Connecticut Past Facts

 Logging Misery and Death Aboard Connecticut Slave Ships

That’s the headline above a story written by author Anne Farrow in the June 11th Hartford Courant.  She tells the story of a little-known aspect of Connecticut history.

As she points out, Connecticut was heavily involved in the slave trade and profited handsomely from it. The story she relates is told through the logbooks of one Dudley Saltonstall, scion of a noted early Connecticut family. The story will be told in greater detail in her book The Logbooks: Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory to be published later this year by Wesleyan University Press.

In the meantime, you can read her story in The Hartford Courant.

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Mark Twain, the irascible Connecticut resident known to have an opinion on just about everything, once famously declaimed that everyone talked about the weather, but nobody ever did anything about it.  Well, if he had lived long enough to meet West Hartford native Edward Norton Lorenz he might have changed his mind. And then again Samuel Clemens might not have.

The United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, the smallest of our nation’s five service academies, has a long history in Connecticut. A little over a century’s worth of history, in fact.

Small ct flag                 P1080237 Display at the Connecticut River Museum   Boarding pistols have a long history in Connecticut. They were used for duels and the government called them horse pistols, because they were holstered and draped over a saddle. Such is their storied past that, a crossed pair of these pistols form the army’s military police insignia.  But today many associate these flintlock pistols with pirates and naval boarding parties. There are examples of this early weapon at the Coast Guard Museum at the academy in New London and at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex. The one in New London was manufactured in London and, it is thought, were used in customs houses in New England. The flintlock displayed at the Connecticut River Museum was made in Connecticut by a pioneering arms manufacturer from Berlin, Simeon North, who is among those credited with inventing the milling machine that made interchangeable parts practical. It was no small feat and revolutionized the arms industry.  As a testament to his importance, North had a 53-year contractual relationship with the U.S. War Department and produced pistols and rifles in significant quantities. Mr. North was born on the same day as another inventive genius who is  sometimes credited with inventing this important step forward in mass manufacturing, Eli Whitney. He was a Massachusetts native who lived for many years and died in New Haven. He is better known for his cotton gin. One of those can be found at the New Haven Museum. Small ct flag As one of the 13 American Originals, Connecticut has contributed in some significant, foundational ways to the development of the United States.  On top of that, a granite quarrying company in Branford provided a foundational experience of its own. The next time you visit the Statue of Liberty look at its base. Yes, it was cut out of Connecticut ground.

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From the early days of our country, Connecticut had more inventors, per capita, than any other state, according to no less an authority than the U.S. Patent Office.  One of those creative geniuses was a New London dentist and dental surgeon, Dr. Washington Wentworth Sheffield.

Dr. Sheffield is best known today as the inventor of toothpaste and the developer of a collapsible tube to contain his product. Although greatly expanded in its scope of operation, his company lives on in New London and still bears his name. Small ct flag The telling of our history can produce a complicated tapestry of events, activities, and personalities. When woven together in story form and handed down through the centuries, the process can take a toll on those pesky details. Connecticut’s involvement in the Civil War is a case in point, says Professor Matthew Warshauer of the history department at Central Connecticut State University. In the popular telling today, Connecticut, a northern state far from the battlefields where the bloodletting took place was a strong supporter of the war. Well, it wasn’t that simple. Connecticut’s role, it is widely thought today, was marginal because of this geographic distance and differences of opinion, sometimes loud and violent about the war. Though the dispute about whether the war should be fought was widespread in Connecticut, it was a major producer of arms and manpower in its cause. The Civil War was fought to free the slaves. That was a byproduct of the war, but not its specific cause. Again, the story is more nuanced, historians tell us. Read what Professor Warshauer wrote on that assertion and other aspects of Connecticut’s involvement in a war that pitted American against American and was anything but civil, despite its name. Small ct flag  Colonial Connecticut had seventeen men who served as its governor, each named to one-year terms, from 1639 to 1776. The first, John Haynes, and the second, Edward Hopkins, named in 1640, alternated in this position until 1656, with a one-year lapse, 1642-1643, when George Wyllys served in the job.  Other colonial governor facts include:

  • Wyllys owned the property where Connecticut’s famed Charter Oak stood.
  • Thomas Welles is the only man to hold all four top offices in the colony:  governor, deputy governor, treasurer and secretary.
  • Sir Edmund Andros actually served as the head of the Dominion of New England, which initially included five territories, including Connecticut.
  • Despite being named governor again in 1655, Mr. Hopkins was in England, where he remained throughout his term. He died there in 1657.
  • To William Pitkin goes the distinction of raising troops in Connecticut for an expedition to the Spanish West Indies for a war with a most unusual name, the War of Jenkins’ Ear. (Yes, that was its name.)
  • Joseph Talcott, 1724-1741, was the first governor to be born in Connecticut.
  • The last colonial governor, Jonathan Trumbull, was also the first governor of the newly independent State of Connecticut after the Revolutionary War.

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A trip Down Memory Lane, historically speaking:  A book written as part of the Federal Writers Project, a depression-era initiative, contains a comprehensive menu, soup-to-nuts, of Connecticut, its people, lore and  a whole lot more. One section contains 131 “Connecticut Firsts” between 1636 to 1936. Tte list is pretty impressive, and you can see it, starting on page 111.

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NEW HAVEN – Dutch Explorer Adraien Block made a cameo appearance here 400 years ago in 1614 when the Quinnipiac lived in villages around the harbor. An advance party of English Puritans arrived in 1637. The next year, the full complement of these religious purist refugees arrived and paid the indigenous residents for the land in exchange for protection from the rival Pequots. Fast forward to colonial times through statehood, and this city by the Sound became a colony and then one of two capitals of Connecticut.  And that was only the beginning for this place that so long ago was deemed a new haven.    Small ct flag  –The airplane became a battle-tested weapon of war with the outbreak of World War I 100 years ago this August. It caused more than 37 million civilian and military casualties and become known for a time as the war to end all wars.  The airplane wasn’t the only new weapon introduced. There were machine guns and tanks as well, but it was the aerial duels over the Western Front that caught people’s imagination. Before our country entered the war, a group of American volunteers flew in the French-based Lafayette Escadrille.  One of their number, Raoul Lufbery, a man who called Wallingford, Connecticut home became America’s first air ace and for a time was wildly famous. Except for a park in his adopted hometown he is largely forgotten today.

The New England Air Museum, located adjacent to Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, has an exhibit on the Layayette Escadrille and Flying Corps and the Lufbery story is related there in some detail. 

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–Abel Buell was a branded Man. Literally. But that wasn’t all. The New Haven resident used a minting machine he invented to make Connecticut’s first official pennies. A silversmith, typefounder and engraver he is perhaps best known today for being the first American to make the first map of the newly independent United States and have it copyrighted. One of the few remaining originals is on exhibit at the Library of Congress in Washington.

Years before that achievement he became the first Connecticut resident to win a patent for an invention, a lapidary machine, but before all that he a counterfeiter who received a most unusual punishment for altering the value of five pound note  engraving plates. He was branded.

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–Benjamin Franklin, inventor, author and Founding Father, is a storied figure in American history. His son, William, the Royal Governor of New Jersey, was another story entirely.      The Tory supporter was imprisoned in Connecticut in summer of 1776, and not released until 1778 when Congress voted that he be exchanged for the rebel governor of Delaware, John McKinly.  The Franklins never met again.

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—-The Salem witch trials of 17th century New England are well known. But the first known witchcraft trial and execution in the 13 American colonies took place in 1647 Connecticut. Excluding the trails in Salem, Based on its population, Connecticut was the witchcraft center of New England.

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—-The first recorded fall of a meteorite in the New World took place on Dec. 14, 1807 in Weston, Connecticut. It dropped fragments along  a ten-mile path in the eastern part of Fairfield county. A large chunk can be seen today at Yale’s Peabody Museum.

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—-In 1809, James Madison was in the White House and the nation was heading toward the War of 1812.  In Killingly, a small town in eastern Connecticut, Mary Dixon Kies became the first woman in the United States to receive a patent. Dolly Madison, the president’s wife, sent her congratulations. 

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—-In 1861, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon became the first Union general to be killed in the Civil War. He was also the first Union general to take the offensive in that war. Born in what is now Eastford, Connecticut, in Windham County, he was killed in Missouri while rallying his outnumbered troops in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.

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—-A television documentary on the History Channel described the Pequot War in Connecticut, 1636-1637, as one of ten events that unexpectedly changed America.

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—-Although the city of Middletown is some 30 miles up the Connecticut River from the open waters of Long Island Sound, it was once a major port in the Northeast on a par with those in New York and Boston.

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—-Big anniversary this year.  It is 400 years since the Dutch explorer Adriaen Block sailed his 45-foot ship Onrust up the Connecticut, becoming the first recorded European to do so and the first to map the river and the Connecticut shoreline.

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—-Both the first submarine, documented to have been used in war, the American Revolutionary War, the Turtle, and the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, the Nautilus, were made in Connecticut.

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—-Connecticut’s Jonathan Trumbull Sr. was the only colonial governor to side with the rebels during the Revolutionary War.  He also was last governor of the Colony of Connecticut and the first governor of the State of Connecticut.

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—-Among the many “firsts” claimed by Connecticut were these:  U.S. map, 1783; football game, 1879; woman dentist, 1855; hamburger, 1895.

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