NEW BRITAIN IN THE DAYS OF THE REVOLUTION

By Mrs. C. J. Parker

On a former occasion we visited in fancy the several sections of the parish, acquainting ourselves with the inhabitants and taking a look at some of their homes. Could we cross the threshold and have a glimpse of the actual home life, perhaps we should find more of comfort and good-cheer than we are apt to assocate with the homes of that period. We have heard so much of the stern and gloomy natures of our forefathers, of the rigid discipline in family life, and of the ” blue laws ” (mythical perhaps) that controlled the state, we have come to feel that living must have been a very sad pleasure a hundred years ago. But we for-get that nearly every house was full to overflowing with young people, for large families were the rule, not the exception, those days, and wherever there is youth there is always joy. There may have been a little more restraint then than now, a little more fear of law, human and divine, it is just possible, but we may be sure there were sports and merry-makings, although few reports have been handed down to us.

Interior of the First Meeting House
Interior of the First Meeting House

Before we review the actual part of this parish in the revolution, let us for a moment consider the church. Although the three sections of the parish were widely separated, there was, at the time of the war and for many years after but one “meeting house.” This was built in r756 and stood near what is now, with singular infelicity, called “Paradise Park.” It was a plain, barn-like structure, having few attractions without or comforts within. Here the people gathered with a zeal and regularity quite unknown in modern times. If we have read Dr. Smalley aright, no excuses having for their basis the ” weather” or “distance ” or “traveling ” would have been accepted by him in lieu of attendance at church. The elders came on horseback, the younger people afoot, often carrying in their hands their precious Sunday foot-gear, which was not put on until the meeting-house yard was reached. When Dr. Smalley entered the front door he was accustomed to give a little stamp of the foot, which was the signal for the elders and principal men to rise and greet him as he passed along the broad aisle to the pulpit. The church was entirely without warmth excepting what was furnished by the foot-stoves of the women. (But perhaps a people who could accept some of the doctrines of those times, did not mind the weather!) 1)r. Smalley in his preaching, faithfully expounded law and doctrine. He used to say, “If you wish to have a revival begin, preach the law; if your revival begins to wane, preach the law; if you wish to secure sound conversions, preach the law.”

A half hour at noon for rest and lunch at the “Sabba-day house ” near by, fortified them for the cold truths of another long sermon in the afternoon, after which they returned home to round out the day by saying the catechism. Can we imagine this congregation on a bleak December morning singing “O day of rest and gladness ” ? But it was many years later before there was any inspiration to write this and kindred hymns that so enrich the worship of to-day. That they had music of some kind at their services is shown by a vote of the society in 1786, that in order to ” Improve the singing (what a very modern sound that has !) the Prudenshall Committee might draw a sum not exceeding six pounds for the Incouriging of singing, and to procuer such Instrewments of Musick as they think Propper and Decent.” Whether this munificent sum was spent in teaching the demi-semi-quavers then in vogue, or whether it was invested in such ” Instrewments ” as pitch-pipes and sanctified fiddles, cannot now be determined. Well, probably the music of that day was very unmusical, and the sermons, which dwelt on the fear rather than the love of God, were long and heavy; nevertheless, the people found in this old church the comfort and sustaining help they needed.

A Foot Stove

A Foot Stove

Those who take up Dr. Smalley’s sermons to-day expecting only to smile at his old-fashioned theology, will the rather he impressed with his deep. thought and sincere piety, and will understand why he is classed with the ablest of New England divines. There is a strong desire to record some stirring event of Revolulutionary days, some heroic deed or incident that belongs peculiarly to New Britain history. Alas, it is astonishing how great events and great personages of Revolutionary times avoided this particular spot. We may walk the length and breadth of the city without feeling that we are treading on historic ground. We have no “Mecca” within our borders which we as patriotic pilgrims may visit, no sites which may serve to keep fresh in our minds the heroism of our forefathers. There was never the sound of conflict in the limits of the town, never was a “red-coat” seen upon our streets unless it was when Thomas Sugden, a British deserter, laid siege to and captured the heart of Percia Mather. That he deserted the British army and married a New Britain girl, proves him to have been a man of sense and justifies this brief mention of him. So after all there was one engagement within our borders.

Major General John Patterson

Major-General John Paterson

Though there are no striking instances of heroism to record, the sentiment of the people was strong in opposition to British tyranny, and they generously responded to the call for men and means to carry on the war.* Religion and patriotism went hand in hand those early days, for the meeting-house yard was the “parade ground” of the military companies, and we find the same names on the roll-call of heroes that were prominent in the church. Three companies from this place and Farmington were in action against Burgoyne, and at some time during the war nearly every young man of this parish was in the service. When, in 1774, the port of Boston was closed
by order of parliament, a committee was at once appointed to “take in subscriptions of Wheat, Rye, Indian Corn, and other provisions, and to transport the same to the Town of Boston, to be distributed by the Select Men to those who needed help in consequence of the blockade of the harbor.” In fancy we see Captain Gad Stanley and others on that committee going from house to house collecting provisions to send to the “Town of Boston,” and we wonder if that place ever had a realizing sense of its indebtedness to this little parish. We think of it all with amusement, but we know it spoke of a true patriotism and probably called for as great sacrifice on the part of contributors as for their descendants of to-day to give hundreds of dollars to some worthy cause.

In 1775, when British ships-of-war cannonaded Stonington and other sea-coast towns, couriers were despatchedamong the colonies to warn them of their danger. News that armed vessels had appeared off New London reached New Britain one Sunday afternoon just at the close of the service. Ignoring the fact that Dr. Smalley was something of a royalist, Captain Stanley immediately stepped into the aisle and gave notice for his company to meet next morning on the ” Parade.” As Dr. Smalley. left the pulpit and joined a group of his people discussing the news, he exclaimed, ” What, will you fight your king! ” In the excited state of feeling, this unwise remark might have caused a tumult if Col. Isaac Lee with wise and pacific words had not interposed.

Colonel Isaac Lee

Colonel Isaac Lee

The militia of this and other towns was not wholly unprepared for service. The experience of the old French war had shown the people the necessity of some military training, and companies had been organized and to some extent provided with arms, previous to this time. Captain (afterwards Colonel) Gad Stanley, who was at the head of one company, quickly proceeded to the field and did good service for his country. At the famous battle of Long Island in 1776, he was distinguished for his bravery and skill. This was a disastrous day for the American forces, all of whom were raw recruits while the enemy were the disciplined troops of England and Germany. Col. Stanley maintained his position as long as possible, and at last when retreat was ordered, he succeeded by a wise manoeuver in
leading of his regiment safely past the British forces. During the war a son was born to him and the news was sent with the request that he should name the child. In due time came the answer:
” If he appear a likely lad,
It might be well to name him Gad.”

The child that inspired this burst of poesy became the father of Frederic and William Stanley and others, so we conclude he was a very likely lad indeed.

After the war Col. Stanley returned to his home in Stanley Quarter. He was a man of ability and intelligence, and, with one exception, was the wealthiest man in the parish. He was representative from Farmington and Berlin, and served in nearly every important office in the town. From the following incident it would seem that he showed in family affairs the promptness and decision that characterized him as a military man. After the marriage of his daughter Mary (or Polly, as she was called) to Oliver Dewey, the young people proposed a journey to North Carolina. Col. Stanley, thinking that on the trip she might be exposed to the small-pox, a disease at that time greatly feared, insisted on her going first to the hospital on the old Farmington road, where patients might take the disease in a mild form and be properly cared for. The young couple entreated not to be separated, and the bride shrank from such an experience, but all was of no avail. ” To the pest house she must go.” She remained there a few weeks and had the small-pox “according to orders,” after which the journey south was taken in safety.

Home of Colonel Isaac Lee

Home of Colonel Isaac Lee

Particular mention should be made of Major-General John Paterson, who was one of the most distinguished of New Britain’s early citizens. Soon after the battle of Lexington he raised a regiment and was early in the field, serving with honor throughout the war. He was not only noted in military service, but was honored with the friendship of Washington. He was one of the court chosen to try Major Andre, and at the close of the war was one of the founders of the Society of the Cincinnati. After his marriage to Elizabeth Lee (which was spoken of in the first part of this paper) he lived at the Paterson homestead on Last street until he removed to Lenox. In the center of the town of Lenox there is a handsome monument to his memory, and on a memorial tablet in Lenox church it is written, ” His love of country was unbounded, his public spirit untiring.” The accompanying picture of Gen. Paterson was taken from the bas-relief on the monument at Free-hold, N. J., showing the group of generals who composed the famous ” Council at Monmouth ” in 1778. He is represented as listening attentively to General Lafayette, who is explaining his plan of action to the council.

Another leading citizen of this period was Col. Isaac Lee, who gave New Britain its name, when in 1754 it was “set off ” from Farmington and became a separate parish. Col. Lee did not enter the army but he served his country faith-fully in the legislature twenty-four years, and for many reasons deserves to be classed with the patriots of the times. For thirty years he was the principal magistrate of the place, his word and decisions having almost the force of law. The records he kept of church and town history during his forty years’ service as clerk of the Ecclesiastical Society, are of great interest and value. They are in his hand-writing and are carefully preserved at the New Britain Institute. In point of influence he was second only to Dr. Smalley, both of whom were held in such reverence that when they passed in the street the children made obeisance and the men uncovered their heads.

Col. Lee is the hero of a poem written by Emma Hart Willard called ” Bride-Stealing,” which in the main is a true incident. In quaintest language it tells of one of the old-time customs.

The house Col. Lee built and occupied so many years is still standing on North Main street, but like many others of that period, has passed into the hands of the stranger and foreigner within our gates. When we think of these old houses with their solid frames, firm and sound as on the day of the ” raising,” of their heavy oak beams, good for another half century, we cannot help wishing that one house among the number, by private or public enterprise, might be repaired and preserved from decay. A genuine “old colonial ” house in our city would stand for the men and deeds of a former century, be an object lesson in history, and also have many uses to recommend it to the practical mind.

Of the fifty patriots from this parish who were in the Revolutionary war, there is only the briefest mention ; but between the lines we read a story of hardship and suffering of which modern warfare, with its more humane methods, gives us little idea. Some perished in battle, some suffered in British prisons, and some returned here to die of their wounds or of disease contracted in the army. Enough may be gathered from the old records to show the patriotism of our forefathers, and their names and services are carefully recorded, but historians evidently considered the foremothers, who, no doubt, were equally brave and patriotic, of very little account. We know from tradition that the women of that age were expected to be submissive and industrious and to attend strictly to the ways of the household. Aside from their domestic duties, their abilities were not very highly rated. It is a fact that a minister in a neighboring town said with all gravity, in one of his sermons, ” Women are quick of apprehension, but weak in judgment,” and the statement was meekly accepted. We think of woman’s position to-clay and say, Verily, “the world do move “!

We know that with Spartan-like courage the women of this parish prepared husbands and sons to enter the army while they took upon themselves the burden and work of the home. We read of one mother * who fitted out six sons for the army, and we feel that the women were as patriotic as the men. But we would not indulge in sentiment or invest them with qualities that perhaps they did not possess. We know that different ages call for and develop different abilities in women, and that in every age there are noble souls who respond to the need of the hour, what-ever it may be. We can but wonder what the women of ’76, whose energies and ambitions were bounded by the walls of home, would think of their sisters of the nineteenth century. With what amazement would they look upon our societies, missions, clubs,— things that were never dreamed of in their philosophy!

If they could view the cares and responsibilities of the latter-day woman, not only in the home, but in the church, in society, and in public and professional life as well, I am not sure but they would be devoutly thankful they lived a hundred years earlier, when they had only the Indians and the Revolutionary War to look out for.

Fairview Cemetery
IN FAIRVIEW CEMETERY
1— Tombstone of Rev. John Smalley, D.D.
2— Tombstone of Col. Isaac Lee.
3—Tombstone of Lydia Andrews.

In these glimpses of the past we must include the ” old part” of Fairview cemetery which was given to the town in 1755 by the descendants of Stephen Lee, as a burying-place for the dead. Here rest many of the forefathers, so near to the street that we might almost greet them in passing, and yet so far removed from the busy life of to-day that we seldom turn our thoughts or footsteps thither. Unmindful are they of the changes wrought in the swiftly moving years since they lived and labored; unbroken is their long sleep by the sound of business and travel that almost invades their resting place. The tombstones in their memory stand
here and there in “orderly confusion,” with little regard to boundary lines or grouping of families. Despite our reverence for this place we can but smile at the curious carvings on many of the stones. We wonder if there is any symbolic meaning in these heads which express nothing in particular, but the wing attachments suggest angelic beings. We are quite sure the familiar hymm “I want to be an angel” was never inspired by this conception.

We stoop to read the inscriptions, almost illegible, on the mossy, crumbling stones. Some tell in plainest prose of the life, the virtues, and even the occupation of the departed; others in
measured verse, give warning to the heedless or ask a thought of passers-by. The following by its simplicity and rhythm fairly sings itself into the memory, and to its appeal we can “no less” than respond:

 Headstone

” Now I am dead and out of mind,
Upon this stone my name you’ll find.
And when my name you plainly see,
Y ou can no less than think of me.”

On the headstone of one of the patriarchs we read :
” He served his generation with diligence and fidelity,”
and this I think tells the life story of many who sleep here.

But here is the electric car at the very gate of this ” city of the dead,” and the sound of its bell calls us from our revery. A moment’s ride and we are in the midst of the stirring, thriving city of to-day, which, if not rich in historic associations or many things of which other cities boast, yet claims a goodly heritage in the memory of those who laid its foundation stones.