Joseph Johnson and the Farmington Indian School (ca. 1772/3)

Author: Katherine Cotuc

It was a usual busy day on January 22, 1776 for Joseph Johnson. Back in Mohegan, Johnson was living on a farm and spending most of his time completing everyday chores. He looked over his horses, worked on construction around the house, cut wood, and questioned the state of his immortal soul.

Mohegan meetinghouse, 1831

Mohegan meetinghouse, 1831

Johnson was born and raised in Mohegan, Connecticut as a Christian Indian. He was baptized in a Christian church and sent to Eleazar Wheelock’s Charity School in Lebanon, Connecticut, commonly known as Moor’s Charity School (named for the donor of the land). During the eighteenth century many colonists were investing their time and money in creating Indian schools where they could assimilate Native Americans into European culture. While at Moor’s Charity School, Johnson learned English, Greek, and Latin, and studied the Bible. Johnson also participated in chores around the school and worked in the fields or washed dishes. His time at the Charity School was rough. He constantly found himself feeling alone and confused about the kind of person he was. His teacher, Eleazar Wheelock, constantly made him feel inferior because of his Native American roots. In many of Johnson’s letters to Wheelock he closes them by referring to himself as his “poor good for nothing Black Indian.” With doubt filling his mind, Johnson constantly wondered what his purpose in life was. He questioned his faith and whether he would ever be able to amount to anything, like his teacher Wheelock.

During 1769, Johnson began his travels throughout the colonies. Stepping into different towns and encountering new tribes, Johnson realized how distant he felt from his Native American roots. Finished with collecting money for the Charity school, Johnson wanted to do something for himself. Later in the year he signed onto a whaling ship as a sailor and was able to travel without the expectations to preach or teach. With the sea and whole world at his feet, Johnson could not stop thinking about God. He constantly found himself questioning whether God would be able to forgive him for his sins and whether he would be able to fully accept God and His plan. Late in 1771, after his personal battles, Johnson decided to return back to Mohegan where he had an epiphany about his true identity.

In Mohegan, Johnson kept various diaries describing his every day activities and thoughts. Even though he grew up in Mohegan and viewed himself as an Indian, it was tough to identify with the community. Wheelock’s teachings about Native Americans instilled in his mind that the traditional Native American lifestyle was demonic. Wheelock’s teaching made Johnson believe he was a savage. Even with his internal doubts, he kept attending church and practiced Wheelock’s teachings. He had always managed to keep his faith in God even though he knew that he rebelled against Him many times. Throughout his writings he constantly called for God to give him an answer on how he could be saved.

On May 24, 1772, Johnson declared his dedication to God. Throughout his whole life Johnson had wondered whether he would ever be worthy to accept God. He questioned if he was ready to take on the responsibility of preaching and truly place his life in God’s hand. Knowing that he is not perfect and will never reach perfection, he believed that with constant help from God one day he will be able to go to heaven and live in peace. This epiphany made him realize that it is not about being perfect or a certain race, it was about being ready to change into a holy person. Johnson was ready to embark on a whole new phase in his life, and he did so in Farmington, Connecticut.

The Tunxis Indians, who were indigenous to the Farmington area, sold their land in 1640 to the governor of the Connecticut Colony. The Tunxis’ relationship with the English settlers was uneasy. They found it difficult to keep their identity and customs as they constantly found themselves in disputes with neighboring tribes. Local farmers eventually bought the land they owned in Indian Neck and they lost their livelihood. Since conversion was a goal for many settlers, in 1706 the General Assembly of Connecticut prepared a plan to assimilate the Tunxis Indians. In 1727 it was ordered that all Tunxis Indians parents had to teach their children how to read in English and catechize them.

Throughout the years the relationship between the Tunxis and the settlers of Farmington did get better. With the help of assimilation they were able to communicate and work out their differences. The settlers stated, “…the greater part of Indians, descendants of s[ai]d tribe that now continue in said Farmington are persons duly taught the use of letters and are well instructed in economy and are well able to bargain and contract for themselves.” Joseph Johnson visited Farmington in 1772 and was accepted by both the white population and Native Americans. After Johnson gave a sermon, written by Christian Indian Samson Occom, on the execution of Moses Paul, a Native American who was tried for murder, he was offered a teaching position in the local Indian school. The entire town was inspired by the sermon’s explanation of sin eventually led to death. Johnson was given work at a school in Farmington and kept a diary about his experiences both in the school and his time in Farmington.

As the colonists began to create Indian schools, they each had a specific goal in mind. Depending on where the schools were located, the goals were different. For example in New England many of the Indian schools focused on spreading Christianity because of the Puritan population. In the south they were more focused on teaching Native Americans about trade and business. Margaret Szasz, a historian of Native American education, found three common major criteria to the success in most Indian schools. First, each organization focused on, “the need to Christianize and civilize the natives.” Second, a colonist advertised the importance of Indian schools and willing to visit different Native American tribes to retrieve students. Finally, the most important aspect of success for an Indian school was the support and involvement of a Native American student. Having a Native American who had extensive knowledge in European culture, language, literature, and Christianity was vital. It created a middle ground between the colonists and Native Americans. Being able to relate to an instructor created a safer environment where students showed willingness to participate and learn. Joseph Johnson became a middleman between the two cultures and showed the benefits of assimilating into European culture.

During Johnson’s time at Farmington he taught at the Indian school in the west end, near a bend in the Farmington River, in a classroom that started off with nine students.

Currently a public school district, this area was once home to Joseph Johnson's Indian School.

Currently a public school district, this area was once home to Joseph Johnson’s Indian School.

Johnson opened and closed the school day with prayer, making Christianity the core of all lessons. He also prepared songbooks for his students because enjoyed music. He held practices where his students prepared for upcoming performances. His students performed for several people around Farmington and by the end of ten weeks he had sixteen students in total. Johnson’s experience at the Farmington school set forth his final mission.

Johnson noticed that Native Americans had the chance to advance in the changing world around them. He began to communicate with Samson Occom about opportunities for Christianized Indians. He believed that a new settlement composed of Christianized Indian could succeed using European laws and regulations. Occom did not see a place for Christianized Indians in European settlements. He believed that even though they successfully acquired knowledge from their teachers and were fluent in English and dedicated Christians, the settlers still viewed them in a negative light because of their heritage. Occom believed that Christianized Indians were capable of doing more than farming or taking orders from settlers. Both Johnson and Occom decided to use their relationship with the Native Americans from Oneida to acquire land and start the new settlement of Brothertown in New York. In 1797, 14,662 acres were bought for Brothertown.

Current Oneida Indian Reservation was the eastern border of Brothertown; the Falls were the western border.

Current Oneida Indian Reservation was the eastern border of Brothertown; the Falls were the western border.

Almost all of the Tunxis Indians followed Johnson in his new mission and moved to Brothertown. Brothertown’s government closely mirrored the Connecticut Colony. Brothertown was not successful in their attempts of creating a new settlement and Johnson died in 1776 before being able to name the settlement. Yet he inspired several Native Americans, not only with Brothertown but also with teaching and preaching. At Occom’s funeral, over 300 Native Americans from different tribes attended. Even with the failed mission, it motivated other Christianized Indians to find a voice of their own.

Recommended Reading:

Johnson, Joseph, To Do Good to My Indian Brethren the Writings of Joseph Johnson, 1751-1776,  ed., Laura J. Murray. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Johnson, Joseph. “Joseph Johnson’s Diary: Manuscripts Related to Samson Occom and Eleazar Wheelock’s Early Indian Students.” October 9, 1771.

Samson Occom, “Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian.” Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800,

Ava Chamberlain, “The Execution of Moses Paul: A Story of Crime and Contact in Eighteenth-Century Connecticut,” New England Quarterly 77, no. 3 (2004): 414.

Julius Gay, Farmington Papers. Salem, Massachusetts: Lockwood and Brainard Co., 1997.

Lopenzina, Drew. “‘The Whole Wilderness Shall Blossom as the Rose:’ Samson Occom, Joseph Johnson, and the Question of Native Settlement on Cooper’s Frontier.” American Quarterly 58, no. 4 (2006): 1119-1145.

For more information about Native American literacy:

“On the Education of Indian Youth,” The Theological Magazine, or, Synopsis of Modern Religious Sentiment. American Periodicals,

Wyss, Hilary E. “Mary Occom and Sarah Simon: Gender and Native Literacy in Colonial New England.” New England Quarterly 79, no. 3 (2006): 387-412.

Wyss, Hilary E. English Letters and Indian Literacies: Reading, Writing, and New England Missionary Schools, 1750-1830. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

Taverns of Colonial Farmington

Author: Alex Tremblay

There was no place more necessary to early American life than the tavern. For travelers it was a much needed place for rest and food, and for locals, a place of fun and respite from daily life. Yet taverns were a constant thorn in the side of those trying to keep civil order or lead a religiously upright life.

In a meeting of the General Court of Connecticut on June 3, 1644, representatives passed a law requiring all towns in the colony to have at least one ordinary with the abilities to house, feed, and entertain any traveler. These laws were revised periodically in an effort to control what happened in them. Ordinary was the term that was originally given to all public houses such as inns, taverns, and alehouses. Even moreso than in England, taverns served as meeting places, libraries, and post offices, in addition to being places of recreation and drinking. Especially during the winter, church services were sometimes held in them.

One situation unique to the New World was whether taverns ought to entertain Indians. In Connecticut, Indians could and did legally visit taverns. Yet there were laws banning the sale of alcohol to Indians. In a letter to the editor printed in the Boston Evening-Post, the writer discussed how, even with the ban in place, people were still giving and selling alcohol to Indians, knowing full well that they became violent when intoxicated. The writer was saddened by the practice, because he saw it as corrupting an otherwise good and peaceful people, breaking both their bodies and souls. Despite the strong feelings of fear and concern about giving Indians alcohol, there was a popular belief that it was more wrong to “deprive the Indians of any lawful comfort which God alloweth to all men.” Connecticut lawmakers struggled over the dilemma.

Taverns were located along main routes of travel to make it easier for travelers to find them, though the travelers never fully knew what to expect upon arriving at one. The requirements were to be able to house any horses safely, have food for the travelers, and put them in a bed during their stay. Lodgings could range from a room not unlike the shed where the horses were tied up for the night with bread and water for a meal and some mats to sleep on, to a room and services that were more like the equivalent of a modern bed and breakfast.

Between 1741 and 1789 Farmington had at least 39 new registered taverns and inns open their doors. To register a tavern or inn, a person had to be chosen by the people of the town and then approved by two magistrates from the state (later from the county). That did not keep others from opening up unlicensed establishments. The main reason for the licensing of a tavern or inn was to regulate the sale of alcohol, required to be in standard measures so the excise (tax) man could collect his due.

The Elm Tree Inn, 785 Farmington Avenue

The Elm Tree Inn, 785 Farmington Avenue

Both the Elm Tree Inn (ca. 1760-1800), run by Capt. Phineas Lewis as a tavern in Farmington, and the Fuller Tavern (1769-1846), now in a part of Farmington known as Berlin, were well-known stops along a travel route from New York to Springfield, Boston, or Providence. They are also noted as having the distinction of entertaining General George Washington on two separate occasions when he was traveling through Connecticut. Rochambeau’s map of his camp in Farmington prominently shows the location of a tavern.

Barnes' Tavern. Rochambeau's Farmington camp, 1782.

Barnes’ Tavern. Rochambeau’s Farmington camp, 1782.

Established taverns on well traveled routes had staying power. Cook’s Tavern started operation as a tavern in 1769 in a part of Farmington that is now Plainville. This tavern has the rare distinction of never fully ending its business, just transforming itself into a restaurant in 1934. The ownership changed hands from the Cooks to its current owners, who now run it as the restaurant J. Timothy’s Taverne.


“Historic Buildings of Connecticut » Blog Archive » Elm Tree Inn (1655).” Accessed May 11, 2015.

“Historic Buildings of Connecticut » Blog Archive » Fuller’s Tavern (1769).” Accessed May 11, 2015.

“History.” J Timothy’s Taverne. Accessed May 11, 2015.

Hammond (James Hammond) Trumbull, ed. The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, April 1636 – April 1665. Vol. 1. Hartford, Ct: Brown & Parsons, 1850.

Lanning, Anne Digan. “Women Tavern-Keepers in the Connecticut River Valley, 1750-1810.” New England Celebrates: Spectacle, Commemoration, and Festivity, The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife Annual Proceedings 2000, 25 (2000): 202–14.

Lathrop, Elise. Early American Inns and Taverns. New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1935.

“Ordinary, N.” OED Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed May 6, 2015.

Sismondo, Christine. America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2011.

Recommended Reading:

Brennan, Thomas E., David Hancock, and Michelle McDonald, eds. Public Drinking in the Early Modern World: Voices From the Tavern, 1500-1800. Vol. 4. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011.

Conroy, David W. “Puritans in Taverns: Law and Popular Culture in Colonial Massachusetts.” In Drinking: Behavior and Belief in Modern History, edited by Susanna Barrows and Robin Room. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1991.

Daniels, Bruce C. Puritans at Play: Leisure and Recreation in Colonial New England. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995.


Sickness and Disease in Colonial Farmington

Author: Samantha Kissko

Various diseases and illnesses have plagued people for centuries, and Farmington, Connecticut, was not without its fair share. Disease often spread quickly in colonial Farmington. If one household became ill, chances were that several more would fall ill before anyone even had the chance to stop the disease from spreading. One of the diseases that spread the most rapidly during this time period was smallpox. Smallpox, named “The King of Terrors” by the United States’ second president John Adams, was a highly contagious disease, and lasted for several weeks. While many people died from the disease, the ones who lived were not entirely lucky. They were often left deformed, scarred, and occasionally blind. Because smallpox spread from person to person so quickly, an epidemic outbreak was extremely possible. One such epidemic occurred in 1771 and took many lives, including the life of Farmington resident Abigail Hart, who left behind her husband Stephen Hart. Abigail Hart was just one of the several victims of the epidemic of 1771 that was sweeping through New England.

Tombstones were found near Colombia Lake in 1913. The stones were buried farther from town and all the people had died around the same time. This led people to believe that these stones were those of other people who died from smallpox in 1771.

While smallpox spread quickly and often left behind lifelong effects, there was a way to prevent the illness, inoculation. People who were inoculated were given the illness in a small dose and taken care of until they healed. After they recovered the inoculation made them immune and they were no longer able to contract or spread the illness.


Fig.2: New-England Weekly Journal, Jan. 5, 1730

While inoculations could help prevent people from getting the illness again, it was still a painful process, and there was no guarantee that the illness would not spread from the inoculation house, such as Hospital Rock in Farmington, to the general public in town. For this reason inoculation was the occasion of great debate. In addition to debating inoculations’ safety there was also the cost of inoculating people. Only the rich with strong family roots could afford the treatment. Thaddeus Betts, a physician in Norwalk, offered inoculations around the colony. Betts’ advertisement from 1771 lists the price of the inoculation as “three pounds lawful money,” which might be a month’s earning for an ordinary family. Rev. Timothy Pitkin was able to inoculate his daughter, Mary, because of his income as minister of the Farmington Congregational church. His doing so encouraged others with the means to follow suit.

While smallpox was a major disease of the time, there were many other illnesses that spread quickly and killed many people. These illnesses helped the people of Farmington to solidify their faith in God, sometimes increasing church membership. One example of this was Polly Cowles, whose story is told through her sister Julia Cowles’ memoir. Polly Cowles was sick with consumption (tuberculosis) and had seen many of her friends die from the same illness. Her illness strengthened her belief in God, as she prayed to get well. Polly Cowles later died of her illness at age 17.

Diseases in colonial Farmington were a major part of people’s lives; many died, lost loved ones or were scarred from illness. Despite the diseases that spread throughout Farmington the people remained strong through their faith and belief in God.


“Article 7 — no Title.” The Connecticut Courant (1764-1774), Jan 08, 1771.

Betts, Thaddeus. Connecticut Journal, January 30, 1771.

Charles Leach, “Hospital Rock,” Hog River Journal 2, no. 2 (Spring, 2004):

Special to The Courant. “Epitaphs About The Smallpox.” The Hartford Courant (1887-1922), Jan 11, 1913.

“Memoir of Julia Cowles.” The Connecticut Evangelical Magazine 4 (July, 1803-June, 1804): 146-156. (also published by Yale Univ. Press, 1931,

Recommended Reading:

Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.