Putnam, Windham County, Connecticut History

The township of Putnam, incorporated in 1855, was made up from parts of Thompson, Killingly and Pomfret. The Quinebaug river, with its great falls in the heart of the village, is its most distinctive physical feature, its main source of life and business prosperity. Manufacturing enterprise, aided by railroads, built up a flourishing village. This village demanded expansion and the liberty to manage its own affairs, and after a desperate struggle obtained town privileges, taking in as much surrounding territory as was needful to give it corporate standing, and by running its south boundary line obliquely, cutting off barren land eastward. This funnel-like conformation of the projected town excited much ridicule during the contest, and it is said that its pictorial presentation before the legislature had much influence in procuring the rejection of the early petitions. But while the manufacturing interests of the town are strongly dominant, Putnam is by no means deficient in agricultural resources. With improved culture and immediate market, farming has made great advances. Dairying and market gardening are remunerative industries. There are many good farms in the vicinity of the valley and in the former South Neighborhood. The Assawaga or Five Mile river in the east of the town furnishes a number of mill privileges. The recent discovery and utilizing of the Aspinock Mineral Spring at Putnam Heights is likely to prove of much benefit to this section.

Though Putnam is one of the youngest towns in Windham county, and is pre-eminently a growth of modern civilization, its roots reach far backward. The High Falls were noted far back in aboriginal days. The surrounding valley was a favorite resort of the red man long before Lieutenant John Sabin crossed the Woodstock line into the wilderness of Connecticut. An Indian trail ran southeast from the falls toward Rhode Island before Peter Aspinwall cut his way through the woods to make a path to Providence. The ” Joseph Cady farm,” east of Putnam village (now owned’ by Mr. Eli Davis), was noted for producing a remarkable variety and quantity of medicinal herbs and roots, much used by the ” medicine men ” of the Indians. It is traditionally reported that Indians came from a great distance to gather these herbs, and that in consequence this locality was made a sacred haven, where no bloodshed was lawful, and tribal foes might meet in safety. The Falls were noted for their remarkable facilities for fishing, especially when shad and salmon were trying to ascend them.

The first known settler within the limits of the present Putnam was Richard Evans of Rehoboth, who purchased for twenty pounds a grant of wild land laid out to Reverend James Pierpont, of New Haven, and is described in 1693, ” as resident of said granted premises.” The farm was further described as bounded by wilderness and about three miles from Woodstock. Very little can be learned of this first settler east of the Quinebaug, except the fact that he occupied the farm now owned by Mr. William Holland, and that in about twenty years he and his son Richard were in possession of ” two tenement of houses, barns, orchards, tanning pits and fulling mill,” all testifying strongly to their thrift and industry.

Lieutenant Peter Aspinwall, of Woodstock, was apparently second on the field, and the first resident within the bounds of the present Putnam village. Sent by Woodstock, in 1691, ” to make a way unto the cedar swamp, on the other side of the Quinebaug, for a road to Providence,” during the progress of the work he removed his residence to the valley, but not probably until the close of the Indian war of 1695-98, and his marriage to the widow of John Leavens. Lieutenant Aspinwall was a very prominent man in Woodstock, one of its original pioneers and settlers.

He was also very active in military affairs, serving as scout and ranger during the troublesome warfare. Remaining a bachelor till somewhat late in life, he was apparently unfortunate in his matrimonial venture, “the widow and her sons keeping him low,” according to the Aspinwall chronicle. These step-sons, particularly James and Joseph Leavens, were the first business men -within Putnam limits, being employed by James Corbin, trader at Woodstock, to collect tar for Boston market. It was while engaged in this service that Joseph, the younger brother, received a wound in the thumb from a rattlesnake, and only saved his life by immediate amputation. Rattlesnake hill, near Five Mile river, ” half a mile long and a hundred rods broad,” was the scene of this adventure, and was one of the early land purchases of the brothers. James Leavens also owned a mill privilege on Five Mile river, believed to be the site of Hawkins’ mills, and carried on the first saw mill east of the Quinebaug.

The Providence road cut by Peter Aspinwall wound around the base of Killingly hill to this mill, and accommodated customers. The Assawaga received its English name from the fact that the first land laid out upon it was ” supposed to be about five miles from Woodstock,” the only settlement in the section. Peter Aspinwall’s farm was south of the Providence road, bordering on the Quinebaug. Its site can be identified by the old burying ground, its north or northeast extremity, which he gave to the town of Killingly.

The first settlers north of the Providence road were the inevitable ” three brothers ” of all New England settlements-Nicholas, Daniel and Joseph Cady, from Groton, Mass., soon after 1700. Nicholas settled first north of Killingly hill, but removed to a fine farm on Whetstone brook. His brother Joseph purchased the wilderness land held in such repute by the Indians, a mile east of the Quinebaug. He was a man of great strength and prowess, much respected by the Indians, able it was said to beat their strongest warriors in wrestling. A bunch of the sacred herbs, suspended over his cabin door, served as an amulet against assault or surprise. As soon as circumstances warranted Captain Cady erected the large house still standing in tolerable preservation, and owned by Mr. Eli Davis. It was considered an old house in 1774, when after the demise of the second Joseph Cady it was sold to Lieutenant-Governor Sessions, of Rhode Island. Daniel Cady’s homestead was north of Joseph’s, and after a few years passed into the hands of William Larned, who built a large house near the angle of the roads, whose frame forms part of the present residence of Mr. William Plummer. These two old houses merit commemoration as the oldest now standing within the limits of Putnam village, and connected with its early settlement.

One of the original owners of Killingly hill was John Allen, of Marlborough, Mass., a man of means with sons to settle in life. Among his purchases was a very valuable interval, comprising 160 acres upon the Quinebaug, “near a pair of falls, fifty rods above the mouth of Mill river, extending up stream to a crook of the river, near the mouth of a small brook running into the river ” (east side). All the above settlers purchased their land before Killingly was made a town, and called themselves in their several land deeds, inhabitants of Aspinock, near the Quinebaug. This picturesque name seems to have been applied to the valley east of the river from the Cady settlements to Lake Mashapaug, but was laid aside after Killingly was organized in 1708. Its derivation and signification are still doubtful.

West side the Quinebaug the first settler was Captain John Sabin. Although his fine old mansion was just outside the line dividing Putnam from Pomfret, yet his ownership of the land and intimate connection with the first settlement of the Quinebaug gives him a prominent place among Putnam notables. His settlement even preceded that of Richard Evans, dating back to 1691, and his services during the subsequent Indian wars, by maintaining fortifications upon the frontier and restraining and ” subsisting ” the Indians, were publicly recognized by Massachusetts and Connecticut governments. He was made lieutenant of Woodstock’s first military company, captain of Pomfret’s first company and sergeant-major of Windham county’s first troop of horse. He was also Pomfret’s first representative to general court and one of the most prominent and respected citizens of Windham county. Owning much land in the valley, many building sites passed to his sons, furnishing three or four ” old Sabin Houses ” within the limits of Putnam. His own historic mansion, demolished with great labor and difficulty by Mr. William I. Bartholomew in 1835, was just south of Woodstock line. This homestead descended to his son Noah. His son John adopted the medical profession and settled in Franklin, Conn. His son, Lieutenant Hezekiah Sabin, was the first resident proprietor of Thompson hill. His daughter Judith married Joseph Leavens, of Killingly, receiving for her marriage portion a beautiful farm upon Lake Mashapaug.

Captain John Sabin is most intimately connected with Putnam as the builder of the first bridge over the Quinebaug below the High Falls, in 1722. For more than twenty years Peter Aspinwall had besought the assembly for liberty to build a bridge at this point, showing that the want of such convenience had been a grievous burden and affliction to travelers and himself, the river being exceedingly high and swift and not always fordable. Leading citizens of Pomfret reiterated the complaint, that the Quinebaug was at some seasons impassable, and that persons had endangered their lives in trying to pass, but the assembly turned a deaf ear to all petitions for relief. Captain Sabin, with his usual energy, threw himself into the breach, and with his sons’ aid built a good, substantial bridge, costing £120, and then called upon the government for reimbursement. The committee sent to inspect reported the bridge built in suitable place, out of danger of being carried away by floods or ice, the height of bridge being above any flood yet known by any men living there; thought it would be very serviceable to a great part of the government in traveling to Boston, being at least ten miles the nearest way according to their judgment. Three hundred acres of land on the east side of the Connecticut river were accordingly granted, on condition of keeping the bridge in repair ” fourteen years next coming.”

The second settler within the present limits of Putnam village was Jonathan Eaton, of Dedham, who in 1703 bought land on both sides of the Quinebaug, at what was called the Upper Falls, now improved by the Putnam Manufacturing Company. His home was on the west side of the river, in what was then known as ” a Peculiar,” viz., a strip of land unassigned to any town. Even Killingly, which exercised rights in the territory of Thompson long before it was legally assigned to her, levied no taxes west side the river. Being thus cut off from civil relations, we can learn little of this early settler excepting the fact that, though not compelled bylaw, he carried his numerous children to be duly baptized in Woodstock meeting house, and that he was elected deacon of the church in Thompson parish. With two traveled roads near his dwelling, he probably exercised the privilege of entertaining travelers. Above the Upper Falls the Quinebaug was easily forded in low water, and an Indian trail trodden out in time to a bridle path connected his establishment with the Cady settlement. The mill privilege owned by Deacon Eaton was improved by his sons, at a much later date.

The third family within the bounds of Putnam village was probably that of Samuel Perrin, who, with Peter Aspinwall and Benjamin Griggs, secured a deed of land from Major James Fitch in 1703, both sides the Quinebaug, below its junction with Mill brook. According to tradition, this land was purchased of the Indians, and it seems improbable that so valuable a tract should have been sold at so low a figure by a veteran land jobber unless there had been a prior claim upon it. Aspinwall, as we, have seen, took the land east of the river; Griggs sold his share to Samuel Paine. The Perrin farm was retained in the family for several generations. How soon Samuel Perrin took possession of this purchase is not apparent, as he still retained his Woodstock residence, but soon after 1714 he built the well known ” old Perrin House,” so familiar to older residents of this section. It was probably first cultivated by his younger brother David, who died early, unmarried, and was made over to his son, Ensign Samuel Perrin, after his marriage to Dorothy Morris in 1724.

During this period many others had gathered in the South Neighborhood and eastward on the Assawaga. Tames Leavens’ saw mill passed into the hands of Isaac and John Cutler, of Lexington, Mass. The former had many sons settling in that vicinity, building gambrel roofed houses, one of which still stands, “the old Cutler House,” near the Rhode Island line. John Cutler died early, leaving numerous children. Part of his original farm was lost by a re-settlement of the above line, and his son Hezekiah removed to the vicinity of Killingly hill. The first meeting house in Killingly was built a little south of this hill, near the Providence road, in 1715, and encouraged settlement in that vicinity. The first minister, Reverend John Fisk, had his residence west of the hill.

Putnam’s first settler, Richard Evans, had now removed, and his home farm was occupied by Simon Bryant, of Braintree, who purchased house, barn, orchard, tanning pits, etc., in 1712. His oldest daughter, Hannah, married William Larned in 1715, and their son Simon succeeded to the Evans farm, the first land laid out east of the Quinebaug in this section, now owned by Mr. W. R. Holland. Thomas Whitmore settled north of Simon Bryant at an early date, on the farm now improved by Mr. G. W. Whittlesy. George Blanchard occupied land southward now held by 111r. William Converse. Michael Felshaw secured the farm still southward, reaching to the brow of Killingly hill. The farm now improved by the family of the late J. O. Fox was first owned by James Wilson. Near him was the residence of Jonathan Hughes, whose son Edmond set out the ” Great Elm,” so famous in revolutionary annals. John Johnson’s homestead was upon the site of the present residence of Mr. James Arnold. Samuel Lee purchased the northern part of what is now known as Parks hill, and built the house afterward occupied by Deacon Lusher Gay and his descendants. He died before 1730, at which date his widow, Mary Lee, was licensed to keep a house of public entertainment.

A granddaughter of Captain Joseph Cady, who afterward married Deacon Gay, delighted in old age to tell of ” a puppet show ” which she attended at this public house when she was six years old, viz., in 1731. There were many little girls and boys growing up in the vicinity at. that date. Deacon Eaton had eight or nine, Simon Bryant had seven daughters, William Larned seven sons, Joseph Leavens had eight daughters and three sons, the Cady and Lee children could hardly be numbered, and it is pleasant to know that they had this evening’s entertainment. ‘Up to this date there is no evidence that they even had the privilege of attending school, but were probably taught at home by fathers and mothers. The boys of the neighborhood enjoyed special privileges in fishing, the Quinebaug being famous for shad, salmon and lamprey eels. The latter were caught in ingeniously constructed weirs or ” eel-pots; ” suckers were speared by torchlight. The Indians were very skillful fishermen, and initiated their favorites into some of the mysteries of their art. An Indian girl ” was included in the inventory of Captain John Sabin’s possessions. An Indian family occupied a wigwam beside a huge boulder near the site of the Davis ice house, self-selected tributaries to Captain Cady, who had rescued them from some great peril. Both he and Captain Sabin were greatly respected by their Indian neighbors. An old squaw thus expressed her emotion, upon the return of the former from military service: ” 0 Massa Cady, I glad to see you! I so glad if I had a whole pint of rum I drink it all down myself.” Excessive indulgence in the use of cider, and any other liquor they could lay hands on, accelerated the dying out of these natives. Old Quaco, the last of his race, was tenderly cared for down to his last hours by the Perrin family.

In 1730 the privilege of the Great Falls was utilized by David Howe of Mendon, clothier, who purchased the point of land between the Quinebaug and Mill rivers, beginning forty rods above the falls, from Captain John Sabin and his son Noah. A dwelling house, grist mill, malt house and dye house were soon set up and in motion, accommodating his own neighborhood and adjacent parts of Pomfret and Killingly. Thompson parish had now been incorporated, taking in all the east side residents north of the falls. Killingly hill was gaining new inhabitants. Increasing development called for more roads and better traveling facilities.

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

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