- Historic Sites
The Main Stream Of New England
Flowing from the Canadian border to Long Island Sound, nourishing both industry and agriculture, and carrying on its back sailing sloops, steamships, and pleasure craft, the Connecticut River has been for three hundred years.
April 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 3
In the state to which it gave its name the river varies in width from 600 to 2,100 feet; it is creased with shifting shoals that have always made navigation difficult for all but vessels with the shallowest draft, while the sand bar at its exit into the sound—formed by the conflux of river and tidal currents —prevents any great port from rising at its mouth. The historian Benjamin Trumbull once observed that “as its banks are generally low, it forms and fertilizes a vast tract of the finest meadow,” the unique sandy soil of which proved ideal for growing the Indian plant called tobacco, still an important crop in the Connecticut Valley. Especially in the last thirty miles of its course the river is an impressive spectacle: the rugged cliffs of the Middletown Straits, the gentle hills that turn purple in the twilight, the tree-covered islets, and everywhere the quiet villages with their tall while church spires and gracious homes built by river captains and merchants.
Immense schools of fish once populated the river. Salmon were so plentiful in colonial days that it was prohibited to feed them to bond servants more than thrice weekly. During the spawning season, one legend has it, a man with snowshoes could cross the river on their backs. In Old Saybrook’s South Cove one Elias Tully caught 3,700 salmon in one haul. Herring, striped bass, and shad also ran in great numbers. The latter sold for as little as a penny apiece, and people who would eat them were considered of pretty mean estate. Indians fertilized their cornfields with shad, but later the ingenious colonists found a market for them by salting and packing the fish in hogsheads and shipping them as far as Portugal.
What attracted the white man to the Connecticut River valley was, first of all, trade and, soon after, land. Block’s voyage upstream as far as the Enfield rapids had resulted in the exchange of goods for beaver pelts which the Indians had brought downriver in their long narrow dugouts. But no sooner had the Dutch erected—in 1633—a little fort and trading post called House of Hope, just below the present site of Hartford, than the English, both by sea and land, descended upon the valley. At the same time that the Pequots, a warlike division of the Mohegan, were making the initial sale of riverfront property to the Dutch (for, it is said, “1 piece of duffel…. 6 axes, 6 kettles, 18 knives, one sword blade, 1 pr. of shears, some toys, and a musket"), Podunk sachems were journeying to Boston and Plymouth to solicit English settlers with promises of corn and beaver skins and glowing descriptions of the “exceeding fruitfulness of the country.” What the Indians along the river wanted was protection against the hostile neighboring Pequots. The bait was taken when, in the fall of 1633, William Holmes and his followers settled at what became Windsor, Connecticut.
During the next few years groups from Massachusetts led by Thomas Hooker and others made settlements along the river at Hartford and Wethersfield. Thus was established the nucleus of the Connecticut colony. One eminent historian, Charles M. Andrews, maintains, in the face of some skepticism, that “every acre … was honestly obtained.” In any case, the land was worthless to the unwarlike river tribes without the Englishman’s musket. Soon the settlers and their Indian friends had to contend with and later decimate the Pequots. Eventually most of the red men disappeared before the onslaught of the white man’s diseases and the conversion of their hunting and fishing paradise into a land of villages and cultivated fields. Now the English had only the Dutch to deal with.
Considering their different objectives, it was inevitable that the English in their new settlements and the Dutch in their little fort would clash. Rarely on the frontier have agricultural and trading societies been able to live peacefully together. Out of this confrontation came the word that is now universally applied to citizens of the United States, “Yankee.” It probably derives from the Dutch diminutive of Jan, Janke (Johnny in English), and then, as now, one of the implications of the term was “rascal” or “brigand.” It was a common nickname among the Dutch buccaneers along the Spanish Main. Thus, it was natural for the Dutch traders to brand the Englishmen who coveted the rich meadowland around their post janke pirates.
With families to feed, the Yankee newcomers soon commenced to encroach on Dutch territory, planting life-giving corn and other crops. The Dutch were too few and the English multiplying too fast for the struggle to be even; unable to resolve their legal claims and unwilling to risk open warfare, the Hollanders finally sailed downriver for good in 1654. A hundred years later the Yankee, by then a trader par excellence, was the butt of jokes everywhere he appeared. But he always bore proudly the nickname which had come to connote, in addition to “rascal,” one who was shrewd, inventive, and practical; and some would proclaim, as did the hero of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: “I am an American. I was born and reared in Hartford, in the state of Connecticut. … So I am a Yankee of the Yankees. …”