New London’s Beginnings
When a pair of young journalists paid a flying visit to New London, Connecticut in 1881, relics from the town’s whaling past were still much in evidence. Abandoned shipping office buildings. Antiquated warehouses. Musty ships’ logs. Hulks of once-proud whaling ships still tied to their piers: spars broken, paint peeling, lines rotting away.
Despite the decay, these 1881 visitors reported, the town remained staunchly proud of her whale-chasing past. The city’s official seal featured a whaling ship and the motto Mare Liberum (“a free sea”) – and still does, for that matter.
But whaling was actually the second commercial incarnation for New London (or more properly its third, counting the hunting, fishing, and trading that the Nameaug tribe conducted here, long before white men ever arrived).
So how did the city of New London begin? What came before her glory days of whaling?
One look at the site and you know it had to be something to do with trading and the sea. The town sits atop a high bluff overlooking the harbor, descending to a small plateau beside the water. It’s a magnificent sheltered waterfront, protected from Atlantic storms by the long finger of Long Island on the west, and smaller Fisher’s Island to the east.
From the north, a broad, peaceful river flows down to meet the sea. Over the eons, that’s created a natural deep-water harbor. As our 1881 visitors put it, the port is “sheltered, capacious, with no [sand] bar, no swift currents, no ice, and furnished with a natural breakwater.” Ships of the day with a hefty 25 feet draft could travel up-river a full 14 miles — all the way to the “busy” city of Norwich.
But if the gods blessed New London with stellar waterfront advantages, they cursed it for agricultural pursuits. The land surrounding the river was rocky, the soil poor. Little wonder, then, that throughout the town’s various incarnations, its connection with the sea has largely been its saving grace.
The peaceful hunting and fishing of the original First Peoples were disrupted about 1644 by John Winthrop Jr., who settled on prettily-wooded “Fysher’s Island,” just off the coast. He came from a prominent family; his father (of the same name) was the Governor of Massachusetts.
Junior was less feared and better loved than his stern Puritan father. Described as “courtly and dignified, yet gentle and winsome,” the junior Winthrop was an “enthusiastic scientist” and a member of the Royal Society. He was said to possess a personal library of a thousand volumes – all of which he had presumably read. A glance at his portrait shows a likeable cuss, with a hint of humor in that inquisitive face.
Winthrop, Junior was a native of England, born in 1606 at Groton (a name that would later be bestowed on New London’s sister city). As a young man he began to study law. But soon his adventurous spirit won out. He changed his mind and opted to join the navy instead, serving with an expedition sent to La Rochelle, France to “relieve the Huguenots” (French Protestants), and traveling extensively in the Far East.
About 1830, he married Martha Fones of London, and the pair emigrated to his father’s new colony of Massachusetts that November. In 1834, Winthrop and a dozen compatriots branched out to found the town of Ipswich, Mass. First wife Martha died there in 1634, and young Winthrop returned to England, marrying his second wife, Elizabeth Read, in 1635.
Winthrop returned to America that same year, this time with a year-long commission to build a fort and “begin a plantation . . . at the mouth of the Connecticut River.” Bringing 20 followers with him, he fulfilled that charge – though his short commission was not renewed.
Winthrop returned again to Ipswich, Massachusetts. But his adventuring days weren’t over. In 1640 he somehow wangled an order from the General Court granting him nine-mile-long Fisher’s Island. At the time, it was unclear whether this island was actually part of Massachusetts. To be on the safe side, Winthrop later applied to Connecticut for title to the island as well. This was granted on April 9, 1641, on condition that his use would not “hinder the public good.”
In Winthrop’s day, Fisher’s Island was heavily wooded, and its deer and nearby fishing had long been enjoyed by the indigenous Indians. Other English settlements had already sprouted up along the Connecticut River to the west, but Winthrop’s was the first white man’s dwelling in these hunting grounds, known as Sessacus. Winthrop planted crops, and lived there from 1644 to 1646. The island would remain in family hands until 1862.
But before long, the restless Winthrop began contemplating a grander settlement on the mainland. He applied for and was granted a “plantation for iron works” at “Pequod” by the Massachusetts General Court in 1644. In 1645, Winthrop and a few associates paid a visit to the future site of New London, and evidently threw up a rude settlement there.
The new townsite won official recognition from the Massachusetts General Court on May 6, 1646, with an acknowledgment that “Mr. John Winthrop, Jun., and some others, have begun a plantation in the Pequot country.” The order also gave Winthrop the authority to award land on the other side of the river to any Indians who were willing to move.
It was unclear for some time whether Massachusetts was actually the proper granting authority, however. Massachusetts claimed jurisdiction over the new townsite by “right of conquest”; Connecticut argued it was hers by royal patent and conquest. The question was put to the Commissioners of the United Colonies for a decision. And although Winthrop himself seemed to favor the right of his father’s home colony (Massachusetts), the Commissioners determined jurisdiction “goeth constantly with the Patent.” Connecticut it was. Even so, it wasn’t until 1661 that the matter was finally settled, when Winthrop received a royal charter by King Charles confirming Connecticut to be the proper authority.
Just four years after it first began, the village beside the sea had grown large enough to warrant a “public grinding-mill.” And so in 1650, Winthrop had a water-powered grist mill built close to his own home.
Situated on a hill overlooking the harbor, the town offered magnificent views. On a clear day, you could see all the way across Sound to the white cliffs of Long Island. Its settlers originally called it “Nameaug,” after the Indians who’d first inhabited the spot. The General Court at Hartford suggested naming it “Faire Harbour,” instead. But with high hopes that the town would become an important commercial center, townsfolk countered with “New London,” in honor of “the country they had left across the sea.”
That name finally won official approval in 1658. “New London” it would officially be.
And the near by “fair river Monhegin”? In a second bow to Jolly Old England, the river that flowed into the sea here was similarly re-christened the Thames.
Heaven help the locals, though. They failed to carry over the gentle, genteel British pronunciation. In England, it’s the mellifluous ‘Temms.’ In Connecticut, however, you must do as Yankees do. Here, this dear old river is pronounced the “Thaymes.”
To be Continued in Part 2!