South? Florida? No southeast to New London County. Our first stop is Groton, located between the Thames and Mystic Rivers, originally part of New London. John Winthrop, Jr. son of Massachusetts Gov. Winthrop was responsible for the formation of the town, naming it after his birthplace in England. Farming was so very strongly a part of Connecticut towns but for Groton, the rocky soil defeated attempts at farming.
So, in 1723 the people turned to shipbuilding for trade among the colonies and the Caribbean, much like what Milford did some 83 years earlier. Thirty-two vessels were built from 1784 to 1800 building 28 more ships between 1800 and 1807. An interesting note here with General Benedict Arnold, a Norwich native, who sailed into Groton in 1781 leading in the Battle of Groton Heights at Fort Griswold. If I tell you that Lt. Col. William Ledyard was in command of state troops you can piece it together that Arnold, at this point was acting for the other side, Britain.
The battle raged on with over 100 of Ledyard’s men perishing having been outnumbered by 800 trained British soldiers. To save the lives of the citizens of Groton, Ledyard order his men to lay down their arms and he handed his sword to Major Brownfield who turned it toward Ledyard, killing him. His waistcoat is preserved in the Connecticut State Library. A monument stands on the battlefield today with native Groton stone and Fort Griswold became a state park in 1902.
I can’t leave Groton without mention of the submarines with the first being built in 1929. The Cuttlefish, the first with a welded hull was also the first contracted ship with the U.S. Navy in 1933. An aside here. My Dad was the first photographic contractor to be hired to film the refueling of the Nautilus SSN-571, now decommissioned and part of a tour but the part my Dad filmed is off-limits to visitors.
Lebanon, our next stop, is a step back in time according to its historian Grace Preli. The town surrounds the famed mile-long Green, the longest in the country and the only one still used for agriculture. The town center isn’t bustling like others I have written about but a slow-moving farm town. Lebanon is a rich, agricultural community, the pace is slower than most Connecticut towns. Sounds like a nice town to visit.
Originally owned by the Mohegans, Poquechaneed was purchased by several citizens, naming the town after the country of Lebanon. Known as The Heartbeat of the Revolution, this little town was host to Jonathan Trumbull as George Washington ‘s chief quartermaster in command from the War Office on the Green. His son-in-law, William Williams was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. (See Orange Town News article 10/30/20). Many Revolutionary era homes are located in Lebanon, surrounding the Green, a testament to the historical guidance from the town’s government and historically grounded citizens. Many are open for tours. Let’s not forget Lebanon’s agricultural life with 100 farms; 11 of them being preserved with the CT Farmland Trust. The earliest country fair is held here in August and a well-known antique show and old book sale in September. Many dirt roads still exist in Lebanon giving bikers and hikers a true sense of the past of this lovely, little town.
You just read about Lt. Col Ledyard, well you probably were thinking, oh that must be why there is a town named Ledyard. Well, you are right. The citizenry was so devastated by the colonial losses at the Battle of Groton Heights that when it became obvious to Groton citizens that attending church without horses and a long distance to the meetinghouse, Ledyard was created in 1727, establishing a separate Ecclesiastical Society. A meetinghouse was constructed in the center of the 40 square mile society.
A trading post was established along the Thames River at Allyn’s Point and in 1740 Messer’s Ralph Stoddard and John Hurlbutt were given a charter to operate a ferry to Montville where the surrounding community took the name Gales Ferry after a ferryman. This eventually opened up whaling and ocean shipping. In 1878, Gales Ferry became the home to the Harvard-Yale Regatta, the country’s oldest intercollegiate athletic event. It remains today with both universities establishing boathouses and training camps.
Ledyard, as you all may know, is the home of the Pequot Museum and Research Center and the Foxwood Resort Casino. Take your 169 Club book when you go to the casino and get it signed.
Montville, the home to Mohegan Sun Casino, is the sum of its parts and more. Within the borders of the Town of Montville are distinctive communities of Palmerton, Oakdale, Mohegan, Chesterfield and Uncasville. It’s interesting to note that the Mohegans arrived in the area shortly before the English having lived in upstate New York. As Uncas as the leader of the Mohegans, they established agriculture along the banks of the Thames. They formed an alliance with the English which proved beneficial in 1645 when the Narragansett warriors, from what is now Rhode Island, surrounded the village in an attempt to starve them out.
Under cover of night, Uncas sent a scout to the English settlement at Saybrook, asking for help which arrived to end the siege. Thomas Leffingwell, a friend of Chief Uncas, risked his life coming to the rescue. Leffingwell, an English immigrant and early settler of Old Saybrook was co-founder of Norwich and some say that he was the inspiration for the character Hawkeye in James Fenimore Cooper’s book, “Last of the Mohicans.” His prowess as a soldier in King Phillip’s War can only be understood by the details of his life, member of the Connecticut Legislature, a member of the council in fighting King James in his attempt to return the colony of Connecticut to English jurisdiction, surveyor of the wilderness and friend to Uncas, Sachem of the Mohegans. Native American presence is more prominent in Montville than it is in any other Connecticut Community. The Orange Historical Society is proud to display a sampler by Sarah Leffingwell.
Originally called Pequot Harbor after the Pequot Native Americans, the name New London became the name for this small city on the banks of the Thames River where it meets Long Island Sound. Founded in 1646, Pequot Harbor was deep enough to handle large ocean-going ships in addition to pleasure craft. The U.S. Coast Guard Academy is located there and across the Thames is, you guessed it, the U.S. Navy’s submarine force. During the Revolutionary War, the town was home to numerous privateers who successfully raided British shipping.
When Britain learned of this effort it sent our once heroic, but disillusioned Benedict Arnold to destroy the town and destroy it he did. It is said that while the town was burning, several British Officers were eating a noon-time meal at the Hempstead House.
Well, this ends our tour of New London County. I know winter is nye but you can bundle up and travel the roads of Connecticut with your 169 Book in hand as you travel through this interesting county. Don’t forget to get it signed.