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"Man is a
who can
neither repeat
his past
nor leave it

- W.H. Auden

The settlement of Middletown, Connecticut,
and a brief history of the town & city, 1650-2000

Text & timeline graphics by R.W. Bacon
(Editor, The Middler, newsletter of the SMFSD)

Part I: Middletown in the 17th Century
Part II: Middletown in the 18th Century
Part III: Middletown in the 19th Century
Part IV: Middletown in the 20th Century

Links to Local & Regional History Books Online

Part I: Middletown in the 17th Century

The area now known as Middletown was originally inhabited by Native Americans, and included the present towns of Portland, East Hampton (both formerly comprised the town of Chatham), Cromwell, Middlefield, and a small part of Berlin. The total area was an approximate rectangle of about 16 miles east-west x 9 miles north-south.(1)

Native American inhabitants: the Wangunks

By the time of white settlement in 1650, The Wangunks, a distinct Native American population, had occupied the Middletown area since 1634. The area, known to the Indians as Massabesec ("at a great river"), was known as Mattabesett or Mattabeseck to the English-speaking. The Wangunks, under the leadership of their chieftan, Sowheag, removed to the area from Wethersfield after a quarrel with settlers there. (He was accused of aiding the Pequots in their movement against the colonists.)(2) The Wangunk settlement of hunters, gatherers, and farmers is thought to have been comprised of about 500 people, with each family in its own wigwam.(3)

As early as 1639 the General Court recommended action against Indians in the area.(4) At that time there were settlements above and below Mattabesett, but the hostile attitude of the Native Americans on both sides of the river discouraged settlement. After Sowheag sold to Governor Haynes of Connecticut a large portion of the area, the General Court in Hartford appointed a committee to consider the planting of Mattabesett.(5)

The first settlement

On March 20, 1649/50, this committee reported that the land might support 15 families, but soon more arrived. The 1651 records state: “It is ordered sentenced and decreed that Mattabeseck shall bee a Towne, and that they shall make choice of one of theire inhabitants . . . that so hee may take the oath of a Constable, the next convenient season.”(6)

Although the earliest local records are lost, the town was represented in the General Court in 1652. In 1653, the General Court approved that the town be known as Middletown,(7) so named for is place at the halfway point between Windsor and Saybrook. By 1654 there were 31 taxable persons, mostly clustered near the meeting house near the north end of the present Main Street. Several families were located about two miles to the north in what would become known as the "Upper Houses" or "North Society." (Generally the settlers began with 5-acres house lots, with larger outlying tracts granted to them in subsequent land divisions.)(8) Many of the 23 first settler heads of household were among the first settler families of Hartford, and some had been among the early inhabitants of Wethersfield. Three had spent nearly a decade in Rowley, Mass. One was from Concord, Mass.(9)

The life of the earliest mid and late 17th century settlers was dominated by the hard physical labor of clearing land, fencing pastures, and building houses. The daily work was done in constant vigilance of Native American harassment. Connecticut towns were required to have their own "train bands," or militias, with regular training days.(10) During any public assembly at the meeting house, guards were posted outside. In Middletown the first meeting house, used for both town business and Sabbath Day meetings, was a frame structure 20-feet square.(11)

Middletown & Puritanism

In addition to the hard labor, also dominating daily life was the Puritan religion. While not all settlers were church members, the Puritan values were codified in secular legal form in 1642. The 63-page "Code of 1650" added two more capital offenses --- the "cursing or smiting or parents," and the "incorrigible stubborness of children" --- for a total of 14.(12)

The Rev. David D. Field, in his history of early Middletown, the Centennial Address (1853), introduced his interpretation of the early Puritan community in Middletown thusly: "The character of the early settlers of Middletown may be given in few words. It is not pretended they were a perfect community. They had their faults as other early settlers of New England. But their faults were not peculiar to themselves; they pertained to the age in which they lived, and are susceptible of much palliation from the circumstances in which they were placed."(13)

Middletown church and town records show that while all were required to attend at the Meeting House (the focal point for secular as well as religious activity), at the time of the organization of the First Church in 1668, just one-third of white males were church members.(14) (Membership was not open to all, but rather based on financial as well as moral standing.) Indeed, the town's inability to solve disagreements and dissatisfaction with its first minister, Samuel Stow, eventually led to the General Court in Hartford to take over resolution of the issue in 1659. (Rev. Stow had accused several men of "blasphemy, drunkeness, and abominable wickedness.")(15) And then it took 10 years to seat Middletown's first permanent minister, Nathaniel Collins, who served from 1668 until his death in 1684.(16)

Court records show that about one-third of the 23 first settlers, at some point in their lives, either before or after their arrival in Middletown, ran afoul of the Puritan laws to some degree --- incidents included "immoderate drinking," profanity or intemperate speech, illegal trade with Indians, adultery/fornication, and "intermeddling to the intangling of the affections."(17)

Connecticut's foremost 20th-century historian, Albert E. Van Dusen, in his 1975 classic, Puritans Against the Wilderness - Connecticut History to 1763, pointed out that most of the early settlers of the Connecticut Colony were seeking economic rather than religious freedom and opportunity. "For the great majority of mould-be migrants to the Connecticut Valley the chief motivation clearly was economic not religious," he wrote. "The real attraction of Connecticut lay in the reports of abundant fertile land."(18)

Growth of the settlement

The town records of the first decades of the settlement reveal that the primary concerns were the division of lands, the admission of new inhabitants, and what might be called "zoning" issues today: the layout of roads, the location of fences, the control of one's livestock, the cutting of trees, etc.(19)

Dr. Field, in his Centennial Address, enumerated what he believed were the defining characteristics of the first settlers: (1) "They were mindful of living in peace." (i.e. resolving any divisive issues among themselves); (2) "The settlers possessed much practical knowledge." (i.e. most males could read, write, and keep records); and (3) "The settlers were friends of Constitutional liberty, and of righteous laws well administered." Field acknowledged that in such a small pool available public servants, not all were particularly qualified, but those who demonstrated good faith effort were returned to office year after year.(20)

The town records note the following milestones of the early settlement(21):
1652 - Town votes to build a meeting house 20'x20', "10 ft. from sill to plate."
1655 - An agreement was made with Thomas Miller to build a grist mill, which he would have charge of when completed.
1655 - An agreement was made with William Smith to keep the ferry for a year.
1658 - Burial ground (now Riverside Cemetery) leased for 10 years to Thomas Allyn, who was gravedigger since 1656.
1658 - Land granted to "Shoemaker Eggleston" (Samuel Eggleston) as part of a seven-year agreement to ply his trade in Middletown.
1658 - John Hall, Jr. was chosen to be keeper of an "ordinary," i.e. tavern.
1658 - John Hall, Jr. was hired to build a new 30-foot ferry canoe, to be completed in three months.
1659 - Daniel Harris appointed to keep the "ordinary," i.e. tavern.
1661 - Rev. Samuel Stow dismissed as minister.
1663 - Land granted to George Durant, blacksmith, as part of an agreement to ply his trade in Middletown for at least four years.
1667 - General Court gives permission to Giles Hamlin to retail wine and liquor.
1668 - An agreement made with Rev. Nathaniel Collins to serve as minister of the newly organized First Church.
1669 - A shipwright, "Mr. Adams", granted rights to timber from the common lands to build "a vessel or vessels."

By 1670 the town had grown from its first 23 families to a total of 52 householders. Among these, 35 surnames were represented.(22) The town sought the assistance of the General Court to advise on how, and to whom, to distribute undivided lands. The appointed arbitrators were charged with coming up with an equitable plan, and in 1671 the undivided land, except nine square miles of common land to be held in perpetuity, was distributed to proprietors on the 1670 tax list.(23) The “Indian Deed of 1672” further clarified property ownership, and the Wangunks remained in Middletown and Chatham, living on three separate reservations. (By 1785 the surviving Wangunks, decimated by sickness, had sold their remaining property.)(24)

More milestones in the early decades of Middletown(25)
1676 - General Court appointed Daniel Harris as Captain of the Train Band.
1676 - The town voted to hire Thomas Webb as schoolmaster.
1679 - General Court notes that Middletown has one 70-ton ship.(26)
1679 - The town voted to build a new meeting house, 32'x15'.
1680 - The town voted to build a schoolhouse 26' x 18'.
1682 - The town voted to build a cart bridge over the ferry river to the Upper Houses. The bridge was built and operated by Francis Whitmore.
1688 - After a two-year trial period, Rev. Noadiah Russell was ordained as minister of First Church. He served until his death in 1713, and was succeeded by his son, William Russell, who served for the next 46 years.
1703 - Town voted to build a separate church in the Upper Houses. The General Court designated the Upper Houses as a separate parish. Rev. David Deming served as minister until 1710.
1710 - The town voted to establish separate schoolhouses & schoolmasters in both the Upper Houses and on the east side of the Connecticut River.

Part I: Middletown in the 17th Century
Part II: Middletown in the 18th Century
Part III: Middletown in the 19th Century
Part IV: Middletown in the 20th Century

Links to Local & Regional History Books Online

Endnotes - Part I:

(1) Henry Whittemore, History of Middlesex County: The Town & City of Middletown (New York, N.Y.: Beers Co., 1884) pg. 61.
(2) John W. DeForest, History of the Indians of Connecticut from the Earliest Known Period to 1850 (Hartford, Conn.: Hamersley, 1853) pg. 54.
(3) John Warner Barber, Connecticut Historical Collections (New Haven, Conn.: Durrie, Peck & Barber, 1836) p. 507.
(4) The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, from April 1636 to October 1776 (Hartford, Conn.: Brown & Parsons, 1850-1890) August 16, 1639, Vol. 1, pg. 31
(5) The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, October 30, 1646, Vol. 1, pg. 146.
(6) The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, March 20, 1650, Vol. 1, pg. 206.
(7) The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, Nov. 23, 1653, Vol. 1, pg. 250.
(8) Whittemore, History of Middlesex County, pg. 63.
(9) David D. Field, D.D. Centennial Address, with Historical Sketches of Cromwell, Portland, Chatham, Middle-Haddam, Middletown and its Parishes (Middletown, Conn.: William B. Casey, 1853) pg. 143-148.
(10) The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, August 8, 1639, Vol 1., pg. 29.
(11) Town of Middletown, Town Votes & Proprietors Records (Middletown, Conn.) Book I, pg. 10, February 2, 1652/3.
(12) The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, "Code of 1650", Vol 1., pg. 509.
(13) Field, Centennial Address, pg. 48.
(14) R.W. Bacon "More insights from Hannah McKinney's research: 'Who Counts in the Community?'" The Middler, Fall 2006 (Newburyport, Mass.: Society of Middletown First Settlers Descendants, 2006) pg. 3.
(15) The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, Nov. 9, 1659, Vol 1., pg. 343.
(16) Field, Centennial Address, pg. 48.
(17) Records of the Particular Court of Connecticut 1639-1663 (Hartford, Conn: Connecticut Historical Society, 1928) pg. 15, 63, 138. Hartford County, Connecticut Cour Minutes, 1663-1687 (Boston, Mass: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2005) pg. 57-61, 237, 304.
(18) Albert E. Van Dusen, Puritans Against the Wilderness - Connecticut History to 1763 (Chester, Conn.: Pequot Press, 1975) pg. 12.
(19) Whittemore, History of Middlesex County, pg. 66-67.
(20) Field, Centennial Address, pg. 48.
(21) Whittemore, History of Middlesex County, pg. 66-67.
(22) Field, Centennial Address, pg. 48.
(23) Whittemore, History of Middlesex County, pg. 67-68.
(24) Whittemore, History of Middlesex County, pg. 64.
(25) Whittemore, History of Middlesex County, pg. 67-68.
(26) The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, August, 1679, Vol 1., pg. 299.

About the author: R.W. Bacon, editor of The Middler, the newsletter of the Society of Middletown First Settlers Descendants, is a publication editor/designer, historian, and museum professional based in Newburyport, Massachusetts. He is the author of Early Families of Middletown, Connecticut - Volume I: 1650-1654, published by Variety Arts Press.

City of Middletown in 1835.The engraving below was the frontispiece for David Field's Centennial Address published in 1853. The art was signed by engraver W.C. Butler, who also engraved the sketch of Middletown's first meeting house. (SMFSD Middler Collection)