Colonial lore: Litchfield, Connecticut

Almost 100 years after the initial settlement of Connecticut, towns were getting crowded and people began to look to the western part of the state.  Litchfield was incorporated in 1719 by an act of the Colonial Assembly of Connecticut on lands bought in 1716 from the Tunxis Indians for fifteen pounds.  In 1720, the first settlers (many from Windsor, Hartford and Lyme) arrived to take up the 60 home lots on the plateau, clearing land for pastures and farming and establishing mills, blacksmith shops and other small industries.

Litchfield became an important stop for the New Haven-Albany and Boston-Hartford stage coach lines.  “A prosperous inland trade center was unusual for Connecticut, but Litchfield had an early start, owning to the orientation of major roads to the town after it became the first settlement in the Western Lands.  This communications asset gave Litchfield an advantage over other places in the northwestern frontier, while its status as the county seat, or “shire town,” further benefited the community.” (Carley)

The town was designated the county seat in 1751.  “As a county seat, Litchfield was the location of one of the five Connecticut county courts established in 1750 to hear civil and criminal cases.  In this role, the town was also home to the high (county) sheriff.  The top-ranked law-enforcement officer in the colony, the sheriff was charged with oversight of the jail as well as responsibility for collecting taxes and for bringing capital offenders before the courts. Among the first to appear in Litchfield was Oliver Wolcott.  A physician and recent Yale graduate, Wolcott arrived in 1751 after an initial detour to Goshen, where he had briefly put down stakes [practicing medicine with his brother, Alexander.]  At the age of 25, he took up the post of high sheriff, a position he held for 20 years.” (Carley)

Oliver Wolcott earned his reputation as a patriot early in the Revolution.  He had two careers during the war years – delegate to the Continental Congress and militia officer.  Elected to the Second Continental Congress in 1775, he was one of the four representatives (with Samuel Huntington, Roger Sherman, and William Williams) from the Connecticut Colony to sign the Declaration of Independence.  Wolcott was also one of the Sons of Liberty, along with fellow Signers, Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Benjamin Rush.  A leader of the Connecticut militia, he rose to be brigadier general and then major general, putting into action his belief in independence from Great Britain.

On July 9, 1776, Wolcott was in New York City when General George Washington read the Declaration of Independence to his troops.  A demonstration in the streets followed, after which a group of soldiers and patriots toppled the 4,000-pound equestrian statue of King George III. The statue, which had been erected in Bowling Green in 1770, was made of lead coated with a fine layer of gold leaf, and it was either shattered or smashed into many pieces by the crowd.  In their fury the crowd cut off the statue’s head, severed the nose, and mounted what remained of the head on a spike outside a tavern.  It is said that the head of the statue was sent back to England in a display of rebellion.  Wolcott arranged for the collection of pieces of the statue and shipment to the port of Norwalk, Connecticut.  They were then loaded onto ox carts and rolled the 60-some miles to the general’s home in Litchfield.  There, in the orchard behind their house, Oliver Wolcott, his wife, Laura, and their children, together with some local patriotic ladies, melted the lead and shaped it into bullets for the war effort.

“Litchfield’s location outside of the battle zone made it a relatively safe place to store ammunition and to secure prisoners of war. [Benjamin Franklin’s Loyalist son, William, former Royal Governor of New Jersey, was kept in jail in Litchfield for eight months in 1777.]  Due to the British naval blockade along the Connecticut coastline, the east-west highway through town was one of the most important inland military routes in Connecticut, connecting Boston to the Connecticut Valley region with the colonial defense network at West Point, New York.  As the confrontation unfolded, the road became a major transportation artery for cavalry regiments, supply trains, and dignitaries bearing some of the most admired names of the Revolutionary War era.  By about 1774, Litchfield had become a major munitions depot.  A military workshop stood on present-day East Street, and two warehouses – one on the south side of the Litchfield Green and one on the east side of North Street – stockpiled weapons and ammunition under the watchful eyes of a round-the-clock military guard.  Each measuring sixty feet long, these two-story buildings were huge by colonial standards, and they were capable of holding substantial amounts of ordnance.  In 1777, a single delivery of munitions brought 1,700 pounds of gunpowder, 2,000 pounds of lead, 1,000 flints, and 100 pounds of cannon powder to the town.” (Carley) Not only munitions but other supplies and material came through town.  Connecticut, the third smallest state, supplied more food and canons for the Continental forces than any other state during the Revolutionary War.  It was designated as ‘the Provision State’ by General Washington.  This was in no small part due to the fact that the people of the state made risks and sacrifices to support Washington’s army but also because Governor Jonathan Trumbull, a merchant by trade, was the only colonial governor who sided with the ‘rebels’ during the War.  While the British blockaded the ports, Connecticut had agricultural and manufacturing surpluses which were then sent overland to New England or to New York.

The town thrived following the Revolution.  Litchfield’s residents were industrious merchants, farmers and entrepreneurs, and the population grew as did the community’s fortunes.  With the end of the war, Tapping Reeve – who had come to Litchfield in 1772 and tutored students in his home, including his brother-in-law, Aaron Burr, the future vice president – formally started a law school in 1784 in the building adjacent to his home on South Street.  “Reeve’s enterprise is widely recognized as the first institution in America to teach common law with an organized, vocational curriculum preparing young men for the bar with a series of formal lectures.  The opportunity to be among the first law students to debate and analyze legal cases in the context of the new U.S. Constitution sent pupils flocking to the Tapping Reeve Law School.  Timing was also on the side of Sarah Pierce, who founded her female academy in 1792, an era when educational opportunities for American women were on the rise.  Miss Pierce’s curriculum combined the expected instruction in domestic arts with a course of study in French, English composition, chemistry, arithmetic, and philosophy, among many other equally demanding academic subjects.  Boarding around the village, students of both the Tapping Reeve and Sarah Pierce schools infused the community with a youthful vitality and contributed to the town’s vibrant social life – much of it centered on dances, teas, and other diversions held in their honor.  Although the success of these institutions had everything to do with the comportment of their students and the leadership of their founders, it also hinged on fortuitous external factors.  Most important among these were transportation advances.  After the inauguration of Connecticut’s turnpike system in 1792, Litchfield benefited from a crossroads location on a constantly improving network of highways. The improved access helped to spread the good name of both schools and attract pupils from far-flung locales. More than 3,000 students passed through the doors of the Pierce Academy, and over 1,000 young men studied at the Litchfield Law School before it closed in 1833.  According to Catharine Beecher, one of the seven members of Litchfield’s Beecher clan who attended Miss Pierce’s school, the reputation of the female academy had, by 1810, surpassed that of any other comparable institution in the country.  Tapping Reeve built his own legacy by preparing an extraordinary number of students for Congressional and Senate seats, as well as for posts in the federal government and on the United States Supreme Court.  Litchfield was well known for its academic and professional accomplishments, its postal service, library and local debating society.” (Carley)  By 1810, Litchfield was the fourth largest settlement in Connecticut and had earned a national reputation as an educated and cultured community.

After both schools closed in 1833, the population decreased, and business declined.  The railroad routes bypassed the town’s hilltop location, and the water supply was not sufficient to support large mills and factories.  Litchfield became a quiet seasonal resort until the community saw a revival around 1876 and the country’s Centennial.  Renewed interest in the Colonial era brought the town’s architecture back into focus.  During the 75 years of Litchfield’s heyday, many fine houses in styles from Georgian and Saltbox to Greek Revival had been built along North Street and South Street, several Colonial homes were remodeled and expanded, and lovely Federal-style houses were built.  In one mile, you can see the birthplace of Ethan Allen of “Green Mountain Boys” fame; Sheldon’s Tavern, where George Washington slept; the home of Lyman Beecher, pastor of the Congregational Church, and his family; the home of Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge of Culper Spy Ring fame; the house of Alexander Catlin, one of the founders of the Litchfield China Trading Company; and the Oliver Wolcott, Sr. house, built in 1753, one of the earliest structures in town.  Oliver Wolcott, the Signer, was the son of Roger Wolcott, the Colonial Governor of Connecticut at the time that the house was built.  (Oliver Wolcott lived in the house until his death in 1797 while he was Governor of Connecticut.)

Now, as Litchfield approaches its 300thanniversary in 2019, it does so knowing that “it is nationally famous as one of the most beautiful residential communities in America and is considered to be New England’s finest surviving example of a typical late 18th century New England town.”

-Ellen Brinker

Information from the New England Historical Society and text excerpted from Rachel Carley’s book, Litchfield:  The Making of a New England Town,,,