Who is the First Town in Connecticut Anyway?

Who is first? It is the question that people of Wethersfield and Windsor love to ask and answer. Recently Mike Townsend, a videographer for Fox News Connecticut explored this topic on his segment “Hidden History.” (Windsor Weights In and Wethersfield is First!) Wethersfield, Windsor, Hartford all weighed in to claim the title of first in Connecticut, but I can confidently announce that Wethersfield is the first intentional English town in the Connecticut Colony. To determine the difference between town and settlement is like splitting hairs with all three early river towns. Wethersfield, Windsor and Hartford have so much to offer with their history from the colonial period through the present day.

Wethersfield is not only the “most auncient towne,” but also the inspiration for the settlement of the Connecticut Colony through our founder John Oldham’s adventures. John Oldham is a captivating figure who was constantly on the move. Oldham was born in England in 1592 and migrated to Plymouth from England with his sister, Lucretia (later the wife of Jonathan Brewster, early settler at Windsor) onboard the ship Ann. It seems that immediately after arriving in Plymouth he stirs up trouble by writing letters to complain about the leadership and even pulls a knife on Captain Myles Standish. Due to his fight with Standish he was exiled from Plymouth, yet his family remained there. Oldham used this setback as an opportunity to establish the towns of Nantasket (today Hull, MA) and Salem, MA with Roger Contant before sailing to Virginia to trade. By 1629 he returned to Massachusetts and was among the first settlers of Watertown, MA in 1630. Oldham had established himself as a successful pioneer, as well as troublemaker, by the time the opportunity to explore Connecticut appeared.

In this painting done by Ralph Nelson in1935, a Native American is requesting trade relations with the with the English in the Massachusetts Colony. Please note these are 20th century depictions of the event. This painting is on display at the Wethersfield Museum.

In this painting done by Ralph Nelson in 1935, a Native American is requesting trade relations with the with the English in the Massachusetts Colony. Please note these are 20th century depictions of the event. This painting is on display at the Wethersfield Museum.

According to Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop on April 4, 1631 a group of Native Americans presented an offer to trade maize and beaver pelts with the colonists to a session of the Massachusetts General Assembly. Winthrop declined the offer and the Native Americans next visited the Plymouth Colony where they made the same offer to Governors Winslow, Bradford and Brewster.

John Oldham set out with three other men (Abraham Finch Jr., Samuel Hall and an unnamed man) to scout the area during the summer of 1633. Oldham and his group returned to Watertown, Massachusetts on September 4, 1633. Oldham immediately petitioned for the right to remove from Watertown, MA and settle at Pyquag (later Wethersfield), where Native Americans had hosted his recent visit. A month following his return to Watertown, MA John Oldham’s brother-in-law, Jonathan Brewster heard of Oldham’s accounts of the lush Connecticut Valley and called on William Holmes to establish a trading post for the Plymouth Trading Company at what would become Windsor.

In this painting done by Ralph Nelson in 1935, of settlers traveling overland to Wethersfield from Watertown, MA. Please note these are 20th century depictions of the event. This painting is on display at the Wethersfield Museum.

In this painting done by Ralph Nelson in 1935, of settlers traveling overland to Wethersfield from Watertown, MA. Please note these are 20th century depictions of the event. This painting is on display at the Wethersfield Museum.

In order to officially settle in Connecticut, the settlers needed the permission of the Massachusetts General Court. The right to remove from Watertown, MA to Wethersfield was not officially issued until May 6, 1635 and to remove from Dorchester, MA to Windsor on June, 3, 1635. Oldham, along with his settlers, did not wait until the approved word was granted from the government and instead left for Connecticut with the intention to establish a permanent settlement in the summer 1634. It is unfortunate that the earliest records of the Connecticut Colony have been lost and the earliest date of record is August 30, 1634, although the settlement was probably established earlier.

The establishment of Windsor is more complex than the other river towns, as it was not a private venture, but instead a company set up for economic advancement. In July 1627 three months after the Dutch set up a trading post in Hartford, King James I issued a permit for the Plimouth Trading Co. to trade with the natives of New England. On September 26, 1633 Agent Williams Holmes was employed by Jonathan Brewster to establish the fifth trading post for the company. The trading post was placed in Windsor, only miles above the Dutch post. There were no settlers at Windsor until June 1635 when Reverend John Warham, Roger Ludlow and followers came to settle Windsor. Windsor was set up a trading post with employees of the company and their families, not as a town meant to last. Windsor was not officially established as a town until 1635, when the settlers seized the land from the Plymouth Trading Company who owned it.

As to the priority of settlement it is clear that Wethersfield, Windsor and Hartford are all early establishments in the 1630s with a rich history inspired by one brave adventurer who scouted the territory. There are several ways to measure who is first – first person (definitely Native American), first European (documented or undocumented), first trading post (Dutch), first English trading post (Windsor) and first town (Wethersfield). It is clear that Wethersfield can claim both the adventurer who inspired the English settlement of the Connecticut Colony and “most auncient towne” according to the earliest record of laws of the Connecticut Colony Record, the Code of 1650.

 

John Oldham, Wethersfield’s Founder

1592 – Born in Derbyshire, England

July 1623 –Arrived at Plymouth Colony from England with his sister, Lucretia Oldham (later wife of Jonathan Brewster), onboard the ship Ann

1624 – Married Jane Bissell.

1624 – Along with Rev. John Lyford wrote complaints of leadership at Plymouth Plantation in an attempt to change leadership.

1624 – Had a verbal and physical altercation (pulled a knife on him) with Capt. Myles Standish in Plymouth Planation and was exiled. Family was allowed to remain for winter.

1624 – Established the Town of Nantasket (Hull, MA) with Roger Contant

1625 – Returned to Plymouth (although banned to do so) – misbehaved and was jailed until March when expelled from town by a guard of armed men. Declined to settle in Dorchester.

1626 – Sailed for Virginia to trade.

1629 – Returned to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Where he annoyed the Governor and many began to distrust his motives although his skills were clear

May 18, 1631 – Admitted a freeman in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Early settler in Watertown and trusted and respected.

1632-1634 – Representative for the General Court of Massachusetts

April 4, 1633 – Oldham along with three others (Abraham Finch Jr., Samuel Hall and unnamed) traveled overland to Quonehtacut (approx. 5 days journey and 160 miles of travel). They had friendly relations with the natives and lodged with them through August 1633.

September 4, 1633 Oldham and three others return after they went overland to CT in summer and lodged with the natives. Oldham tells Massachusetts Bay Colony of the available land and raw materials to be traded in the lush river valley.

September 1633 – Oldham request permission to remove from Massachusetts Bay Colony to Connecticut Colony.

July 20, 1636 – John Oldham killed by some Native Americans from Block Island when returning from trading having with him two boys and two Native Americans. Governor John Winthrop cites as a contributing factor in the war with the Pequots.

1663 – Wife Jane Bissell Oldham died in Watertown, Massachusetts

Reputation: “He had fairly earned the reputation of a fearless, enterprising and successful trader and explorer among the Indians of the New England coast, and in the Connecticut Valley…. If only his principles had been strong enough to resist the leadings of his own personal ambition; but which, lacking that strength, rendered him a dangerous man, led him into grievous trouble and leaves him a smirched and discredited figure upon the horizon of history.” [Adams, 59]

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