WATCH VIDEO: Treasure Hunting on the Connecticut River
The Connecticut River is the longest river in the New England region of the United States. Flowing roughly southward for 406.12 miles (653.59 km) through four U.S. states, the Connecticut rises at the U.S. border with Quebec, Canada, and discharges at Long Island Sound. Its watershed encompasses five U.S. states and one Canadian province – 11,260 square miles (29,200 km2) – via 148 tributaries, 38 of which are major rivers.Discharging at 19,600 cubic feet (560 m3) per second, the Connecticut produces 70% of Long Island Sound’s fresh water. The Connecticut River Valley is home to some of the northeastern United States’ most productive farmland, as well as a metropolitan region of approximately 2 million people surrounding Springfield, Massachusetts, and the state of Connecticut’s capital, Hartford.
Prior to Dutch exploration beginning in 1614, numerous native tribes lived throughout the fertile Connecticut River valley. Information concerning how these tribes lived and interacted stems mostly from English accounts written during the 1630s. Natives of the Middle Valley. Due north, where modern-day Hartford and its suburbs sit – on the ancient floodplain of the glacial Lake Hitchcock – the Mohegans dominated the region, particularly after allying themselves with the English against the Pequots during the Pequot War of 1637. Often portrayed as the “good Indians” in colonial accounts of the Pequot War, the Mohegans’ culture bore a striking cultural resemblance to that of the Pequots, as they had ‘split off’ from the Pequots and become their rivals sometime prior to the Europeans’ explorations of the area.
North of the Enfield Falls, on the fertile stretch of hills and meadows surrounding modern-day Springfield, the peaceful, agricultural Pocomtuc tribe lived in unfortified villages alongside the Connecticut. En route from coastal Boston to Albany on the ancient Bay Path, where the Connecticut meets the western Westfield River and eastern Chicopee River, sat the Pocomtuc village of Agawam (meaning “landing place” or “place for unloading canoes,”) which eventually became Springfield. The Pocomtuc villagers at Agawam helped Puritan explorers settle this advantageous site, and – as opposed to tribes further north and south along the Connecticut – remained friendly with them for decades, helping them to develop Springfield. The region stretching from Springfield northward to the modern-day New Hampshire and Vermont state borders – with its soil enhanced by sedimentary deposits from the ancient Lake Hitchcock – fostered many peaceful, agricultural Pocomtuc and Nipmuc settlements. Occasionally, these villages endured invasions from more aggressive confederated tribes living in modern-day New York, such as the Mohawk, Mahican and Iroquois tribes.
In 1614, Dutch explorer Adriaen Block became the first European explorer to chart the Connecticut River, sailing as far north as Enfield Rapids. In charting the Connecticut, Bloeck called it the “Fresh River”, and claimed it for the Netherlands as the northeastern border of the New Netherland colony. In 1623, Dutch traders constructed a fortified trading post at the site of modern Hartford, Connecticut, calling it the Fort Huys de Hoop (“Fort House of Hope”) on the plain that became modern Hartford. Less than a decade later, four separate Puritan-led groups settled the fertile Connecticut River Valley. In the process, they founded the two large cities that continue to dominate the Connecticut River Valley today – Hartford (est. 1635) and Springfield (est. 1636). Displeased, for various reasons, with their own settlement along the New England coast, the first group of pioneers that settled the Connecticut River Valley left the Plymouth Colony in 1632, and ultimately founded the village of Matianuck (modern Windsor, Connecticut) – several miles north of the Dutch fort at modern Hartford.
In 1633, a group left the Massachusetts Bay Colony from Watertown, seeking a site where they could practice their religion more strictly. With this in mind, they founded Wethersfield, Connecticut, in 1633 – several miles south of the Dutch fort at modern Hartford.
View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836, by Thomas Cole. In 1635, the charismatic Reverend Thomas Hooker led settlers from the Massachusetts Bay Colony settlement at Cambridge, Massachusetts – where Hooker had feuded with the more conservative Reverend John Cotton – to the site in Connecticut of the Dutch “Fort House of Hope”, where Hooker founded “Newtowne” (modern Hartford). Shortly after Hooker’s arrival, Newtowne annexed Matianuck (modern Windsor), based on laws supposedly articulated in Connecticut’s settlement charter, the Warwick Patent of 1631. The “patent,” however, had been physically lost, and the annexation was almost certainly illegal.
The fourth English settlement along the Connecticut came out of a 1635 scouting party commissioned by William Pynchon. Iconoclastic by Massachusetts Bay Colony standards, Pynchon commissioned scouts to find the most advantageous site on the Connecticut River for the dual purposes of conducting commerce and agriculture, hoping to found a city there. His scouts located the Pocumtuc village of Agawam, where the ancient Bay Path trade route crossed the Connecticut at two of its major tributaries – the Chicopee River to the east and Westfield River to the west. Located just north of the Connecticut’s first unnavigable waterfall, Enfield Falls, Pynchon correctly surmised that traders utilizing any of these major roads or waterways would have to dock and change ships at his site, thereby granting the settlement a commercial advantage. Initially named Agawam Plantation and allied with the southern settlements that would become the state of Connecticut, Pynchon’s settlement switched allegiances in 1641 and was renamed Springfield in honor of Pynchon’s native town in England. Of these settlements, Hartford and Springfield quickly emerged as powers. In 1641, Springfield splintered off from the Hartford-based Connecticut Colony, instead allying itself with the Boston-based Massachusetts Bay Colony. For decades, Springfield remained the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s westernmost settlement, on the northern border of the Connecticut Colony. By 1654 however, the success of these English settlements rendered the Dutch position on the Connecticut untenable. A treaty relocated the boundary between the Connecticut Colony and New Netherland Colony westward, near present-day Greenwich. The treaty allowed the Dutch to maintain their trading post at Foot Huys de Hoop, which they did until the 1664 British takeover of New Netherland.
The Connecticut Valley’s central location, fertile soil, and abundant natural resources made it the target of centuries of border disputes. Beginning with Springfield’s defection from the Connecticut Colony in 1641, which brought the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the river; to the conflicting royal treaties of 1764, which sparked the river’s east-siders to unite with Ethan Allen and the west-siders against New York and the British; to the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which created a disputed U.S. international border with Canada from the Connecticut’s “northernmost headwaters”; to the 1935 U.S. Supreme Court case which settled a contentious boundary dispute between Vermont and New Hampshire – the Connecticut’s history is characterized by both political intrigue and technological innovation.
Springfield allies with the Massachusetts Bay Colony
During 1640 and 1641, two political controversies took place that altered the political boundaries of the Lower Connecticut River region, preventing it from administration by a single political body. During the 1630s, the Connecticut Colony administered Springfield, in addition to Hartford, Wethersfield, and Windsor; however, by 1640, Springfield’s advantageous geography enabled it to become the Connecticut Colony’s most commercially prosperous settlement. During the spring of 1640, the Connecticut Colony endured a crippling grain shortage, which caused many cattle to die of starvation. The grain shortage became a matter of survival for the Connecticut Colony, but due to its prosperity, not for Springfield.
In response to the shortage, leading citizens of Wethersfield and Hartford gave power to Springfield’s founder, Pynchon, to purchase corn for all of the Connecticut Colony’s settlements from the Pocumtuc. Colony leaders authorized Pynchon to offer large sums of money – far above market prices – to the natives; however, during negotiations, Pynchon became convinced that the natives refused to sell at even “reasonable” prices, and thus he refused to buy the corn altogether. Explaining his decision, Pynchon opined that it was best not to broadcast the Connecticut Colonists’ weaknesses to the natives, whom he believed might capitalize on it; likewise, he aimed to keep market values – and trade with the natives – steady in the future.
Furious with Pynchon’s seeming willingness to further imperil the starving settlements, leading citizens of Hartford – with Windsor’s and Wethersfield’s consent – commissioned Captain John Mason, who had fought against Native Americans in the Pequot War, to travel to Springfield with “money in one hand and a sword in the other” to make a deal with the Native Americans, and also to rebuke Pynchon. On reaching Springfield, Mason threatened the natives with war if they did not sell their corn at ‘reasonable’ prices. The natives capitulated, and ultimately sold the Connecticut Colonists’ corn; however, Mason’s violent approach roused distrust among the (theretofore friendly) Pocumtuc natives. Mason also upbraided Pynchon in public. This incident, which arose partly from differences regarding how to treat Native Americans – Pynchon had achieved mutual benefits via capitalism with the Pocumtucs, whereas Mason had used force during the 1637 Pequot War – nevertheless caused Springfield’s settlers to rally around the humiliated Pynchon, and led to the settlement severing ties with the Connecticut Colony. As this controversy was heating up, the relatively distant, coastal Massachusetts Bay Colony saw an opportunity to gain a foothold along the fertile Connecticut. In 1640, Boston asserted a claim to jurisdiction over lands surrounding the Connecticut River; however, Springfield remained politically independent until tensions with the Connecticut Colony were exacerbated by a final confrontation later that year.
Since its founding, Hartford kept a fort at the mouth of the Connecticut River – at present-day Old Saybrook – for protection against the Pequots, Wampanoags, Mohegans, and the New Netherland Colony. After Springfield broke ties with the Connecticut Colony, the remaining Connecticut settlements demanded that Springfield’s ships pay tolls when passing the mouth of the Connecticut River. Springfield’s ships refused to pay this tax without representation at Connecticut’s fort. Hartford, in turn, refused to grant Springfield representation. In response, the Massachusetts Bay Colony solidified its friendship with Springfield by levying a toll on Connecticut Colony ships entering Boston Harbor. Connecticut, which was then largely dependent on sea trade with Boston, permanently dropped its tax on Springfield. Following this bit of gamesmanship, Springfield allied with Boston, drawing the first state border across the Connecticut
Starting about 1865, the river was used for massive logging drives from Third Connecticut Lake to initially water powered sawmills near Enfield Falls. Trees cut adjacent to tributary streams including Perry Stream and Indian Stream in Pittsburg, New Hampshire, Halls Stream on the Quebec–New Hampshire border, Simms Stream, the Mohawk River, and the Nulhegan River basin in Essex County, Vermont, would be flushed into the main river by the release of water impounded behind splash dams. Several log drivers died trying to move logs through Perry Falls in Pittsburg. Teams of men would wait at Canaan, Vermont, to protect the bridges from log jams. Men guided logs through a 400-foot (120 m) drop along the length of Fifteen-Mile Falls (now submerged under Moore and Comerford reservoirs), and through Logan’s Rips at Fitzdale, Mulligan’s Lower Pitch, and Seven Islands. The White River from Vermont and Ammonoosuc River from New Hampshire brought more logs into the Connecticut. A log boom was built between Wells River, Vermont, and Woodsville, New Hampshire, to hold the logs briefly and release them gradually to avoid jams in the Ox Bow. Men detailed to this work utilized Woodsville’s saloons and red-light district. Some of the logs were destined for mills in Wilder and Bellows Falls, Vermont, while others were sluiced over the Bellows Falls dam. North Walpole, New Hampshire, contained twelve to eighteen saloons, patronized by the log drivers.Mount Tom was the landmark the log drivers used to gauge the distance to the final mills near Holyoke, Massachusetts. These spring drives were stopped after 1915, when pleasure boat owners complained about the hazards to navigation. The final drive included 500 workers controlling 65 million feet of logs. A final pulp drive consisted of 100,000 cords of four-foot logs in 1918. This was to take advantage of the wartime demand.
The Treaty of Paris (1783) that ended the American Revolutionary War created a new international border between New Hampshire and what was to become the Province of Canada at “northwestern most headwaters of the Connecticut”. Several streams fit this description, and thus a boundary dispute led to the short-lived Indian Stream Republic, which existed from 1832 to 1835. The broad, fertile Connecticut River Valley attracted agricultural settlers and colonial traders to Hartford, Springfield, and the surrounding region; later, during the 19th century, the high volume and numerous falls of the river led to the rise of industry. During the Industrial Revolution, the cities of Springfield and Hartford in particular became centers of innovation and “intense and concentrated prosperity.”
In 1829 the Enfield Falls Canal was opened to circumvent shallows by the Connecticut’s first major falls, the Enfield Falls. The locks built for this canal gave their name to the town of Windsor Locks, Connecticut. The Connecticut River Valley – in particular, the cities of Springfield and Hartford – functioned as America’s hub of technical innovation into the 20th century, and thus attracted numerous railroad lines. The proliferation of the railroads in Springfield and Hartford greatly decreased the economic importance of the Connecticut River. From the late 1800s until today, it has functioned largely as a center of wildlife and recreation.
The Water Quality Act of 1965 had a major impact on controlling water pollution in the Connecticut River and its tributaries.
Since then, the river has been restored from Class D to Class B (fishable and swimmable). Many towns along the Lower Connecticut River have enacted a cap on further development along the banks, so that no buildings may be constructed except on existing foundations. Currently, a website provides water quality reports twice a week, indicating whether various portions of the river are safe for swimming, boating and fishing.
Pre-1614–1637: Native populations
1614–1632: Dutch exploration and settlement
1632–1636: Puritan settlement