By Gene Leach
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Summer 2014
The next year a sudden war changed everything. The Pequots, a hostile tribe from the southeast, killed nine English settlers at Wethersfield. The three river towns organized a force to punish them.
The fighting was soon over. The heavily armed English massacred the Pequots at today’s Mystic and Fairfield. But the brief war had deep and lasting consequences. It spurred the founding of a colony-wide Connecticut government and triggered a land rush. In pursuit of fleeing Pequots, soldiers from Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay got their first look at fertile places where rivers emptied into Long Island Sound, an area that was ideal for agriculture, trade, and transport. And now these delectable spots lay open to English expansion.
A party of Puritans led by the Rev. John Davenport acted first, planting a town originally called Quinnipiac in 1638. They had come to Boston with plans to settle nearby, but, hearing of a beautiful harbor on the Connecticut coast, they decided to go there instead, buying land from the Quinnipiac Indians. Later christened New Haven, this pioneering settlement figured in the founding of the neighboring towns of Milford, Guilford, and Stratford in 1639. Along with Fairfield (see the companion article by Elizabeth Rose), these towns mark their 375th birthdays in 2014.
The leading man in the Milford story was Peter Prudden, a magnetic Puritan minister who led his Hertfordshire parishioners to Boston in July 1637. The following year, after attracting more followers from Wethersfield, Prudden and his company joined the Davenport group at Quinnipiac. In 1639 they moved yet again, this time to plant a colony of their own at a place called Wepawaug that they purchased from the Paugussets. The town adopted the name Milford in 1640.
If New Haven played patron to Milford, it was a sort of godfather to Guilford. When a company of Puritans headed by the Rev. Henry Whitfield sailed into Quinnipiac harbor in July 1639 (becoming the first arrival in that port), they brought with them John Davenport’s infant son—a sign of a close bond between the two ministers. But Whitfield and his companions planned from the start to create their own community. They resolved to buy “the whole lands called Menunkatuck” from Shaumpishuh “the sachem squaw,” as recorded in Edward E. Atwater’s History of the Colony of New Haven to its Absorption into Connecticut (The [Meriden] Journal Publishing Company, 1902.) Months later they broke ground for a town they later named “Guilforde.”
Originally New Haven, Milford, and Guilford were independent colonies, separate from Connecticut and from each other. In 1643, however, seeking protection from possible Indian attacks, the two smaller towns chose to unite with the larger one to form the New Haven Colony.
In the founding of Stratford, New Haven played the role of rival to Connecticut. The Connecticut colony claimed that its conquest of the Pequots and a treaty signed with other tribes gave it possession of lands along the sound. Regarding the Quinnipiac settlers as trespassers, Connecticut wished to plant its own settlements on the coast. This purpose dovetailed with the aspirations of yet another band of English migrants, this one brought to Boston by the Rev. Adam Blakeman in 1638.
As William Howard Wilcoxson tells it in History of Stratford, Connecticut, 1639-1939 (Stratford Tercentenary Commission, 1939), finding no land to their liking in Massachusetts, the Blakeman company trekked to Wethersfield, where again they discovered all the best land was already occupied. We have no record of when they journeyed south, but by August 1639 they were living on land claimed by Connecticut on the banks of the Pequonnock River, possibly as squatters. Two months later the Connecticut General Court dispatched the governor “to confer with the planters att Pequannocke, to give them the oath of fidelity.” These planters renamed their place Stratford.
Thus Wepawaug became Milford, Menunkatuck became Guilford, Pequonnock became Stratford, all through episodes in which Englishmen displaced Indians in the wake of war. Yet that central fact can be misleading, for the displacements were neither sudden nor violent.
Although the triumphant English might have seized what they pleased, there were no invasions and no expulsions of any tribe except the Pequots. The planters of Milford and Guilford (like those of New Haven before them) bought their property from tribes they regarded as rightful proprietors. According to historians of Milford (Federal Writers’ Project for the State of Connecticut, History of Milford, Connecticut, 1639-1939, Milford Tercentenary Committee, 1939), “Title to the region was based solely on land purchased from the Indians and not upon any grant from the English crown.” Moreover, English purchasers conceded the Indians’ right to reserve tracts for their own residence and use.
At a few places English settlers did seize Indian land. This appears to have happened at Stratford, where there are no records of the Blakeman company’s receiving deeds from the Pequonnocks. But here too the Indians were allowed to remain on portions of their ancestral lands. And when the Pequonnocks demanded belated payments in the 1650s, the Stratforders paid—not to ease their consciences but simply to keep the peace. The Indians might be seen by the English as heathen nuisances, but they were still children of God, and they were neighbors.
To zealous Puritans the English Crown seemed almost as heathenish as the Indians. But King Charles was not much of a nuisance because he was so distant a neighbor. The founders of the Connecticut and New Haven colonies were strikingly oblivious to their sovereign, in part because they were beyond his reach, and in part because he was oblivious to them. Not until the 1680s did the king appoint officials to impose its will on its distant Connecticut subjects. The effort failed. Though technically an English colony, Connecticut (which absorbed New Haven in 1665) remained virtually self-governing.
While keeping the king and Indians at arm’s length, the people of Milford, Guilford, and Stratford strived to keep themselves together in service to their pious mission. In June 1639, aboard ship on their way to Quinnipiac, the future Guilforders signed a humble covenant, recorded in History of the Colony of New Haven: “We do faithfully promise each to each, for ourselves and families, and those that belong to us; that we will, The Lord assisting us, sit down and join ourselves together in one entire plantation; and to be helpful each to the other in every common work, according to every man’s ability and as need shall require….”
Gene Leach is a professor of history and American studies emeritus at Trinity College and a member of the Connecticut Explored editorial team. He last wrote “The Scandalous Luna Park” in the Summer 2013 issue.