Friday, April 2, 2010

Milford Indians and the Great Raid

Well organized, aggressive and warlike the Pequots under Sassacuss, ruled from Narragansett Bay to the Hudson, Block and Long Islands. A number of Pequot killings of white settlers and traders starting in 1634 led Both Massachusetts and Plymouth Colonies to mobilize and the court at Hartford on May 1, 1637 to authorize war. Capt. Mason with 90 men from Wethersfield and 70 Braves under “Mohegan” Chief Uncas, joined by Narraganset Indians, moved 38 miles through the wilderness to attack the Pequot fortified village near Mystic. The result was more massacre than a battle; 600-700 men, women and children were killed when the village was fired. Many Pequots raced to the village, abandoning the strong Harbor fort on the Thames, only to be cut down in open battle. Survivors fled west. Hot on their heels, Mason, bolstered by Israel Stoughton’s 120 Massachussans and their Mohegan and Narraganset allies, pursued them west on land and sea to the final battle in the Southport swamps.

Soldiers and sailors chasing the fleeing Pequots passed through Quinnipiak, called by the soldiers “Red Mount,” undoubtedly for East Rock, deemed it the finest land in all of New England leading to the founding of New Haven in 1638. Sgt. Thomas Tibbals of Wethersfield, returning from the swamp victory found a most appealing land with a brook with a good harbor. He purposed to return.

In 1639 the Wepowaug Indians had four considerable villages, one on the side of the Wepowage River near First Church, another at Poconoc (Milford) point, one a half a mile north of Washington Bridge, another at Turkey Hill and two smaller villages: at Burwell farm, near Oyster River, and at Oronoque, on the Housatonic.

On February 23, 1639 (2/12 Julian Calendar) for six coats, 10 blankets, 1 kettle, 12 hatchets, 12 hoes, 2 dozen knives, and a dozen small mirrors paid to Sachem Ansantawae (Ann-san’-tan-way), the title to Wepawage passed to a party of English settlors. Tibbals earned a land grant for his "usefulness” as their guide. Most of the Wepowage Indians moved out to the north-west but Ansantawae and his family lodged on at Indian Point (Welches Point Rd. area) outside the transferred land.

Milford’s English settlers and the remaining natives mostly got on well. This is not to say the colonists trusted to friendship. On March 10th, 1639 it was ordered that Milford men from 16 to 60, be trained as soldiers monthly from March to November. A 10-12’ tall palisade (wall of log stakes) was built surrounding the entire town. Guards were posted from each household on a five day rotating basis. From November 1640 well into the eighteenth century fines were assessed for varied converse with the Indians, usually regarding weapons or town access. For many years, twice annual mock battles, with some settlers dressed as the Indian enemy, tested their skills, often to the great amusement of the onlookers.

No Milford settler’s death by Indian action was ever recorded, but young braves would taunt the colonists from outside the palisades to not be shut up like pigs but come out and fight like brave men. In 1645 Indians set fires from “Burnt Plains” to Fresh Meadow and Dreadful Swamp, much to the Town’s great danger and economic loss. The palisades and all town structures were made of wood, of course, mostly with thatch roofs, so if the fire had reached into town it could have wiped out the settlement. Export of logs had to be banned for a time due to the resulting short supply. At one point Ansantawae was granted his request to relocate inside the palisades for his family’s safety. The remaining Milford Paugussetts needed protection too. Just north of the site of the 1830’s Washington Bridge (Devon), they built a strong fortress with flankers at the corners for protection against the Mohawks.

About 1648, Mohawks hid themselves in a swamp (now Jonathan Law field & “Mohawk Swamp”) intending to attack the fort at night. Whites saw them, warned “our” Indians, who rallied, taking several prisoners. It was the greatest Indian battle known to Milford to that time. One captive was stripped and tied in the great meadows for the mosquitoes to torment to death. Thomas Hine rescued him, fed him two days, then assisted his escape. Hine's family was thereafter revered by both Mohawk friends and foes. Hine, they said, did not die like the "pale faces" but the Great Spirit took him unto his big wigwam. Hine moved to North Milford (Now Orange) setting up one of the larger farms there.

The threat of Indian attack was seen as a great danger so some worthies took matters into their own hands. In the dead of night, 1671, Samuel and George Clark, James Brisco, Joseph Northrop, Thomas Tibbals, John and Jonathan Fowler, Joseph Platt, Edward Camp, John Smith, Jr., and Edward Wilkinson slipped out of the palisade, passed between the Dell and Stony Lots, quietly past the 40 acres and “stockade house” where the Clark’s father, Deacon George, Sr., slept, sneaking roughly along the path of today’s Bridgeport Avenue into Devon toward the Indian fort. Indian attacks, forest burnings, taunts and intimidation would finally be met by these young heroes of Milford. The glow from the burning fort must have been seen across the open fields. No record exists as to the means used but fire was the weapon of mass destruction in the 1600s and no other method could have destroyed a fort in such a short time. By dawn they returned triumphant. As no injuries were reported on either side, the fort was, most likely, vacant.

As one might imagine, the Indians were mighty displeased. Upon complaint to Mr. Benjamin Fenn and Robert Treat, Esq., civil process was issued against our young heroes. Convicted at trial before the general court at New Haven, they were fined £10. The Indians were satisfied and rebuilt their fort. The victorious great raid by the cream of Milford’s second Generation was, in the end, just an embarrassment.

The Wepawages relatives and descendants: Golden Hill Paugussets from Huntington, those who joined the Potatucks (Newtown) and Scaticooks (Litchfield County) still came to Milford to hunt, fish and clam well into the 18th Century. As late as the spring of 1831, about 30 Indians from Lake Champlain led by an 80 year old Chief encamped a fortnight at Milford Point. They said they had come for the last time to the hunting-ground of their ancestors who lived at Poconoc Point.

The last practicing “Milford Indian”* grew up on the Kent reservation. He took the name Henry Sherman. Some say it was in honor of General Sherman but Sherman was a family name among the “civilized” Paugussets, especially in Stratford and Huntington. His Civil War service, which cost him his left arm, won him the “freedom of the Town of the Milford.” He returned to live in Milford and was proud to carry the Base drum in the Milford Coronet Band. It is reported His war Whoops could chill a man's bones as he returned to his hut north of Kissing Bridge after a night on the town. He died ca. 1900.

Known as a Paugussets and/or Golden Hill Paugussets to this day, the Indians are the remnants of the great Algonkin nation. Paugusset was not the original “tribal” name. All Indians of the Housatonic at the time of Milford’s founding were essentially one people with family and clan relations. The names came from where they lived. Wepawaugs were the people at the “ford in the river”, Paugussets lived “at the bend in the river” (Derby), people near the winding river “Naugatuck,” people where the river winds about the hill were “Weantinock” (near New Milford). Pototucks took the name of the mighty (Housatonic) river itself (“Falls River”)and were found at numerous places along it.

* Sherman was clearly Not the last person of Indian Descent in Milford: One, Johnette LaConte is of Indian descent and represented area's Indian Community at the inaugural Milford Hall of Fame celebration in 2008. A search of ancient records, however, revealed that after Henry Sherman, no Indian received the “freedom of the town,” all others having either left or been assimilated. Molly Hatchet, whose children, like Henry Sherman, moved to live with the Scaticooks near Kent, died in what is now Derby in 1829. She is often accorded the title of last Milford Indian though she was clearly not. One hundred acres were set aside in 1680 for the Indians at Turkey Hill (Now Orange) but there is no record of who, if anyone, actually lived there. Molly Hatchet, her family, and at least a few others resided in Derby on the lands of Major Ebenezer Johnson. In 1833, a young squaw from Milford arrived in Deerfield. She, with several others, contracted smallpox. She was returned to Milford where she died. Today, Milford Indians play hockey, honoring our revered predecessors.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Big Wind, Hurricane of 1938

This post is material I submitted to Milford Magazine, Fall 2009 issue, with some original photographs never before published. See more by looking up the fall issue, page 38, for the hurricane of '38.

Cherry Street and Darina Place several days after the blow. Immediately after the storm you could walk from Gulf Street to Prospect Street on the downed trees without ever touching the ground.
The storm surge was so great the Old Gulf Street Bridge, now used for pedestrians and fishing, was ripped from its moorings and the water main line was left dangling. Very few sewers existed in 1938. Look under the bridge to see at the low tide how river bottom itself was ripped up by the surge.

The street still floods during storms.

The house with its ankles showing, was placed on a firm concrete foundation and still stands.

The Big Wind

September 21 started as a quiet late summer day, the first day of Autumn. The day was warm and sunny. People went to work, Children were sent off to school. Everything was normal. Some noted that all afternoon the skies darkened and the wind picked up.

In Late August a tropical whirlwind spun off the African coast for a run across the Atlantic. It crossed he Ocean at Latitude 15oN then in mid-ocean began to swing North. The storm, now a hurricane, passed well north of the Caribbean and the Bahamas then swung due north to slip between Cape Hatteras and Bermuda in an arc that a hundred times before and since would have taken her to the hurricane graveyard of the cold north central Atlantic. By September 19th its path was so typical the then marginally efficient US Weather Service dropped any concern for it . The unnamed storm appeared to be of no danger.

A not so funny thing happened to it on its projected route to oblivion, the storm veered from its parabolic path, strengthened and turned due North. It ran parallel to the coast at a speed two to four times faster than any wireless equipped ship in its path. The coast of Long Island and New England would be as without warning as any storm since the also “unforeseeable” Hurricane that destroyed Galveston 38 years earlier.

The storm lashed Long Island. Most homes on eastern Fire Island were just gone, their debris tossed into the bay behind. In the Hamptons, on the “Strong side,” it was so bad that the instruments of the weather observatory were destroyed even before the storm crested. No word had been spread. Phone and telegraph lines were down, wireless towers twisted like pretzels.

The “Long Island Express” as it also came to be known, roared across Long Island at 50 miles per hour. In just 20 minutes it would slam into Connecticut. In downtown Milford nobody took it seriously. Maybe it was just a strong afternoon thunderstorm like dozens each summer. The previous four days had been nothing but rain. Dark and dreary was not unusual in the Northeast.

Teachers let their children out of school at the normal time. Most walked or took the trolley to all corners of Milford as the wind howled in a swirling dark sky. Near today’s Silver Sands State Park, waves broke and the spray flew over the open, “summer style,” tram motoring on East Broadway.

At 3:30 p.m. the eye nearly 30 miles wide made landfall east of New Haven covering the east shore all the way to Saybrook. The advancing right or strong side of the hurricane killed upwards of 700 and wiped clean coastal communities as though by a giant arm. Damage costs exceeded even the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

Milford was lucky, sitting, just barely on the weaker, lee side, of the blow. Luckily too the storm hit after the close of summer season. During the dog days, rural Milford’s population swelled by thousands who filled the many beach hotels (all of which are gone) and the shacks, cabins and cottages on its miles of beaches. New Yorkers would rent the finer homes or stay in the hotels. Flimsily built, uninsulated “Cottages” housed people mostly from upstate, often on streets named for their home towns.

With the season over, most of the shore was boarded up and deserted. Had the Storm struck in August, thousands more could have died, likely killing many in Milford. Most beachfront homes lacked foundations and seawalls. Summer homes were lifted to their destruction as the surge raced through their pilings.

Inland most of the damage was caused by hundreds of falling trees. One could walk along Cherry Street from Gulf to Prospect Streets without ever stepping on the ground. It took weeks to restore the utility lines and clear all the debris. The Storm did provide unexpected clean-up work for a lot of people during the depression.

After crashing into the Coast, the greatest New England storm ever caused massive flooding to the North before moving over Lake Champlain to die in Western Ontario. No major storm since has taken the same path, at least YET.

Joseph B. Barnes, Esq. © 2009