The Founders of Kent: Starting From Scratch on the Colonial Frontier
This summer’s exhibit by the Kent Historical Society in the Seven Hearths Museum will explore the challenges faced by the founders of our small New England town, and make connections to the familiar government and community features of life in Kent today. The exhibit will open to the public July 15 and continue weekends through the end of October.
In the early 1700s, the northwest corner of the colony of Connecticut was often described as a “howling wilderness.” But in spite of that reputation, western migration by European settlers from central, eastern and southern Connecticut began to pick up steam. Lured by the thought of large tracts of land of their own, and undoubtedly the possibility of much needed iron ore, these intrepid people packed up all their worldly goods and headed for the Litchfield Hills.
In March of 1738, the land that became Kent was divided up and auctioned off to the settlers, and also to speculators who saw it as a chance to make a quick “quid” (the US dollar being unknown at the time). The richest of these settlers were known as Proprietors, who, by colonial custom, set up and controlled both the town government and the church.
They followed a standard pattern for establishing a town: they elected representatives to the colony’s General Assembly, appointed town leaders such as selectmen and town clerk, assigned official jobs such as fence viewer and tithing man, set aside lands for a school and a church meeting house and hired a minister. Once they had achieved all of those goals, including the required successful engagement of a minister, the Assembly gave them an official town patent.
In most histories of early New England towns, the Proprietors hog the spotlight – no younger brothers, no wives, no children. One goal of this exhibit is to bring those important supporting actors to the front of the stage in order to learn more about the founding families of our town.
Who were these people who willingly risked their lives by leaving comfortable homes and villages to trudge, often on foot, clear across the state into that wilderness where there were no doctors, no stores, not even a single shelter from which to start realizing their dreams? Why did they do it? How many survived? What is their legacy to us in Kent today?
We will examine the harsh realities they faced, such as the brutal winter of 1740; the economic rewards mostly unavailable to them in their former hometowns; the bonds they formed as the little town grew; and finally, the role they played in the early American populist religious movement known as the Great Awakening which rocked our little town to its core.
Entering the exhibit
Visitors to the exhibit will enter directly into a typical colonial kitchen in the Beebe house here in Flanders, which at the time was the town of Kent. They’ll see how this domestic nerve center might have looked in the days when John Beebe, Jr., his wife Mary and their children Hezekiah, Hosea, Rodreck, Philo and Roswell lived in the house. Though the Beebes later moved west to New York, they played an important early role in Kent. John Beebe Sr, who lived in the red house across what we now call Studio Hill, was a town constable and owned a sawmill. The family also ran three stores in the north end of this house, which we now know as Seven Hearths.
In the next room visitors will meet the men who came together to lay the foundation of our town. Unlike some towns whose founders came primarily from the same place, our settlers came from all over the colony. Though there were small clans that came together from various areas, they were not a cohesive group as a whole, and yet they needed to band together quickly, to trust each other, to get the ball rolling. Most of them had sold everything they had to finance their new lives, so they couldn’t risk failure. They needed each other.
The common bond, for the first few decades at least, was the church—inextricably entwined with the town government. The leaders of the town and most respected men in the church were one and the same. The church had long-standing strict laws, and there was an established colony formula for the town government, so they at least knew what they had to do. With Samuel Lewis appointed as Town Clerk, they set to work.
On the first Wednesday in May, 1738, they met at Stephen Paine’s house (the first house in Kent, on Lake Waramaug), and began to enact the complicated land divisions. They drew the first property lots and laid out the road to the iron ore bed in South Kent, and set aside the land on the “Great Plain” (now our town center) as a general field and grazing ground. They gave land to Jonathan Morgan to run a saw mill, and Elisha Perry to run a grist mill, both on Cobble Brook near what’s now the Inn at Kent Falls. They began the plans for building the meeting house, which was quickly derailed by a long struggle to hire an appropriate minister.
In the document at right, dated January 1739, the vote to call Rev. Silliman to be the minister is recorded. The next entry denotes his unhappiness with the salary offered, and is the start of an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to hire him and thereby attain the much needed town patent. It also records the vote to appoint a committee to build the schoolhouse (directly across from Seven Hearths), and the vote to begin cutting timber for the meeting house in October. They had no idea that the dealings with Silliman would reach an impasse, but after struggling for almost a year, they did eventually hire the Rev. Cyrus Marsh, finish building the schoolhouse and finally build the first meeting house (next to a large boulder just north of 121 Kent Cornwall Road). In the meantime, they held town and church meetings in the homes of various Proprietors.
Setting the space up to suggest a meeting in progress, we’ll introduce Daniel Comstock, John Ransom, Barnabus and Timothy Hatch, Nathan Skiff, Jabez Swift, Joseph Fuller, Azariah Pratt, Abel Wright, Nathaniel Slosson, Nathaniel Berry, Philip Judd, Thomas Beeman and more, through whom visitors will learn about so many different aspects of colonial life.
Copies of many of the original records in the Town Hall will be on display here, with typed transcriptions so that visitors can actually read the early votes, deeds and job descriptions involved in creating the town of Kent. It is our hope that a few people will be so smitten by these fascinating documents that they’ll want to help with more transcriptions—once they’ve mastered the art of reading mid-18th century script!
Visitors will move on to large space within Seven Hearths built by the Beebe family in 1751 as a general store. Below it in the cellar was a butcher shop, and above it on the second floor was a fur trading shop. They will learn about how people conducted commerce on the new frontier. There were various commercial businesses set up almost immediately upon the settlers’ arrival in Kent. Shoemakers, blacksmiths, tanners, millers, merchants and more—all were necessary to support day to day survival on the edge of civilization.
There was very little cash out here, for many reasons which will be addressed in the exhibit. Colonists were forced to barter, and quickly ran afoul of the British government which was attempting to control the system, a mistake that ultimately led to the Revolution. But that’s another story, and for the purpose of this exhibit, we will simply examine the complex network of debit and credit that allowed our Founding Families to lead comfortable if simple lives in their new homes.
Daniel Comstock, Sr, was Kent’s first general shopkeeper, and was quickly joined by several others. They all would have kept meticulous debit and credit records. These ledgers are invaluable resources for information about who lived in what area of town, what they were buying, what they were offering in trade, what the value of those commodities was. Abel Wright kept a store down on the Great Plain, most likely near the Patco Station. Above is a page from his July 1770 probate inventory. It lists the men who owed him money at the time of his death. Another page lists the men to whom he owed money. Yet another page shows what items he had in stock in his store at the time of his death. His customers are by now familiar to the exhibit visitors: Swift, Slosson, Hatch, Mills, Fuller, Comstock, Spooner, St. John, Judd, Geer, Barnum, Pratt, Beebe and more.
As is the case today, the general store was not only a place where one went to buy and sell goods. It was also a place to meet and greet one’s neighbors – to swap gossip and to debate the serious political and religious issues of the day. Though only property owners who had signed the Oath of a Freeman could actually vote, everyone had opinions, and they no doubt shared them here. Visitors to this room will get a sense of what was on their minds, from the cruel winter weather, to the threat of smallpox, to the growing frustration with the King of England and the high cost of goods due to his tariffs. News of deaths, or births, of marriages would be celebrated. Perhaps tips on dealing with ailing livestock would be offered by one framer to another. It was undoubtedly a lively place.
In the far end of the room, visitors will learn more even more about Abel Wright, one of the richest and most powerful men in town, who was expelled from the church in 1745 for befriending the Moravian Missionaries and the Schaghticoke Indians. His story illustrates the beginning of the unraveling of the intertwining of Church and State – the struggle between the “Old Lights and the “New Lights” that was severely testing established customs in daily life and beliefs everywhere. He left town with his wife, daughter and son-in-law amid much controversy, refusing to admit wrongdoing, and eventually—we believe—becoming a Quaker. His personal story epitomizes so much of what was leading many colonists to question their core beliefs, pitting neighbor against neighbor and generation against generation.
But Abel came back to town 15 years later to find a more open-minded citizenry in a town that had survived the challenge and had firmly established much of the activity and tradition that is familiar to us today. Three churches thrive, we still have a board of selectmen, a town clerk, a town moderator and more. We support our public school and maintain our highways through taxation, and come together to help each other in times of need. Many direct descendants of the Comstocks, Skiffs, Fullers, Roots and other settlers are still here today – testimony to the success of their forebears!