...Bristol by Milo Leon Norton...

Published in the Connecticut Quarterly
Vol 1, No. 1, January, 1899

To an Englishman the idea of American antiquity must necessarily seem ludicrous. Two, or at the most three centuries, are all that we may historically claim for New England, or indeed for any portion of the country; youthful indeed when compared with the history of many English towns antedating the Norman, and even the Roman conquest.

But we have our antiquities none the less; and we shall continue to celebrate our first, second, and in rare instances third centennial anniversaries of towns, cities and institutions, with as much eclat as we choose, without consulting our respected cousins across the pond. In other words, we shall make the most of what antiquity we have, knowing that time will remedy all defects in this line, if we are only patient.

Bristol can boast of no such accumulation of years as that English town upon the Avon to which it is indebted for a name, having but recently celebrated its hundredth anniversary, which occurred in 1885. Prior to its incorporation as a town it enjoyed the distinction of being an ecclesiastical parish under the name of New Cambridge. Perhaps the change of name from classical Cambridge to commercial Bristol, was a prophecy of the town’s future, for the first century of its existence was yet young when manufacturing began to engage the attention of its citizens, and to attract capital and labor from other communities.

In 1721 that portion of Farmington now embraced in the towns of Bristol and Burlington, known as the WeSt Woods, ten miles in length by five in breadth, was surveyed into five tiers of lots, separated by highways running north and south, connected by east and west highways at intervals. The survey also included one tier of lots now lying along the western border of Plainville and Farmington. These tiers of lots were a mile each in width, less the highways, which varied from twenty to forty rods in width. The tots were apportioned to the eighty-four proprietors of Farmington according to their rating, or tax list, the minister receiving a double portion, and were numbered from one to eighty-four in each tier, except the two eastern divisions, which contained twenty-one lots each, each lot being set off to four proprietors. These lots were occupied by the original owners, their heirs, or, as in numerous instances were sold by them.

In 1727 Daniel Brownson bought the first lot sold in Bristol. It was lot 71 in the fifth division, extending westerly from Goose Corner. Upon it was probably built the first house erected in Bristol. In 1728 Ebenezer Barnes built the central part of the Pierce, house, which is consequently the oldest building now standing in town. It was kept for forty years by the Barnes and Pierce families
as a tavern. In the same year Nehemiah Manross, and Daniel Buck settled in the eastern part of the town, and during the ensuing years pricr to 1744, others came from Wallingford, Hartford, and other towns in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and even New Hampshire, and built upon Fall Mountain, Chippen's Hill, and various other localities.

It is noteworthy that the early settlers regarded what is now the center of the town as worthless for agricultural purposes, and settled upon the outlying hills, which they cleared of the primeval forests. aifd occupied for farming purposes. Later manufacturers naturally sought the watercourses, and upon every available stream small mills and factories were erected; and the hum of whirling pulleys, gaining their impetus from cumbrous overshot wheels, mingled with the monosyllabic commands of the plowman to his lusty oxen as he furrowed the stony soil of the adjoining fields.

The early history of the town is so closely interwoven with the history of the Congregational church as to be inseparable. So long as the settlers were content to ride on horseback to Farmington every Sabbath day, over the old beaten trails of the Indians, no separation was contemplated from the parental household. But, as the population of the western forest increased, and the long, tedious ride of nine miles was made perilous by spring. freshets at Eight Acre, and by fierce storms and deep snows in winter, what was at first a murmur became a voice, and the privilege of holding divine services at home during the winter months was asked of the General Assembly and granted. This was in 1742. Thomas Canfield, a student for the ministry, was employed for the six months ending in the spring of 1743, and was therefore the first minister in Bristol. In 1744 by act of the General Assembly, an ecclesiastical society was formed, under the name of New Cambridge. Thus was organized the Bristol Congregational Church and Society.

From 1745 to 1747 a young Yale graduate, a resident of Southington, was employed with others to minister to the infant church. Samuel Newell was a man of pronounced views, stern and inflexible. He held to the doctrines of John Calvin, and advocated them conscientiously and fearlessly. When therefore in 1747 a vote was taken to settle him as pastor, there were those who, unable to accept the harsh doctrines of Calvinistic theology, dissented, and ten withdrew from the society. In order to avoid the payment of church rates, and to avoid compulsory attendance upon objectionable services, they declared themselves of the Church of England, and under the Bishop of London. This was the beginning of the original Episcopal church in New Cambridge,which in 1754 crystalized into the formation of an ecclesiastical society, ministered unto by missionaries of the Church of England, under the auspices of the "London Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts."

In 1747, after having met at private houses, the Congregational society erected a meeting-house. The spot cli'osen for the new edifice, which was near the present church,was well selected, for it was very nearly the center of the parish, which in size was identical with the present town, being an exact square of five miles, except for a small amount of territory recently annexed from Southington.

Near the church was afterward located the parade ground of the militia company, organized in 1747; opposite was built the Episcopal church, and farther south, the first school-house, both constructed about 1754. Sabbath-day houses were built upon the highway on the east side of the "green," which, in cold weather, served as places of resort for the worshippers at the noon intermission, where they could warm themselves and chat with acquaintances, from distant parts of the town. The introduction of stoves into the church against strong opposition, banished these little "sabba-day houses" which disappeared early in the century.

Parson Newell served his church faithfully until his death on February 10, 1789. His tomb in the 'South cemetery has the distinction of being the only grave of a Congregational minister in Bristol. Following the lengthy inscription upon the tombstone are two lines of majestic pentameter:
"Death ! Great Proprietor of all! 'tis thine, To tread out Empires, and to quench ye stars."

Mr. Newell was a chaplain in the Revolutionary war. Near their beloved pastor's grave rest the remains of some of his faithful parishioners, among them Isaac Norton and his wife, Mary Rockwell, early settlers of Fall Mountain, and progenitors of the Guilford branch of the Norton family in Bristol. The family is of very ancient lineage, tracing its ancestry to Normandy prior to the Norman Conquest in ro66. Another very ancient family also settled at an earlier date upon Fall Mountain, the Gaylords. They too are of Norman French extraction, dating back to the year 1248. In the sixteenth century, having embraced the Protestant faith, they were, together with other Huguenots, driven out of France, finding a refuge in hospitable England. It is one of the romantic episodes of history that these two old families, who fought shoulder to shoulder in the Crusades, endured persecution for their faith, and sought an asylum in the new world, should as neighbors together help to subdue the wilderness, and fight valiantly for their country'3 independence in the Revolution.

Of the Revolutionary epoch it may be said that for the most part the people of New Cambridge were intensely patriotic. It is thought that fifty or more served in the American army. No more touching incidents of that struggle have been recorded than the escape of two Bristol women from Wyoming, after the massacre. Among the early settlers of the Wyoming valley were Aaron Gaylord, and his wife Katherine; and Elias Roberts, and his wife Fallah. Both these men were killed. Katherine G a y lord made her way back to Bristol, undergoing almost incredible dangers and hardships, with three children. Fallah Roberts also returned, on foot, carrying an infant child in her arms. She was the mother of Gideon Roberts the first clock-maker. Katherine Gaylord's memory has been preserved by the naming of the local chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution for her.

When the first call for troops came, and the Farmington company was mustered into the service in July, 1775, Lieutenant Thomas Brooks, of \Vest Britain, declined to fight against Great Britain and the king, and was dismissed from the service in disgrace. The same conscientious loyalty to the English church and state, characterized the little band of chuYchmen, who lived, for the most part, upon Chippen's Hill, and the adjacent territory in Plymouth, Harwinton and West Britain, now Burlington. One of them, Moses Dunbar, was arrested while attempting to enlist troops for the British cause, and was tried and hung as a spy. Another was hung to a tree on the green, but was cut down and resuscitated by a kind-hearted patriot. Still another was sentenced to remain on his farm under penalty of death if found away from it. So hot was the persecution that the church was closed, and the rector, Mr. Nichols, suffered the indignity of being
feathered. At one time seventeen of these tories were confined in Hartford jail, but were released upon taking the required pledge of neutrality. During those troublous times a cave in the ledges to the north.west of Chippen's Hill, afforded the tories a safe retreat. It was so securely hidden that it never was discovered by the patriots until after the restoration of peace. To this day it is known as the "Tory's Den."

The war had not yet ended when trouble of a milder nature broke out between the residents of this section and of the parent town. The spirit of independence was in the air. Nor was the cause of complaint
less reasonable or just in tne case of the West Britain and New Cambridge societies, as set forth in their petition for separation from Farmington, than was the cause of complaint of the Colonies against the mother country. Of course the cases were not analogous. Farmington had been an indulgent parent. She had granted her consent that the pioneers upon her western frontier should have "winter privileges." Then again, she had not strenuously opposed the formation of the separate ecclesiastical societies of New Cambridge and West Britain. The distance from Farmington, and the difficulties attendant upon travel over such roads as then existed, were the moving causes. Numerous conferences between the societies of West Britain and New Cambridge, some of them held doubtless under the old historic oak opposite "Bartholomy's Tavern," finally resulted in an agreement, upon terms of consolidation, and a petition to be set off as a town was sent to the General Assembly and granted in May, 1785. The first town meeting was held in the meeting-house in New Cambridge, June 13, 1785. Town meetings were held alternately in the two sections of this twin township for Twenty-one years, and then the old independence spirit again asserted itself. Like the old dispute between man and wife as to which was the one of the twain, so this dispute as to the supremacy of the two societies waxed more and more vehement, until an agreement to dissolve partnership was the result. This was accomplished in 1806, the southern society retaining the township name of Bristol, that had been bestowed upon the new town at its incorporation, and the northern section taking the name of Burlington.

Who were responsible for suggesting the name of Bristol does not appear. Without the slightest knowledge, doubtless, of the meaning of the word and its peculiar fitness to the locality which it was made to designate, on the part of its legislative christeners, it was nevertheless peculiarly appropriate. The name is a very ancient one, as is the English city that bears it, and comes from the AngloSaxon, meaning the place of the breach or chasm, referring to the chasm through which the river Avon finds its way to Bristol Channel.

To the east of Downs' mill the Pequabuck makes its exit through a chasm cut through the solid rock in past ages. The volume and force of the torrent that once flowed through this chasm may be conjectured by observing the peculiar formation of the valley east of Pierce's bridge, where it spreads out towards Forestville, skirted on the north by the bluff extending to Hubbell's shop and beyond; and on the south by the bluff beginning at the Y and runfling eastwardly, includeing the Bohemia banks, and terminating at Plainville pond just over the town line. Until the mountain barrier was worn away, undoubtedly a lake of considerable extent, covered the "flat" portion of the town. A similar barrier, on a smaller scale, known as the "Devil's Backbone," which was also cut through by the pent-up waters behind it, is now a picturesque gorge near the Plymouth line.

Bristol is one of the famous "hill towns" of Connecticut. Its eastern half reaches well out upon the "Great Plain" that extends frdm mountain to mountain, broken by occasional hillocks and ridges, but, for the most part, comparatively level; but its larger western half takes in the central elevation known as 'Federal Hill,' upon which the Congregational church is situated; its southern frontier reaches to the summit and well over upon the plateau at the top of Wolcott Mountain; its northwestern section embraces what is known as Chippen's Hill, divided into north, south and east sections; its south-west corner ccupies a spur of the Wolcott elevation, called Fall Mountain. Chippen's Hill is really the easternmost of those noble Litchfield County hills, that make that pastoral paradise of the state famous the world over. Long, smooth, rounded ridges, extending north and south, with rivulets trickling down their slopes to the streams in the vales between them. Such are the beautiful Litchfield hills.

Born among these noble hills in Harwinton, the Pequabuck river flows southerly to the village of the same name, thence easterly through a nariow valley, above which Chippen's Hill rises on the north, and Fall Mountain on the south. The north branch, rising on the eastern slopes of Chippen's Hill empties into the river in the very heart of the borough. At Forestville, Mine brook, a considerable stream, joins it near the railroad trestle. A large reservoir on Wolcott' Mountain, feeds a small mill stream, which joins the river at Spring's shop: and Fall Mountain and "Cuss Gutter" brooks are also tributary to the principal stream.

Poland brook is only made famous by reason of its indicating the locality of lands reserved in the original survey, for the use of the Indian, Poland, for hunting purpoies. Bo h e m i a, another Indian, had reserved lands adjoining. These European names were doubtless conferred upon the noble red men, because their real names were unpronounceable or unknown to the palefaces. Fall, whose name is attached to the moun(am which he made his hunting preserve, and Morgan, whose tragic death is one of the cherished traditions of the town, are instances. But an attempt to preserve the Indian name of Cochipianee, was made in naming Chippenny, afterward corrupted to Chippen's Hill.

These Indians were of the Tunxis tribe, of Farmington, usually peaceable and friendly to the whites, to whose credit it may be said that they were true to their promises and obligations to the red men.

Well defined Indian trails led from Farmington through the West Woods and beyond to Mattatuck, in the Naugatuck valley. Over these trails the first settlers rode on horseback every sabbath to church. Over these trails provisions, tools, and building materials were laboriously transported. The first road, now almost obliterated, connecting Chippen's Hill, and the North Side, with Farmington, followed one of these trails, a small section, near the north cemetery, now alone remaining.

In building roads, the early settlers followed as closely as the nature of the ground would permit, the original surveys, or "king's highways." Where natural obstacles interposed, roads were built as near the surveyed line as possible, land in the original roadway being exchanged for that taken. Sometimes when the road followed the original survey, it veered from side to side of the twenty-rod layout, to avoid obstructions. Gradually all roads came to be laid out without regard to original surveys, and with regard solely to utility. Within a few years the very unsatisfactory condition of the roads has impressed itself upon the townspeople, and "state roads" of crushed stone have b e e n constructed. Recently the town has acquired by purchase a bank of red earth and gravel, which has proved to be one of the best of road materials, almost if not quite equal to crushed trap. At this bank, near the Waterbury bridge, the town has located its stone-crushing plant; and, as fast as circumstances will permit, the roads of Bristol will be made as good as those of any sister town.

Religiously, as we have seen, the town followed in the line established by New England Puritanism, of making secular affairs secondary to spiritual duties. The plain church edifice first erected in 1747 gave place to a larger structure in 1771, which by vote of the society was painted "Spruce yellow," the roof " Spanish brown," the doors and windows white. A steeple was added in 1797, and then for the first time, the tones of a church bell rang out over hills and valleys, calling to divine service, and tolling requiems for the dead. In 1831 the present church edifice was erected, a model of the New England church architecture of that period.

Following the secession of the originators of the Episcopal church in 1747, and the building by them of a small church edifice in 1754, the revolutionary antagonism to loyalist churchmen caused the abandonment of services in the little church. After the revolution, services were again resumed, in 1784 the record declaring them willing again to meet in the old church, "which had lain desolate for some time on account of the violence of the times." Under the laws of the state a reorganization took place that year, and within a year or two forty-six members were recorded.

Many of the Episcopalians lived upon Chippen's Hill, and adjacent territory, and an agitation looking to the building of a church that would better accommodate this membership resulted in the selection of East Plymouth. Here in 1792-3 the "second society of Northbury" (Plymouth) erected the present East church, the parent society of New Cambridge having effected a sale of their church building and contributed the avails to the building fund. The church was dedicated in 1795 by Bishop Seabury, first Bishop of Connecticut, as St. Matthew's Church. The original New Cambridge church was afterward destroyed by fire. The windows
were preserved, however, and until its demolition, lighted the gambrel-roofed house, facing the north end of the green, which was originally Abel Lewis' store.

The present Trinity society was organized in 1834, and built a church on Maple street below Federal street. In 1862 the present Gothic church was erected on the site of Linstead's block, to make room for which it was removed to its present site on High street. The old building was sold to the Methodist society of Forestville, and was taken down and rebuilt in 1864.

Following the Episcopal society in order of time is the Baptist society, whose founders, bringing the germs of that sect from the southern part of the state, planted them upon the rugged soil of Wolcott and Fall Mountain. At the neighborhood known as Indian Heaven, just over the Plymouth line, in a barn, was organized in '79' the Bristol Baptist Church. It erected a church edifice in 1802, corner of School and West Streets; then on the same site in 1830, a new edifice; and in 1881, the present elegant brick structure. The first organ in Bristol was installed in the Baptist church in 1820, and was built in town by Basil Treat. Sherman Treat was the first organist. The first church edifice was removed in 1830, by Irenus Atkins, and
converted into a factory. Both the first and second buildings were consumed by fire.

Next followed the Methodists who erected a church, since burned, at the North Side. The time of building extended from 1834 to 1837, the date of its dedication. The new brick edifice was erected in 1881, enlarged through the beneficence of John H. Sessions, to its present magnificent dimensions in 1895. The growth of this church from the original class in 1833, to its present proportions, having the 1argest membership and finest church edifice in town, is phenomenal.

The Advent society, organized in 1858, grew out of occasional lectures by believers in the second advent, in the early forties. After the abandonment of the old Methodist church at the North Side, it was purchased by this denomination, and occupied by them until its destruction by fire in 1890. The present chapel was erected the following year.

St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church was built in 1855, and the parish' was made an independent one in 1866.

Besides these churches there are the Forestville Methodist church, organized in 1855 ; the Roman Catholic church recently built adjacent to it; German, and Swedish Lutheran, Swedish Congregational and Swedish Methodist churches. A Swedish Baptist society exists, but without a church edifice.

Bristol has been represented in every war in which the United States has been engaged, not excepting the recent skirmish with Spain. The call to arms in i86i, resulted in the enlistment of 250 men. Two companies, K, of the 16th, and I, of the 25th, were recruited in town. The soldiers' monument, bearing the names of 54 of those who laid down their lives for their country was erected in the West Cemetery in 1866, and was one of the first erected in the country. It is a noble shaft of freestone, surmounted by an eagle.

Modern Bristol, its development and industries, will be made the subject of another article.

Return to the CT AHGP

CT AHGP