The Settling of Bolton
Special Edition of the Bolton Community News Celebrating Bolton's 275th Anniversary - October 1995
Edited by Don Costello
This brief article will attempt to describe what the Bolton area was like prior to and during its establishment as a Connecticut town in the year 1720. It will touch upon the region when it was used by local Indians, the settling by whites, and the growth of the town. Readers who are interested in more details about Bolton's history can consult "Bolton's Heritage," edited by Bruce Ronson (available at the library and at town hall), "A Historical Sketch of Bolton Connecticut," by Samuel Alvord (written in 1920 for the bicentennial), or a booklet titled "Early Years of Bolton," by Edna Sumner, written in 1950.
Eastern Connecticut in the 17th Century
One hundred years before the incorporation of Bolton, the first permanent European settlement in New England was established in 1620 by the Pilgrims at Plymouth, and for a hundred years before that fishermen and explorers sailed off the coast. What was the region like in those days?
It has been described as continuous forest, with trees up to 250 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter. The underbrush was swept away each year by fires kindled by the Indians, who lived in small camps throughout New England in a wide diversity of tribes. Paths of winding footways linked the camps and villages, as they had for thousands of years. What we now know as Connecticut was inhabited by a total of perhaps 6,000 or 7,000 natives who farmed, traded, hunted, and gathered foods, primarily near the many sources of water. They lived in small groups of several hundred or less and often had different languages or dialects.
The "River Tribes" of this area were mostly peaceful and had been attacked by the Hudson region Mohegans, who later splintered and formed the Pequots, a name which means "destroyer." Bolton does not appear to have had any permanent Indian villages, though there was evidence of a sizeable encampment where Bolton Lake now exists. To the west in East Hartford were the Podunks, to the north were the Massachusetts Nipmucks, and to the east and south were the Mohegans. Bolton was a hunting area for the Podunks and the Mohegans and apparently separated their territories. Wildlife abounded, with wolves, panthers, otters, deer, bears, rattlesnakes, and so on.
The incursion of whites dramatically altered things. Connecticut's first European settlement was Windsor in 1633, followed by Wethersfield in 1634 and Hartford in 1636. Diseases, many from contact with Europeans, had already wiped out entire Indian villages by the early 1600s, and the massacre of the Pequots by a relatively small Puritan force led by John Mason in 1637 clearly established who had the power. The Indian Wars ensued, with the inevitable outcome.
Ironically, the assistance to settlers from friendly Indians, the heavy reliance on Indian corn, and the alliance with strong tribes such as Uncas' Mohegans played an important role in the sweeping changes. By the 1640s, in all of New England, about 20,000 Indians remained, over-shadowed by the 50,000 colonists who had poured in from Europe. By the 1740s, the tribes had been decimated and scattered or enslaved. The two cultures were too different to allow accommodation of such conflicting ways of life.
According to Samuel Alvord, "The oldest document on record relating to the transfer of land in Bolton is a grant by the General Court of Connecticut to Capt. Thomas Bull for services in the Indian Wars, bearing the date May 8, 1673." He received 200 acres near Cedar Swamp, which later was dammed to become Bolton Lake. A year later, Joshua, son of Uncas, conveyed to Major John Talcott 300 acres of land, half of it in Hebron and the other half in Bolton. Like his father, this chief of the Western Nehantics (a Mohegan tribe) was a loyal ally of the English and gave to his white friends thousands of acres of the Mohegan hunting grounds in Tolland County and vicinity. Many conflicting claims later arose from the "legatees of Joshua" and other settlers, and the manner of settlement was often complex.
At the time, Bolton was known as the Hartford Mountains, and, later, Hanover. There probably were families living here in the first decade of the 18th century, but the first known settler was Jabez Loomis in 1718 followed by Francis Smith, Stephen Bishop, Jonathan Hubbard, John Bissell, and others. In 1720, 15 family heads petitioned the General Assembly for incorporation of a town. The petition was honored, and the tract of 50 100-acre lots was named Bolton by the Colonial government. It is unclear why that name was chosen, but in those days it was common to name towns after the English town that one of the head families had emigrated from. It has been theorized that the influential Loomis family had some connection with Bolton, England, about four generations before immigrating.
Families continued to settle in Bolton, and by 1756, there were 751 whites, 11 blacks and one Indian. It is likely that some of the blacks were slaves because at that time there were 3,636 slaves in Connecticut, some Indian, but mostly black.
Upon incorporation, Bolton was bounded on the west by Hartford, Glastonbury and Windsor, on the east by Tolland and Coventry, the north by Windsor, and the south by Hebron. The part of Hartford that bordered on Bolton split off to East Hartford in 1783, and, from that, Manchester in 1823. Nevertheless, the town was a larger area in 1720 than it is today. That is because what is now Vernon was part of Bolton until 1808; this explains why the population of Bolton in 1800 was 1,452, yet in 1850 was only 600 (and by 1900, only 457). What a different town we would have if Vernon had not been formed!
In early Bolton, religion was a major factor as it was throughout New England. The same Puntans who had fled Europe for their freedom of worship were quite intolerant of other religions and also were very strict in their expectations of behavior and government. The early Colonial laws and decrees often included mention of the worship of God. For example, the Act for the Settlement of Bolton included provision for one of the 50 lots to be set aside for a minister, with no tax on the lot. Also, town records show that every male inhabitant over 16 years of age was expected to work for two days each year for three years to help the new minister clear and fence his land. The new settlers were God-fearing people, as witnessed by attendance at services as early as 1722 and the establishment of a Congregational church in 1725.
An interesting example of the rigid tenets of that church is the 1724 requirement of all elected officials in the colony to take an oath against "Popery." Pluralism threatened everything the Puritans held sacred.
The Rev. Jonathan Edwards agreed to be Bolton's first minister in 1723, but he was appointed as a tutor at Yale and was unable to serve here. He went on to become a major intellect in 18th century New England. In his place came a classmate, the Rev. Thomas White, who served Bolton from 1725 until his death in 1763. Several meeting houses were used over the years, and the existing Congregational Church was dedicated in 1848.
Early in the 19th century Methodists held a camp meeting in Bolton and built a church in 1834. In addition, a Universalist Society was organized about 1830. It wasn't until 1904 that a Catholic chapel (St. Maurice) was built, though Catholic services in the area date back to the Revolution, particularly when Rochambeau's army passed through. The most recent church is St.George's Episcopal, built in 1962 after four years in temporary facilities.
Developing an Economy
The abundant water power of the region led to the use of many mills. On the brook near South Road were a saw mill, a grist mill, and later, a fulling mill. Other mills existed wherever running water could be harnessed, serving the largely agricultural community. There were also at least five brandy stills (hence, Brandy Street), hat shops, a cigar maker, and other businesses such as the shoddy mill on the street of that name. (Shoddy was a cheap cloth made from wool scraps.)
Among the more significant aspects of Bolton's developing economy were its quarries, which provided exceptionally good flagging slate for major cities on the east coast. The stone was extracted from the hills at the notch, and it was shipped out in the early 1800s, but it became even more important when the Hartford, Providence, and Fishkill Railroad came through in 1849.
A depot existed near what is now the southeast corner of the fishing pond on Route 6. There was a village store, a grain shed, a scale, and the train station. Hay, grain, stone and other local products were shipped from there well into the 20th century. The railroad closed operations in the mid-195Os, and the tracks were removed to leave the trail that now runs from Willimantic to Manchester. If you walk that trail, look around and imagine the work it took to blast the rock and to build up a level area without power equipment.
Railroads were important because the road system wasn't satisfactory for major hauling. As mentioned earlier, our roads often started out as Indian trails, which became horse trails, then very rough wagon trails. Route 44 follows sections of the Old Connecticut Path that preceded white men. Sections of Route 6 also have a similar history.
We can't finish without mention of Bolton's schools. As early as 1731, the town voted to procure a schoolmaster, so there was definite interest in education, but Yankee frugality also came into play then as it has recently. A Daniel White taught in town in 1738, but no school buildings existed until the middle of that century. Four districts were formed, and they existed for years. In 1940 there were still four one-room schools in Bolton.
We now have a population of about 4,700 inhabitants and we are still a small, quiet town so typical of the hundreds of such small towns that contributed much to the make-up of this nation.