

Bibliography for historical background:

Cape Cod National Seashore, National Park Service, August 2022,

Carr, Ethan. The Greatest Beach: A History of Cape Cod National Seashore. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2019.

Lombardo, Daniel. Cape Cod National Seashore: The First 50 Years. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2010.

O’Connell, James C. Becoming Cape Cod. Lebanon, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2003.



  1. Project the image of the Cape Cod National Seashore 25th Anniversary medal and ask students to make observations about the artifact. 
  2. Brainstorm a list of questions about the artifact. Include the following question if it is not suggested:
    • What is Cape Cod National Seashore and why was it created?
  3. Explain that they will watch a video from Cape Cod National Seashore to find answers to some of their questions. 
  4. Make a chart with these four categories: 1) Animals; 2) Plants and Trees; 3) Historic Sites and Buildings; and 4) Land Formations and Bodies of Water. Explain that they will fill in the chart after the video.
  5. Following the video, refer back to students’ questions and record responses they learned. Work in groups or individually to list on the chart everything they saw or heard on the video (Teachers can access suggested answers on the Teacher Chart.) 
  6. Explain that they are going to create an illustrated map of Cape Cod National Seashore to show the land, wildlife, and history that it preserves, but first they need to learn more about the Seashore, where it is located, and how it was created.
  7. Project or have students find Cape Cod on Google Earth: begin with an image of the United States, locate the Northeast, and then enlarge the view of what looks like an “arm and fist” which is Cape Cod. Have them explore the coastline, noticing where there are roads, buildings, and other types of development, and where there is undeveloped land. 
    • What do they notice about the land?
    • What parts of the coastline are developed and what parts are not?
    • Why are some developed, and some are not?
    • What would happen if the entire coastline was developed?
  8. Look at the Cape Cod National Seashore map and explain that much of the large undeveloped coastline shown on the Google Earth map is part of the Cape Cod National Seashore.
    • Who is allowed to visit a National Seashore? (It is open to the public. Anyone can go although some beaches charge for parking and entry in the summer months.)
    • Who is allowed to build within the National Seashore? (There are no private homes or businesses in a National Park or National Seashore. The only buildings are ones that were there when the Seashore was created, or buildings for the park. The idea is to preserve the land in its natural state.)
    • How was the Seashore created? Did everyone want it? (Provide the following information and source material to help students answer these questions.)
  9. Show the photograph of young John F. Kennedy and his siblings swimming on Cape Cod and provide background information about his connection to the sea including the following:
    • John F. Kennedy swam, played, and sailed from his pre-teen years through his presidency.
    • Cape Cod National Seashore had first been considered in 1939.
    • As US Senator of Massachusetts, Kennedy submitted legislation (a law) to establish the Cape Cod National Seashore. 
    • At first, there was not enough support for the law
      • Some people did not want the federal government to take their homes or control how the land was used. 
      • They also did not want too many people coming to Cape Cod. 
  10. By the time Kennedy was president, the Congress was able to pass a bill that included compromises to address these concerns. Show the photograph of JFK signing the legislation. Congress voted to pass the bill but who has to sign it to make it official, to make it a law? (The president.)
    • What role did JFK play in creating the Seashore? (As a US Senator of Massachusetts, he submitted legislation. Congress passed the bill to establish the Cape Cod National Seashore after Kennedy was elected president and he signed it into law on August 7, 1961.)
  11. Hand out or project his remarks. Direct students to the second paragraph and ask them to put it in their own words.
    • Why do you think President Kennedy submitted the bill and signed the legislation? (He thought it was important to preserve the land, wildlife, and historic sites on Cape Cod. He wanted them to be accessible to everyone.)
  12. Explain that students will now have a chance to show the natural and historic resources that have been preserved because of protecting land and other resources in Cape Cod National Seashore. Have students pick one of the items listed on the chart and draw a picture of it. See Cape Cod National Seashore website for specific information about nature, history and culture in the Park.
  13. Print the map and post the images to “frame” the map. You can use colored string or yarn to link the images to specific areas of the Park, when appropriate.



Have students summarize what they have learned by responding to the questions, “What might have happened to all the animals, plants, land, and bodies of water that you learned about if the Cape Cod National Seashore had not been created? Who would be able to access this land and coastline?” Students can respond orally, in writing, or by drawing on a copy of the Cape Cod National Seashore map. 


Creating a New National Seashore or Park: Have students work individually or in groups to identify an area in their county, state, or another part of the country that they think should be a national seashore or national park. They can use the “National Seashore or Park Proposal” sheet to compile their information. They will “survey” the area by researching it to find out about: 

  • Land features
  • Bodies of water
  • Plants
  • Animals
  • History and Culture

They will create a design for a medal, similar to the 25th anniversary medal they analyzed at the beginning of the lesson. They should also provide a rationale for why this area should be a national park or seashore. 

Additional Resources

Media Gallery: The Sea 
This collection of over 30 photographs, textual materials, and artifacts documents the importance of the ocean throughout John F. Kennedy’s life.

Podcast: Saving our Shorelines 
Created for adults, this 35-minute podcast and transcript looks at the history and legacy of Cape Cod National Seashore. 

Cape Cod National Seashore 
The National Park Service’s official website on CCNS that includes maps, detailed information on nature, history, and culture, and listings of events and activities.

Mass Moments: JFK Signs Bill Creating Cape Cod National Seashore 
Part of the Mass Humanities series, this is an excellent summary of the actions and decisions leading up to the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore.


Connections to Curriculum (Standards)

National History Standards: 
3. Historical Analysis and Interpretation 
4. Historical Research Capabilities

Common Core State Standards 
ELA College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language

NCSS C3 Framework 
Discipline 1 - Developing questions and planning inquiries; 
Discipline 3 - Evaluating sources and using evidence

Massachusetts History and Social Studies Frameworks 
5.T3 Principles of United States Government 

National Council of Teachers of English Standards

1. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print- and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.

2. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.