Astronomer Carl Sagan once said that you have to know the past to understand the present. Connecticut’s past is being brightly illuminated by a treasure trove of artifacts freshly unearthed in Wethersfield that could reveal how a long-forgotten attack on the village’s original settlers played a critical role in the nation’s evolution. “The potential of this site to rewrite a significant part of early New England history is fairly great,” says Walter Woodward, Connecticut’s state historian. “In some ways it’s like the Jamestown of Connecticut.”
The attack was the Wethersfield Indian Massacre of 1637. Artifacts that could provide new context for understanding the incident, along with a large cache of items spanning four centuries, have been uncovered behind the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield during an archaeological excavation over the past two years. Concluding in November, the excavation was required by the Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office as a prelude to the construction of a new visitor/education center getting underway this spring.
The nearly 19,000 items collected will add layers of knowledge about the lives of the colonists, says Sarah Sportman, who supervised the dig. Sportman is a senior archaeologist with the Public Archaeology Survey Team, a private, nonprofit research and public education organization based in Mansfield. “I think we’re really just starting to get a handle on this period archaeologically,” Sportman says. “The interesting thing about the project is that we’ve actually found archaeological material from the 1630s all the way up to the 20th century. Every period of occupation on this site really tells a rich story about this property and about the town of Wethersfield.”
Objects excavated include diamond-pane window glass, wampum beads, plates, medicine bottles, liquor bottles, ceramics, food remains, shells, nails, furniture hardware and buttons. Tiny bits of bone, pottery and seeds can “offer important insights into the food that was eaten at the site,” Sportman says.
But the most intriguing and attention grabbing are the remains of a possible stockade wall and a stash of coins minted in the 1620s and ’30s. Remnants of a short line of posts may be from a palisade, or protective wall, and will take more excavation and further study to reach conclusions. But the trained professionals involved in the project are excited at the prospect that it may have been constructed to protect against Native American attacks.
There was great anxiety among settlers over relations with the indigenous population. The possible palisade provides “tangible evidence of the fear and the stress” settlers felt toward the native peoples, Sportman says. Such a discovery “in context with 17th-century material from the period of the Pequot War,” Woodward says, “absolutely suggests that we might be on one of the really important sites of one of the really important military battles of New England.”
Charles Lyle, executive director of the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum, says the discovery of wampum suggests that the settlers and natives were trading partners. But, he notes, the natives feared the area’s limited food supply was being threatened by a burgeoning influx of immigrants. “In 1637, Indians attacked Wethersfield and they killed six males, three females and then they abducted the two daughters of the richest guy in town,” he says. Contrary to popular belief, he says, “the Indians weren’t there to slaughter the settlers. They were there to eliminate as much as they could the sustenance of the settlers, their food.” Twenty horses and cattle were also killed in the April 23 attack. “They were trying to send a message to the settlers that maybe they ought to go back” where they came from.
Woodward says the kidnapped girls were then taken in canoes down the Connecticut River and “they were paraded in a taunting manner past the [colonists’] fort at Old Saybrook.” They were later ransomed and returned thanks to Dutch intervention. The colonists retaliated violently to the incident, first declaring war on the Pequot on May 1. “It ultimately led,” Lyle says, “to a big army of early settlers attacking the Pequot village and slaughtering (several hundred) men, women and children” a month later in Mystic. That incident was chosen by the History Channel as one of the “10 Days that Unexpectedly Changed America.”
Until recently, historians and archaeologists have assumed that traces of sites this old were long destroyed and undiscoverable. Thanks to regulations that now require examining a site’s history before developing it, more artifacts are being uncovered, even in urban environments, Sportman says. “A lot of archaeology gets done through development,” she says. These artifacts may derive from the earliest English settlement in Connecticut, “which makes it really important,” Lyle says. (Windsor also holds a credible claim as the state’s oldest European settlement.) “This opens a whole new avenue. It pushes the story [of Old Wethersfield] back another 70 years to the 1630s. There’s much more excavation we hope to do in the future.”
Three historic houses sit on the Webb-Deane-Stevens complex: the Joseph Webb House, built in 1752, the Silas Deane House, circa 1769, and the Isaac Stevens House, 1769. Deane was intimately involved with the nation’s founders and events of the Revolution and is considered the country’s first diplomat. Until this latest discovery, arguably the most significant event to take place on the site was the five nights George Washington spent in the Joseph Webb house in May 1781. The home was Washington’s Revolutionary War headquarters for that time to discuss strategy with French general Rochambeau, resulting in the battle plan that led to the capture of Yorktown from the British and American independence.
Many of the newly uncovered objects pre-date any current history of the property. Sportman says she is “pretty confident” that many of them can be connected to Clement Chaplin, who was occupant of the property from about 1637 to 1646. Chaplin is listed on a monument in Hartford’s Ancient Burial Ground as one of its first settlers. After moving to Wethersfield in 1636, he held various important positions, including deputy to the general court, treasurer of the colony, and “Ruling Elder” or lay leader of the church.
Other significant items found in the dig include musket balls from the American Revolution of the type used in a French flintlock pistol, and ceramics and creamware from the 1760s. The border pattern on the creamware identically matches a set that was owned by George Washington, Lyle says. Since Joseph Webb was on the same social plane as Washington, it would be common for them to possess the most fashionable dinnerware of the day. Lyle describes the excavation of a trash pit behind the Webb house as “like Christmas” to him. The information from the flasks and ceramics it contained “will help us to very accurately set a dinner table” from the period, he says.
Everything collected at the Webb-Deane-Stevens dig is being documented, photographed and analyzed. Grants are being pursued to fund future digs to search for more evidence of a protective palisade and the settlers’ interactions with the Native American population.
The new 9,000-square-foot visitor/education center, scheduled for a groundbreaking in May, will include new exhibit space, a library for school programs, and meeting room. While it was originally planned to expand upon the history of the current homes and the town’s role in the Revolutionary War, Lyle says they will now make space to incorporate the wealth of new information. “It’s opening up a whole new door for interpretation for us. This is the tip of the iceberg.” The center is projected to open in late spring 2020.
The artifacts will broaden our knowledge of Wethersfield’s origins. “We’ve gotten so much material out of this work that will provide a pretty complete story of hundreds of years of occupation here,” Sportman says. Will this knowledge increase our understanding of our 21st-century behavior? Sportman feels “strongly that the past informs the present” and that the Pequot War and Mystic Massacre “set the tone for the treatment of Native Americans in the U.S.” that continues to have repercussions today.
Woodward seconds that belief. “The past is an inescapable part of the present,” he says. “I think it’s going to help to clarify a very important moment in Connecticut history.”
What is Connecticut’s oldest town?
The recent discoveries in Wethersfield have reignited a long-running debate between the town and Windsor over which is the first Connecticut town to be settled by Europeans.
Wethersfield’s claim: Colonists from Watertown, Massachusetts, founded a permanent settlement here in 1634. Calling itself “Ye Most Auncient Towne,” Wethersfield was granted legal permission to become a town in May 1635.
Windsor’s claim: Colonists from Plymouth, Massachusetts, established a trading post here in 1633. However, permanent homes were not built until 1635. Proclaiming itself “First in Connecticut,” Windsor became a legal town in June 1635.
Who’s right? Perhaps further archaeological finds will decide the argument once and for all. Until then, it appears to come down to whether you believe Windsor’s earlier trading post constitutes the beginnings of a town. If not, Wethersfield can feel confident that it is truly “Ye Most Auncient.”