In 1634, at a deep bend in the Connecticut River, John Oldham and nine other adventurers from Watertown, Massachusetts were welcomed by the Wongunk Indians, anxious to trade beaver pelts. Marsh hay in the low meadows and the rich alluvial soil soon attracted settlers who planted their farms on the broad terrace above the River. The surrounding forest gave up timber for houses, and the town was laid out with a Common alongside the present Cove. The settlers named the town Wethersfield. At that time it included the parishes of Rocky Hill to the south, Newington to the west, and Glastonbury to the east, across the river, where they pastured their livestock.
The Connecticut River was integral to the development of Wethersfield’s prosperity and growth as a town. The river was far too shallow for large trading vessels to sail above Wethersfield, making the town the farthest shipping port into interior Connecticut. In 1649 Thomas Deming built the first Connecticut Colony’s vessel, the Tryall, in today’s Cove. Goods from the West Indies, Britain, Portugal, the Mediterranean, Ireland, South America and the northeastern ports of Boston and New York were all being exchanged at Wethersfield. Six warehouses lined the bank of the river ready to store goods for trade. Wethersfield was a bustling shipping center; not only was the trade beneficial to merchants, but also local farmers were able to sell to faraway places items such as wheat, Indian corn, peas, rye, wool, flax, flaxseed, hemp, salt beef, salt pork, shipbread, barley, apple cider, cornmeal, flour and, of course, onions.
The now famous red onion was especially developed for trade and today remains a symbol of the town’s roots in an agricultural past. According to Samuel Peter’s 18th century story, the Onion Maidens were the young women who earned money for silk dresses by weeding and hoeing the onions while the men pursued other tasks. Flax for seed, spear grass for bonnets, broom corn and garden seeds were also raised in support of local industries.
The Connecticut River was one of Wethersfield’s greatest assets, but everything changed when a flood occurred in 1692 that altered the course of the river, shifting its course to the east and sweeping away all but one warehouse. The most drastic change was that the deep water shipping port was transformed into a Cove, closing off commerce and allowing a newly deepened riverbed to Hartford. The Cove, as it is now today, became obsolete for commerce and was transformed into a place of recreation. Wethersfield was still able to remain active in waterway commerce by shifting its port out along the river to the Stepney section of town, now Rocky Hill. Wethersfield remained active in shipping into the 1800s and many of the historic homes in town bear the names of early sea captains.
Industrial progress persisted regardless of the lack of water power with the employment of windmills and dams to process grain and cloth, and, in the Griswoldville section of town, to manufacture edged tools and run spindles. Agriculture remained the dominant lifestyle and export with farms and fields persisting into the 20th century. Rural Wethersfield became a refuge for workers in Hartford’s shops and offices and the Cove provided a recreation spot. The same broad terrace that attracted early farmers provided choice sites for the residential developments of the 1920s that introduced a suburban character to the Town. In the 1950s, ribbons of highway tied Wethersfield to Hartford, the Insurance City just minutes away.
Today, the meadows are preserved, as are the houses in Connecticut’s largest historic district. The 1764 brick First Church continues to monitor the crossroads near the ancient burying ground, and the Cove still invites contemplation. Old country roads and new highways connect visitors to any destination, making Wethersfield the crossroads of Connecticut.
We extend to you a warm welcome, just as the Wethersfield community welcomed George Washington and John Adams. We invite you to visit our museums, browse in our shops, enjoy refreshment in our restaurants and hotels…we think you will find the same hospitality that they enjoyed and we hope you’ll return often.
Wethersfield Historical Society, 150 Main Street, Wethersfield, CT, 06109
(860) 529-7656 or fax (860) 563-2609
Send us an e-mail.