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History Corner: There Are 169 of Them…

History Corner: There Are 169 of Them…

The State of Connecticut has 169 towns, some small and some very large like Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport. The little towns, as with the larger ones have stories to tell, stories and tales of long ago some we should believe as gospel and others tongue in cheek.   Let’s start with Pomfret and Israel Putnam.  Putnam was born in Salem Massachusetts in 1718, a town associated with witchcraft.  His father had been an outspoken critic of the persecutions of witches and kept a loaded rifle and fast horse saddled at all times.  It was into this environment that Israel was born.

The young man hated the classroom but loved the great outdoors where he fished and hunted, getting a full measure of all of nature.  Israel came to Connecticut in 1739 and settled on a farm in the Mortlake district of Pomfret but he soon took on the “enemy” when he participated in campaigns against the French and Indians with British forces.  He continued to excel in his military career with the legendary event when he alone saved Fort Edwards from being blown up by putting out a fire where 300 barrels of gunpowder were being stored.

Of all of the legends, the one most famous includes the war of nerves.  It appears that a British officer said that he had been insulted by Putnam and sent him a nasty note challenging him to a duel.  Israel ignored the letter but the officer appeared at his tent demanding a reply.  When Putnam replied that he was but a poor farmer who never fired a shot, Israel came up with a plan to show who was the bravest.  Now here is where the tongue in cheek comes in.  Putnam secured two powder kegs and bored a hole in each one, placing a match into each.  The idea was for the officer and Putnam to sit on the kegs and the one seated the longest without squirming was declared the bravest.

The legendary tale has a comical side as the British officer, after conceding was later told, that the barrels were full of onions.  With fifteen wounds and memories of a hundred hair-raising adventures, the legend returned home to Pomfret in 1765 but soon donned a military uniform and went full steam ahead into the Revolutionary War.  His exploits continued to make him a hero in the true sense of the word with what has been called Putnam’s Valley Forge.  It was in Redding that he commanded a contingent of Connecticut and New Hampshire troops during the winter of 1778-1779 under adverse conditions suffering fully as much as they were.

A stroke struck him down in December of 1779 and he went home to live out his last ten years to a home filled with veterans, neighbors and friends.  His wife, half-facetiously suggested he “open a tavern so he could charge a little something to pay for the wear and tear on the furniture.”

Who would you nominate for the First Lady of Connecticut?  Lady Alice Botelor Fenwick was the bride of Colonel George Fenwick, governor of the infant colony of Saybrook.  Not only was she the first noblewoman to endure the rigors of New England but the first white woman to alter history.  It seems that Colonel Fenwick was endeavoring to establish a baronial refugee center of Oliver Cromwell and his aristocratic Puritan cronies.  With his young wife’s death, Fenwick lost all interest in his efforts to bring Cromwell to the colonies ending what might have changed the history of Connecticut.

Another nominee for first lady could be Ella Grasso, the first woman governor in the state and the first woman in the nation ever elected a states’ chief executive in her own right.  Governor Grasso held a high place in Connecticut and an argument could be made for her to be the “first lady.” History has another idea with that of Goody Barber, not well known but whose varied feats have inspired our folk tales.  With Barber’s legend, historians have seen proof that Wethersfield was Connecticut’s first truly settled town.  Tradition tells us that in the spring of 1635, a small group of Puritans set sail from Watertown, Massachusetts to sail around Cape Cod, into Long Island Sound and up the Connecticut River to an area known by the Native Americans as Pyquag or the dancing place.  An earlier group of men had paved the way for these travelers and had set up a few huts to make it through the winter.

Our weary travelers from Massachusetts had to endure squabbling among the menfolk for one reason or another and upon landing the boat at Pyquag, the men were arguing who should have the honor of being the first ashore.  Just as several men were about to come to blows, up sprang Goody Barber, hurling herself over the rail into the shallow water.  With petticoats billowing, she waded ashore.  Now, with Goody Barber being the first white woman to ever set foot on dry land, she turned to the now silent men and gave them her unmistakable gesture of triumph.

One of the most fertile and imaginative minds to come to Connecticut was Abel Buell.

Born in Killingworth in 1742, he showed a strong direction into the arts with leaning toward metalworking. At an early age, Abel was apprenticed to Ebenezer Chittenden, a talented goldsmith whose work was well-known among the affluent families of the colony.  Abel’s talent in designing and creating works of beauty made him a favorite with Chittenden and he was raised in the business so that at the age of 19 he was able to marry and begin life under very fine circumstances.  But is that all there is to this story?

No indeed.  It seems that shortly after his marriage, neighbors noticed that a light was shining through a small window on the second floor of his home to the wee hours of the morning, night after night.  When one neighbor could stand the suspense no longer, he set a ladder against the house and peered into the window.  As the story goes, he could hardly keep from a gasp of surprise.  There in the flickering light was Abel holding an engraved plate, ink and bundles of paper currency.  Yipes, he was altering 5-pound notes into large denominations!  Making money was not a crime in Connecticut in the 1760’s but making big ones out of small ones was indeed wrong.

Counterfeiting or forgery was a serious crime in colonial New England with harsh penalties however, his standing in the community and exemplary conduct weighed in his favor but penalties were very severe at that time and leniency would not be considered lenient today with cropping of his ear, branding on his forehead with the letter “f” and imprisonment in the Norwich prison.  The sentence was imposed with the kindest way possible with a small portion of his ear which when kept warm was reattached.  The branding was far up on his forehead to allow his hair to hide it and he eventually spent his sentence within the confines of the town.

He soon moved to New Haven where he could start anew.  Working with Bernard Romans, the earliest American mapmaker, he was sent to Florida to survey and draw maps of the area.  He was suspected of being a spy and a trap was laid for him by the Spanish government.  Buell was sent to prison but with his ingenuity he built a boat with the help of an island boy and made his way to a southern Florida port and from there, made his way back to New Haven. Romans had been working on a map of North America and when it was ready to print, during the Revolutionary War, British type* was not available.   Buell hired 20 boys to create the type needed for the map in America’s first type foundry.

The State Legislature, impressed with Buell, sent him to England to buy copper for coins with a side trip to spy on the newly built textile machines.  Before he could leave with his ill-gotten information, Buell came upon a bridge in readiness to collapse.  He solved the problem and was given 100 guineas for his advice.  So with an ample supple of copper, abundant information on cotton mills and a smuggled Scotch mill expert, Abel Buell returned to New Haven where he directed the construction of one of the first cotton mills in Connecticut.  With all of his knowledge, he died a pauper but his life went through being a goldsmith, forger, jewelry designer, engraver, surveyor, type manufacturer, mint master, bridge engineer, industrial spy and textile miller.  Phew…Abel was certainly able.





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