It may be Connecticut's version of the legend of Camelot: the Barkhamsted Lighthouse, an isolated 18th-century settlement, founded by forbidden lovers and destined to grow into a near-utopia for misfits of all cultures. The it was suddenly abandoned for reasons unknown, and the reputed paradise receded into near-forgotten legend.
In "Sanctuary" (January 1993) we learn that, as with most legends, this one contains a kernel of truth: The Lighthouse was a real settlement, its name coming from its position as a well-known marker for travelers passing to or from Hartford. As is usually the case, though, the more romantic details of the story don't hold up to scrutiny; but it's still a fascinating chapter in the state's history.
The Barkhamsted Lighthouse was was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. In 2008 the Connecticut Historical Preservation Council designated the Barkhamsted Lighthouse as a State Archaeological Preserve.
This article is being posted to the web in July 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
For 100 years, society’s misfits were drawn to The Lighthouse, Connecticut’s strangest village.
By Andrew Marlatt
It is probably important to note that the chief chronicler of the following tale also used to teach schoolchildren that a ship made nearly entirely of bricks once sailed the Farmington River.
The year was 1740, or thereabouts. James Chaugham (Chah-gum) was a Narragansett Indian from Block Island who had adapted to Colonial life. Molly Barber was a white woman from Wethersfield, the headstrong daughter of a wealthy farmer. The tale begins when Molly's father refuses to permit her to marry her first love, a local man of limited means. Molly spitefully pledges to marry the next man. black or white, who asks for her hand. Chaugham, a worker at the Barber estate, soon steps forward, making the young Molly the apparently irresistible proposal of "much wampum and many blankets." Whatever the attraction, the two marry secretly and run off, with an angry posse in pursuit.
At first, they hide with a nearby tribe of Indians, where Molly's pale skin is darkened with bear grease. When the sheriff reaches the reservation a few days later with his posse, he lines up the tribe but doesn’t notice her. The pair flee again, this time wandering northwest until they come to Ragged Mountain, about 8 miles south of the Massachusetts border and effectively in the middle of nowhere. Hidden from the world, they build a shack beside the west branch of the Farmington River and become not only the first settlers of Barkhamsted, but the founders of a village with the improbable name of “The Lighthouse."
Molly and James have eight children, seven of whom survive to have children of their own, and despite blizzard, flood and general hardship, the "tribe" grows. Several years into its existence, The Lighthouse gets its name from passing stagecoach drivers on the nearby Albany-Hartford route, who see Chaugham’s cabin fire as a beacon and exclaim, “We’re only 5 miles from New Hartford— there is the lighthouse.”
Over the next hundred years, disenfranchised whites, free blacks and Indians find their way to The Lighthouse, marrying into the family and living a meager, though peaceful, existence. At the community’s peak, perhaps 200 people of every shade live in relative harmony on the hillside, growing corn and fishing, peddling baskets and brooms in nearby towns. This Lighthouse, 60 miles from the sea, eventually gains fame across the country. But by the time of the Civil War, the village falls silent, the tribe disperses, and the story ends.
Is there fact in what sounds like fiction? Without a doubt, says Ken Feder, a professor of anthropology at Central Connecticut State University. In what is today a state forest in the town of Barkhamsted, there was once a rare and rustic Colonial village—more accurately, a collection of crude shacks—called The Lighthouse. It was peopled by mixed-bloods, outcasts and exiles who struggled and survived for more than a century before moving on or dying out. Because of its unusual makeup, the settlement was known far and wide in its time.
Today, few have heard of this mysterious enclave, and small wonder. History covets grand success and great scandal The Lighthouse tribe offered little of either. But Feder, who last [year] finished six years of research on The Lighthouse, believes it rates in importance with the glorified first settlements of Connecticut.
Feder's involvement began in 1986, during what turned out to be a somewhat embarrassing archaeological expedition. He and 10 CCSU students were in Peoples State Forest, about 25 miles northwest of Hartford, looking for prehistoric Indian sights. As they tromped through the dense woods around Ragged Mountain, they noticed some “peculiar features”: scattered earth and rock beams that proved to be old cellar holes. They also found a simple cemetery, and a cursory excavation uncovered Colonial-era pottery, pipes and glass. The excitement of discovery shone in Feder’s eyes. “I knew there had never been any reports of a village there," says the 40-year-old anthropologist. "I thought we had really found something.”
The group broke for lunch and walked down near the Farmington River, just across the road from the site. One student, wandering around while the others ate, yelled out to Feder, “Is this important?"
“So I walked over and there was a big plaque in the rock that said it had been donated by the Daughters of the American
Revolution because there was once an old Indian village there,” Feder remembers with a laugh. It appeared his archaeological triumph had been trumped. "It was sort of like stumbling into the backyard of Mount Vernon and saying, 'Wow, nobody knows about this!’ Then you walk around to the front door and find people selling tickets."
As it turned out, Feder had found something: a site never properly explored before, a site steeped in history, legend and...
"Fairy tales,” says 68-year-old Douglas Roberts, Barkhamsted's unofficial town historian, who claims that local people simply made up stories about The Lighthouse and its inhabitants, often casting them in an impossibly romantic light.
The arch misinformer, says Roberts, was area resident and educator Lewis S. Mills, who published a poem in 1951 called "The Legend of the Barkhamsted Lighthouse." Written in the style of "Hiawatha,” it romanticized the story of James and Molly, e g., "No fairer maid was ever seen, this lovely Molly Barber, who moved as graceful as a queen."
Roberts, whose family later owned the land encompassing The Lighthouse, does not dispute the claim that the tribe’s first generations lived peacefully with their white Colonial neighbors. But he takes exception to assertions that they remained, on the whole, good citizens. According to Roberts—as well as several press accounts of the day—two generations after James and Molly arrived, the clan devolved into violent, thieving barbarism. The facts will never be known, but the real story is probably more like this:
James was probably half Narragansett and Molly was white, though perhaps neither a Barber nor from Wethersfield. They did run away, though it is doubtful a minister of the time would have married an Indian to a white woman. They were the first settlers of Barkhamsted (incorporated in 1770, its center is 2 miles from The Lighthouse). Though they were of mixed blood, they were respected and had several daughters marry into well-off area families.
The expanding family hunted, fished, and weaved baskets and made brooms for sale in nearby towns, where some of the women worked as housemaids. Feder’s excavations unearthed English pottery and Albany-made pipes, showing that members of the tribe probably traded with travelers and were not destitute. Over the years, wanderers of all colors married into the tnbe, bought land, built wooden shacks in the shadow of Ragged Mountain and raised children. Many also moved away, by the 1850s depleting the clan to the point that, as one historian of the day claimed those who remained "have married and inter-married until there is now scarce a person of average intellect among them."
In 1854, a local reporter visited The Lighthouse and wrote, "Around these habitations, the passer-by will discover from 5 to 20 half-clad specimens of the genus homo, of every possible size and shade of color. They apparently receive as much enjoyment in their wild gambols upon the rugged mountains that surround their isolated habitations as those who revel in all the luxurious indolence that wealth can furnish."
Such reports from the time indicate the general contempt outsiders had for The Lighthouse near its end. And though Mills’ account valiantly claims Molly educated the inhabitants—she supposedly lived to 105— Feder’s research shows that nobody in the clan could read or write. Thus there is no inside account of the tribe’s early life and no record to defend it. What has been passed down is a collection of fascinating stones of The Lighthouse’s fall from grace.
According to one, a Lighthouse native just back from fighting in the Civil War died, and Lighthouse leaders wanted to give him a Christian burial in nearby Riverton. The ministers of that town refused, however, because the man was a heathen in their eyes. A tribal leader named Sol Webster then asked Douglas Roberts’ great-grandfather, a neighbor and Congregational deacon, to perform the service, which he did. After the burial, Webster asked Deacon Roberts how much his service would cost, but the deacon knew the tribe had no money. In lieu of payment, he said, the tribe could do him a favor. He explained that he had lost a number of tools over the years and if Webster and his people could find them, he would consider the debt paid. The next day he found, piled on the barn floor, every tool he had “lost" over the previous 20 years.
The clan dwindled but didn’t die out, according to Roberts, who claims they were chased out. A penniless people with little hope for regular work, they were constantly winding up in court for thievery and fighting. And because they had no money, the judge would invariably attach a piece of their property to pay for their crimes. Finally, in the 1860s, they lost what little land remained during another legal battle, which, oddly, they won. The tribe shared ownership of an island in the Farmington River with a local family named Young, loggers by trade. One day, the Youngs cut down all the timber on the island and sold it, keeping the money. The leaders of The Lighthouse took the Youngs to court, lost the first round, appealed to the state Supreme Court and won. But their legal fees outweighed their means so their counsel, a local judge, attached the rest of their property, and that was that.
It has been 250 years since James and Molly stopped running. Barkhamsted is now a bedroom community for Hartford and The Lighthouse is an unknown term to most of its inhabitants. But there are a few who remember. One day two summers ago, while Feder and a team were digging at The Lighthouse, a man drove up in a pickup truck, got out, introduced himself as Ray Ellis and asked Feder to shake his hand. "When you shake hands with me," he said proudly, pointing toward the dig site, “you’re shaking hands with one of them."
Ellis, of Winsted, had learned from his elders that he was a seventh-generation descendant of James Chaugham. Similarly, youngsters who live in Barkhamsted today must rely on word of mouth to learn about the strange and isolated clan that preceded them, since the tribe is no longer discussed in local schools. It was once, though. And it was at one such school that Douglas Roberts, more than 50 years ago, heard a romantic historian named Lewis Mills tell of a ship made of bricks that once sailed the Farmington River, and of a curious race of people who lived 60 miles from the sea, at a place improbably called The Lighthouse.