Rafaele Fierro: Rocky Hill a History

(continued from front page)


The century did not end before nature intruded upon Wethersfield, and Rocky Hill became the chief beneficiary. The Connecticut River changed course drastically and isolated the port at the inner village in Wethersfield proper in the newly formed cove. Meanwhile, the Lower Community became a more accessible place where ships could land. Newly created sandbars there, moreover, hampered the passage of smaller vessels above the Lower Community, which then became the head of navigation for larger ships tied to the triangle trade with the West Indies and colonial towns. These changes shifted the center of commerce and shipbuilding toward the southern portion of Wethersfield.

During the colonial era, Connecticut towns came into being for a variety of complex and intertwined economic, demographic, and religious reasons. Many towns were the products of larger ones breaking apart. Rocky Hill with its own population center was no exception. In the early eighteenth century, Lower Community residents had begun to insist on a separate parish because it was too far to walk to church service in the inner village especially in inclement weather that turned dirt into swamps. In 1722, the General Assembly approved their request. It was thus named Stepney Parish after a village outside of London. Four years later, in 1726, Stepney completed its first meetinghouse, and Daniel Russell was ordained minister the following year. Except for official incorporation, Stepney was now a separate entity from Wethersfield.

Dozens of prestigious colonial houses were built on the eastern side of town closest to the river. Main Street became the most conspicuous street in the area. Town leaders built inns and taverns to accommodate local visitors or tired seafarers.

Early Rocky Hill

Like so many Connecticut towns, Rocky Hill’s history began long before its official incorporation. The tract of land that John Oldham and the other “Adventurers” purchased from the Wongunk Indians along the Connecticut River in 1634 included an area rich in soil and high enough to avoid flooding that the river occasionally caused. A few Wethersfield men and women ventured southward from the original Wethersfield village. They quickly built houses and mills. Philip Goffe was one of the first inhabitants; Goffe Brook, running parallel to the Connecticut River and abutting the meadow adjacent to the river on its east and the eventual center of town to the west, was named after him.Men like Goffe found the land appealing because it stood high above the river whose flood plains narrowed down, just south of the long hill for which the town would be named ultimately. And because it seemed logical to these early settlers to cross the river along this tapered stretch, they helped establish a transport service in 1655. Later known as the Rocky Hill-Glastonbury ferry service, it remains the oldest ferry service in the United States. The settlers also realized that the land could be used for building ships and farming. A classic riverport was about to be born.

The century did not end before nature intruded upon Wethersfield, and Rocky Hill became the chief beneficiary. The Connecticut River changed course drastically and isolated the port at the inner village in Wethersfield proper in the newly formed cove. Meanwhile, the Lower Community became a more accessible place where ships could land. Newly created sandbars there, moreover, hampered the passage of smaller vessels above the Lower Community, which then became the head of navigation for larger ships tied to the triangle trade with the West Indies and colonial towns. These changes shifted the center of commerce and shipbuilding toward the southern portion of Wethersfield.

During the colonial era, Connecticut towns came into being for a variety of complex and intertwined economic, demographic, and religious reasons. Many towns were the products of larger ones breaking apart. Rocky Hill with its own population center was no exception. In the early eighteenth century, Lower Community residents had begun to insist on a separate parish because it was too far to walk to church service in the inner village especially in inclement weather that turned dirt into swamps. In 1722, the General Assembly approved their request. It was thus named Stepney Parish after a village outside of London. Four years later, in 1726, Stepney completed its first meetinghouse, and Daniel Russell was ordained minister the following year. Except for official incorporation, Stepney was now a separate entity from Wethersfield.

Dozens of prestigious colonial houses were built on the eastern side of town closest to the river. Main Street became the most conspicuous street in the area. Town leaders built inns and taverns to accommodate local visitors or tired seafarers. Perhaps the most famous establishment, built in the colonial era, was Shipman’s Tavern whose Connecticut River shad dinners would later become one of Samuel Colt’s favorite eateries. Stepney prospered by mid-century with a substantial shipbuilding industry. Products such as livestock, salted meat, wheat, poultry, cheese, wood staves, lumber, and potash were commodities shipped out for export. Its residents prospered significantly and built more colonial homes.

The town’s elite stood in marked contrast to the few African slaves brought to Rocky Hill. The Goffs and Griswolds of Stepney derived from English stock and became Yankees.

John Robbins, owner of the Duke of Cumberland Inn, owned several slaves who worked on his large estate.

The Congregational Church built a special gallery, still in existence, where slaves were segregated from the white congregation below. By the time of the Civil War, only 13 “Negroes” lived in Rocky Hill, none of whom were slaves now that slavery had been abolished in Connecticut.

The American Revolution did little in the short run to alter the status of slaves. Yet the town contributed significantly to the fight for liberty against Britain. Stepney sacrificed men for the cause. About 50 veterans of the war are buried in the Rocky Hill cemetery, though a few might have been enlistees from other towns. One Stepney veteran of the war, Jared Goodrich, became a fifer at age 14, was later declared a deserter, and had two brothers killed in the conflict. Another, Calvin Chapin, became a fifer as young as age 10, and would later become a minister in the Congregation Church who opposed separation from Wethersfield in 1843. The town also provided several vessels against the mother country with some commissioned by the state as privateers. Independence did not occur without a financial cost. When the American Revolution ended, the shipbuilding industry entered into a period of decline. New York and Boston became the chief port cities. This decline was exacerbated by renewed conflict with Britain, the 1807 Embargo Act signed into law by Thomas Jefferson, and eventually the War of 1812.

When the town’s own independence came, 67 years after America’s own revolution, Rocky Hill remained a farming community with a population of no more than 1,000, and it stood as a microcosm of Connecticut in its unofficial label as the “land of steady habits.” The town’s population would hover around the 1,000 mark for the rest of the nineteenth century, a clear indication that its maritime prowess had come to an end.

The Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

A famous historian, Richard Hofstadter, remarked in the 1950s that “America was born in the country and moved to the city.” This mass migration of people from the rural to the urbanizing part of the country was incremental, but steady. Yet as he wrote he seemed unaware of the vast movement taking place from the cities to emerging suburbs
These changes–spurred by industrialization, two world wars, the automobile, the baby boom–impacted town’s such as Rocky Hill, which saw itself caught between two diverging worlds when the twentieth century began.

On the eastern part of town, the great meadows still stood prominently, and the town’s residents still relied upon farming for their survival and success. Horses remained the main mode of transportation for goods and people. Yet the railroads that ran through town for a generation connected the town to Hartford, intruded upon the serene setting along the east foot of the hill after which the town was named, and assisted in making shipping on the Connecticut River less prosperous. In a strange juxtaposition, to the west, hillside orchards grew plentifully. Rail literally split the town in half in a manner later replicated by highways.

About the author of Rocky Hill: a History

Rafaele Fierro was born and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, the son of Italian immigrants. He went to Bulkeley High School in Hartford, got his B.A. from Trinity College in 1992 and his doctorate in immigration history from the University of Connecticut in 2000. He was inspired to to teach history while at Trinity by Professor Jack Chatfield. Rafaele is Associate professor of history and political science at Tunxis Community College in Farmington, Connecticut. He also adjuncts at the University of Hartford.

Rafaele has written numerous articles for the Encyclopedia of Connecticut History Online (ECHO). He resides in Wethersfield, Connecticut with his wife and three children.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: