Early Coventry Home and Town Life
By Mrs. Maud Gridley Peterson
“Can that be a house that we see yonder!” That is what it proved to be, and this house of Birchard’s furnished a welcome night’s lodging to John and Samuel Meakins, weary from their long search for stray horses through the wilderness where Coventry now is. Branded horses from Hartford, turned loose in search of pasturage, sometimes wandered far. This region furnished an especially good food supply for them. It was the scene of a former encampment of Indians from Norwich and vicinity who “burnt over yearly a good feeding ground for deer, and consequently a good hunting ground for themselves. Here they came in hunting season to kill game and dry the meat.
Legend says that an Indian squaw with two children spent one winter under the ledges at the north end of the lake subsisting on the roots of the water lily.
Only Birchard’s house stood all around Wamgumbaug Pond was Meakin’s report in 1709, but from various sources we learn that both Samuel Birchard and Benjamin Howard were living in this section in 1700 and that in 1706 Nathaniel Rust was already settled in the locality.
Claims to ownership by the white man of the land originally included in the town of Coventry were based on the last will of a Mohegan Indian commonly called Joshua who was the third son of Uncas.
Uncas at one time controlled the tribes in what is now the northern part of New London County and southern parts of Windham and Tolland Counties with his headquarters near Norwich, within the limits of what is now known as Montville. Another chief, Sassacus, ruled the tribes in the vicinity of New London. Both were subject to Wopingwooitt who died about 1633. In the contest over his successor, Sassacus won over Uncas who fled to the Narragansetts in Rhode Island. He later returned to Connecticut having pledged allegiance to Sassacus. As he was not given a chieftanship, he, with about twenty-five followers, established themselves near Windsor.
In 1637 the colony of Connecticut fitted out an expedition under Captain John Mason of Saybrook to avenge increasingly frequent Indian raids. Uncas, long anxious to revenge his defeat by Sassacus, joined this party as commander of about seventy Indians. The combined forces were successful. Sassacus was killed and the majority of his followers slain or widely scattered. As a reward for his help Uncas was given his old lands, the rest of the conquered territory becoming English property.
Uncas remained a staunch friend of the English, and most of the land which he received gradually passed into the hands of the white man. Norwich was deeded by Uncas and his two sons to John Mason, Thomas Leffingwell (who came to Uncas’ aid when besieged by the Narragansetts), Rev. James Pitch and thirty-five others. Joshua, by will, gave Coventry to a group of legatees. Also what is now Mansfield, Windham, and Canterbury was willed to Mason, Fitch, and fourteen others.
* Presented by Dr. A.E.Peterson on the occasion of the 225th Anniversary observance of the First Congregational Church of Coventry, Sept 19, 1937.
Parts of Lebanon were given or sold to different parties by Oweneco, another son of Uncas. Mason was one of these owners.
In 1700 real estate developments did not proceed with present day rapidity. It was some twenty-five to thirty years after Joshua’s bequest before the legatees of Coventry took concerted action toward settling a town. In 1706 the General Court and Assembly of Connecticut appointed a committee to lay out the town and manage the lands so as to promote their growth. (Nathaniel Rust of earlier mention was subsequently added to their number). A map of the survey of 1708 shows lots and highways laid off while an accompanying list indicates the properties assigned by the drawing of lots to the legatees or their heirs. Three reservations for the church and minister and one for the school were made.
In 1711 Coventry was designated by the General Court and Assembly of Connecticut as the name of the settlement and a brand mark decided upon for marking horses. The aforementioned committee was empowered to obtain a minister as early as possible. A petition dated May 8, 1712, in the Connecticut Colonial Records states that in accord with the preceding act the sixteen families of the town NOW have a minister amongst them and begs that a tax may be laid upon the unsettled lands to help with his support. The powers and privileges of a town were asked for and granted together with the other requests. Coventry was at that time appointed to belong to Hartford County. It would seem, therefore, that 1712 should stand as the official date for the beginning of the town.
Two hundred and twenty-five years ago Coventry was a scattered settlement of sixteen families, and today it is the town as we now know it for which the early inhabitants laid such a firm foundation. As we have seen, the first community effort was for a minister among them. For over thirty years, church matters were town matters, voted upon in town meeting. So it is from early town records that church development is at first gleaned.
At the town meeting Dec. 3, 1714, the people elected their town officers. In 1715, they voted to lay out £35 on a meeting house, 36×32. Later in the year it was voted to raise £45 to defray the expenses of a meeting house. In the next year money to glaze it was granted, but it was not until 1718 that it was voted to finish the lower part and set up the pews, and not until 1720 that funds were supplied to finish paying for the galleries. It was slow progress but evidently done on a pay as you go policy. Where services were held in the meantime, I am not sure.
In 1723 the town required every man between fifteen and sixty to draw a load of wood for the minister every year or pay him 2s 6d, but two years later a change was made and £6 voted to pay Zachariah Boynton for supplying Mr. Meacham with sufficient fire wood for the year. Besides his wood the minister was to receive £75. Even the matter of seating the parishioners was one of town jurisdiction. In 1730 or 1731 a committee was chosen to “regilate” seating of ye meeting house according to age, estates, and qualifications. After church matters, in importance, came the grist mill for grinding grain. In 1716 an agreement was made with Jonathan Hartshorn to build and maintain a grist mill at the outlet of Mill Stream.
In contrast to those of the present, Coventry’s early town meetings paid little attention to roads and schools, but in 1725 were concerned with such matters as geese found upon the common after April 1st which should then be forfeit to any one that “take them up.” Stray hogs likewise had to be dealt with, and a bounty offered for wolves which destroyed live stock. An Indian in this vicinity used to bring in the heads of wolf whelps every spring and collect the bounty. As he never brought an old wolf’s head people began to be suspicious and upon investigation found that he knew of a den which he visited yearly and collected the young but spared the old wolf. He explained that if he destroyed the seed he shouldn’t get any more. Provision was made for sign posts near the church and mill.
Early travel was by water, on foot, horseback or with slow moving oxen. Roads, such as they were, were mostly improved Indian trails and, up to 1800, received little attention. In 1795 the General Court and Assembly of the colony empowered the towns to collect taxes for building and repairing roads. Stage coaches were coming into use, and better roads became a necessity. So little attention was given the act by the towns, however, that coach owners often obtained charters to build roads and bridges themselves, charging others toll for their use.
There is an early Coventry record of money voted for time spent on the road to Lebanon. South Street was the early road from Hartford to Windham and Brooklyn, and it was not until 1808 that the turnpike through the village was built. The Boston turnpike through the northern part of the town preceded it by ten years. When in 1816 Mason Morgan, with his bride on a pillion behind him, came riding, from Scotland to Coventry through what is now the Main Street of Willimantic, “…the trees… were latticed with vines and their clusters of red where the wayfarer sat in the saddle and plucked the festoons overhead.”
Public schools, like roads, were given scant attention in early Coventry. Educational requirements of the time were few and simple-ability to read, to keep the place, to write, to spell (after one’s own fashion), and some figuring met the every day needs. If an ambitious boy wanted to go to college, he usually studied Latin and Greek with the minister as the Hale boys, Nathaniel and Enoch, did with the Rev. Joseph Huntington. An inkling of the severity of college entrance requirements may be gleaned from the story of John Trumbull of Waterbury, born in 1750, who started reading Greek and Latin at five and at seven passed the tests for entrance to Yale.
After finishing the church, Coventry turned its attention to school matters. In 1721 the selectmen were empowered to employ two women to keep school for three months, one on each side of the pond. A later vote fixed the remuneration at 4d for every scholar “kept”. In the early survey a plot was set aside for a school lot. In 1726 permission was sought from the General Assembly to “dispose of it for ye use of ye school” and in 1728 it was voted to build a school house, 18 x 20 within 20 rds. of the meeting house and not to give the school master more than £ll for the winter quarter. In 1750 soon after the division of the church into two societies, a “surculating” school was decided upon, the town to pick three particular places for keeping school in the First Society and three in the Second.
Of necessity some attention had to be paid to military matters. In 1722 the town voted to raise money for drum, colors, and halberds, and in 1728 it was agreed to have two Captains Companies for training. South Coventry had the only artillery company in the brigade and when on parade attracted much attention with its brass cannon furnished by the state.
In these days when all kinds of projects are being devised to give people a chance to work, it may not be amiss to turn back to the days of our forefathers and walk with them for a bit the weary, laborious paths they trod, while we realize anew the part which their strife and sacrifices have played in making the Coventry which we now know and serve.
Because of the prominence of the Hale family due to the sacrifice of Nathan Hale for the sake of his country, we perhaps have more records of their family life than of others in the little community, although many similarities ran through them all. About 1744 Richard Hale, twenty-eight years old, bought 240 acres of land in Coventry. May 2, 1746 he married Elizabeth Strong, nineteen years of age. During the twenty-one years of their wedded life which preceded her death in 1767, nine sons and three daughters blessed their home. It was an era of large families, each family, a little community in itself, almost a miniature world for it must provide most of the necessities of life within its own borders.
It was a busy home in which Nathan was reared with no place for the idler. No need for the present “daily dozen” with the dozen daily chores awaiting old and young alike. Outside the house stock must be fed and watered, the milking done, cows turned out to pasture as long as possible, geese and turkeys looked after, the enormous wood box filled with logs, and pine knots for light at night made ready.
The boy handy with horses must gentle the colts and break them to bit and saddle, while to the strong lad who drove for the plowing annually fell the task (quoting from Ernest Morgan) of breaking the steers–one yoke of partly broken three year olds fastened to the chain, and two or three yoke of two year olds in the lead. These had their tails tied together to prevent them turning “tother end to”, and at first a rope to the horns of the “nigh” forward one lest the whole outfit escape
For the family meat supply the farm furnished beef, veal, pork, geese, turkeys and mutton- although by law of the colony sheep under two years of age could not be killed. Deer and other wild game probably added variety. The various processes of preparation of these foods, which are now carried on outside the home, were then family concern— slaughtering, salting and smoking meats, curing of hides for boots and shoes.
In season gathering wild berries, grapes and nuts besides the various medicinal herbs led both boys and girls afield.
The settlers followed the Indian example of raising corn, beans, pumpkins and squashes.
“For pottage and puddings, and custards and pies,
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies.
We have pumpkins at morning, and pumpkins at noon,
If it was not for pumpkins we should be undone.”
They also continued to raise such crops from old England as peas, tur- nips, parsnips and carrots. The harvesting of hay and-grain filled long, busy days.
Corn must be husked and shelled, the latter a job for winter even-ings, grain threshed and winnowed, and both packed on horseback or carted with oxen to be ground and brought back as meal and flour. Evidently this was not an unpleasant task. The enjoyment from watching the overshot mill wheel at work has been a common testimony. Sheep must be washed and sheared to get the wool for the family’s clothing, blankets, etc. The production of hemp and flax was required by law.
Work in the woods when cord after cord of fire wood had to be cut, fence posts prepared, and trees felled for lumber may well have occupied the short winter days. Many jobs of carpentry and blacksmithing were the farmer’s lot while it should be remembered that comparatively simple tools were the only ones available.
We judge “that Richard Hale was a progressive farmer because, among his crops about the year 1765 were forty bushels of potatoes. Now the white potato was net cultivated fee any great degree in Connecticut at this time, five bushels being regarded as a plentiful family supply. The word of the deacon’s unprecedented potato supply set all the town buzzing as to how he would ever be able to dispose of so many. Some of the wiser heads finally decided that with his large family they need not be wasted-They could be roasted and eaten in milk.
If the outside work seems to us strenuous, one stands aghast at the activities carried on inside the house. It is no wonder that old time kitchens were so large. Not only must food be prepared for the family’s immediate consumption, but butter, and cheese be made from the milk, preserves put up, berries and apples dried, great batches of bread, pies and cake baked, and that in such an inconvenient fashion. Soap and candles, the wicks of which were made from hemp or milkweed silk, were hand made. The wool from the sheep had to be carded, spun into yarn, dyed if desired, and knitted into stockings, mufflers and mittens, or woven into cloth or blankets, What a multitude of the latter must have been needed for warmth during the long cold winter!
The flax, too, had to be made into thread for the towels, sheets, etc. and these must be marked with cross stitch letters copied from the samplers made by the toiling, sometimes impatient, fingers of the little girls. But discipline in the good old days was rigidly adhered to and I am very sure that if the impatience produced any irregularity in the finished product, stitches must be taken out and done right.
Geese must be plucked and feathers dried for the many feather beds. Days had to be set aside for the tailoress who made the family garments. That but little attention was paid to the fashion and fit of such clothes may be gleaned from the following extract from a letter of Richard Hale to his sons Enoch and Nathan at Yale under date of Dec. 17, 1770.
The Cloath for your Coat is not Done. But will be Done next week I hope at farthest. I know of no opportunity we shall have to send it to New Haven and have Laid it in with Mr. Strong for his Horse which his son will ride down to New Haven for one of you to Ride home if you can get Leave and have your Close made at home. I sepose that one measure will do for both of you…..If you do not one of you come home I don’t see but that you must do without any new Close till after Commencement. I send you Eight Pound in cash by Mr. Strong-hope it will do for the present.
Your loving Father Rich Hale
Visits, from boot makers and the milliner not only fitted out the folks with such necessities as they made but relieved the dull routine of the daily life with the bits of gossip which they carried from house to house.
In such a large family as the Deacon’s there must have often been two or three children at one time who really required infant care. In a home thus isolated it took time to get a doctor so that the mother needed to be an encyclopedia in home nursing and first aid. It was a time though when neighbor aided neighbor and took turns in “night watching”. Sometimes neighborly services even included laying out the dead.
In odd minutes the children must be taught their letters, also the catechism, for, this was a deacon’s family and it was especially important that it should hot “suffer’ so much barbarism as to have a single child or apprentice unable to read the holy word of God and the good laws of the colony” quoting from an act which was part of the code of early Connecticut. The selectmen were supposed to see that it was enforced while the minister and deacon visited the homes and conducted examinations on the catechism. It is not hard to realize how the general family atmosphere of the times trained youth to take its part in the larger
affairs of later life. There was a respect for and obedience to the authority of elders and of God. Religious observance was a part of the very air the young people breathed. Family prayers and the reading of the Bible were as regular a part of their daily life as food for their bodies. Children were expected to be silent at the table and when company was present— not to speak unless spoken to.
I have heard several of an older generation testify as to the value of listening to the grown up conversation which we should perhaps now regard as rather solid food for youthful minds. It is a question if in these days children do not miss something in their lack of contact with minds of various ages such as the early generation had in the big family, the ungraded school, and the church. Rubbing against a dozen or so brothers and sisters must have been a great factor in training for adaptation and cooperation with others so essential in the larger outside life. Though at that time few books were available their contents were valuable, the English generally excellent and, if somewhat stern, there was in contrast spread out for all to read that other Divine work, the book of Nature, which too spoke of law and order, which too punished the disobedient, but which also revealed the beauty and generosity and rewards of God’s gifts to those who worked with him and for him.
It is Saturday afternoon and preparation must be made for the Sabbath Day. Deacon Hale’s hired men have been sent to clear the road of stones for easier travel to the meeting house on the morrow. They must be sure to finish and reach their homes before sundown, for the time after that was God’s time, to be broken into by no unnecessary secular work. At eventide, with the family gathered round the hearth, as the days grow chill, the deacon may perhaps have announced a beloved Psalm to be sung to the tune of York, Hackney, St. Martyns, Windsor, “or St. Mary’s, about the only tunes generally known from 1700 on for several years. Both psalm and tune were so well known that it was not necessary for the deacon to line it out as he did at church, but it was sung solemnly and slowly, we may be sure, the better to taste the flavor of the words, as it were. There may have been in the deacon’s home a copy of Rev. John Tufts’ Psalm tunes of 1714 in which 28 tunes only are given with the “trebel” or cantor written out so that the learner may attain “the skill of singing with the greatest speed imaginable”. By the old process sometimes half an hour was needed for one Psalm, and a long time elapsed before congregations could be prevailed upon to adopt what they called “sinful haste.”
Sunday morning every member of the family, unless he had a very good excuse, must be on his way to church, the older members and the women on horseback, sometimes three on one horse. Unless there was a goodly supply of horses some of the family must have had to walk. In summer the children carried their shoes and stockings in their hands to put on when near the church. In winter I think the pedestrians must have carried the foot stoves with their live coals. Woe betide the youngster
if the beat of the drum sounded before they reached the sacred portals.
With the exception of an intermission of an hour and a half the service lasted until late afternoon when the sermon sometimes reached “Point Nineteenthly”. Though the Sabbath was considered a day of rest, the tithing man was on hand to see that rest did not extend into sleep. I can imagine how the last turn which the deacon gave the hour glass was
eagerly watched for by the younger generation as was the disappear-
ance of Sunday’s sun over the western horizon, a signal that weekday play and other activities might be resumed.
During intermission the news on the sign posts near the church and grist mill doubtless stimulated many a discussion especially as the events preceding the Revolution began to be known. Indeed the people of Coventry seemed to keep quite abreast of the times. Marvin Root tells a tale new to me, and if any one has any knowledge of it, it will be considered a great favor if you will later communicate with me [alas, not now possible, as Ms. Peterson is no longer with us].
To lead up to this tale let me recall to your minds the well known school textbook narrative that the English Parliament, imposed on the American colonies in 1765- a Stamp Act- and appointed a resident stamp distributor in each colony. A fact less well known is that Jared Ingersoll was the Connecticut appointee and that he was disposed to persist in the discharge of his duties after several appointees in other colonies had resigned, in consequence of which he (Avery, 5;6l) “was met by a crowd at Wethersfield, signed the proffered resignation, and, being escorted to Hartford, read the resignation before the assembly.”
We are indebted to Root for the story, not told elsewhere to my knowledge that the “crowd”, mentioned by Avery, or a sizeable portion of it had gathered previously on Wicket Hill (now Ripley Hill) in Coventry and hung Ingersoll in effigy. This is plausible because Wicket Hill, according to Cole, (“History of Tolland County”) was the chief business center of Coventry at that time, Jeremiah Ripley maintaining a general store there opposite which there was a tavern. Then or soon thereafter, Root does not say definitely, five hundred men from Coventry and eastern Connecticut secretly gathered, says Root, and planned their meeting with Ingersoll in this way. First four or five of the company met him, turned and fell into conversation with him. Half a mile further on, 30 more appeared, and a little further the main body. They were on horseback bearing white staves and were preceded by three trumpeters. His resignation having been demanded, he replied that “he had always said he would not exercise office against the general wishes of the people, but asked if they thought it fair that Windham and New London counties should dictate to the colony. His resignation was insisted on and received. He was then told “to give 3 cheers for Liberty and Property”, which he did.
There appears no doubt that “the people of Coventry were patriotic to a white heat. At a town meeting on Aug. 15, 1774-this was only a short time after the passage of the Boston Port Bill, closing the port of Boston and bringing hardship to that locality- a committee was chosen to receive subscriptions to be made for the poor of the towns of Boston and Charlestown. [They sent 220 sheep!] Further, on Sept. 13,
1774, at another town meeting five citizens, were named as a Committee of Correspondence after Ephraim Root urged “caution and prudence in resisting execution of military law and tyrannical government but observance and adherence to laws of our own land.”
With such keen interest displayed it is not strange that two brothers of Nathan, as well as Nathan Hale himself, responded to the call to arms as soon as it came, and that Coventry stood so high in its contributions of money, supplies and men.
All too sketchily have I tried to show you
“Brave pioneers, whose virtues stood the test
Amid the hardships of that ruder time,
(Who) met the stress of new made homes and blest Them with the comforts of a faith sublime”
I have but hinted at our men who with their blood helped make us a free nation
“The land is holy where they fought, And holy where they fell For by their blood that land was bought The land they loved so well.”
And as this is being celebrated as Constitution Sunday it may be fitting to close with Bryant’s words;
“Great were the hearts and strong the minds Of those who framed, in high debate, The immortal league of love that binds Our fair broad nation, State by state.
Thou, too, sail; on, 0 Ship of State!
Sail on, 0 Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate.
Sail on, nor fear to breast the seal.
Our hearts, our hopes are all with thee,
Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
Our faith triumphant o’er our fears
Are all with thee, -are all with thee!”