Spring 2019: Water–Connecticut’s Big Story

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By Elizabeth J. Normen
(c) Connecticut Explored Spring 2019

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As part of my pursuit of a master’s degree in American Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, I signed up for a summer course at the Frank C. Munson Institute of American Maritime Studies at Mystic Seaport. It was fantastic, starting with having an excuse to spend three mornings a week for five weeks at Mystic Seaport. It was like playing hooky from my real life.

I found the institute’s maritime-history survey course fascinating. It gave me a completely different perspective on American history. I liken it—having been taught that the trajectory of American history was westward expansion—to pivoting on my heel and looking east, out to sea, to England, France, Africa, the Caribbean, and beyond. It was an epiphany every maritime historian already knows: water is Connecticut’s big story.

And yet, even with one of the nation’s premier maritime museums in our state, most of us don’t think about Connecticut as a maritime powerhouse. There are good reasons for this—at the top of the list being our rocky shoreline with plenty of small harbors but no truly great deep-water one. Still, as this issue’s stories reveal, a fundamental understanding of Connecticut history requires appreciation for the impact on its development of the state’s abundance of water, both fresh and salty. Who, for example, would have thought that a merchant in interior Wethersfield at the turn of the 19th century would have been so heavily involved in maritime trading? (see “Justice for Justus Riley” page 32.)

Water is a major theme, too, in Where I Live: Connecticut, the social studies book for third grade that we introduced in Fall 2017. Students using it learn the impact on the state of its plethora of rivers and fast-moving streams, good amount of rainfall, and watery southern border. They’ll learn, for example, about whaling, including why the sperm whale is our state animal, the invention by early architect Ithiel Town of the Town Truss Bridge (a surviving example is West Cornwall’s covered bridge), and our many mill towns. In the forthcoming Venture Smith’s Colonial Connecticut, fifth- to seventh-graders will learn about Connecticut’s involvement in the triangle trade and the importance of coastal trading to Connecticut’s economy in the colonial period.

Young or old, we hope you enjoy this issue. For more about our state’s “aqua” culture (aquaculture, too) and maritime history, see “Native American Oystering” and “Connecticut Oystering,” Summer 2017, “Carry Me Across the Water: Our Historic Bridges,” Summer 2015, “New Discoveries at Battle Site Essex,” Summer 2014; “They Came Here as Fishermen,” Fall 2013, and the entire Spring 2009 issue, to name a few of my favorites.

Thank You to our Friends

With a great sense of gratitude, we thank our 2018 Friends of Connecticut Explored, whose support above and beyond their membership-subscription goes a long way to ensuring we continue publishing. We are particularly struck by the loyalty of the many Friends who contribute year after year without fail—and those who gave $160 or more to mark our 16th year. This steadfast support means a great deal to us! We’ve listed Friends who gave $100 or more through December 31, 2018 on page 58. If you haven’t made your gift yet, please make a contribution by check to Connecticut Explored, PO Box 271561, West Hartford, CT 06127-1561 or by credit card online at ctexplored.org/shop. Every gift helps!

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