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"The past is not
a tyranny
over the present,
but an
informing energy
which evolves
through us
that the future
may be improved."

- John Wesley Powell

Brief History, Part II: 18th Century Middletown

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

Division of lands, growth of trade, & population increase

The early decades of the 18th century saw the further division of lands among the descendants of the first settler families. As the population grew and descendants multiplied, land was divided into successively smaller parcels. In many cases it was no longer possible to subsist on the smaller parcels, since in New England at the time, about 50 acres were needed to provide for a family.(27) This situation, combined with the growing economy in the colonies, led many of the younger generation in Middletown to pursue a livelihood in commerce rather than agriculture. The increasing "Triangle Trade" (American colonies, the West Indies/Africa, and England) fueled shipbuilding on the Connecticut River. By the Revolutionary War, one-third of Middletown's population was engaged in some way with the shipping business. Many first settler descendants became merchants and shipmasters, as the former agricultural town's port became the busiest in the colonies between Boston and New York.(28) (Middletown's place in the "Triangle Trade" comprised sailing to the West Indies with a cargo of livestock, lumber, farm products, and other raw materials, and returning with molasses, rum, salt, sugar, and slaves.)

Slavery in Middletown

The first African slaves in Middletown were brought from Barbados in 1661. Unlike large-scale plantation slavery, in Middletown slaves were used as domestic workers or farm laborers, usually no more than two in a household. In 1775 two slave dealers maintained offices on Main Street. In 1756 there were 218 slaves in Middletown (3019 statewide). The statewide figure had grown to 5085 by 1774, the same year that the importation of slaves was outlawed. By the first federal census of 1790, the number of slaves in Middletown was officially 103 (2789 statewide). The largest slaveholder in 1790 was Philip Mortimer, with 11 slaves. While slavery in Connecticut was left to die a natural death through the decades, it was not formally outlawed until 1848.(29)(30)

The Revolutionary War

The Revolutionary War and the British blockade of Long Island Sound brought an end to trade for a time, but the maritime expertise of Middletown's citizens contributed to the war effort, as at least 16 privateers were authorized by the General Assembly to plunder and seize English ships. On land, Middletown's lead mine contributed raw material for ammunition, and its farm fields supplied food for the Continental Army.(31) Middletown also contributed considerable manpower to the war effort, including many of its slaves, as soldiers. The service records are incomplete, but the enumeration of September 1, 1776 shows 588 Middletown men on the militia rolls and 202 men in the Continental Army. (At that time the total number of Middletown men between the ages of 20 and 70 was 947.)(32)

Towns forge their own identity

Middletown was incorporated as a city in 1784, acknowledging that its busy riverport concerns were separate from the issues more important to those living in the outlying parts of the town. Earlier in the century several of the outlying villages sought their own identities with parish privileges, following the lead of the Upper Houses or North Society. In 1714 householders on the east side of the Connecticut River, which had been settled about 1690, petitioned for parish privileges, and the area was known as East Middletown until it was incorporated into the town of Chatham in 1767. (In 1841 a section of Chatham was incorporated as the new town of Portland. The remaining town of Chatham was renamed East Hampton in 1915.) Middlefied, in the southwest corner of Middletown, was settled about 1700, and incorporated as a separate society with its own meeting house in 1745. It was incorporated as a separate town in 1866, 15 years after the incorporation of the Upper Houses as the separate town of Cromwell.(33)

Middletowners move west

Coinciding with the changing character of Middletown in the late 18th century was the first major movement west of descendants of the original families. In 1784, Hugh White (1733-1812), a Revolutionary War veteran and a great-grandson of Middletown first settler Nathaniel White, joined with three others to purchase the Sadaqueda Patent, or Wallace's Patent, a 6000-acre tract in the vicinity of Utica, N.Y. He moved there from Upper Houses at the age of 51 with his four sons, a daughter, and a daughter-in-law. In 1788 the "town" of Whitestown was organized, which included all of New York State west of a north-south line through Utica, from the St. Lawrence River to the Pennsylvania state line, an area over half the size of the present New York state. At that time the population of the entire 12-million acre area was 200. Hugh White returned to Upper Houses to show samples of crops he had raised, and this induced 100 families to move from Middletown to central and western New York. By the time of Hugh White's death in 1812, the original area of Whitestown had grown to a population of 300,000.(34)

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 II:

(27) Jackson Turner Main ”The Distribution of Property in Colonial Connecticut.” The Human Dimen­sion of Nation-Making: Essays on Colonial and Revolutionary America, James Kirby Martin, ed. (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970) pg. 99.
(28) Elizabeth A. Warner, A Pictorial History of Middletown (Virginia Beach, Va.: Donning Co., 1990) p. 21.
(29) Bernard C. Steiner, History of Slavery in Connecticut (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1893).
(30) Census Records: Connecticut Census 1756, 1774 (Connecicut State Library, Hartford, Conn.); Federal Census 1790 (National Archives, Washington, D.C.)
(31) Willard M. Wallace, Middletown 1650-1950 (Middletown, Conn.: City of Middletown, 1950) pg. 16-19.
(32) Field, Centennial Address, (sketches of Portland, Middlefield, Cromwell, & Chatham).
(33) Albert E. Van Dusen, Middletown and the American Revolution, (Middletown, Conn.: Middlesex County Historical Society, 1950).
(34) Charles Collard Adams, Middletown Upper Houses (New York, N.Y.: Grafton Press, 1908) pg. 721-723.

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.