Avon Historical Society asks for help after a fire at the Derrin Farmhouse

Avon Fire, Derrin Farmhouse, May 11, 2016

Avon Fire, Derrin Farmhouse, May 11, 2016

Hello everyone,

As many of you know the c.1810 Derrin Farmhouse at 249 West Avon Road, part of the Avon Historical Society, suffered severe fire damage this past Wednesday, May 11th.  Thanks to the very quick and precise response by the Avon Volunteer Fire Department, with mutual aid from Simsbury, Canton and Farmington, the structure was saved and it is structurally sound.  The cause was deemed to be an accident – spontaneous combustion of oily stain soaked rags left in a plastic garbage pail from some volunteer work done the day before the fire.
We have set up a funding site for donations and I am asking you to consider a donation and to share this site with your contacts who might be interested in donating.  And if you are on Facebook, we would very much appreciate it if posted the site on your Facebook page letting others know of the opportunity to save this over 200 year old structure.
The site is:  www.gofundme.com/derrin.  Or donations can be made to:  Avon Historical Society, P.O. Box 448, Avon, CT 06001. Note on the memo line: Derrin House.  All contributions are tax deductible.
The past 72 hours since the fire has been a learning process for all of us.  But we have received an overwhelming amount of support from local and state organizations (even the New England Museum Association) all standing ready to help us as we go forward.  Some even arrived on scene yesterday afternoon to tour the damage and provide advice and consultation on next steps.  Those who have been through this before say that lemonade can come from lemons; we are hoping this to be the case.  And we are quickly learning that this is going to be a very long process, so we are moving carefully and deliberately to make sure we achieve our goal.

As part of background, the Society does not own the building. It is leased from the CT Department of the Military because the last family to live in it (not Derrins) were the caretakers of the First Co. Governor’s Horse Guards which is located across the street. We have had the lease since 1996 and there has been a large team of volunteers who have worked tirelessly over the past 20 years restoring the house with grants, private donations and lots and lots of donated materials.  The lease requires the Society to carry insurance, which we do. But, as you can image, no amount of insurance can replace what was lost.  So we are seeking donations to help this process move forward.  We will be updating the Society’s website tomorrow with more details, but the GoFundMe page has photos and explanation of what happened.

We had planned a grand re-opening event on June 12th  to mark the 250th anniversary of the Derrin Family signing a deed taking over the land that this house is on today.  The work being done inside was getting ready for that day of celebration with the opening of a new Visitor Center.  The Derrin family owned three houses and farms on West Avon Road from 1766 until the 1940’s.  Many of you may know the “flower house” on the same road just south of our Derrin House.  That house was also a Derrin Family house and farm.
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Thank you for considering a donation, which can be anonymous, on the funding site or via the mail.  Or, if you do not donate, but can pass on this information to others, we would very much appreciate it.
Terri Wilson
President
Avon Historical Society







Opium Dependency in Early 19th-Century Simsbury

Author: Chelsea Farrell

The history of opium evokes images of wars and imperialism across the globe. This large history often overshadows the prevalence of opium in America. Even before medical morphine was first extracted, opium and its derivatives were used medically and mixed in tonics. Opium, though, causes severe withdrawal, which makes it a highly addictive substance. Early nineteenth-century Simsbury, Connecticut, residents were fully aware of the dangers of opium, especially when the Congregational Church buried Mary Woodbridge, an unmarried woman who committed suicide via laudanum.

Laudanum recipe from "The Compleat Housewife"

Laudanum recipe from “The Compleat Housewife”

From 1806 to 1861, Reverend Allen MClean served as minister of the Congregation Church in Simsbury, Connecticut. In town history, he was remembered fondly for his generosity, benevolence, and temperance advocacy. He left a journal record of all of the people he eulogized while serving in Simsbury. On October 28, 1831 he noted a particularly tragic death. MClean wrote “In a state of derangement [Mary Woodbridge] put an end to her present existence by taking laudanum. She was naturally a very sensible and serious minded woman.” Mary’s laudanum use begged the question: How popular and available was opium?

Laudanum was an opium derivative that was prescribed by doctors but also commonly prepared by laymen. The Compleat Housewife (1742), a woman’s domestic manual, taught the reader how to prepare laudanum and recommended it for a variety of aliments, ranging from stomach inflammation to a child’s insomnia. Medical journals recommended laudanum and other opium derivatives to treat pain. As a popular medication, one can assume that most residents of nineteenth-century Simsbury had access to opium and relied on it regularly, as further evidenced by the early temperance movement in Simsbury.

While there were not any professional studies done of opium addiction in the early nineteenth century,  temperance manuals and societies discussed the effects of opium dependency.  Temperance manuals warned against laudanum abuse alongside spirit abuse. In Simsbury, the first temperance society was the Aquatics Society, formed in 1805 by Benjamin Ely. Temperance societies often formed as a reaction to a problem. A temperance society was not necessary if there was not alcohol or opium dependency. By forming one of Connecticut’s first temperance societies, Simsbury residents exposed addiction and dependency issues. At the same time, the residents identified negative effects of addiction and sought to eradicate it.

One force the Aquatics Society needed to fight was the romantic notions of opiate use in popular literature. Popular literature mentioned opium and even glorified laudanum use. In 1800, Thomas De Quincey published Confessions of an English Opium Eater about his opium and laudanum addiction. While he acknowledged the destructive implications of drug use, De Quincey seductively described the effects of laudanum. His alluring descriptions sparked readers’ curiosities about drug use and how it effected people’s mindset. Opium “with respect to the temper and moral feelings in general, gives simple that sort of vital warmth which is approved by the judgement.” When he used opium, he felt he gained acceptance.

Reverend MClean’s eulogy contrasted the term “derangement” against Mary’s regular “sensible” temperament. This suggested that when Mary consumed laudanum, she acted out of character. But Mary needed “vital warmth” to help herself cope with her own personal tragedies. Mary Woodbridge was descended from one of Simsbury’s first congregational ministers, Dudley Woodbridge. As a girl, she attended Hopmeadow School, and her father Haines Woodbridge was respected and served on the School District Committee. But Mary’s life began to unravel in 1818, when her mother died and ten years later, her father drowned himself in the Farmington River. In letters from her brother in Middletown, he worried about her distraught feelings. With her brother away, her parents dead, and her unmarried status, Mary felt isolated with no one close to confide in.  This led her to rely on laudanum.  Mary lived in a world where she was under strict moral and temperamental limitations. As she consumed laudanum, the pressures of being a virtuous woman and the tragedies of losing her parents disappeared and were replaced with acceptance. The Aquatics Society’s potentially presence in town forced Mary to  “conceal [her] opiate using” to avoid judgement.

Mary Woodbridge’s Grave, Simsbury, CT

Drug use and dependency remain a tremendous problem today. Thinking about the history and patterns of drug use and care can instruct us  and give new perspectives on how to behave towards today’s problems, as there are so many similarities. The Aquatics Society formed to promote temperance in Simsbury but may have further isolated Mary Woodbridge to avoid judgement. But, at the same time,  Mary Woodbridge’s death showed how residents in nineteenth-century Simsbury treated suicide with compassion. Although Mary committed suicide, she was not ostracized. Mary was respectfully given a funeral and buried in the town cemetery.

 

 

For further information:

About opium:
Morgan, Howard Wayne. Drugs in America: A Social History, 1800-1980. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1981.

About women in the 19th century:
Kerber, Linda K. Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.
Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.

KEEPING IT IN THE FAMILY: LAND CONTROL IN THE CASE FAMILY OF SIMSBURY

Author: Brianna Dunlap

When conjuring the image of a quintessential New England town, the mind’s eye visualizes an ancient town center with colonial homes surrounded by rolling hills and fields peppered with herds of cattle. The town Simsbury, which was developed during the first two hundred years of its existence by the simple necessities of colonial settlers, is the quintessential New England town. The town selectmen required regions for homes to be built, a common center district for shared use, and ample land for farming.

Founding men of colonial settlements wrote and held deeds that eventually created the spaces needed for homes and farmland. Land deeds, covenants and leases were crucial, because for them, “the life of a colonial community was…wrapped up in the ownership of land and where the fruit of the land and wealth of the forest and river and mine was necessary to the prosperity of their generations and their future generations.” The Simsbury forefathers’ mindset  drove them to establish land titles and boundaries that were reflective of their social and legal standards. John Case, among other fellow settlers to the region in 1669, made sure the deeds to his lands were secure and recorded by the General Court.

In the early days of the town’s history the Case family, the descendants of founder and constable John Case, held and purchased land in greater proportions than other families in the town. It is possible that the land covenants by the founders of Simsbury established a legacy of land obsession and therefore created a tradition of land ownership expansion in the Case name that followed descendants. The Case family of colonial Simsbury, and the later surrounding towns of West Simsbury and Canton, kept land in the family from the pre-Revolutionary era through the Jacksonian era by intermarrying and by acquiring more land at regular intervals.

The land purchases made in 1637 by settlers to the region.

The land purchases made in 1637 by settlers to the region.

Simsbury's landscape in 1730.

Simsbury’s landscape in 1730.

An interesting example of the seriousness with which the Case family undertook dealing with land began with an 1840 land lease from a son to his father and witnessed by Justin Case and Newtown Case. In 1842 attorney William Sally wrote a letter, enclosed with a lease, to Jeffery Phelps (Case) in the hope of nullifying a land deal from only a few years prior in which Jesse Case Jr. had deeded land to his father, Jesse Case and his lovely wife Lydia, for use for the rest of their lives. Yet, when Jesse Case passed away leaving behind his widow, the tables turned.

Dear Sir, Enclosed I forward a lease from Jesse G. (Jr.) Case to Jesse Case. You will perceive that the lease is to Jesse Case and not to his wife. She consequently cannot hold any more than his support. I also learn that the deed of Jesse G. to Jesse deters the widow from holding her thirds on the same if Jesse G. neglects his support of the property…”

The attorney explained that Jesse Jr. claimed that the lease was only to his father for the rest of his natural life but not for the widow. Although the widow previously had been described in the deed with glowing terms, she was being removed from the property by her step-son. The letter went on to call for discretion from one professional to another as they work out what action to take. The author even mentioned that attention should be given to the additional counter claim that the widow’s daughter, Fanny Church, should receive eighteen dollars to settle account books debts that her late step-father left. The discretion was needed since Mrs. Fanny had been visited by the local Commissioner who was pretending to want further information on the situation from her.

The dramatic ejection of the widow and her daughter was not settled in the letter, but it surely opened the subject of land control in the Case family. What was it that triggered the claim and counterclaim? Perhaps there were poor sentiments between Jesse Jr. and his father’s second wife. One possibility was that the family feared the widow or her daughter would marry outside the Case family and take the land with them. Jesse Case Senior was a Case with a bloodline of descent from Joseph Case and lived out his final years in West Simsbury, where the claim centered around, but Jesse Jr. had remained on the paternal homestead in the “Farms District” until his death. For over a century, Cases had married Cases, keeping land in the family.

Map of Connecticut 1797 showing the border with Simsbury.

Map of Connecticut 1797 showing the border with Simsbury.

The land spat between Jesse Case Jr. and his father’s widow may have been deeply personal, but it is realistic that hindering a woman’s power of control over land ownership was not uncommon in in the Case family. The nineteenth-century land dispute was not the first; since before the Revolution, Cases had been vigorous in fighting for their land.

Joel Case, who lived on Case farm from 1746 until his death in 1780, gave to his wife, Chloe, half of his entire land and homestead in his will. The stipulation for such land control was that she had to remain as Joel’s widow for the rest of her life and never remarry. Such a requirement varies from the complete removal of land from Lydia Case, but indicates land ownership was taken so seriously that measure were taken to keep the line of ownership directly in the Case family.

Legal means were certainly not the only way that the Case family held on to the founder’s concept of land and power. While the land deed records do not exist for Amos Case, who moved to West Simsbury in 1740, it is known that he lived on East Hill and the house he built belonged to a direct descendant of his, Myron Case, by 1856. The only two daughters of Amos Case went on to each marry two brothers, the sons of Richard Case. This mattered because Richard Case was a grandson of the family progenitor, the original John Case.

The legacy of land ownership stayed with the Case family because of the colonial founder’s legacy. By no means was the family working as one unit in all decisions to acquire or hoard property, but the various related branches certainly had similar goals of land acquisition. More likely, this was due to a tradition carried on based on a pattern of marriage and behavior handed down through two hundred years of collective memory and practice.

The districts of Simsbury in 1869 reflected the regions established during the settlement of the town.

The districts of Simsbury in 1869 reflected the regions established during the settlement of the town.

 

*

To explore the Case family or the colonial era of Simsbury, Connecticut learn more here:

Genealogical history, with short sketches and family records, of the early settlers of West Simsbury, now Canton, Connecticut by Abiel Brown. https://archive.org/details/genealogicalhist00browiala

Simsbury; being a brief historical sketch of ancient and modern Simsbury, 1642-1935 by John Ellsworth. https://archive.org/details/simsburybeingbri00ells

And, certainly visit the Simsbury Historical Society’s archive where they have entire boxes set aside for the Case family documents. http://www.simsburyhistory.org/

Charlotte Cowles: Writing Herself into History

Author: Regan Miner

Charlotte Cowles (1821-1866) lived in Farmington, Connecticut during an extremely polarizing time. During the 1830s, Farmington was grappling with the divisive issue of abolitionism; many people in town were either indifferent to or opposed to changes to the current gradual emancipation legislation. There was a significant minority of influential and wealthy citizens who favored abolitionism. Many abolitionists in Farmington were members of the same social and familial networks. Numerous members of Charlotte’s extended family were abolitionists, such as her cousin-in-law, Austin F. Williams, her uncle Timothy Cowles, her cousin Chauncey Cowles and her brother, Samuel S. Cowles, who opened an abolitionist newspaper in Hartford. Charlotte was a staunch abolitionist and the modern day researcher can delve into her thoughts thanks to the numerous letters she wrote to her brother, Samuel S. Cowles, currently housed at the Connecticut Historical Society. Charlotte’s letters reveal a strong willed woman who discussed everyday life in Farmington, abolitionist activities and her true feelings on slavery.

Jennette Cowles Williams and Austin F. Williams' grave in Riverside Cemetery in Farmington

Jennette Cowles Williams and Austin F. Williams’ grave in Riverside Cemetery in Farmington

Samuel and Charlotte’s parents were Horace and Mary Anne Cowles; of 10 children, only Samuel, Charlotte and another sister, Mary Ann, survived to adulthood. Their father, Horace Cowles, was a merchant active in the temperance and abolitionist movements. Charlotte and Samuel Cowles’ 94 letter correspondence, 91 letters from Charlotte and 3 letters from Samuel, spans from 1833 to 1841, and a single letter was penned in 1846. Charlotte’s letters are historically significant, because it is very rare to have a women’s first person perspective on a significant issue such as abolition. In addition, Charlotte wrote these letters between the ages of 13 and 25, which shows her intelligence and maturity about controversial issues at such a young age. Many of Charlotte’s letters detail the activities of various members of the Cowles family and she provides amusing updates about her life, such as her dinner plans and she described an episode where she went “sleighing.” Furthermore, Charlotte discussed births, marriages and deaths of family members and bemoaned the unpleasant winter weather. She constantly asked her brother when he would visit and if he could pick up certain items for her in Hartford. Charlotte’s charming prose and detailed descriptions offer a remarkable glance into everyday life in Farmington in the 1830s.

Charlotte’s letters give unique insight into the lives of the Amistad Africans, while they stayed in Farmington for roughly nine months before they returned to Africa. She described the Mendi as “beautiful” and “elegant” and even admitted that she was embarrassed by her lavish praise of one of the Mendi named Banyeh. Charlotte befriended many of the Mendi and listened to stories of their “adventure” from Africa to Farmington. The Mendi helped Charlotte understand the true horrors of slavery; she stated, “we read and we talk about these things [slavery], but as long as we do not see the victims, we know nothing of them.” The Cowles’ family housed one of the Mendi girls, Ka-me or Kagne, and she seemed  “very contented, so far as we can judge from her happy looks and cheerful words.” Charlotte goes into detail about the Mendi’s appearance, impressive work ethic and their adaptation of white culture; “they looked very neat and orderly, and behaved as if they had been to church all their lives.

Charlotte Cowles' grave in Riverside Cemetery in Farmington

Charlotte Cowles’ grave in Riverside Cemetery in Farmington

Charlotte Cowles referenced many nationally known abolitionists such as Alvan Stewart, John Anthony Copeland, Jr. and a “Mr. Burt” who lectured about abolitionism in Farmington. Charlotte’s depth of knowledge about scholarly literature and abolitionist newspapers was quite impressive as was her command of different political ideologies and politicians. For example, Charlotte discussed a speech given by past Governor of Liberia, Rev. John Pinney, who advocated for colonization, or the transportation of African Americans back to Africa, which was a concept Charlotte thoroughly refuted. In addition, she highlighted the fierce anti-abolition sentiment in town who held their own anti-abolition meetings in protest; “it was a high day for the rioters…who came in throngs.”  In her letters, Charlotte described activities of Farmington’s abolitionists such as attending anti-slavery lectures, writing the constitution for the Anti-Slavery Society and hiding fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad.  Charlotte told her brother about a fugitive slave hiding in their family home; “I think the man who is with us now, (we call him Thomas) is the noblest specimen of the ‘Southerners’ I have ever seen. We are all very much attached to him indeed.”  Charlotte revealed her intimate feelings of slavery in her letters; “I hardly know when slavery seems most accursed; when we see a man reduced by it almost to a brute, — or when we think that there among its victims such men as Thomas, who are still noble, dignified and unsubdued, notwithstanding all they have suffered.”  Charlotte’s views on slavery reflects the opinions of a national group of individuals who endeavored to end slavery in the United States.

Charlotte Cowles’ letters are a fascinating insight into an abolitionist’s mind and daily life in Farmington during the 1830s. Her letters are an incredible repository of information about Farmington’s abolitionist activity and her first hand observations of the Mendi are instrumental for understanding the ramifications the Amistad had on the abolitionist movement. Thanks to the Connecticut Historical Society, Charlotte’s delightful prose and historic points of view will be preserved for future generations of scholars.

For further reading:

“List of Sites.” Connecticut Freedom Trail. 2016. http://ctfreedomtrail.org/trail/amistad.

Bickford, Christopher. Farmington in Connecticut. Canaan, NH: Phoenix Publishing,1982.

Cowles, Charlotte. Charlotte Cowles to Samuel S. Cowles. Cowles and Samuel Cowles correspondence, 1833-1841, 1846. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut.

Sources:

Cowles, Charlotte. Charlotte Cowles and Samuel Cowles correspondence, 1833-1841, 1846. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut.

Women and the Law in Farmington

Author: Kevin Simon

When the founders came to Farmington they looked to create a pious paradise on Earth. With diligence and hard work they created a community in their own image, righteous, and upright.  But not everything was as perfect as the first families intended.  Some dark traits came with them to the new world.  By the turn of the seventeenth century some alarming events took place that would challenge their idyllic world.

A Two Sides of a Coin: What drives a Mother to Kill, and a Wife to Murder?

In the quiet little hamlet of Farmington there were two murders. One was a crime of necessity; the other, an act of passion.  Amy Munn murdered her child on the night of March 11, 1698.  As an unwed mother and a servant in the home of Samuel Wadsworth she was in no position to raise a child.  Beyond the financial responsibility of raising a child Amy knew she would be convicted of fornication, fined and whipped before the community.  Infanticide was a capital crime, but Munn was not executed. She was convicted of notorious negligence.  Her charges were reduced for a lack of witnesses, though the circumstantial evidence was damning.  What pushed a mother to such an extreme?  We will never know, but there were pressures on young people at this time to remain chaste.  Each small New England town had an interest in preventing illegitimate births, concerned that these new children to become a financial burden on the community.

Abigail Thomson was quite another matter. Described by her neighbors as quarrelsome and termagant she berated and abused her husband regularly.  On December 17, 1705, matters came to a head when in a fit of rage she flung a pair of tailoring shears at her husband, piercing his skull.  Poor Thomas clung to life for nearly twenty days, suffering from his wound, before he passed away.

“...Thomson did threaten that she would kill her husband...” Quote from Abigail Thomson's indictment.

“…Thomson did threaten that she would kill her husband…” Quote from Abigail Thomson’s indictment.

During the depositions, Abigail’s harsh nature was exposed. She was known to threaten her husband and say she would be the death of him.  A neighbor, Joseph North, recalled on multiple occasions she chased him from the house and threw rocks at him.  At first Abigail denied throwing the shears in anger, but then when that story was not believed she claimed he had beaten her with a broom, and she struck him in self defense.  Not a single deposition was made in her defense. The court was not moved.

Abigail was sentenced to death, but received a stay when she claimed pregnancy. Hopefully, Abigail named her daughter Mercy delivered in 1706.  Mercy went into the care of her uncle who lived in Wallingford, but Abigail would not get a reprieve.  She was believed to be executed in May of 1708.  These women demonstrated rare instances of violence in a quiet community, but they were actors in their own right, however the final case was a victim of her circumstances.

A Person Before the Law: The Sad Case of Hannah Norton

When Hannah Norton came to court things did not go well for her. Her legal entanglements diminished her standing in her community and before the law.  Hannah Norton married Samuel North and started an uneventful life in Farmington.  Her quiet life unraveled after her husband died in 1683.  The widow North stayed with her neighbors, the Ortons, for several days, then returned home.  A few weeks later Thomas Hancox accused her of unclean acts with John Orton.  Hancox was her jilted suitor.

By North’s account she was assaulted. Orton’s story was different.  He testified that she took his hand and gave him rum.  Even Orton’s wife supported her husband, saying the widow North, “loved his company.”  Both Orton and the North were fined, twenty pounds and seven pounds respectively.  In what must have been an excruciating letter North begged for forgiveness from God and the court for her unclean acts, but did not budge from her claim of assault.

“...I Did not yield my consent and willingness in ye mater...” Quote from Hannah North's deposition.

“…I Did not yield my consent and willingness in ye mater…” Quote from Hannah North’s deposition.

 

But this was not the end of the widow North. Just three years later another controversy arose.  Hannah’s new husband, John Rew, accused Matthew Woodruff of fathering her child.  Woodruff was an associate of her first husband Samuel.  Both Woodruff and Hannah denied this and so did the Court of assistance, dismissing the charges and Rew’s appeal.  One can only imagine how Hannah’s reputation must have suffered having a husband who publicly questioned the paternity of his child.

The new Mrs. Rew was not finished in court, though this final case omitted her name. When John Rew came home one night in October of 1719, he was in for one big surprise. His home had been completely cleared out.  The impressive inventory stolen included warming pans, a dresser, and cookware.  Rew, found his cupboards bare, and exclaimed they left him “not so much as a rag to wipe my fingers”  During the night Roger Orvis and Samuel Warner cleaned out his house, and divvied up the goods hiding them under the floor boards of their homes.

...not so much as a rag to wipe my fingers on...” Quote from John Rew's lengthy deposition.

…not so much as a rag to wipe my fingers on…” Quote from John Rew’s lengthy deposition.

When the men were hauled in front of the judge they claimed Rew’s wife, Hannah, had given them permission to take the items. The argument John Rew made to get back his goods was a final blow to his wife, whom he claimed could not settle his debts, “for she is not a person in law.”  He argued that when bound to a man she did not have to power to dispense with his goods, even those brought as dowry.  The sad case of Hannah Norton, assaulted by her neighbor, disgraced by her husband, whose husband questioned her legal identity, is a story of both women’s oppression and women’s resistance.  One can only hope Hannah’s story had more happiness than the courts revealed.

...for she is not a person in law...” Quote form John Rew's lengthy deposition.

…for she is not a person in law…” Quote form John Rew’s lengthy deposition.

 

Farmington Overlay Map 3

Moving left to right, point 1 is the location of Thomas Thomson’s home where he was killed.  Point 2 is the location of the alleged assault on Hannah North.  The last point is the location of Samuel Wadsworth’s home, where Amy Munn lived.

Recommended Readings about Women and Crime in New England

  • Dayton, Cornelia Hughes. Women Before the Bar: Gender, Law, and Society in Connecticut, 1639-1789. 3rd ed. edition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
  • Hearn, Daniel Allen. Legal Executions in New England: A Comprehensive Reference, 1623-1960. McFarland, 1999.
  • Hull, N. E. H. Female Felons: Women and Serious Crime in Colonial Massachusetts. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
  • Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.
  • Mann, Bruce H. Neighbors and Strangers: Law and Community in Early Connecticut. 1st New edition edition. The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
  • Roth, Randolph. “Child Murder in New England.” Social Science History 25, no. 1 (2001): 101–47.
  • Salmon, Marylynn. “The Legal Status of Women in Early America: A Reappraisal.” Law and History Review 1, no. 1 (1983): 129–51. doi:10.2307/744005.

Mary Barnes: Last Witch Hanged In Connecticut

Author: Sandra Whitney

On January 6, 1662, Mary Barnes was taken from her home in Farmington CT, more than likely by John Andrews, the local constable/sheriff, and taken to Hartford where she was indicted for witchcraft. She was approximately 32 years old at that time and had four children. There is not a lot written down about Mary Barnes in the historical records.  Who was Mary Barnes?  How did this Farmington goodwife became involved in the witch-hunt that was going on in Hartford in 1662?

Mary Barnes was born circa 1631 in either England or Hartford, Connecticut.  She married Thomas Barnes in 1648. There are no records of their marriage listed in the records. They moved from Hartford to become two of the original settlers of Farmington, CT. They had four children: Sarah, born circa 1649; Benjamin, born 1653; Joseph, born 1655; and Hannah, born 1657.  Hannah died a few months after her mother was hanged.

Farmington at that time was a model Puritan town dominated by the Congregational church.  Thomas Barnes was a member of the church and two of his children were baptized in the church.  Mary Barnes was not a member of the church.  Members of the town, whether or not they were church members, were expected to obey all of the strict moral and legal codes of the time.  Farmington was a small community of a few hundred residents, almost all of whom lived within a 3-square-mile area surrounding the village center.  There was much scrutiny of the colonists’ activities by their neighbors and not much chance of keeping anything secret.  There is much to speculate on Mary’s relationships with her neighbors.

Map of Farmington

Map of Farmington

The Barnes family were not unknown to the Particular Court at the time. Thomas Barnes made a complaint against James Tills, a servant of John Miggs, claiming that Tills stole his scythe and his ox. The outcome of that case was that Tills was severely whipped, put into stocks and forced to apologize publicly to Barnes.  The records of the Particular Court dated May 17th, 1694 state “as also that a like warrant shall be directed to the constable for apprending and bring upp to particular court Mary Barnes of their town.”    This refers to a mention of a previous charge of adultery brought up in a different case against someone else.  There are no records of any follow-up on this warrant and there is also nothing about what the charges might be.  In any case, charges were never filed.

Mary Barnes would have been familiar with the cases of witchcraft which were being prosecuted at that time.  She testified in 1655 in the case against Nicholas Bayley and his wife of Farmington.  She spoke of conversations she had with Mrs. Bayley and the fact that Mrs. Bayley had quarrels with Thomas Barnes concerning ducks and pork. Mr. and Mrs. Bayley fled to Rhode Island.  Mary Barnes would have known Rebecca Greensmith long before Mrs. Greensmith accused her of witchcraft in 1662. Mary’ own indictment, trial and execution occurred during a very short period of time.  Her indictment and trial were on January 3rd and she was hanged, along with Nathaniel and Rebecca Greensmith, on January 25, 1663.  According to the records on the Particular Court of Connecticut, her indictment reads, “Mary Barnes thou are here Indited by ye name of Mary Barnes for not haveing the fear of God before thyne eyes.  Thou hast entertained familiarity with Satan the great enemy of God and mankind and by his help has acted things in a preternaturally way beyond ye ordinary Course of nature for which according to ye Law of God and ye established Laws of this colony thou deserved to die.

“The Prisoner pleaded not guilty and referd her self for trial by ye Jury

“The Jury returned that they find ye Prisoners Guilty of ye Inditement.“

The magistrates involved were Matthew Allen, Daniel Clark, Richard Treat, Henry Wolcott, Samuel Wyllys and Lt. John Allyn. The jury was Samuel Boreman, John Coles, Lt. Walter Fyler, John Gilbert, Samuel Hale. Captain Samuel Marshal, Ensign John Olmstead, William Wadsworth, Robert Webster, Gregory Winterton and Nathaniel Willett. There is no record of Mary Barnes saying anything in her defense.  What was unusual about Mary Barnes’ indictment was that she was not identified as the wife of Thomas Barnes nor was Thomas Barnes indicted separately. There is no record of Thomas Barnes ever coming to the defense of his wife. It is not known if he even attended the trial.

The timing of Mary Barnes’ trial was unfortunate.  Governor John Winthrop, Jr. had sailed to England in 1661 on government business to deal with the issue of a royal charter.  Governor Winthrop had a deep interest in alchemy, a tolerance of religious matters and political acumen.  No one was hanged for witchcraft from the time he was elected in 1657.  The witch-hunt in Hartford did not begin until 1662. It is likely that he would have stopped the trials if he were not away in England during this time.

Rebecca Greensmith, Nathaniel Greensmith and Mary Barnes were taken by oxcart to a wooden scaffold set up at Gallows Hill near the cow pasture in Hartford.  Crowds gathered, because executions were public events and were treated both as a warning and as a time for merriment.  Mary’s children were  ages 16 through age 6. It is not recorded if they attended the hanging or who took care of them during this time.  It is also not recorded if Thomas Barnes attended the hanging.  What is recorded is that Thomas Barnes paid the jail keeper the fee of 21 shillings for keeping Mary in the jail for the three weeks between her trial and her execution.  According to tradition, the Greensmiths were executed first and then Mary Barnes was executed.  Mary Barnes thus is the last person hanged in Connecticut for witchcraft.

Thomas Barnes did not leave Farmington after his wife’s death, even though he did have the connections and the assets to do so.  On March 3, 1662, three months later, he signed a marriage contract with his neighbor John Andrews for the hand of his daughter Mary Andrews. As part of the marriage contract, Barnes agreed to “put out all of his children excepting his son Benjamin Barnes; however, if the aforesaid Barnes, together with the desire of his wife, shall see it comfortable for himself and his wife and child, he hath liberty to keep his daughter Sarah at home with him, to be serviceable to him unit she shall depart from her natural life or unit God shall dispose of her in marriage.” Mary Andrews was only 20 at the time and Thomas Barnes was 48.   Thomas Barnes wrote his will on June 9th, 1668.  In this will, he left his estate to Mary Andrews Barnes and their two sons. His children by his first wife are mentioned in the following manner “to my children which are already gone from me and disposed in marriage I have formerly given according to my Ability, and which I expect they shall aquiesse.”

It seems as if Mary Barnes was resigned to the inevitability of her fate.  However, the why of what happens is a mystery which may never be solved.  Her memory has not been lost in history.   Her name keeps appearing alongside the names of the other men and women who suffered similar fates during the colonial period.  There is a continued interest in the history of witches and witchcraft which exists up to the current day.  In 2013, the Stanley-Whitman House held a symposium on colonial New England history of witchcraft.  There was a witchcraft trial exhibit and various panel discussions.  Also included on that day was a performance of a play written by Virginia Wolf entitled “In a Preternatural Way: The Witchcraft Trial of Mary Barnes.” It is hoped, by various people, that the State of Connecticut will someday pass a law to exonerate the memory of Mary Barnes.

Map of colonial Hartford

Map of colonial Hartford

Recommended Reading:

Butler, Joanne.  Witches vs. Winthrops. October 2013. Accessed March 27, 2016. http://rebelpuritan.blogspot.com/2013/10/witches-vs-winthrop_31.html.

Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Taylor, John M. The Witchcraft Delusion In Colonia Connecticust . New York : Grafton Press, 1908.

Telian, Bernice Mabel Grafton.  My Grandmother Mary was Hanged. Delhi, NY: Privately Published, 2013.

Wolf,  Virginia.  In a Preternatural Way: The Witchcraft Trial of Mar Barnes. Stanley-Whitman House, Farmington, 2009.

 

 

Selah Hart: Saint and Sinner

The Hart Quarter of Farmington.

The Hart Quarter of Farmington.

Author: Christopher Menapace

In 1777, Selah Hart was sitting in prison, captured by British forces in battle, while at the same time his slave Pharaoh was attacking General Howe’s British forces in Germantown, Pennsylvania. These two men were fighting for America’s freedom, yet only one of them was free.  Born in Farmington, Connecticut in 1732 to Nathaniel Hart and Abigail Hooker, Selah Hart was raised in a wealthy and prominent family.  The Harts were influential members of their community, so much so that early maps of Farmington show the southwestern end of town being labeled as the “Hart Quarter.”  Their family was one of the first settlers in 1635 purchasing land from the Tunxis Indians, and Steven Hart, who was the grandfather of Selah, was selected as the town’s first deacon.  In his own time, Selah became a leader of Farmington and was commonly referred to in later texts as a “Patron Saint of Connecticut.”  Selah even has a monument to him located in Farmington describing him as an officer of the Revolution.  That is what most information about Selah Hart will say, that he was a godly man who fought for freedom and liberty in the Revolution, and while his deeds in that fight cannot be denied, that is not all Selah Hart should be known for.  Despite fighting for the freedom of the colonies, Selah Hart kept freedom from others through slavery, and did not free his slaves until provided with economic compensation.

Tombstone to Selah Hart, no longer extant.

Tombstone to Selah Hart, no longer extant.

At the time of the Revolution, Selah Hart owned at least two slaves, they were named Jack and Pharoah Hart.  Yet the information on these two slave men is almost non-existent, especially when it comes to their early lives. It is unclear how Selah Hart obtained these two slaves, although it is possible that he purchased them, because his father’s Will has no mention of “slaves” or “servants” in the inventory.  Slave ownership was more common in Farmington than most people would think, and the Hart family was no different.  Members of Selah’s family like his Uncle John, Thomas, or on his mother’s side, Samuel Hooker, owned slaves.  Many elites in Farmington owned slaves at some point even during the time of the Revolution when these same people fought for freedom and liberty, just like Selah Hart.

Promotion of Selah Hart to Brigadier-General

Promotion of Selah Hart to Brigadier-General

Not only was Selah an elite citizen of Farmington, during his life, Selah was a magistrate, a constable, a deacon, a brigadier-general, a treasurer, and many other useful positions in town.  He owned a large farm that was quite profitable, using the labor of his two slaves to yield plentiful crops.  Selah continued to contribute to the wealth his family had created over the generations in Farmington, but it was the Revolution that propelled Selah into sainthood within the town.  Selah’s military career began before the Revolution, entering as ensign in 1762, he quickly shot up the ranks to lieutenant in 1763, and captain in 1764.  It was then in 1776 when Selah joined the Revolution’s cause, being appointed to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, and shortly after to the rank of Colonel of the Fifteenth Regiment Militia of Connecticut.  His forces were sent to defend New York, and it was during a skirmish that Selah was cut off and captured by British forces on August 27th, 1776.  Selah was later freed in an officer’s exchange and in 1779 was appointed Brigadier-General of the Sixth Brigade of Militia for Connecticut.  After the war, Selah was sent as a delegate to the State Convention for the adoption of the Constitution in 1788, and continued to be an influential citizen in Connecticut.

Monument to Selah Hart in Farmington.

Monument to Selah Hart in Farmington.

During this time, Selah’s slave Pharoah was also fighting in the Revolution and was involved in the battles of Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1777, and Monmouth, New Jersey in 1778.  Selah was to grant Pharoah his freedom for three years’ service in the Continental Army, while Selah received a portion of Pharoah’s wages as compensation for the economic hardship that freeing Pharoah would cause Selah.  When Pharoah’s term was up, Selah demanded not just a portion of his wages, but the entirety of them.  Even though it put Pharoah in considerable economic hardship to do this, having put his life on the line for the freedom of others; a freedom he had never experiences, Pharoah had no choice but to give up all his wages to Selah.  The source of Selah’s insistence on obtaining the entirety of Pharoah’s wages most likely was because Selah’s imprisonment had put him into debt, for he did not receive his army wages while imprisoned by the British, on top of that, his slave Pharoah was no longer working the fields and making him money.

For a man claiming that he held these truths to be self-evident, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” why then did he keep these freedoms from Jack and Pharoah? Both eventually became free, and it is said that Jack did not have to pay for his freedom, but this was not the case for Pharoah.  Selah Hart believed in freedom and liberty for all men, and risked his life in pursuit of that goal, but that goal took a back seat to his own economic benefit.  Selah was one of many slave-owners in Farmington during the Revolution, and not all of these people freed their slaves, some fought tooth and nail to keep them.  It was not the purpose of this writing to decry Selah Hart as a monster, but merely to put him into context of the era he lived in, to provide a second side to Selah, for he was both a hero of the Revolution, and a slave-owner.

Recommended for further reading:

Bickford, Christopher. Farmington in Connecticut. Farmington: Phoenix Pub, 1982.

Camp, David N. History of New Britain with Sketches of Farmington and Berlin, Connecticut. New Britain, CT: Thomas & Company, 1889.

Gay, Julius. Farmington Papers. Hartford: The Case, Lockwood & Brainard co, 1929.

 

Hiking to Connecticut’s Historic Hermit Havens

Plaque on rocks near entrance of Will Warren's Den

 

Author: Jennifer Lawton Schloat

Connecticut is an ideal destination for day hikers.  There are many blazed trails through rocky areas on hills and mountains with many caves. These caves have sheltered people throughout history. Some Connecticut towns are home to hidden historic sites, deep in the woods, secluded locations. These were already off-the-beaten-path in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Several havens of early American hermits and outcasts have survived the centuries, untouched by the population expansion and modernization of the last two centuries. Farmington is no exception.

Sign for Will Warren's Den

A local legend dating back to the late eighteenth century reveals the location of a cave, the home of Will Warren the Hermit of Rattlesnake Mountain. Today hikers can park their cars in a small lot suited for about a dozen motor vehicles near Pinnacle Road at 159 U.S. 6 (Colt Highway) in Farmington. Connected to this lot is an entrance to a cleared, blazed trail which leads to a section of the Metacomet Trail, beautifully maintained by the Connecticut Forest and Park Association. From there the hike is an uphill journey of approximately 1.2 miles. Will Warren’s cave entrance is marked with a brass plaque attached to the rock with the words “Will Warren’s Den. Given to the Town of Farmington by William Steele Wadsworth Lifetime Resident of Farmington June 1987.”

The curious hiker will want to know more about who lived in this beautiful locale so many years ago. The legend has been revamped and manipulated over the last two centuries.  Some versions claim that he was either an African American or a Native American or a combination of both.  The tale usually begins with Will Warren breaking the Sabbath by fishing in the Farmington River on a Sunday. For this offense, he was tied to the Farmington whipping post and scourged.  In retaliation, Warren set fire to a barn and then fled the scene headed towards New Britain. The men of Farmington pursued him, assisted by bloodhounds. As night fell, Will Warren became lost in the woods and ended-up running in circles.  With the rising of the sun, he found himself on a high hill, looking down on the village of Farmington. He saw the angry citizens gathered below. Next Will heard the howl of the dogs. As he fled the dogs and Congregationalists he met two “squaws”. He told these Indian women his story. “One of the squaws seized him in her arms and ran, and never stopped until she had deposited him in his cave.” Thus the bloodhounds came to a standstill where Warren’s scent was lost. The men gave-up their search and allowed Will Warren to live-out the remainder of his life on Rattlesnake Mountain as a hermit, possibly with a Native American wife. For years after Warren fled his hunters, the citizens of the town would say, “blame it on Will Warren,” whenever sheep were lost in Farmington. The reason for Warren’s presence in Farmington is still shrouded in mystery.

The hiker can proceed from Will Warren’s Den to another cave in neighboring city, Bristol.  This cave was the home of a legendary man named Jack. Like Will Warren, he has been described as both a cave-dwelling black man and as a Native American. Jack’s legend also includes an Indian woman, possibly a Tunxis person, who may have been Jack’s spouse.

Another colonial Connecticutian, who eschewed established Puritan society was Mary Barber or Barbour, born in 1714, daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Wethersfield. Against her father’s wishes, she married (circa 1740) a vagabond Native American man, a Narragansett, named James Chaugham. James and Mary left Wethersfield, escaped into the Connecticut wilderness where they settled close to the Massachusetts border, on the side of Ragged Mountain near the Farmington River. James and Mary had eight children, six of whom remained in the forest, married and had children of their own. Some of the Chaugham children and grandchildren married the descendants of freed black slaves, others married Indians. Thus, Mary and James founded a village of mixed-race outcasts.

Traveling south to North Haven the hiker can visit the site of Connecticut hermit, Peter Brockett.  According to legend, Peter Brockett decided to live in seclusion, after suffering a crippling spinal cord injury during the Revolutionary War. The location selected by Brockett had been called “Indian Rock” during colonial times. Sometime around 1783, Peter Brockett assumed residence at the northern base of the mountain in a hut which he constructed for himself. The Brocketts were a prosperous family in the area. Thus it is difficult to imagine the circumstances that would lead to allowing Peter to live in such a reduced condition. Perhaps Peter was a black man, formerly enslaved by the Brocketts. All five of these people, William Warren, Jack of Bristol, Peter Brockett, Mary Barber and James Chaugham were self-exiles, people who made the deliberate decision to separate themselves physically from settled, white society in Connecticut.

Long before 1492, Europeans fairytales revealed a fascination with thrilling ideas about the deep, dark, wild forest as the hidden secretive domain of frightening, magical figures such as witches, monsters, hermits and ogres. After Europeans began settling in North America, these woodland tropes became associated with myths regarding Native Americans. As a result, when people of European ancestry decided to live apart from settled white society in New England they were often described as Native Americans.

Recommended Reading:

Barbara Donahue. Speaking for Ourselves: African American Life in Farmington, Connecticut.   Farmington: Farmington Historical Society, 1998.

Kai T Erikson. Wayward Puritans: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1966.

Kenneth L. Feder, A Village of Outcasts: Historical Archeology and Documentary Research at the Lighthouse Site, Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1994.

 

 

 

In a Secret and Clandestine Manner: 18th-Century Thieves in Farmington

Author: Amanda Keenan

Colonial Farmington residents were not immune to crime. They faced property loss at the hands of their neighbors, visitors, and vagabonds. It is difficult to understand the frequency of burglary in the 1700s as individual towns kept separate court records and these documents have since been lost or archived in repositories spread across the state. Thankfully, Farmington’s Solomon Whitman’s papers still exist at the Connecticut State Library. Thus his judgments for twelve accused thieves during his tenure as Justice of the Peace in the town from 1763-1769 are accessible and provide a deeper look at life for colonists and their experiences with the lower courts.

Beginning in 1735, Connecticut legislature sought to further refine the prosecution and punishment revolving around stealing property. In this first legislation they laid out escalating reprimands for first, second, and third offenses. The law defined petty theft as fewer than 20 shillings with the first crime being punished by any combination of: fined three times cost of the theft, branding, whipped fifteen stripes, and to have the right ear cropped. With a second theft conviction a person could be whipped twenty five times and have the left ear cut off. Finally, the third time a court found a burglar guilty the punishment was death. Yet although these crimes could be violently punished judges in Connecticut did not choose to frequently brand, crop, or kill offenders.

Detail from the cover from A Brief Account of the Life and the Abominable Thefts of the Notorious Isaac Frasier

Detail from the cover from A Brief Account of the Life and the Abominable Thefts of the Notorious Isaac Frasier

Connecticut courts convicted several thieves three or more times, but only one faced the death penalty: Isaac Frasier. Frasier continually escaped authorities and burglarized his way across New England in the 1760s and Farmington hosted this infamous burglar during a brief respite from crime in the Spring in 1761. In his biography he stated that he “went to Farmington, in Connecticut, where I inlisted (sic) under Capt. King, but at the marching of the company being out of health (small pox), was left behind.” Frasier tried to work as a laborer in Newtown, but quickly returned to his wicked ways. He became a notorious burglar throughout Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts until his execution in Fairfield on September 7, 1768.

During this same time Connecticut colonists became part of the larger booming consumer market that flooded their homes with manufactured goods, providing easy fodder for burglars. Previously, the General Assembly of Connecticut heard cases from Farmington regarding theft involved livestock, food, or farming equipment. This changed after 1750 as the American colonial market for imported English goods rose 120 percent. By the end of the 1760s, burglars in Farmington commonly stole clothing, handkerchiefs, and other sundry house goods.

The home of Justice of the Peace Solomon Whitman is now a museum.

The home of Justice of the Peace Solomon Whitman is now a museum.

The horrific physical punishments inflicted on convicted thieves escalated as higher valued goods became easier to steal. In Solomon Whitman’s time he never disciplined a thief with branding or ear cropping and only sentenced two of them, Zophar Andrews and John Lewis, to be whipped. Other justices were not so lenient and took a harsher approach to criminal behavior. When authorities published information regarding the thief Isaac Frasier, they pointed to his many obvious markings as a repeatedly punished thief that he acquired after leaving Farmington. Newspapers printed that he had, “both his Ears cropt, and branded twice on his Forehead with the Capital Letter B.” Physical scars, brands, and cropped ears haunted criminals well after their crimes had been committed.

Punishment for theft had a monetary component, often charging thieves with fines, damages, and fees to repay their victims for what they stole. In 1767 a new law reaffirmed the previous punishments and that thieves who stole over forty shillings could be sold into servitude to repay their damages and fees. Solomon Whitman had already begun this practice in 1766, so perhaps it was a solution practiced by the lower courts that eventually became formalized into law. The total debt and length of time of their servitude illustrated how these communities valued gender, age, and race when concerning payment through labor terms. Whitman sentenced three thieves to varying indentured terms to reimburse their plaintiffs. Transient John Hackenbottom, who stole a Holland shirt, silk handkerchief, and other goods from Moses Hills was sentenced to four months service. Whitman assigned mixed race African transient Syntha Bells who stole household goods from both Daniel Newell and to work for them for a year. Zophar Andrews of Farmington also received a term of servitude to New Haven resident Theophilos Goodger for a year after stealing money from him.

Dividing their total debt by the months Whitman sentenced them; it reveals a clearer picture of the value the community placed on these individuals. Hackenbottom owed £2-17-0, which Whitman judged could be repaid with four months servitude, which amounted to fourteen shillings and three pence per month. Meanwhile, Bells owed £2-18-6 for her crimes and Andrews had fees amounting to £7-10-11. They were both sentenced to a year, making her monthly worth approximately four shillings and ten pence a month, while Andrews’ repaid his damages at twelve shillings and seventeen pence per month. Andrews and Hackenbottom’s monthly worth as white males were remarkably similar. Compared to these men, Bells, a transient African woman, had her labor valued at a third. Regardless of the fact that they were both vagrants with no communal attachments, Hackenbottom worked for four months to repay what took Bells a full year.

Isaac Bidwell’s gravestone at the Memento Mori Cemetery, Farmington. Syntha Bells stole household goods from Bidwell and Daniel Newell in October 1766.

Isaac Bidwell’s gravestone at the Memento Mori Cemetery, Farmington. Syntha Bells stole household goods from Bidwell and Daniel Newell in October 1766.

In the mid-18th century, Farmington residents brought more material wealth into their homes and saw theft in their community. Instead of inflicting physical harm on convicts, Whitman frequently chose to have them pay with money or labor for their damages. As a result of being unable to pay their fees this allowed three burglars to live in the communities where they had committed crimes and local officials like Whitman quantified the contributions these criminals could provide to their communities and judged how long it would take them to repay their victims.

 

Further Reading:

Daniels, Bruce C. The Connecticut Town: Growth and Development, 1635 – 1790. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1979.

Frasier, Isaac. A Brife (sic) Account of the Life and Abominable Thefts of the Notorious Isaac Frasier. (New Haven, CT: T.&S. Green, 1768. Early American Imprints. Series 1. Evans 41823.

Gaskins, Richard. “Changes in the Criminal Law in Eighteenth-Century Connecticut.” The American Journal of Legal History 25, no. 4 (1981): 309–42. doi:10.2307/845276.

Piersen, William Dillon. Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.

Miss Sarah Porter: The Beginnings of Women’s Advanced Education in Farmington

Author: Marisa Ferretti

One day in 1843, as Mr. Noah Porter and his daughter pulled away in their carriage from their Farmington home, an idea he had for quite some time found its way into his daughter Sarah’s consideration. Taking on the responsibility of running her own school did not seem too outrageous, given her teaching experience. Their conversation on a casual afternoon was the beginning was what would become Miss Sarah Porter’s legacy.

Miss Sarah Porter was born and raised in Farmington, Connecticut. As the daughter of an affluent reverend, wealth brought her more opportunities than most other women of her time. Though she was primarily self-educated in pedagogy, she studied under Dr. E. A. Andrews of Yale College. Her prior teaching experience came from teaching positions in Springfield, Philadelphia and Buffalo. Despite these excellent opportunities, she always longed to be home in Farmington, with her family and all the things that brought her happiness. Soon enough, Sarah migrated home where she was to be presented with an opportunity that would define her future.

After her father introduced his idea to her, plans for the project were made up and set into action. The school got its start when Miss Porter and her family recruited children from Farmington as well as a few from outside the county to attend her daily classes. Those who lived too far to travel daily resided in Miss Porter’s house under her supervision. Sarah Porter taught her students in a rented upstairs room of the historic “stone store,” at 96 Main Street. She worked there alongside two other historic figures from Farmington: John Hooker, a lawyer, and Joseph Hawley who, so influenced by Hooker, began studying law, passed the bar and went on to serve as a Civil War General, as well as both Governor and Senator of the state of Connecticut.

In 1847, Miss Porter relocated to the schoolhouse that was built by the Farmington Female Seminary Association. Soon enough, the word of Miss Porter’s educational sessions spread throughout the county, and interest in the school grew. She purchased what used to be a hotel for those that were traveling up and down the Farmington River, and transformed it into the main house for her girls. The former hotel still stands today and has continued to be used by Miss Porter’s School. It sits at 60 Main Street, right down the road from the previously used, “stone store.”

Miss Porter's School

Miss Porter’s School

By 1854, the school was all the rage of the region. Families fought to get their girls into Miss Porter’s, as the openings were limited. This was partly due to the amount of housing they had for the girls. At this point girls were residing in the main building with Miss Porter. Though the number of applicants per year was growing rapidly, a second dormitory wouldn’t be acquired until some 40 years later. Her family’s influence throughout New England was what got the ball rolling however, the success of Miss Porter’s pupils were the true reason why her school took off. The curriculum she implemented was intensive, compelling the girls to go above and beyond.

Theodate Pope, Alice Hamilton, and a student believed to be Agnes Hamilton, 1888. Courtesy of Miss Porter’s School.

Theodate Pope, Alice Hamilton, and a student believed to be Agnes Hamilton, 1888. Courtesy of Miss Porter’s School.

The girls at Miss Porter’s School were given a special schedule per day. Each student was given an individual itinerary for classes however the school as a whole allotted time during the day to go on walks and eat lunch. Miss Porter was adamant that her students had a life outside of the classroom. She believed that activities such as athletics and theatre were was in which the girls could gain self-esteem and become more confident. Despite her efforts to get the girls out of the classroom, Miss Porter was still very strict when it came to their studies. Every day, the students were given time for study hall, in order to complete the work that they had received in class. Miss Porter monitored the girls closely at this time as she strived for them to perform to the best of their ability. Every night Miss Porter would lead the girls in prayer as well, as it was an important way to end their day.

As the number of girls at the school increased, so did the importance of learning womanly duties. Porter viewed her school as a stepping-stone toward the girl’s ultimate goal of becoming a wife, taking responsibility of a household including a husband and children. She taught the girls to be wives and mothers as that was their ultimate job in adulthood. Miss Porter’s school was a transition for these girls from their childhood home to running a home of their own.

Miss Porter’s work in Farmington is, to this day, unparalleled. She ran the school up until her death in 1900, when it was put under the supervision of her close family. Upon her passing, the students enrolled in Miss Porter’s School at the time worked to establish a memorial in her honor. The First Church of Christ gratefully allowed the construction of a building in the name of Miss Sarah Porter on their property, a way for the girls to show admiration for their beloved headmistress. The building now sits at 75 Main Street in Farmington, where it can be seen by all the traffic passing through town. Miss Sarah Porter’s legacy will live on in Farmington indefinitely.

Recommended for Further Reading:

Connecticut Historical Commission, Historic Resources Inventory Building and Structures: Site 202, Parsonage, Farmington, CT, 1875. Farmington, CT: State Doc. 1973. http://farmingtonlibraries.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/96-Main-Street.pdf

Howe, J. Olin. “Sarah Porter of Farmington.” Boston Evening Transcript, October 15, 1913. https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2249&dat=19131015&id=-RonAAAAIBAJ&sjid=cgMGAAAAIBAJ&pg=5923,3065498&hl=en.

“Sarah Porter Memorial.” First Church 1652: First Church of Christ, Congregational. http://www.firstchurch1652.org/Porter-Memorial-Hall.

Sloane, William M. “Sarah Porter: Her Unique Educational Work.” Century Illustrated Magazine (1881-1906) LX, no. 3 (07, 1900): 344. http://0-search.proquest.com.www.consuls.org/docview/125508798?accountid=9970.

Stevenson, Louise L. “Sarah Porter Educates Useful Ladies, 1847-1900.” Winterthur Portfolio 18, no. 1 (Spring 1983): 39-59. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed October 28, 2015). http://0-search.ebscohost.com.www.consuls.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ahl&AN=37011224&site=ehost-live&scope=site