Its Cultural History

The first people to inhabit the Connecticut River Valley are called Paleo-Indians, and are known to have camped across these regions more than 11,000 years ago. At that time, the receding late Wisconsin Glacier, which had covered New England, allowed them to hunt caribou, wooly mammoth, other smaller animals, and to gather seasonal wild plant food. As the climate warmed, the plants and animals gradually changed and diversified. These semi-nomadic people adapted their lifestyle and food choices accordingly, hunting deer, moose, bear, beaver, muskrat, rabbit, and fish. Varieties of edible nuts, berries, seeds, roots and plant parts were also eaten.

Between 2,000 to 1,000 years ago, native populations bean cultivating vegetables such as corn, beans, and squash. This more predictable food supply allowed for the establishment of even more permanent settlements. Garden crops were raised in the lower fertile flood plains of the river, where people also gathered to fish and trade.

A thriving trade business among native populations existed along the Connecticut River well before European contact as Native Americans gathered to trade furs, maple syrup and sugar, and to harvest wild rice, waterfowl, and other water resources. Wampum beads, made from the shells of the quahog clam and whelk, were a primary trading activity in this early river trade. The Nehantics and other river tribes, members of the Algonquian federation, called the Connecticut River "Quinatucquet" or "Quinnetukut," meaning "long tidal river," because the ocean tides influence the river from its mouth on Long Island Sound as far north as the Enfield Rapids.

The first Europeans to explore the great river were traders, not settlers, who brought furs from the Indians and sold them on the Old World. The Dutch explorer Adriaen Block is credited with being the first European to sail up river in the "restless." He called it the "de Versche" or Fresh River because of the purity of its waters. In 1614, he established a small trading post for beaver, deer, fox, muskrat, raccoon, martin, mink, otter and other mammals at Saybrook Point. Later, in 1633, the Dutch West India Company founded another trading post, House of Hope, at the present site of Hartford.

The relationship between the Indians and the traders was mutually beneficial and mostly 10,000 beaver skins annually. However, when permanent English settlement began in the 1630s, disputes arose among the Indians, Dutch and English. Unfortunately, between encroachment upon Native homelands by European settlers, changing stewardship of the land, warfare and European diseases, the Native American population was greatly reduced and dislocated.

As the English settlement grew in places like Windsor, Wethersfield, Hartford, and Saybrook, the Connecticut River became an important source of travel and trade, beginning as early as 1650. In addition to the fur trade, logging of timber became an important industry. The first log drive occurred in 1761, and continued until 1949 in northern New England. Huge trees were cut and located down river to mills for making furniture, boxes for shipping materials west, paper, and houses.

Fertile glacial terraces and floodplains created prime agricultural lands that inspired settlement and the establishment of a permanent society. The earliest settlers practiced subsistence farming, growing what they could for their own use. They quickly developed cash crops for export, such as tobacco, wool, butter, milk, and maple syrup. Today, diversified and specialty agriculture, and farmstands and farmers’ markets, all contribute to the economy and the Atlantic seaboard and as far as the Carribbean. The rich soil adjacent to the river grew grains, onions and other crops. Livestock and salter fish added to the value of their cargoes. On return, they carries rum, molasses and sugar. Brownstone rock was another important product of the valley, and was often shipped to Hartford, Boston, and New York. (Please note: The best and largest quantity of brownstone was from the Portland Quarries – web-manager.)

Hartford and Middletown were the two largest river ports. With the introduction of steam power around 1815, river traffic increased, and the small shipyards between Only Lyme and Windsor prospered. There was regular steamboat service between Hartford and New York until 1931.

The Connecticut was America’s first major river to be improved for transportation. A system of dams and canals opened the river to steamboats and flatboats for more than half its length, encouraging settlement, trade, and travel.

As the population increased, it is estimated that three-quarters of the Valley was cleared for agriculture and grazing of livestock before the Civil War. Because of this habitat change, many wildlife species disappeared or were greatly reduced in numbers. The gray squirrel might have been considered an "endangered species" in the mid-1800s.

Small acre farming, however, suffered from competition as western lands were opened to settlement and from the lack of more fertile soil as the population grew. Young people moved north and west to seek an easier life. Again, the land use changed. Native trees, through a successional pattern, began to grown back. Slowly animals returned. Today, the regrowth of the woodlands has brought back the bald eagle, the beaver, the bear, the bobcat, the moose, and others.