Sterling, Windham County, Connecticut History

THE township of Sterling occupies the southeast corner of the county, being bounded on the north by Killingly, east by Rhode Island, south by Voluntown (formerly a town of Windham county, but recently transferred to New London county), and west by Plainfield. The town is nine miles long from north to south, and has an average width of three miles. It is centrally distant -from Hartford 49 miles and from New Haven 73 miles. It contains an area of twenty-seven square miles. Much of the land is hilly or swampy. The town is well drained by the Quanduck and Cedar Swamp branches of Moosup river. It contains valuable building stones, which are quarried to some extent. Sterling hill, in the western part, is the original settlement, and occupies an eminence, furnishing a delightful view of the surrounding country. ‘The town is crossed near the center by the Providence Division of the N. Y. & N. E. railroad. Large quantities of railroad ties are cut from the woods of the town. Farming and manufacturing form the industrial interests of the town. Its population at different periods has been In 1800, 908; in 1840, 1,099; 1870, 1,022; 1880, 957. The grand list of the town in 1800 was $20,873; in 1847, $11,791; in 1857, $13,447; and 1887, $259,263. The number of children between the ages of four and sixteen in 1858 was 280; in 1881, 227; and in 1887, 197. The post ‘offices of Sterling, Oneco, Ekonk and North Sterling are in this town.

In October, 1696, Lieutenant Thomas Leffingwell, of Norwich, and Sergeant John Frink, of Stonington, moved the general court, “that they, with the rest of the English volunteers in former wars, might have a plantation granted to them.” A tract of land six miles square was granted in answer to this request, “to be taken up out of some of the conquered land,” its bounds to be prescribed and settlement regulated by persons appointed by the court. The volunteers sent “out upon the discovery ” of a suitable tract, found their choice very limited. Major Fitch, the Winthrops and others had already appropriated the greater part of the conquered lands, and the only available tract remaining within Connecticut limits was a strip bordering on Rhode Island, a few miles east of Norwich, and upon reporting this ” discovery ” to the general court, Captain Samuel Mason, Mr. John Gallop, and Lieutenant James Avery were appointed a committee to view the said tract, and to consider whether it he suitable for entertainment of a body of people that may be able comfortably to carry on plantation work, or what addition of land may be necessary to accommodate a body of people for comfortable subsistence in a plantation way.” After taking three years for viewing and considering, the committee reported favorably, and in October, 1700, Lieutenant Leffingwell, Richard Bushnell, Isaac- Wheeler, Caleb Fobes, Samuel Bliss, Joseph Morgan and Manasseh Minor moved for its confirmation to the volunteers, which was granted, “so far as it concur with the former act of the General Assembly, provided it bring not the Colony into any inconvenience ” or, as afterward expressed, ” do not prejudice any former grant of the court.” A large part of the tract thus granted is now comprised in the town of Voluntown. Its original bounds were nearly identical with those of the present township, save that eastward it extended to Pawcatuck river.

Little now can be learned of the primitive condition of this region. It was a waste, barren frontier, overrun by various tribes of Indians, and after the Narragansett war, claimed by the Mohegans. Massashowitt, sachem of Quinebaug, also claimed rights in it. No Indians are believed to have occupied it after the war, nor were any white inhabitants found on it when made over to the volunteers.

Some years passed before the division was completed. After the disputed Mohegan claim was settled a survey of the land was made in 1705. This land extended from the north bounds of Stonington northward to the Whetstone country, being a tract some twenty miles long, and from three to six miles in width. Its original quantity was diminished somewhat by the encroachment of the Rhode Island line, but after that had been established the tract was substantially the same as that now occupied by the towns of Voluntown and Sterling. One hundred and sixty persons had enrolled themselves as. desirous of sharing in the benefit of this grant, and the land was distributed among them by a drawing made April 6th, 1706. These drawers of lots were residents of New London, Norwich, Stonington, Windham, Plainfield and other neighboring towns. The list comprised not only officers and soldiers, but ministers, chaplains and many who had served the colony in civil capacity as well as military, during the war. Samuel Fish was probably the first settler on this tract, but at what point his settlement had been made (it being already there), we are not informed. Very few of the “volunteers” took personal possession of their allotments. Some of the proprietors sold out their rights at an early date, receiving five, six, eight, eleven and twelve pounds for an allotment. Others retained their shares and rented out farms on them whenever practicable. These first divisions were made in the southern part of the tract surveyed and most, if not all of the first land divisions and operations were probably within the limits of the present town of Voluntown. Northward lay the vacant land east of Plainfield. This land was petitioned for both by Plainfield and Voluntown. Some few had already obtained possession of lands here and had made improvements upon them. Reverend Mr. Coit, of Plainfield, had received a grant of three hundred acres north of Egunk hill, and he conveyed it to Francis Smith and Miles Jordan. Smith soon put up a mill and opened his house for the accommodation of travelers. Smith and Jordan, in 1714, erected a bridge over the river there, and received in payment 150 acres of land on the Providence road. This convenient road and pleasant locality soon attracted other settlers-John Smith, Ebenezer and Thomas Dow, Robert and John Parke, Robert Williams, Nathaniel French and others. In May, 1719, this vacant country was annexed to Voluntown, by act of the assembly, a strip one mile in width across the north end being reserved as public land. The settlers who were established in the vacant land had their purchases confirmed to them by the assembly, in October, 1719, on condition that each should “have a tenantable house and settle themselves within the space of three years and continue to live there three years after such settlement, upon the forfeiture of said purchase.”

In May, 1721, the people inhabiting this territory were invested with town privileges, in the exercise of which they proceeded to lay taxes for the support of a minister and building a meeting house. The town government of Voluntown was organized June 20th, 1721. Thirty-seven persons were then admitted inhabitants. The town -,-,,as thus eighteen or twenty miles long and three or four miles wide. The question of location of a meeting house was a perplexing one, but it was finally decided by actual measurement, and placing it in the geographical cen-ter of the town, or about a quarter of a mile therefrom, the central point falling on an inconvenient spot. The first pastor settled by the town was Reverend Samuel Dorrance, a Scotch Presbyterian lately arrived from Ireland, who was installed December 12th, 1723. A church had been organized October 15th, 1723. This church adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith and was the first and for a long time the only Presbyterian church in Connecticut. The first members of the church were Samuel Dorrance, Robert Gordon, Thomas Cole, John Casson, John Campbell, Robert Campbell, Samuel Campbell, John Gordon, Alexander Gordon, Ebenezer Dow, John Keigwin, William Hamilton, Robert Hopkins, John Smith, Daniel Dill, Thomas Welch, Jacob Bacon, Daniel Cass, John Dorrance, George Dorrance, Samuel Church, Jr., John Dorrance, Jr., Nathaniel Deane, Vincent Patterson, Robert Miller. Patrick Parke, Samuel Church, Adam Kasson, William Kasson, David Hopkins, Charles Campbell, Nathaniel French, John Gibson, James Hopkins, John and Robert Parke, William Rogers and John Gallup.

In 1724 John Gallup had liberty to build a dam and saw mill “where he hath begun on ye stream that runs out of Monhungonnuck Pond,” and Robert Parke was allowed a similar privilege on the Moosup. The landed interests of the town were still managed by the proprietors, and their meetings were held at New London, Norwich and Stonington. This subjected the resident proprietors to much inconvenience and was afterward corrected by allowing a part at least of the business concerning lands to be done in the town. In May, 1726, Voluntown organized its first military company, with John Gallup, for captain; Robert Parke, for lieutenant; and Francis Deane, for ensign. The progress of the town had been greatly retarded, and at that date it was much behind its contemporaries, having no schools nor even a meeting house, and but few roads laid out. A long continued and obstinate contest over the site of the meeting house disturbed the town and prevented the erection of the building. Then again, boundary contests with the adjoining towns disturbed the peace of the town. Added to these disturbing. forces from without and within was the fact that its population, though quite large, was motley and disorderly, made up of substantial settlers from adjacent townships, sturdy Scotch Presbyterians and lawless Rhode Island borderers. So great was the popular agitation and discontent that at one time the town voted ” that it desired that the patent granted to Voluntown might be un-acted and made void, and that the town be divided by an east and west line into north and south ends, and each end to make and maintain their own bridges and highways.” Attempts to go on with the building of the meeting house in this disturbed condition of affairs were quite suspended. A frame had been set up on Egunk, now Sterling hill, the site chosen and contended for by a large faction, and there it stood for years without covering. In 1729, however, the agitation was so far subsided that a meeting house was begun upon the site originally designated by the town, and this was completed in the course of two or three years.

In 1740 a committee was appointed to lay out the undivided lands belonging to the proprietors. In 1739 the strip of public land which had been reserved, a mile in width, at the north end of the town, was annexed to this town by an act of the assembly. Up to this time no freemen had yet been sworn, no ” country taxes ” paid, and no representatives sent to the general assembly. The town now settled down to a more complete fulfillment of the privileges and responsibilities of corporate existence. But the division of land ordered in 1740 was delayed till 1747, when all previous committees being dismissed, Humphrey Avery, Charles Campbell, Robert Dixon, Samuel Gordon and John Wylie, Jr., were appointed to divide the common lots to each proprietor or his heirs, remeasure and rebound old lots, and lay out cedar swamps, which were satisfactorily accomplished. The cedar and pine swamps, said to be the best in the county, were laid out and divided. The lot on which the meeting house stood, and the burial place adjoining, were sequestered for the use of the inhabitants of the town and their successors. Several of the original lots had not been taken up by those to whom they had been granted.

In this condition Voluntown remained for many years, a greater part of the inhabitants averse to the established church and yet compelled to pay rates for the support of its ministry. Attempts were made by residents of each end of the town to procure distinct society privileges. A petition presented to the assembly in 1762 sets forth the situation in the following language:

” That there was but one society in Voluntown, twenty miles long and four or five wide; list in 1761, £10,786; inhabitants settled at each end and dispersed in almost every part, about one hundred and eighty families, some dwelling seven, some nine and, ten miles from meeting house; trouble of transporting ourselves and families very great and heavy; town conveniently situated for division; such burden of travel hardly to be found in any other town-and prayed for division.”

In 1772 fifty-four persons north of Moosup river, including John, James and George Dorrance, Robert, Thomas and James Dixon, Robert Montgomery, John Coles, John Gaston, Mark and David Eames, some of them six, seven, eight and nine miles from Voluntown meeting house, and greatly impeded by bad roads and traveling, received liberty from the assembly to organize as a distinct society or join in worship with Killingly. A number of these northern residents consequently united with the church in South Killingly, and after some years organized as a distinct society.

Sterling obtained town privileges without the customary struggle. The inconvenience arising from the peculiar elongation of ancient Voluntown was abundantly manifest, and a proposition, April 205th, 1793, to divide into two towns met immediate acceptance. The resolve incorporating the new town was passed May, 1794, as follows:

“Resolved by this Assembly, that all that part of the ancient town of Voluntown, within the following bounds, beginning at the northwest corner of said ancient town of Voluntown, at the south line of Killingly; thence running southerly on the east side of Plainfield until it comes to the southeast corner of Plainfield; thence east ten degrees south to the division line between this state and the state of Rhode Island; thence by said state line to the southeast corner of Killingly; thence westerly on the line of Killingly to the first mentioned bounds, be, and the same is hereby, incorporated into a distinct town by the name of `Sterling,’ and shall be, and remain in, and of the County of Windham.”

The first town meeting was held at the house of Robert Dixon, Esq., on Sterling hill, June 9th, 1794. Benjamin Dow was elected town clerk and treasurer; Captain John Wylie and Asa Montgomery, George Matteson, Anthony Brown and Lemuel Dorrance, selectmen; Captain Thomas Gordon, constable and collector; Noah Cole, James Dorrance, Jr., Nathaniel Gallup, Dixon Hall, fence viewers; Nathaniel Gallup, grand juryman; John Hill, Nathaniel Burlingame, Matthias Frink, tithingmen. Benjamin Dow, Lemuel Dorrance and John Wylie were appointed a committee to make division of all the corporate property that did belong to Voluntown; also, to settle the line with Voluntown gentlemen and make division of the poor. Sheep and swine were allowed liberty ” to go on the common.” The dwelling house of Robert Dixon was selected as the place for holding town meetings until the town saw cause to make other arrangements. Nearly a hundred inhabitants were soon admitted as freemen. The original Voluntown families-Dixon, Dorrance, Dow, Douglas, Cole, Smith, Gaston, Gordon, Gallup, French, Frink, Montgomery, Wylie-were still represented. Patten, Perkins, Vaughan, Young, Bailey, Burgess, Burlingame, Hall, Mason, and other later residents, appeared among the inhabitants. The name of the town was given by a temporary resident, Doctor John Sterling, who promised a public library in return for the honor.

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

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