Over the next year, we’ll be telling the story of Westport through the many amazing and historically significant objects in our archives, art, objects, and costume collections. Stop in at WHS to check out this mini-exhibit rotating every two weeks, look for it by the Wheeler House front door and guess the latest mystery object. Drop your answer in the box, guess correctly and we’ll enter your name in a drawing to win a popular Westport item from our gift shop! Check this page to look at the objects up close, learn more about the artifacts, and to see any cases or mystery objects you missed!
There was no “Westport” in the 1630s. Instead, using the Saugtauck River as the boundary, the town was divided between Fairfield and Norwalk. On the Fairfield side, many farmers settled along the Long Island Sound–amidst the original settlements of the Pequot Natives. By 1637, there was all out “war” between the two groups. Originating in Massachusetts, Europeans hounded the Pequots all the way to the swampy area between what is now Southport and Greens Farms. The massacre that ensued was called The Great Swamp Fight and effectively ended the war and the Native presence in this part of the colony. The Native People who survived were either absorbed by other tribes or sold into slavery. Over the years, their presence has been erased except for the now-familiar place names they left behind like Saugatuck and Aspetuck.
Cannonball on a Stick?
The establishment of the Congregational Church of America dates back to the founding of this nation with the arrival of religious dissenters from England to Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1620. Called Puritans in England, a derogatory term referring to their zeal for simplicity in church organization and worship, they believed each church should be organized with members who enter a covenant agreement with the right to choose their own minister. In the 1630s and 1640s, thousands of Puritans arrived in New England and flourished with the conviction that they were chosen by God to play a central role in the unfolding of this new land and human history. Churches and church leaders played an important role in shaping New England society. The organizational system of Congregational churches required mutual trust and personal commitment, yet this was not always a given. Voting in Massachusetts was limited to individuals who had been formally admitted to the church after a detailed interrogation of their religious views and experiences. Thomas Hooker disagreed with the limitation of suffrage and in 1636, led one hundred followers to found Hartford. After 1636, freeman settlements were formed throughout Connecticut. In 1639, Roger Ludlowe and a group of settlers from Windsor came to modern day Fairfield and formed The First Church of Fairfield. By 1644, Fairfield was the fourth largest town among the colony’s nine towns and extended from Stratford to Norwalk. As populations grew and church attendance was mandatory, groups began campaigning for the right to establish their own parishes. In 1708, the Bankside farmers started their petition to form the West Parish of Fairfield, which is the modern day Green’s Farm Church in Westport.
In April 1775, George Washington, newly minted commander of the Continental Army, passed through Westport en route to Boston to lead the colonial militia that succeeded in beating back the British at the Battle of Lexington & Concord. He stopped at West Parish Meeting House (Greens Farms Church) to rest and speak with Reverend Hezekiah Ripley about impending war. The conflict was no surprise to either man-the colonies had borne harsh taxes to pay for the French and Indian War (Sevens Year War) between England and France that took place from 1754-1763. In 1764 the Currency Act prevented colonies from printing local money and 1764’s Sugar Act taxed molasses. The 1765 Stamp Act levied fees on legal documents and playing cards. The Townshend Act of 1767 taxed writing paper, paint, lead, glass and tea. By 1773, spurred by outrage, a group calling themselves the Sons of Liberty dumped $1,000,000 worth of British tea into Boston harbor. The British retaliated by blockading the city. Instead of breaking colonists’ spirit, revolutionary fervor grew. In April 1775 the Revolution properly began. Black and white Westporters enlisted on both sides. Reverend Ripley would go on to be a chaplain in Washington’s army. He ministered to soldiers at Valley Forge.
A Drum Stick?
At the beginning of 1778, the Revolutionary War was in its third year. Colonies such as Connecticut were divided among Patriots and Loyalists. Here in Westport many of the early founding families played a significant roles in the war including the Couches, Chapmans, Wakemans, Sherwoods, Jennings, Jesups, Coleys, Burrs and Hydes. Some families like the Bennett family who lived at what is now South Compo Road were divided a common scenario. Only one-third of Americans were pro-Revolution, another third were pro-Loyalist and the last third had no preference either way. Both sides often required locals to sign “loyalty oaths”. Once the war ended, Loyalists’ property was seized and many were driven from their communities. Among the thirty-seven patriot soldiers buried at Greens Farm Church is Ebenezer Jesup, a surgeon serving the Continental Army at Valley Forge. Reverend Hezekiah Ripley of Greens Farm Church served as the army’s chaplain. In 1779 the British burned the church and parsonage, which stood on what is now Sherwood Island Connector. Regardless of where Westporters loyalties lay, the Revolution drew a heavy toll on local families. As the war dragged on the economy faltered as commerce was impacted in harbor towns like Westport, normally accustomed to trading with British ports in the West Indies. In Connecticut, a Patriot stronghold, the Continental Army requisitioned supplies from locals but just as often the British destroyed farms, homes, and animals so that Patriots could not have use of them. Once the war as won, the business of nation-building began and each new state, including Connecticut, threw itself into the creation of a national Constitution. At the turn of the 19th century, Eli Whitney brought invention to Connecticut with a firearms factory to New Haven in 1798. Whitney’s invention of the cotton mill revolutionized the textile industry throughout the nation by enabling mass processing of cotton to feed the growing mill industry in New England–thereby solidifying Connecticut’s complicity in entrenching the practice of slavery in the American South.
A Tooth Extractor?
An Apple Peeler!
For nearly two hundred years following the settlement of Greens Farms by the Bankside Farmers in 1648, the area that would eventually become Westport was divided by the Saugatuck River between Fairfield to its east and Norwalk to the west. In 1835, Daniel Nash, a descendant of one of the area’s founding families and a prosperous farmer whose land, pond and grange laid on the Norwalk side of the river got together with others in the town to petition the Connecticut State Legislature to allow an independent town to be called “Westport” to be formed. The petition stated that most of them lived beyond the borders of the “town aforesaid” and “a majority of them more than six miles from the place where Town and Electors meetings were always held and the Town Record are always kept and suffer great inconvenience in consequence thereof”. The Nash petition went on to say that Norwalk and Fairfield had rival seaports and conflicting interests that made growth and prosperity harder for those who lived in between to achieve.
Once accepted by the legislature, Westport was carved out of Weston, Fairfield and Norwalk and was allowed to levy taxes and be represented by its own Board of Selectmen. Town meetings were to be held at the Presbyterian Church which most likely referred to Saugatuck Congregational Church, which had been created just three years before by citizens who tired of the few mile carriage ride from the modern town center to Greens Farms Congregational Church. Saugatuck church’s charter indicates “The Society, instituted for the support of the new church, pledged maintenance of public worship, “agreeable to the form and all principles of the Presbyterian or Congregational Churches of the United States.”
Westport was officially named its own town on May 28, 1835.
A Wine Opener?
A Tooth Key!
In the Colonial era, the land east of the Saugatuck River bordering what we know now as Fairfield, and west of the Mill River was called Green’s Farms. A group of farmers settled there, known today as the Bankside Farmers among them John Green, Henry Gray, Thomas Newton, Daniel Frost, and Francis Andrews. In later generations, farmers like Joshua Jennings possessed landholding encompassing a large parcel of Green’s Farms. Settlers cultivated the rich soil, initially for their own subsistence and later for commercial profit. Positioned on the Long Island Sound, Green’s Farms was also a seafaring community which tapped into the export trade. Flax was grown for linen; and corn, also known by the Native name maize, was grown for the settlers’ families, their cattle, and for export to the Caribbean where it was used to feed enslaved people. Farming also included aquaculture, and fish, clams, and oysters were part of the bounty. Fish and lobsters were so plentiful they were used for fertilizer.
A Grain Flail!
The Connecticut Colony played a significant role in the French and Indian War, 1755-1762, also known as the Seven Years War. The rivalry between France and Britain in the North American colonies, each with Native American allies, played out in battles across Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York. England expected her colonies to provide men and materials. Over seven years, 16,000 men or 12% of the Connecticut Colony volunteered. Most did so for economic reasons; the signing bonus and salary were a source of income to poor farmers. However, the enlistees paid a price: 1,445 Connecticut troops died in battle during the war years. osters from Fairfield regiments include many familiar names from Westport’s past: Coley, Sturges, Wakeman, Gould, Burr, and Sherwood. A Captain Smedley led his troops to Fort William Henry in 1757 to relieve a siege in what would be a devastating loss for the British troops. Jabez Fitch Jr., a sergeant with a New London regiment, described how the Mohawk tribe allied with the French “plundered, stripped, killed and scalped our people.” The men from this area were accustomed to hostile relations with Native Americans; Greens Farms was settled only after defeating the Pequot Indians during the Great Swamp War of 1637. The war left the colony deeply in debt, but there was more financial trouble to come. Since the colonies benefited from the outcome of the war, the British decided that they should share the expense by paying tariffs on sugar, coffee, wine, and other imported commodities. Colonial opposition to these tariffs would later set the stage for the American Revolution.
An Insect Trap!
Connecticut was a Patriot stronghold during the American Revolution and its shoreline was strategic both in terms of military engagement and espionage—particularly relating to Long Island, just across the Sound which was occupied by British forces. Early in the conflict, outright battle came to Westport when, in the spring of 1777, the British landed a force of 2,000 men on Compo Beach. The goal was to proceed to Danbury to confiscate or destroy the Patriot’s supply of tents and other provisions stashed there. As the British marched to Danbury the Patriots mustered their forces but were too late to stop them from plundering and burning that town. Upon leaving Danbury the Patriots attacked the British column as it approached Ridgefield but Patriot Brigadier General Benedict Arnold temporarily slowed their progress in Ridgefield with a force of 500 men. The following day Arnold desperately tried to block the raiders’ return to their ships with a force of 2,000 men stationed on Old Hill. In a white-knuckle showdown the British outwitted Arnold by crossing the Saugatuck River at Ford Road and made a mad dash for their ships as Arnold’s troops pursued them before being scattered by British bayonet charges on Compo Hill.
In the earliest days of the Republic, its independence was in jeopardy when in 1812 the United States became embroiled in War with Great Britain over that nation’s assault on American commercial vessels trading in international waters. In Fairfield, of which Westport was a part, locals gave land and funds to create a magazine to store gunpowder for the town’s defense. The War ended in 1815 in a tie, and Americans went back to the business of nation-building. A few years later, in 1818,Connecticut enacted its state constitution–the last of the original thirteen states to do so. Learn more about that in our exhibit Rights For All? The Connecticut Constitution of 1818. With the ending of the war and the creation of the constitution completed, the state found itself fully immersed in the drive toward an industrial culture and by 1830, downtown Westport (‘Saugatuck Village’) had become a major shipping center. The residents of this area grew tired of traveling three miles to Green’s Farms Congregational Church, so downtown Westporters decided to build their own church which was completed in June 1832 as Saugatuck Congregational Church. It was built on the Boston Post Road, on land provided by Ebenezer Jesup, a prominent Saugatuck merchant. After much discussion the original 36 members of Saugatuck Church were formally dismissed by letter from the Society of Green’s Farms. Saugatuck Church has thrived since, through the founding of the Town of Westport in 1835, a move of the church across the Post Road in 1950, and a disastrous fire in 2011. Ebenezer Jesup’s stately home, built in 1811, was donated to the church for use as the parsonage by his grandson, Morris Jesup, in 1885, where it sits besides the current location of the church.