Local Stories : History of Middletown
The Wangunks, a Native American people, had lived at the great bend in the Connecticut River for countless generations when the first English settlers arrived in 1650. The Wangunks called the area “Mattabeseck,” which was incorporated by the Connecticut General Court in 1651 and encompassed the present day towns of Middletown, Middlefield, Cromwell, Portland, East Hampton, and part of Berlin. In 1653, 1Mattabeseck was renamed Middletown, probably because of its location midway between Hartford and Saybrook.
Early residents of Middletown made their living by farming the fertile land along the banks of the river. Other local men became blacksmiths, stonecutters, millers, carpenters, and shipbuilders. Ships built in Middletown carried grain, vegetables, livestock, and other products of local farms down the river and on to Atlantic coastal towns and the islands of the West Indies. The ships returned with rum, sugar, molasses, coffee salt, nutmeg, and occasionally African slaves.
By 1750, Middletown was the most populous and one of the wealthiest towns in Connecticut. The town owed its size and prosperity primarily to the maritime trade. Shipbuilders, sailmakers, coopers, and ropemakers had their livelihoods tied to the sea, and many local merchants and ship captains made their fortunes from the traded cargoes. In addition, Middletown rivaled Boston and Philadelphia as a pewter center with three generations of Danforths handcrafting pewter beginning in 1756.
Many Middletown men, including at least a dozen African Americans fought in the Revolutionary War. The town supplied at least 16 privateer vessels, which attacked and seized enemy ships. Beef and grain from Middletown farms were sent to feed the troops, and lead from its mine was made into bullets.
In the early 1800’s, President Jefferson banned international commerce. His embargo so diminished the maritime trade that many families migrated west to Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania to earn a living. Commodore Thomas Macdonough, who lived in Middletown, defeated the British navy on Lake Champlain on September 11, 1814. This victory led to the peace treaty three months later, ending the War of 1812.
With peace on the seas, Samuel Russell a young businessman, began engaging in the China trade. His clipper ships brought back silk, tea, porcelain, spices, and sandalwood. Prosperity returned to Middletown and many manufacturing companies flourished. Products made in Middletown included elastic webbing, water pumps, textiles, marine hardware, typewriters, swords, and firearms.
Middletown citizens were active in the abolition movement; some acted as “conductors” on the Underground Railroad. Middletown sent over 800 men to serve in the Civil War, with 110 of them dying from wounds or disease. Immigrants from Ireland began arriving in the 1840’s to work in the brownstone quarries, and later in the century, other groups such as the Swedes, Germans, Poles, Italians, and Jews arrived to take advantage of the many work opportunities in Middletown.