Hartford: History

Connecticut Valley Draws New Settlers

Before settlers of European descent sailed to North America, the tribes of the Algonquin Federation had exploited the Connecticut River Valley's rich black soil to grow food crops. They called the area "Suckiaug," or black earth. The Algonquins also traveled the Connecticut River, establishing it early as an important trade route. When Adrien Block, a Dutchman working for the Dutch West Indies Company, became the first white man to explore the region in 1614, he found many prosperous Native American communities. In 1633, following a European epidemic that destroyed a majority of the native population, the Dutch colonists from New Amsterdam established a trading post on the river and built a fort on the site of modern-day Hartford. A few years later, English colonists seeking relief from the religiously oppressive Massachusetts Bay Colony drove the Dutch from their fort and renamed the settlement Hartford, after Hertford, England. It was the Dutch who inadvertently coined the term "Yankee," which has become synonymous with people and things native to New England. The Dutch called the invading English "Jankes" or "Johns," a term meaning robber or pirate. The Dutch pronunciation was quickly Anglicized and adopted into common usage.

The English colonists' leader, the Reverend Thomas Hooker, commissioned the writing of a document called the Fundamental Orders in 1639. The document was colonial North America's first constitution drawn up with the consent of the people it governed and served as a model for the U.S. Constitution. Hartford Colony then absorbed the town of New Haven and they shared the title of state capital until Hartford became the sole capital in 1873.

In 1662, Connecticut Governor John Winthrop traveled to England to request a royal charter from England's King Charles II. The charter, which superseded the Fundamental Orders, was so generous that James II, upon his succession to the British throne, wanted to revoke it. James sent Sir Edmond Adros to seize the charter but, according to legend, the document disappeared under mysterious circumstances and was hidden by patriots in the Charter Oak.

Industry, Innovation, Culture Shape Hartford

In the years prior to the American Revolution, Hartford changed from an agrarian to a mercantile society. Its shops bustled while its port throbbed with activity as ships laden with treasures from the Orient and Indies docked. It was this wealth of commercial activity that prompted the growth of Hartford as an insurance capital. Prosperous merchants, fearing the loss of the cargoes stored in warehouses along the river, subscribed to The Hartford Fire Insurance Company. Hartford's preeminence as a whaling town grew simultaneously.

When colonists eventually took up arms to win independence from England, Revolutionary General George Washington chose Jeremiah Wadsworth, a Hartford munitions merchant, as his chief of supplies. Following the war, the first woolen mill in New England was established in Hartford in 1788 and wove the cloth for President George Wash-ington's inaugural suit. Hartford soon entered the publishing industry, producing the first American juvenile publication in 1789 and the first cookbook in 1796. The first dental gold was used in Hartford in 1812. In 1817, the first American School for the Deaf was founded. Other Hartford "firsts" included the invention and manufacture of the revolver in 1836, of oil cloth in 1837, and of machine-made watches in 1838. The first use of nitrous oxide as an anesthetic took place in Hartford in 1844, the year the city's Wadsworth Atheneum opened as the nation's first public art museum.

A Hartford native, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, an anti-slavery novel published in 1852; the book helped speed the eruption of the Civil War. Prior to the war, Hartford was an important abolitionist site and a stop on the Underground Railroad, the route for escaping slaves. During the war, Hartford supplied arms to the Union Army. The city's largest industrial operation, Samuel Colt's Colt Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company, was a pioneer in the use of interchangeable parts for mass production. Colt's theories helped lay the foundation of the modern assembly line. In 1863 the first American accident life insurance policy was issued and Hartford furthered its progress toward becoming the world's insurance capital. Author Mark Twain settled in Hartford about this time, taking advantage of the city's flourishing publishing industry. Some six million books yearly were published in Hartford before New York took over as the East Coast publishing capital in the 1890s.

Citizenry Grows, Faces New Challenges

Hartford's population in the late nineteenth century swelled with the arrival of European and Canadian immigrants and southern African Americans eager to work in its mills and factories. The country's first bicycle plant was built in Hartford in 1877. The friction clutch was invented in Hartford in 1885, followed by the first standard measuring machine, accurate to .00001 inch, developed by Hartford's Pratt and Whitney company. Other innovations conceived in Hartford brought the city and nation into the modern age: the pay telephone in 1895, the first automobile insurance policy in 1897, and the first legislation to regulate motor traffic speed in 1901. More manufacturing innovations came from the Hartford enterprises in the first decades of the twentieth century. During World War II, Hartford industry developed a production-model radar set; the city was a major military production center throughout the war.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Hartford experienced a substantial loss of population as the middle class followed the express-ways to the suburbs. Hartford's population peaked in 1950 at 177,397. As agriculture declined in the area, former farm workers, including Puerto Ricans and southern African Americans, were left in urban poverty. Ghettos developed along Hartford's old East Side. In 1968, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the city's predominantly African American north end erupted in riots.

Hartford's city leaders responded quickly, launching massive urban renewal efforts. Constitutional Plaza, completed in 1964, includes office buildings, a hotel, a shopping mall, and research facilities. Bushnell Plaza followed, with the Hartford Civic Center opening in 1975. Older deteriorating neighborhoods began receiving attention in the 1970s and 1980s, helping attract residents back into the city. In 1981, Thirman L. Milner became the first African American mayor of Hartford and the first in any New England city. In 1987 Hartford's Carrie Saxon Perry became the first African American woman to be elected mayor of a New England city. Current Hartford mayor Eddie Perez, born in Puerto Rico, continues Hartford's tradition of diversity among government officials.

In the 1990's, Hartford experienced massive population loss and suffered from problems with crime and gangs. Since the end of that decade, however, Hartford has seen its population stabilize. Mayor Perez has dedicated himself to the continued revitalization of the Hartford area. Under his leadership, the city has developed a Neighborhood Policing Plan to augment the safety of Hartford neighborhoods. Hartford has also committed itself to improving the city's educational structure by investing $800 million into city schools during the first decade of the 2000's. Hartford's educated workforce and abundance of opportunities for development have made it an increasingly attractive setting for business, an attraction city leaders hope will help Hartford thrive in the decades to come.

Historical Information: Connecticut Historical Society, 1 Elizabeth Street, Hartford, CT 06105; telephone (860)236-5621