During the 150 years before the American Revolution, a series of aristocrats known as the River Gods ruled the Connecticut River Valley.
Their domain had its own economy and culture, which eventually resembled England more than settlements to the east or the west. The River Gods owned vast farms and shipyards, traded with the West Indies and fed the coastal cities with their produce and meat.
They supported a large class of artisans who fed their thirst for status by building large houses with elaborate doorways. The craftsmen filled the River Gods’ houses with fine furniture, paintings, textiles and ceramics. When they died, elaborate headstones marked their graves to show their prominence in life.
John Adams, on a visit to Middletown, Conn., in 1771, rhapsodized about Connecticut River Valley. “When I first opened into the Town which was upon the Top of a Hill, there opened before me the most beautiful Prospect of the River, and the intervals and Improvements on each Side of it,” he wrote. “…[A]nd on the right Hand is a fine level Tract of Land as rich as the Soil of Egypt.”
The River Gods
Many of the River Gods already had standing and wealth when they arrived in the Connecticut River Valley. William Pynchon, the first of the River Gods, came to Massachusetts in 1630 as a prominent member of John Winthrop’s party. He owned a plantation in Roxbury, Mass., originally ‘Rocksbury’ because of the stony soil.
Pynchon didn’t like farming among rocks, so in 1636 he moved west and founded Springfield on the boulder-free meadows on the Connecticut River banks.
He started a naming trend that described the grassy meadows that attracted more settlers: Enfield, Bloomfield, Longmeadow, Hatfield and Greenfield.
Pynchon probably heard about the River Valley’s fertile open lands from Edward Winslow of Plimoth Plantation. Indians had come to Plimoth and Boston in 1631 to hype the Connecticut River to the Puritans. The Indians wanted to trade with the English settlers, and they viewed the English as potential allies against the Pequots.
Intrigued, Edward Winslow visited in 1632 to check out the Indians’ claims, and wrote a report about the Valley.
Other families followed William Pynchon to the lower part of the Connecticut River. When the new settlers divided up land, they did it according to status and wealth. The wealthiest 10 percent along the Connecticut River got between 30 and 40 percent of the land. The poorest 50 percent got 10 to 20 percent of the land. (By today’s standards, that level of equality is remarkable).
Agriculture flourished in the red sandstone-based soil, unique to New England. The River Gods produced more than enough for themselves, so they sold the surplus to Boston at a high profit. They came to dominate local business and politics, ran the local militias and chose the ministers.
Pynchon, for example, owned a quarter of the land, a grist mill and the town’s store. He chose the town’s minister, traded furs and shipped surplus produce and livestock down the river. He and his son ran what became Hampshire County like a colony within a colony.
In addition to the Pynchons, the River Gods who came to dominate the Massachusetts river towns in Hampshire County included Ashleys, Dwights, Partridges, Porters and Williamses.
Springfield originally belonged to Connecticut, but Pynchon managed to move it to Massachusetts after a dispute with Connecticut’s leaders. In his absence, River Gods in Connecticut emerged as families of merchants and ministers that intermarried. They included Allyns, Chesters, Hamlins, Pitkins, Talcotts, Welleses and Wolcotts.
Wars between the French and Indians limited the settlement of Connecticut River towns in parts of Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and even in Connecticut.
Between 1675 and 1678, for example, King Philip’s War wiped out Deerfield and Northfield in Massachusetts, and Suffield and Simsbury in Connecticut. After that, Indians frequently raided many of the surviving Massachusetts river towns.
It wasn’t until the French and Indian wars ended in 1763 that settlers established towns in New Hampshire and Vermont.
Once they did, the towns grew quickly.
The Industrial Revolution was underway, and waterpower became an important reason to settle. The River Gods prospered from the Caribbean trade and shipbuilding. In fact, Connecticut River shipyards built more than 4,000 vessels in the 19th century.
The farmers began to specialize. Wethersfield, Conn., for example, specialized in onions. Hadley, Hatfield and Deerfield concentrated on livestock. The River Gods of Glastonbury, Hartford and Windsor grew tobacco. And Enfield, Suffield, Longmeadow and Northampton grew so much wheat they earned the designation of New England’s first wheat belt.
More Like England
By 1771, the road from Windsor, Conn., to Hartford was settled like one continuous street, noted John Adams. A traveler named Samuel Davis noted in 1789 that the churches in Suffield had steeples, unlike the ones between the coast and the Connecticut River. He noted the larger houses – the ones belonging to the River Gods – had been painted.
After the American Revolution, travelers noted the valley resembled England more than any other part of the country.
But the River Gods created their own unique culture, filling their houses with clocks and paintings, richly hung beds, upholstered chairs, mirrors and silver. They hired artisans to produce elaborate doorways, vine-and-leaf carved chests (known as Hadley chests), decorated board chests, baroque-style iron door latches and portraits in the style of Ralph Earl.
The River Gods, though, didn’t take on an identity the way the Boston Brahmins did. Part of that had to do with the political division of the Connecticut River Valley. To the south, the boundary between Connecticut and Massachusetts divided the River Gods. To the north, the river itself divided New Hampshire and Vermont.
A Common Character?
In 1806, Yale president Timothy Dwight visited the Connecticut River Valley on horseback. “The inhabitants of this valley … possess a common character, and in all the different states resemble each other more than their fellow citizens who live on the coast resemble them,” he wrote.
At the time, however, the local culture was on the wane, wrote William Hosley, Jr., in his introduction to The Great River, Art & Society of the Connecticut Valley, published in 1985 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the settlement of the Connecticut River Valley.
“Regional culture may have been more apparent in its decline than while it flourished,” wrote Hosley.
Images: Dwight House By Historic-Deerfield – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17941799
With thanks to The Great River, Art & Society of the Connecticut Valley, published by the Wadsworth Athenaeum. This story was updated in 2021.