In 1721, the Connecticut General Assembly ordered Jeremiah Fitch to begin paying rent to John Clark for land he lived on near Coventry, Conn. Or to leave. Fitch, however, felt he didn’t need to pay rent because he already owned the land. And with that the stage was set for the Hartford riot of 1722.
By the 1720s, Connecticut was running out of open land that was desirable for farming. Hartford and New Haven were well populated, and the state was undergoing a population explosion. For many decades, the problem Connecticut faced wasn’t too many people, but too few. As that changed, land became more valuable and settlers looked for areas away from the population centers to locate new farms.
The appeal of Eastern Connecticut near the Rhode Island border began growing. It was good farm land and relatively sparsely settled. But who owned it?
The state had claimed ownership, though it had trouble enforcing the claim. The Mohegan Indians claimed ownership. Though Indians had “sold” land to early colonizers, the tribe insisted that the sale only represented their allegiance to the new English government, placing the land under English jurisdiction. Actual right to live on the land stayed with the Mohegans, unless they chose to sell it.
This set up conflict between the state rights proponents and the native rights proponents. Caught between these two sides were those people who bought property from the Mohegans, only to be told that they didn’t own it at all. In Canterbury, some lamented that to buy a piece of land settlers had to pay for it over and over again.
None of the ownership issues slowed land speculator James Fitch from aggressively selling and leasing farms in the area, based upon his claims that he had obtained the land by virtue of its sale by the Mohegan Tribe.
Into the early 1700s Fitch was held somewhat in check by the government, run by the powerful Winthrop family. But Fitch still amassed a fortune (and paid a fortune in legal bills) from land speculation.
By 1722, the area of eastern Connecticut was awash with disputed land that had multiple ownership claims. In 1721 the legislature had made its fateful order that Jeremiah Fitch’s claim to his land was invalid. (Jeremiah was a distant cousin of James Fitch). It ruled he must vacate the property, declaring John Clark owned it by virtue of a government grant. Fitch refused to leave, and he was arrested and jailed in Hartford by Sheriff James Whiting.
Seeing that Fitch’s future was their own if they didn’t act, his supporters from the towns east of Hartford crossed the Connecticut River and went to the Hartford jail. They declared their intentions, broke down the door to the jail and released Fitch (along with other prisoners).
All in all it was a remarkably civil riot. Sheriff John Whiting caught up with the rioters as they were boarding a boat to cross the Connecticut and return home. As the ferryman was loading his boat with the rioters, Whiting struck one man, John Smith, with his cane. Smith cautioned the sheriff: “Colonel, don’t strike hard. If you do, I’ll turn on you.” With that, the ferry departed with the rioters.
For the next several months a state of lawlessness pervaded Eastern Connecticut as the sheriff attempted to bring justice and arrest the rioters. The Assembly had given given sheriffs greater authority and made it a crime for more than three people to congregate without government approval. Yet the native rights mob ran the countryside.
The native rights protesters repeatedly ran off the sheriff and grand jury members who attempted to come into the towns east of Hartford. The dispute culminated in an armed standoff in March of 1723 at the church in Coventry between a party of sheriff’s deputies and Jeremiah Fitch’s son, among others.
In May of 1723 the major players in the native rights movement had finally been rounded up for trial over their part in the riot and its aftermath. More than ten men were eventually convicted, given punishments that ranged from fines of 10 shillings and a stern lecture to being branded on the forehead with the letter “B.”
With that, the native rights protests were largely ended and the government began to assert its ownership rights over the lands of Eastern Connecticut. Jeremiah Fitch, meanwhile, was convicted of no crimes related to the riot. He had not participated in the break-in at the jail as he was already locked inside it.
Thanks to Unrest in the “Land of Steady Habits”: The Hartford Riot of 1722, James M. Poteet and A Complete History of Connecticut by By Benjamin Trumbull. Illustration: View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, Thomas Cole (Metropolitan Museum of Art)