Canterbury, Windham County, Connecticut History

The town of Canterbury occupies the middle of the southern tier of towns in Windham county. It joins New London county. Adjoining towns are Brooklyn on the north, Plainfield on the east, Lisbon on the south, and Scotland and Hampton on the west. Its territory is about eight miles from north to south, and an average of five miles from east to west, thus comprising about . forty square miles. The northern part is hilly and exceedingly picturesque, but the southern part contains a great deal of low and swampy land. Much good farming land is found in the town, and agriculture constitutes the principal industrial interest of the people. The town contains the post offices of Canterbury, South Canterbury, Westminster and Packerville. Its grand list amounts to $482.166. The number of school children, between the ages of four and sixteen, has been at different periods as follows: 1858, 448; 1881, 293; 1887, 209. The population of the town at different periods has been: In 1756,1,260; in 1775, 2,444; in 1800, 1,812; in 1840,1,791; in 1870, 1,552; in 1880, 1,272. The settlement of this locality commenced about the year 1690, and it included the land which in 1692 was made a part of the town of Windham, from Norwich. In 1699, when Plainfield was incorporated, Canterbury fell within its chartered limits, and so continued until October, 1703, when that township was divided, and the part of it which lay on the west side of the Quinebaug river was incorporated with the name of Canterbury. The distance of this town from Hartford is forty miles; from New Haven, sixty-four miles. The town is well watered by streams running down from north through much of the town to join the Quinebaug on the eastern boundary. But beyond two or three small saw mills and the grist mill of Messrs. J. & P. Williams, the water privileges which these streams afford are not improved in this town. Besides these branches, the business concerns of the town number two or three country stores, and as many blacksmith shops, carriage and wagon manufactories, and one or two cider mills. The importance of Canterbury seems to lie mainly in the past and in the future, not much in the present.

The first inhabitants west of the Quinebaug were… probably the tenants of Peagscomsuck. Rowland Tones, who purchased in 1691 four hundred acres of land on what is still Rowland’s brook, was one of the first settlers here. Thomas Brooks and Obadiah Johnson also settled west of the Quinebaug, but little progress was made till 1697, when Major Fitch, with his family removed thither, digging the first cellar and erecting the first permanent habitation in what is now the township of Canterbury. With hundreds of farms and many thousand acres at his disposal, he selected for his residence a neck of land partially enclosed by a bend in the Quinebaug river, below the river island Peagscomsuck, which gave its name to the settlement. At the time of his removal hither Major Fitch was a little past middle age, and had been for many years one of the most prominent men in Connecticut. From early manhood he had been actively employed in civil and military affairs-helped to re-establish colonial government after the revolution of 1689; was appointed assistant in 1690; was appointed sergeant major of New London county in 1696; served as boundary commissioner and land reviser; led military expeditions, manned forts, guarded the frontier, and exercised jurisdiction over the Mohegans and all their lands and interests. After the death of his first wife-a daughter of Captain John Mason-he married Alice Bradford, widow of Reverend William Adams, of Dedham, and mother of Mrs. Whiting, of Windham. Nine sons and daughters accompanied him to his new home here, and soon the Indian ” neck ” became an attractive family seat. The social position of Major Fitch, and his wide business relations, drew many people around him, and his plantation at once became a place of no small consequence-a rendezvous for land traders, civil and military officials and hordes of idle Indians. Here courts were held. military expeditions organized, and many thousand acres of land bartered away. It was the first, and long the only, settlement between Norwich and Woodstock, extending its hospitalities and accommodations to many a weary traveler. The expedition that marched to thee relief of Woodstock in 1699 passed the night, both in going and returning, ” at Major Fitch’s farm in Peagscomsuck.” A road was soon laid out from Windham to this noted establishment, and connecting with Greenwich path, formed the great thoroughfare to Providence. Kent was the name given by the major to his plantation, but the Indian appellation persistently adhered to it.

Other settlers soon followed Major Fitch. Samuel Adams, from Chelmsford; Elisha Paine, from Eastham; Obadiah and William Johnson, Samuel and Josiah Cleveland, from Woburn: Thomas Brooks, Rowland Jones and Robert Green, all settled west of the Quinebaug. To encourage these settlers, Owaneco, in 169S, made over to Major James Fitch, Josiah Cleveland and Jabez Litter, the land between the Quinebaug and Appaquage rivers, extending eight and a half miles north of Norwich north line-except those lands formerly granted to Major Fitch, Solomon and Daniel Tracy and Richard Bushnell in trust for ye inhabitants now dwelling in the plantation of Quinebaug e. they bearing their proportion of charge, to wit: Thomas Brooks, Obadiah Johnson, Samuel Cleveland, Robert Green, Rowland Jones and Major Fitch. The above, are on the west side of Quinebaug; the intention is to promote plantation work.” This conveyance did not prevent Owaneco’s selling the same land to other settlers at every opportunity. Indeed, some tracts were sold to three or four purchasers by this ” flexible ” and unscrupulous chieftain. In 1699 Owaneco sold to Obadiah Johnson and Samuel Adams all the south part of the tract west of the Quinebaug not previously appropriated. Elisha Paine bought two thousand acres in the south of the tract from Major Fitch. Tixhall Ensworth, of Hartford, also settled on land bought of Fitch. Josiah Cleveland bought land at Wanungatuck, “both sides of Tadneck Hill,” of Richard Bushnell; Solomon Tracy, Jr., took possession of the land owned by his father.

A conflict of land claims soon arose between Major Fitch and Fitz John Winthrop and others. Winthrop having been elected governor of Connecticut in 1698, secured a patent of confirmation of his title to certain lands which he had bought of the Indians. The patent to the town of Plainfield also aroused some opposition, and the ownership of land in this neighborhood was uncertain until the early part of 1703, when it was mutually agreed that a new town should be formed on the west side of the Quinebaug, to be called Canterbury, and the assembly being thus petitioned, granted a charter for the said new town. The line agreed upon and observed in the charter, as dividing the towns of Canterbury and Plainfield, followed the river down from. the northern boundary of the town “to the center of Peagscomsuck island and from the center of that island due east a quarter of a mile-thence a line run straight to the south bounds of town a mile eastward from Quinebaug River.” This jog into Plainfield in the southeast corner of Canterbury was made to allow the Canterbury people a share of the rich ” plain ” lands upon which they had been in the habit of planting in the common cornfields before the town was divided. The settlers whose names appear to the agreement to make the described line the division between Canterbury and Plainfield were James Fitch, Samuel Cleveland, Obadiah Johnson, Robert Green, Josiah Cleveland, Elisha Paine, Richard Adams, Thomas Brooks, Benjamin Rood and Isaac Cleveland.

The young town had considerable trouble to maintain its rights against the town of Plainfield, which obtained a patent covering all the land up to the Quinebaug, and though the patent was declared by the assembly to be void, yet the latter town, for a time at least, seemed to exercise jurisdiction under it. Thus the dividing line between the two towns was for many years a source of trouble, and an almost constant dispute was kept up on the subject, the particulars of which are too lengthy to be inserted here. Though Canterbury, when in October, 1703. it was endowed with town privileges, had but few inhabitants, their character and circumstances made amends for the smallness of their number. Most of them were men of means and position, accustomed to the management of public affairs and well fitted to initiate and carry on the settlement of the new township. Most, if not all, of the residences were in the eastern part of the town, overlooking the Quinebaug valley. The privilege of Rowland’s brook, a short distance northwest from Peagscomsuck, was granted to Samuel Adams, in 1703, for building and maintaining a corn mill. The same year Obadiah Johnson was allowed to keep a house of entertainment for the public, provided he keeps good order,” and here town meetings were held and public business transacted.

No record can now be found of the first organization of the town government. The first town clerk was probably Elisha Paine, and the first selectmen William Johnson, Samuel Adams and Eleazer Brown. This absence of early records makes it difficult to trace the progress of the town at that period, but it was probably very slow for several years. The tenure of land was prejudicial to its growth and best interests. Air. Samuel Adams at that time declared-” Before we were a town, Major Fitch, Richard Bushnell and the Tracys had swept up all the good land upon the Quinebaug with all the other good land, wheresoever it lay, and all for a song or a trifle, so that there was nothing left but poor rocky hills and hungry land such as no wise man under Heaven would have ventured to settle upon.” Land titles were obscure and conflicting, and some tracts had been sold and resold by Owaneco till it was impossible to tell who was the rightful owner, and after subduing and cultivating suck rough lands as were left them the settlers had often to pay off successive claimants or be sued from court to court to their cost and damage. With these difficulties in the way it is not surprising that Canterbury at first made but slow progress in settlement. Eleazer Brown, of Chelmsford, bought land at Wanungatuck of the Tracys in 1704. Jonathan Ashley, Benjamin Baldwin and Henry Smith appear among the inhabitants in 1705. Samuel Butts, of Dorchester, settled near Wanungatuck in 1706, and John Pelton and Jeremiah Plympton, Charles and Paul Davenport, of Dorchester, bought land in the south of Canterbury, “with buildings and fences,” of Jeremiah Fitch the same year.

As soon as practicable the Canterbury people established religious services and employed a minister, and began to arrange for the erection of a meeting house. In 1705 Robert Green made over to the town for thirty shillings three and a half acres on a hill hear his house, for public purposes. This plot has ever since been so held and is still known as Canterbury Green.

Disputes concerning boundary lines gave Canterbury much annoyance. The line between this town and Windham was a matter of protracted controversy. A gore piece lying between two early surveys of Windham territory on the side joining Canterbury was claimed by both towns. The first Canterbury settlers in that part of the town, which received the name Apaquag, were Stephen Cook, Richard and Benoni Woodward, and Joseph Hide, who purchased land on Little river in 1708. Jonathan Hide and Stephen Frost settled in this section soon after. George Lilly purchased land between Nipmuck path and Little river in 1710. In 1709 the town contained thirty-five male inhabitants, and the taxable estates amounted to £1,6191.

The building of the first meeting house was perhaps the most absorbing enterprise with the early settlers of these towns, after they had provided some sort of comfortable habitations for their individual needs. Canterbury plead such weakness that the assembly remitted the usual ” country rate ” in 1708, on condition that it be used in the construction of the meeting house. This public edifice and a house for the minister were provided by 1711, and in that year the town received from the assembly permission ” to gather a church and call a minister to office amongst them, according to the rules of the gospel and the order of discipline established by this government.” The church was organized under this privilege, June 13th, 1711, and at the same time Reverend Samuel Estabrook, who had for several years been preaching here, was installed as their pastor. The constituent members of the church were Samuel Estabrook, Eleazer Brown, Elisha Paine, Samuel Cleveland, John Woodward, Richard Woodward and Stephen Frost. Others who joined the church during the next -two years were Timothy Backus, James Hyde, Josiah Cleveland, Richard Adams, Jr., Samuel Butts, Thomas Brown and their wives, and Mrs. Samuel Adams and one or two others, bringing the membership of the church up to twenty-five.

After repeated outbreaks of the controversy with Windham concerning the dividing line an adjustment was made by a committee from the general assembly in 1713, and the result was a confirmation of the claim of Canterbury. Another long disputed claim was settled by the assembly in favor of Canterbury, by which the town secured possession of the land east of the Quinebaug in the southeast corner of the town, which Plainfield had tried to hold. This final decision was reached in October, 1714.

Thus Canterbury gained all that she claimed on both eastern and western borders. Nor did the enlargement of her territory stop here. She was also enlarged by the annexation of land on the north, by an act of the assembly in the same year. Richard Adams, John Woodward, Edward Spalding and Daniel Cady, already residents of this tract, were thus added to the inhabitants of Canterbury. The settlement of the bounds was followed by an influx of population. Edward Raynesford, of Cambridge, purchased land of Jeremiah Plympton, and removed to Canterbury in 1714. James Bradford, of Norwich, and John Dyer, brother of Thomas, of Windham, settled in Canterbury in 1715.

The first town meeting of which any record is still preserved was that of December 10th, 1717, more than fourteen years after the organization of the town. At that meeting John Woodward was chosen moderator; Samuel Adams, constable; Joseph Adams, town clerk and first selectman; Edward Spalding, Elisha Paine, Samuel Butts and Henry Smith, other selectmen; John Woodward and Solomon Tracy, grand jurors; Samuel Spalding and John Ensworth, fence viewers; John Dyer and Edward Raynsford, listers; Paul Davenport, surveyor; Deliverance Brown, collector; Robert Green, pound keeper; Richard Pellett, tavern keeper; and William Baker was made responsible for the ” decency of meeting house.” It was then voted ” That the act made for the killing of rattlesnakes, April 24, 1716, should stand in force the present year.”

The chaotic manner in which the settlement of the town had been made rendered some uniform tenure of land holding desirable, and to reach some uniform scheme by which the various owners holding under various titles could be placed on a common basis, especially with regard to the common lands still held under the town patent in undivided proprietorship. To settle this, it was agreed at a meeting of proprietary inhabitants, February 26th, 1723, ” That those who were settled inhabitance and paid to ye building of ye meeting house and minister’s home shall. have one share and one. half-share in said undivided land; those who were settled when our patent was given and paid rates in ye town to have one share in said undivided lands, and those who settled since ye patent was given and now live within y e bounds of our patent to have a half-share. It is to be understood that none shall accrue any right by this vote but such as are now settled within ye bounds of our patent, neither those that have granted these rights to their individual lands to ye town, and also, that there shall be no advantage taken by this vote to hinder us from granting any lands in a general way.”

In the distribution of common land made under this arrangement, on April 30th, 1723, the following twenty-seven persons received each one and a half shares as being first settlers and planters: Major Fitch, Elisha Paine, John Pike, Thomas Brown, John Adams, Samuel Adams, Sr., Samuel Cleveland, Sr., Samuel Cleveland, Jr., Robert Burwell, Richard Pellet, Robert Green, Joseph and Obadiah Johnson, Richard Woodward, Stephen Frost, David Munrow, William and Timothy Backus, Benjamin Baldwin, Tixhall Ensworth, Samuel and Henry Adams, Jr., Joseph Adams, Solomon Tracy., Samuel Butt, Joseph Smith and Joseph Cleveland. The following twenty-three received one share each as proprietors under the patent: Lieutenant Edward Spalding, John Welch, Edward Cleveland, Jr., Richard Smith, James Bradford, Ephraim Davis, David Raynsford, Nathaniel Bond, Henry Adams, Sr., David Adams, Deliverance Brown, Thomas Adams, Benjamin Fasset, Abraham Paine, Elisha Paine, Jr., Daniel Fitch, James Hyde, John Port, John Dyer, Moses Cleveland, John Ensworth, John Cady and John Carter. The following eighteen persons received one-half share each as later settlers: David Carver, Thomas Davenport, Joseph Adams, Sr., Solomon Paine, Henry Cleveland, Theophilus Fitch, John Bacon, Jonathan Davis, Jacob Johnson, John Baldwin, Isaac Cleveland, Edward Raynsford, Joseph Ensworth, Richard Gale, Jabez Fitch, Nathaniel Robbins, Aaron Cady and Samuel Cook. The whole number of land proprietors in the township was thus sixty-eight, of whom some eight or ten were non-residents. Many of the later proprietors were sons of the first planters. John Bacon, of Norwich, bought land on the west side of Rowland’s brook, of Timothy Backus in 1720. Samuel Parish, Sr., bought land and settled in the western part of the town in 1724. By the middle of the century. the land of the town was so well taken up that but few new settlers. were coming in. The lands and homesteads were mostly occupied by the descendants of the first settlers. Of the three branches of the Adams family which had settled in this town, Joseph Adams, Sr., died in 1748; Henry Adams, Sr., in 1749; the second Samuel Adams in 1742, and the third of that name in 1760. Numerous scions of these three branches were now in active life.

The origin of Packerville, which lies in the southeast corner of the town, partly within the town of Plainfield, was. the manufacturing interest which attached to the Andrus factory privilege, which in 1818 passed into the hands of Daniel Packer and Daniel Lester, of Preston. After a few years of suspension the work was resumed under the management of Mr. Packer. Buildings were repaired and enlarged, new machinery introduced, and a village started into life. Captain Packer was pained at sight of the loose morals and irreligious inclinations of the people, and engaged his interest and exertions in establishing the church whose history we have noticed. For a time the village prospered and seemed to promise to become a center of permanence. A fire engine company was organized here in 1830. With the drift of manufacturing interests to other centers the growth of the village has declined, and in later years the industry here has been abandoned.

Many of the leading men of the county were early connected with the Masonic Lodge at Hartford. Upon petition of Colonels Gray and Grosvenor, Moriah Lodge was instituted at Canterbury in 1790, and soon received into its brotherhood many of the active leading men of the county. Its first master was Colonel Ebenezer Gray. Among those actively interested in this lodge were Moses Cleveland, Evan Malbone, Thomas and Lemuel Grosvenor, Samuel and John McClellan, Daniel Larned, Daniel Putnam, William Danielson, Lemuel Ingalls, Albigence Waldo, John Brewster and Jared Warner. Its annual commemoration of St. John’s day, in June, was one of the great festivals of the year, excelled only by the Fourth of July and general training day. The Masonic brethren from all the adjoining towns in full regalia marched through the street, with banners, music and open Bible, to be entertained in hall or grove with a grand oration and a sumptuous dinner. For many years the lodge took part in festival days and occasions, and made a prominent factor in the social life of the community.

Source: History of Windham County, Connecticut, Bayles, Richard M.; New York: W.W. Preston, 1889

2 thoughts on “Canterbury, Windham County, Connecticut History”

  1. I am looking for information on Lieutendent James Bradford, born 26 Mar 1689, died 26 Mar 1762 and married to Edith Adams , died 24 Apr 1722, their son William Bradford born 01 Jul 1718 married to Mary Cleveland 13 Dec 1739. He died 19 Jun 1781 and she died o6 Aug 1765. Their daughter Abigail Bradford born 02 Sept 1753. She is buried Little Meadows Cemetery, Susquehanna, Pa.
    I need birth or death certificates. Where would I find them for this time period,

    1. Connecticut Genealogy

      Birth and death certificates are a product of the 19th century. In early Colonial Connecticut the records were kept at town level in registers, if kept at all. Thankfully Canterbury records are intact back to 1696. You can access them here:

      Make sure you are logged in to the free site and you will see camera icons appear beneath the Format column for the Film/Digital Notes. First section of the film is an index and Adams, Bradfords, and Clevelands are all well represented in the records. Once you have found your ancestors in the index you will find those volumes further on that microfilm.

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