- 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
One of the warmest debates over American history has been centered around the question of whether or not Thomas Hooker’s concept of government and the Fundamental Orders which he persuaded the Connecticut colonists to adopt in 1639 were really democratic. It is undoubtedly too much to claim that they were democratic in the modern sense of the word. Hooker's departure from Massachusetts was primarily motivated by a desire, not to abolish the Puritan state, but to found a less rigidly theocratic one of his own. Hooker’s ideas were much closer to our modern notions than were those prevalent in Massachusetts Bay. “The foundation of authority,” Hooker theorized, “is laid, firstly, in the free consent of the people.” Even if by “people” Hooker meant the “admitted inhabitants” and freemen who were competent, church-going Congregationalists and land owners, his scheme was much more inclusive than that of the Boston theocrats who limited the control of government to those few church members who were, in their eyes, “spiritually elect.”
Affairs in Connecticut towns were initially concluded by committees appointed in a meeting of the whole electorate; later this function was taken over by elected town officers, subsequently called selectmen. In practice, a very few men—ministers, merchants, and lawyers from the leading families, the so-called Standing Order—controlled the government well into the nineteenth century. Town meetings were held monthly, called at nine in the morning by the beating of a drum or the blowing of a trumpet from the top of the meeting house. Since the same building was used for both religious and civic functions, practically speaking Church and State were one until the constitution of 1818 disestablished the Congregational Church as the state-supported religion. But the town meeting survives: 118 of Connecticut’s 169 towns retain this form of self-rule.
The next settlement after the three original river towns was Saybrook, which played a leading role in the river’s history because of its strategic location near the mouth. In 1635 a group of Puritan lords, having obtained a grant from Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick, to the Saybrook territory, sent over a tough but fair-minded soldier and military engineer, Lion Gardiner, at a salary of 100 pounds per annum, to build a fort and take charge of the defenses of the colony. In April, 1636, during an Indian siege, a son was born to Gardiner and his Dutch wife, the first recorded birth of a white child in the colony. William Fiennes, First Viscount Saye and Sele, and Robert Greville, Lord Brooke, and their fellow adventurers hoped to make Saybrook a Puritan refuge from royal persecution. But though a number of prominent Puritans were interested in the scheme, only George Fenwick and his lovely redheaded lady, Alice, ever came to claim their share of the land. The Fenwicks’ dream of building a manor house was shattered by the marauding Pequots, while the fickle sandbar at the river’s mouth spoiled their plan of making Saybrook Point a port.
Finally, in 1644, Fenwick sold the fort to the General Court at Hartford. The terms required the colonists to pay him twopence per bushel for “all graine that shall be exported out of this River for ten yeares ensueing,” sixpence per hundredweight for “Biskett,” and twenty shillings for each hogshead of beaver. Later, the terms were changed to a flat payment of 180 pounds annually, one third in good wheat, one third in peas, and one third in rye or barley. After Lady Fenwick’s death in 1645 George Fenwick returned to England. But Lion Gardiner bought an island off the tip of Long Island, named it after himself, and thus established a manor which has remained in the Gardiner family to this day.
The deal between Fenwick and the General Court at Hartford was typical of the barter system which the Yankees used from the beginning along the river highway and, in time, refined to the highest degree. The first building erected at the confluence of the Farmington and Connecticut rivers, at Windsor in 1633, was the Plymouth trading house, which in prefabricated form had been transported over water by William Holmes from Plymouth, Massachusetts.
William Pynchon, at Springfield, Massachusetts, was the first Englishman to establish a thriving river trade; because of the rapids at Enfield he built, in 1636, a warehouse just above Windsor, where he could unload his shallops and pinnaces and move the goods overland to Springfield or transfer the cargo to flatboats poled by a dozen stout men who, their labors eased by ample consumption of West Indian kill-devil, braved the rapids and reached Springfield by water. Pynchon’s trade with the Indians was mostly in pelts, which he shipped to Boston. In fact beaver skins were such a common medium of exchange that when merchants struck the first coins or tokens, long before the issuance of government currency, that specie bore a crude image of the valuable little animal and the coins were popularly called beavers.