Plainfield, Windham County, Connecticut History

The township of Plainfield lies in the southeastern part of the county, adjoining Griswold and Voluntown in the county of New London. It is about nine miles long from north to south and four to five miles wide. It has Canterbury on the west, also Brooklyn on the northwest, Killingly on the north, and Sterling on the east. The Quinebaug river forms. most of the way, the western boundary, and receives from this town the waters of branches, the Moosup and Dill rivers, which afford sites for a number of manufacturing establishments. The town is traversed by about twenty miles of railroad, the Norwich & & Worcester line running through it lengthwise, and the Providence Division of the New York & New England railroad running diagonally across it. Beautiful fertile plains stretching northeast and southwest between the rugged hills, early attracted the attention of settlers and land speculators, and these fertile plains gave name to the locality and to the town. Some attention is given to agriculture, but the great industrial interest of the town is manufacturing. Several factory villages have grown up within its borders.

The town was settled in 1689. It was named and incidentally recognized as a town as early as October, 1700. It then included the territory of Canterbury. A division of territory into two ecclesiastical societies by a line following the Quinebaug most of the way was affected in October; 1702. The Indian name of the locality was Pantoosuck. The population of the town at different periods has been as follows: 1756, 1,800; 1775,1,562; 1800, 1,619; 1840, 2,383, 1870, 4,521; 1880, 4,021. The grand list of the town was in 1775, $14,216; 1845, $29,266.53; 1858, $1,735,640.

The territory of this town was a part of the Quinebaug country, the purchase of which from the Indians and something of its settlement having been already given in another chapter will not be repeated here. In October, 1697, the general court ordered that the people inhabiting along the Quinebaug should be a part of New London county. The settlers on the east side of the river at the time of the town charter in 1699 were Isaac Shepard, Richard Pellet, Benjamin Rood, John Fellows, Samuel Shepard, John Spalding, Edward Spalding, James Kingsbury, Thomas Pierce, Thomas Harris, Matthias Button, Joseph Spalding, Jacob Warren, Nathaniel Jewell and Timothy Pierce. The area covered by the charter was ” ten miles east and west and eight miles north and south, abutting southerly on Preston and Norwich bounds and westerly on Windham bounds, provided it doth not prejudice any former grant of townships.” The charter granted the ” powers and privileges of a township, provided it doth not prejudice any particular person’s property.”

The inhabitants of the Quinebaug plantation met to organize town government May 31st, 1699. Officers were chosen as follows: James Deane, town clerk; Jacob Warren, Joseph Spalding, Stephen Hall, William Johnson, Samuel Adams, selectmen; John Fellows, constable: Thomas Williams, surveyor. After electing town officers, the first vote was ” To give the’ Rev. Mr. Coit a call for one quarter of a year for ten pounds.” The invitation was accepted, and services were held during the summer, alternating between the east and west sides of the Quinebaug. The minister saw a lack of unity in the people, many of the settlers having little regard for religious matters, and refused to settle as pastor, but was retained as supply from quarter to quarter for some time.

Then followed a long controversy in regard to the conflicting claims of John Winthrop, Major Fitch, and the inhabitants of the town under the charter. This controversy lasted several years before a final settlement was reached, and greatly impeded the progress of the settlement of the town.

In 1701 the minister’s salary, Mr. Coit being employed as before, was raised to twenty pounds a year in money and thirty pounds in grain, one-third of the grain to be rye, and the valuations on different grains to be fixed at two shillings for corn, three shillings for rye, and four shillings for wheat, per bushel. Town meetings were held alternately east and west of the Quinebaug, at Isaac Shepard’s on the east side and Obadiah Johnson’s on the west side. In 1702 a pound was built on each side of the river. Nathaniel Jewell was appointed pound keeper on the east side and Samuel Adams on the west side. Thomas Williams, Edward Spalding and John Fellows were surveyors for the east side, and Richard Adams and Thomas Brooks on the west side. A committee was appointed to have the inspection of Cedar swamp, which was then held in common, and they were empowered to seize any timber they might find being illegally appropriated therefrom. A meeting house was built on the east side of the river, on Black hill, which was convenient to a crossing place on the river. This first meeting house was begun in 1702, and completed so as to be accepted by the town in January, 1703. Meanwhile the town was divided into two ecclesiastical societies, the west society being relieved from taxation for this meeting house, but joining in support of minister until they were organized and had a minister by themselves. This meeting house was a rude affair-a rough frame covered with boards, and furnished with a temporary floor and temporary seats. In December, 1703, it was voted To have the meeting house floored and a body of seats and a pulpit made, all to be done decently and with as much speed as may be, the ceiling to extend at present only to the girths.” This order was probably soon carried into execution. In addition to what had been previously offered Mr. Coit, he was now promised equal privileges with other landowners in the purchase made of Owaneco for the benefit of the inhabitants.

The division of Plainfield territory into equal and regular allotments, and its distribution among such inhabitants as fulfilled the required conditions, were accomplished in 1704; the recipients throwing up their previous purchases into the common stock and each receiving an allotment with rights in future divisions proportionate to his interest in the common proprietorship. Abroad strip of land adjoining the Quinebaug, extending from the north side of Moosup river to the Cedar swamp, was reserved as a general field, the great plain for corn planting, for the use of all the inhabitants. Twenty-four proprietors received shares in this allotment, of one hundred acres each, which was completed in February, 1804. These proprietors were: Samuel Shepard, John Smith, Benjamin Smith, John Fellows, Ebenezer Harris, William Douglas, Thomas Stevens, Sr., Thomas Pierce, James Kingsbury, Edward Yeomans, Joshua `’Whitney, Stephen Hall, John Spalding, Edward Spalding, Benjamin Palmer, Nathaniel Jewell, Thomas Stevens, Jr., Matthias Button, Jacob Warren, Timothy Pierce, Joseph Parkhurst, Thomas Williams, James Deane and Joseph Spalding. To these twenty-four proprietors others were soon added, the town having ordered forty lots of the same size, so as to meet the probable demand. A number of the inhabitants were at first reluctant to resign their lands, but afterward came into the arrangement. Two or three individuals never did relinquish their individual ownership, and consequently had no share in the common proprietorship. New inhabitants who joined the settlement were granted an allotment on payment of three pounds into the town treasury.

The Indian war of 1704 subjected Plainfield to new restrictions and outlays. With other frontier towns, it was not to be deserted by any of its inhabitants; guard houses and scouts were to be maintained, equipped, and supplied with ammunition; a train band was formed, with Thomas Williams for ensign and Samuel Howe for sergeant. Guards were stationed about the meeting house on Sunday, and watch houses were maintained in exposed parts of the town. Great pains were taken to propitiate the favor of the Quinebaugs, who continued as ever peaceable and friendly.

In the midst of all these distracting conditions the town looked well to the progress of ecclesiastical matters. The interior of the meeting house was completed, and the pulpit placed on the south side of the room. Mr. Coit accepted the pastorate and was ordained early in January, 1705, at which time a church was organized consisting of ten male members. Its first deacons were Jacob Warren and William Douglas. The history of the church will be reviewed by itself further on, consequently notice of its progress will be omitted in this connection. We shall notice now the general progress of the town and its settlement and growth.

In 1705 it was voted that all the land except the ” General Field ” should be laid out into five equal parts. The proper care of the corn field called for frequent enactments. In April, 1706, the town voted ” That there shall no cows, cattle or horses be suffered to go in the General Field, at liberty, from the first of April to the fourth of October, upon the penalty of six-pence a head, and if any cattle go upon the grain the owners to pay five-pence per head to the owners of the grain as they shall be found in.”

A final attempt to settle the land title dispute between Major Fitch and Governor Winthrop was made in 1706. It was agreed at length that the Winthrops should give up all claim to Quinebaug lands and in place thereof should receive undisputed title to one thousand acres each in the northern part of Plainfield and Canterbury. This settlement was confirmed by the interchange of quit-claims in October, 1706. At the same time the assembly granted to the proprietors and inhabitants of Plainfield a patent, confirming to them the lands in their town. Henceforward divisions of land in small parcels, as the proprietors thought desirable, were made from time to time.

Now that Plainfield had come into full possession of her territory she was deemed competent to bear her part of the public charges. The list of estates presented in October, 1707, amounted to £1,265. The free-holders of the town then numbered about fifty. John Fellows was sent as the first representative to the general court in May, 1708. Thomas Williams was now lieutenant, and Timothy Pierce, ensign, of the train band. Yearly increase in the town is shown by the fact that in 1708 the ” grand list” amounted to £1,890, and the male inhabitants were fiftyfive. In 1709 James Hilliard received a grant of several acres of land north of Moosup to encourage him to maintain a corn mill. Bounties were offered for killing blackbirds, a penny a head provided they were killed before the 15th of May; also sixpence a head for crows, twopence a “tail” for rattlesnakes, and ten shillings a head for wolves. In 1708 pound was ordered, ” in the senter of the town, near the meeting house.” A rate was then levied to pay for “the pound, stox and bords for meeting house.” The meeting house was put in order in 1710, and it was voted that every householder in town should give to the Widow Samans ” one peck of Indian corn a year in consideration for her to sweep the meeting house; so long as she doth it, the corne to be carried to her.” It was also agreed ” That the place which has been for several years improved by the inhabitants for the burial of the dead shall abide and remain for that use,” and a committee was appointed to designate the quantity and provide a way to get to it. The same committee were directed to appoint a place for an Indian burial ground. This Indian burying ground, which was urgently needed *by the rapid decay of the Quinebaugs, was situated in the eastern part of the town, in a place where it is said chiefs and sagamores and many previous generations of the tribe had been deposited. For several years during the early part of the last century this town was engaged in many disputes in regard to lands adjoining. Efforts were made to secure additional land by enlarging the boundaries, first on the north side, then on the west side and then on the east side. But all these efforts were fruitless, as was also the attempt to deprive individuals who had bought lands of claimants holding the field previous to the town charter. The Plainfield proprietors at that period seemed to have a decided ambition to possess more land, but the tide of destiny seemed in no wise favorable to the gratification of that ambition. The difficulties with Canterbury were not removed, even when the question of fee was settled in Plainfield’s favor, and both towns continued the contest over the part of Canterbury included between the Quinebaug river and the line, which started at the center of the island of Peagscomsuck and ran a quarter of a mile east and then in a straight line south to the south bounds of the town. The contest over this parcel of ground lasted for many years and developed many instances of lawlessness. Committees were frequently appointed” to see persons that pull down or demolish Canterbury fence,” and numerous petitions vainly urged the restatement and settlement of the boundary line. The management of the General Field was a matter of endless trouble and vexation. Its fencing was maintained with great labor and difficulty, and its proper care and clearing necessitated the employment of from sixteen to twenty-three ” field drivers,” a public town office instituted about 1720. These land quarrels somewhat retarded the growth and prosperity of the town, and developed much recklessness and lawlessness among its inhabitants. Reports of many disorders and irregularities are found in the records of the New London county courts. In 1725 Plainfield was visited by a “very distressing sickness and great mortality,” so that the people could not get sufficient help among themselves to attend the sick, but were obliged to rely upon other towns for aid.

About twenty persons died in the town within a few months, including some of its first and leading citizens, viz.: John Hall, Samuel Shepard, James Deane, Benjamin Palmer, Matthias Button, Ephraim Wheeler, Philip Bump and Samuel Howe. The Aboriginals were now rapidly passing away, not so much from disease as from their change of habits, and especially from the excessive use of liquor, from which it seemed impossible to restrain them.

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

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