The Main Stream Of New England

PrintPrintEmailEmailA river is the most human and companionable of all inanimate things,” wrote the famous clergyman-educator Henry van Dyke. “It has a life, a character, a voice of its own.” Everyone, therefore, has his favorite stream, from Father Tiber to the mighty Pedernales. Ancient man revered and deified great rivers like the Ganges and the Nile, and along them have grown trade, settlement, and civilization.
The Connecticut River, to be sure, is neither one of the longest nor in any way the most ancient of this great company, but it fits van Dyke’s description like a glove. Some artists have thought it compares for beauty, in places, with the Hudson and the Rhine. It is the only body of water which runs the full length of New England, some four hundred miles from mountain lakes near the Canadian border to Long Island Sound. Once the hunting and fishing grounds of peaceful river Indians—among them the Podunks, Wongunks, and others—then a trading post for the enterprising Dutch, and finally a new territory for land-hungry English settlers, the Connecticut River valley saw many firsts in the history of the new land. Most of these occurred along the seventy miles of riverway within what is now the state of Connecticut. Here were born both the Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards and the inventor of the steamboat, John Fitch; the first cigars, the first canal, the first vessel to engage in the West Indian trade, the first American-built warship (the Oliver Cromwell, out of Essex), the first bicycle factory, all these came into being along the Connecticut. The valley is also the home of the oldest continuously published daily newspaper in America, the Hartford Courant (originally the Connecticut Courant), which dates back to 1764. Perhaps most significant, this is the place where, in drawing up the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, the founders of the colony brought to birth the world’s first written constitution which created a representative government.

The little colony of Connecticut had an impact upon the development of the United States far beyond its size and population. In the nineteenth century, that keen observer of America Alexis de Tocqueville summed up this fact in a speech to Americans celebrating the Fourth of July in Paris in 1835. Recounting, in his heavily accented English, an illuminating experience he had had in the gallery of the House of Representatives in Washington, he recalled:

… I held one map of the Confederation in my hand. Dere was von leetle yellow spot dey called Connect-de-coot. I found by the Constitution he was entitled to six of his boys to represent him on dat floor. But ven I make de acquaintance person elle with de member, I find dat more than tirty of the Representatif on dat floor was born in Connect-de-coot. And then ven I was in the gallery of the House of the Sen at , I find de Constitution permits Connect-de-coot to send two of his boys to represent him in dat Legislature. But once more … I find nine of de Senator was born in Connect-de-coot. … the leetle yellow spot … make de clockpeddler, de school master, and de senator. De first, give you time; the second, tell you what you do with him; and de sird make your law and your civilization.

In his recollection of Tocqueville’s remarks, quoted here, the Congregationalist historian William S. Fowler may have made the accent a bit theatrical, but the sentiments are undoubtedly genuine.

But let us return to where the story begins: the river was called the Quinnehtukqut by the Indians, meaning “long estuary” or “long tidal river,” because the tide rises and falls as far north as the Enfiekl rapids, almost at the Massachusetts line, sixty miles from its mouth. The Connecticut twists and eddies through stretches of woods, meadows, and marshes that delight the eye of the modern adventurer as much as they must have pleased the Dutch explorer Adriaen Block when he sailed upstream in 1614. Block had been preparing to return to Holland from the island of Manhattan with a cargo of furs when his ship burned. He and his crew then built the Onrust (the name means “unrest” or “restless") and continued along the coast to the Connecticut, which he called De Versehe, “the Freshwater” river. (The explorer is memorialized by Block Island, just outside the point where Long Island Sound meets the Atlantic.)