Connecticut Family History Research
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This entry was originally written by Alice Eichholz, Ph.D., CG, in Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
History of Connecticut
The first colonies that would become Connecticut flanked the shores of Long Island Sound and the banks of the Housatonic and Connecticut rivers. Influenced by Rev. Thomas Hooker’s principle of authority growing out of the free expression of its people, the utopian experiment of Connecticut Colony began between 1633 and 1635. It produced little class distinction, a change from the heavy-handed authoritarian expectations of the Massachusetts colonies. The Congregational Church would not only be thoroughly integrated into town life, but interpretation of its theology seemed to create less social stratification.
Similar to Rhode Island in its political organization, Connecticut differed from the new settlements in Rhode Island and Providence plantations in that it possessed a rich agricultural terrain. The first settlements along the Connecticut River near Windsor coexisted with Native American villages and a Dutch trading post near what is now Hartford. Settlers from Massachusetts reached these settlements primarily by foot. Concurrently, John Winthrop, Jr., sailed a group from England to establish Saybrook along the coast. By 1638, with other settlements already harvesting their crops and increasing their number of clapboard houses, New Haven Colony, under the theological leadership of John Davenport, entrenched itself along the coast and began building the more elaborate houses they had become accustomed to in England.
New Haven Colony merged with Connecticut Colony in 1662, while new settlements moved farther north on the Connecticut River to settle western Massachusetts towns; one group founded Newark, New Jersey. More and more of the rich agricultural land was purchased from the Native Americans. From the time of their initial settlement through the middle of the eighteenth century, Connecticut’s relationship with the original inhabitants, like that of the rest of New England’s, continued to deteriorate, culminating in the French and Indian Wars.
Connecticut’s homogeneous population and community-centered form of government existed away from the mainstream of royal imperial affairs and remained focused on the town and its people. With events of the impending Revolution espousing the principles of freedom of expression, Connecticut began to move away from a solely town focus and look out toward the broader community of colonies opposing royal authority. Connecticut people fought on both sides of the conflict, with many loyalists migrating north and east to Canada and its eastern provinces. By the end of the Revolution, family farms were unable to support the large number of young people in the area. The population boom made it necessary for more and more descendants of original settlers to leave for the north, west, and south to provide for themselves and their families. Cheaper, available land elsewhere provided much of the motivation. Farms gave way to the newly burgeoning Industrial Revolution, with growing ethnic populations—Italians, Poles, French-Canadians, and African Americans in the nineteenth century; Puerto Ricans and Asians in the twentieth—wending their way along the Long Island Shoreline of Connecticut’s growing metropolitan areas.
Today, Connecticut enjoys the distinction of being the New England state with the most centrally located resources for genealogical research. Its 169 towns function without county government, and the size and shape of Connecticut’s land affords easy, fairly quick access to its centrally located capitol in Hartford.