Connecticut’s state historian, Walter Woodward, wants to remind us (if we even knew) about key people and events in our state’s past, ranging from our persecution of “witches” to the actions of Nathan Hale, who at 21 volunteered to spy for George Washington.
Woodward’s new book Creating Connecticut: Critical Moments That Shaped a Great State (published by Globe Pequot in Guilford) is not meant to be a comprehensive history; its text is 227 pages. As he notes in his book’s introduction, he has assembled 24 stories, “each of which tells us something important about Connecticut’s past; something that still, in one way or another, affects our lives as Connecticans today.”
When Woodward began working on this several years ago, he could not have imagined how timely some of his material would be now. Those especially relevant chapters include “Controversial Statues Standing, At Least For Now” and “Connecticut’s Slow Walk Toward Emancipation.”
“I realized that these stories and talks I’d been putting together for my public lectures all said something interesting about the character and culture of Connecticut,” Woodward says in an interview from his 260-year-old home in the rural eastern town of Columbia. “I thought it would make for an interesting introduction to Connecticut history for a lot of people.”
In his chapter on those controversial statues, Woodward tells us that debates about removing such figures are nothing new. He focuses on one erected in honor of Major John Mason, who commanded Connecticut’s troops during the Pequot War of 1637. What was Mason’s great achievement? He led the surprise attack on the Pequot tribe, an event Woodward notes is “now often called the Mystic Massacre.” The book has a full-page photo of it, depicting Mason pulling out his sword.
In his chapter describing the colonists’ battles with Native Americans, Woodward writes that the massacre followed another surprise attack, this one by 100-200 Pequots and Wangunks on the colonists’ settlement at Wethersfield on April 23, 1637. Nine people were killed, including three women. Two girls were taken captive.
On May 1 Connecticut issued a declaration of war. Ninety militiamen were assembled from Hartford, Windsor and Wethersfield, joined by 75 Mohegan allies, Narragansett warriors and some colonists from Massachusetts. They launched an early-morning attack on a Pequot village, killing 400 to 700 members of that tribe.
Woodward, perhaps hampered by a lack of historical source material, doesn’t devote much space to this shocking event. But in the statues chapter he writes that in 1992 Native American groups petitioned to have Mason’s statue removed from the site of the attack. Windsor, Mason’s hometown, agreed to take custody of the statue and in 1996 it was installed on the town green. This July, after the statue was spraypainted with the letters "BLM," Windsor officials began discussing whether it should be moved. State approval would be needed for such an action, as the statue is on state property.
In his chapter on emancipation (just two pages long) Woodward writes: “When it came to ending slavery, Connecticut wasn’t exactly in a rush.” He notes that one would assume that our state, given its northern location, “would have been in the forefront of states supporting the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. A review of the history of emancipation in Connecticut, however, reveals a record that is both mixed and sobering.”
Woodward says the people of Connecticut freed their slaves “very gradually” because they were “concerned about the property rights of owners.” Even revered man of letters Noah Webster, Woodward writes, “felt such early emancipation was ill-advised. He believed slow emancipation was important for both public safety and the welfare of the enslaved.”
“In the end,” Woodward notes, “slavery remained legal in the Land of Steady Habits until 1848.”
In another troubling chapter centering on our state’s treatment of perceived witches, Woodward writes that Alice Young was hanged in Windsor in May 1647, the first “witch” to be executed in Connecticut. In the years that followed, 10 more were hanged. Some good news: Connecticut stopped killing witches before Salem, Massachusetts, did, thanks to the more enlightened attitude of our governor, John Winthrop Jr.
And what about poor Nathan Hale? In the chapter “Rough Justice for Nathan Hale,” Woodward notes that at the time of Hale’s hanging, a massive fire was still smoldering in New York City, an event the British soldiers unfairly linked to Hale. Believing he was an arsonist as well as a spy, they quickly put him to death, without even the comfort of a Bible. Woodward also informs us that the long-accepted account of Hale’s last words — “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” — is based on “hearsay evidence.”
On a much lighter note, Woodward begins his chapter “Mark Twain and the Historic House Problem” by asking: “Why don’t we smell cigar smoke when we tour the Mark Twain House?” Twain was known to consume 15-20 of them daily. Woodward praises the Hartford house’s appearance overall but adds: “It’s just too damned perfect. It’s just so T-I-D-Y.” He calls it “a bit of a sham.”
During our phone talk, Woodward says, “I would put an ashtray here and there, maybe a spittoon in the corner, kids’ toys and an occasional sock on the floor.”
Woodward thinks we can learn an important lesson from a long-lost and forgotten tradition: the Connecticut election cake. In his chapter about this, Woodward says that as early as 1771 Connecticut residents were baking and eating gigantic community cakes (he supplies the recipe).
“They were celebrating this concept of sweet democracy, how wonderful it is to choose your rulers,” Woodward tells me. “In today’s divided political time, many of us have forgotten this. I hope that as we move into November we think about reviving this tradition as a way of reminding ourselves that democracy really is sweet.”
Nutmeggers? Connecticuters? Connecticans?
There’s long been a debate about what people from Connecticut should be called. Last year the debate seemed to be settled when a researcher looked up an official government document, the U.S. Government Publishing Office Style Manual (bonus points if you’ve heard of it). It designates official terms for natives of all 50 states. Nutmeggers? No. We are Connecticuters.
Woodward begs to differ, however. He prefers the word “Connecticans.” His explanation: “After I became the state historian in 2004 I decided I’d start to work on changing what Connecticut residents call themselves. All the words we’d been using were clunky: ‘Connecticuters’ and ‘Nutmeggers,’ etc. I like what some other states have been doing for a long time: for example, ‘Nebraskans’ and ‘Kansans.’ ‘Connecticut’ is a difficult word to rhyme and hard to say in its own right, so it’s problematic to keep adding syllables. It’s a bridge too far. I just think ‘Connecticans’ makes sense.”
What say you, dear Connecticut reader?