1634-WETHERSFIELD

John Oldham was a colonist in New England, born in England about 1600. A trader, he emigrated to Plymouth in 1623 but was banished (1624) because of his opposition to the strict government. Later he was involved in establishing the unsuccessful settlement on Cape Ann (1626), several of the settlements in the Massachusetts Bay colony, and Wethersfield, Conn. His murder by the Pequot on Block Island in 1636 was one of the events leading to the Pequot War.

At Wethersfield, and on the site of Hartford, immigrants built log huts in the snow, and there they passed a dreary, bitter winter in great privation, for a vessel in which had been sent clothing and household furniture was kept back by the ice. Snow fell to a great depth. Many cattle suffered and perished from want of food, and the settlers were threatened with the horrors of famine. In the face of this impending peril many of them made their way to the mouth of the river in the vain expectation of finding their food-bearing vessel, which, alas had been beaten into pieces on the rocks. When almost despairing, another vessel appeared, in which they sailed to Boston. The settlers whom they left behind subsisted much of the time upon acorns, Indian corn and malt, until the spring opened and supplies were sent to them from Massachusetts, then rapidly filling with emigrants. Twenty vessels had brought three thousand colonists to its shores during the year 1635. - - - - B. J.Lossing

There are few communities in America as old as Wethersfield, Connecticut. Like many of Americas best-preserved Colonial towns, it has been the beneficiary of its own misfortune. One of the busiest shipping ports between New York and Newport, Wethersfield fell victim to shifting economic forces in the 19th century. Within a few decades, the town went from a regional commerce hub to an all but forgotten farming community. Despite the proximity of the thriving state capitol, Hartford, only four miles distant, the factories, mills, warehouses, and mass housing of America's Industrial Age bypassed Wethersfield.

While Wethersfield' s decline into obscurity may have frustrated town fathers, it ultimately resulted in the preservation of most of its early houses and buildings. Today, the town is proud to claim the largest historic district in the state, comprising almost 200 buildings built before 1850.

By the time America won her independence, Wethersfield had been thriving for almost 150 years. Its origins can be traced back to 1633 when trader John Oldham returned to his home in Watertown, Massachusetts, telling tales of a broad and fertile river valley some 100 miles distant - a land the local Wongunk Indians called Quonehtacut. Oldham' s descriptions of a slow-moving river full of salmon, forests teeming with game, and fertile soil induced a group from Watertown to migrate to present-day Wethersfield the following year. They encamped at a site the Indians called Pyquag, meaning "cleared land." With word of the region's abundance traveling fast, settlements were established almost concurrently at nearby Windsor and Hartford. By the end of 1636, about 800 settlers populated the three towns. In 1639, they collaborated to produce the Fundamental Orders, what many historians consider to be America's first written constitution.

From the start, the most important of these towns was Hartford, settled by the congregation of Massachusetts preacher Thomas Hooker. But Wethersfield took advantage of its location to establish itself as a commercial center. At the time, the Connecticut River could be navigated by ships for 40 miles upstream before an island and sandbars blocked further passage. Wethersfield was just below this point, at a sharp bend that created a natural port.

Early trade consisted of exchanging forest-related products such as shingles and barrel staves for necessities such as clothing, tools, and seeds from Boston. This was soon overshadowed by a rapidly growing trade with the West Indies. Onions, dried meat, tobacco, seeds, cattle, horses, and hides were shipped from Wethersfield to the Caribbean Returning ships brought sugar, salt, rum, tea, coffee, and spices. The ships involved in this trade were built, owned, and manned by Wethersfield residents, often in partnership with men from nearby towns.

Before long, Wethersfield was the central supply depot to the entire Connecticut River Valley. The resulting prosperity engendered an thriving merchant class, able to afford sophisticated luxuries associated with large cities. Whatever couldn't be made by the area's skilled craftsmen was imported - fine fabrics, ceramics, silver, glassware, and books - and sold locally.

Wethersfield's buildings are an index to an index to the town's past. Garrison-like houses of the 17th and early 18th century reflect a time when security from hostile Pequots was important. The 1764 brick meeting house, with its Christopher Wren-inspired steeple, reflects the sophistication of the town in its heyday. The few notable Federal- style buildings mark the verge of its decline, when the town's prominence in shipping diminished. The structures form a type of family tree, detailing a still-vibrant community, enriched by those who created its legacy: Indian fighters, Constitution framers, ambassadors, tradesmen, merchants, and sea captains who walked its streets.

Seventeenth-century America was, in many ways, no different than other English colonies. Most of its settlers lived with one foot in the New World and one foot in their European homelands. A great number were either born or had lived in Great Britain. They dressed like Englishmen, preferred to eat English cuisine, and, not surprisingly, built and lived in English-style houses. The Buttolph-Williams House, one of the oldest in Wethersfield, exemplifies the split personality of early Colonial homes with its combination of English and American design elements.

One such was John Buttolph, a trader and glove-maker. At his death on January 14, 1692, he was a wealthy man with an estate valued at more than 1,000 pounds. His first son, John, received the bulk of the estate, and chose to live on family lands in Salem, Massachusetts. John Sr. deeded other property to his younger sons. To 24-year-old David, the fourth son, went a two-acre plot in Wethersfield that consisted of "warehouses, barns, fences, and trees." Needing immediate quarters for his wife and newborn son, David built a small dwelling on the land.

David Buttolph did not stay long. In 1698, he decamped with his family to Simsbury, a better location for his tanning trade. A subsequent owner of the property, Benjamin Belden, probably used the small Buttolph house as the core for the larger house that exists today. Belden designed his house to be used as an inn, and in 1714 may have added an ell (which has since been removed) to provide room for lodgers. The house was a tavern until Belden sold it in 1721 to Daniel Williams, the some of a wealthy sea captain and merchant.

1634 Bibliography