History of Fairfield – A Summary
Courtesy of The Fairfield Historical Society
In the fall of 1639, Roger Ludlow, one of the founders of the colony of Connecticut, led a small group of men and a large herd of cattle to the shore of Long Island Sound. At a place known to the local Indians as Unquowa, they established a settlement that became known as Fairfield, named for the hundreds of acres of salt marsh that bordered the coast. The marsh provided a plentiful supply of feed for the livestock and abandoned Indian fields became the site of the settlers’ first agricultural plots. In the intervening years between those early days of settlement and today, much has occurred to change the face of Fairfield. Yet the town continues to bear the imprint of those who came before us.
Driving along U.S. Route One, the Boston Post Road, we follow the trail of a foot path which once connected the Indian villages along Long Island Sound. For thousands of years native Americans have dwelt in this area, following a seasonal movement from the hillsides in winter in search of game to the seashore in summer to fish and plant their corn. At the time of contact with Europeans in the early seventeenth century, the local Indians were known as the Unquowas, for the area in which they lived, which is thought to mean “the place beyond”. The Unquowas were a small clan of the Paugussett tribe, which was centered in southwestern Connecticut. By the time of Ludlow’s settlement, the population of these Indians had been severely decimated by diseases introduced by the early explorers. They made little resistance to Ludlow’s claim of all the land from the Saugatuck River in the west to the Stratford bounds (now Park Avenue) in the east and a day’s march inland from the Sound – a distance of approximately twelve miles.
The founding of Fairfield was not without conflict, however. Roger Ludlow had first seen this area in 1637 when as one of a band of settler-soldiers, he had pursued a group of Pequot Indians to a swamp in Southport. There, the Pequots made a last stand in a brief but bloody war caused by their resistance to settlers expansion into the Pequot’s territory in eastern Connecticut. The battle is commemorated by a monument on the Post Road in Southport.
Although few seventeenth-century dwellings remain standing in Fairfield, evidence of the early settlement of the town is visible to this day in the form of the town’s road system. Roger Ludlow laid out a grid for his new town; today’s Post Road, Old Post Road, Beach Road, and South Benson Road, centered on the Meeting House Green, now the Town Green. On these streets the settlers built their homesteads and the Meeting House, seat of government and place of worship. Around the village was a cluster of common fields where the early settlers raised their crops, grazed livestock and cut timber. Oldfield Road, Benson Road and Unquowa Road were once farm lanes which gave access to these fields. As the town grew and farmsteads were built outside of the village, more highways radiated from the center to provide access: Pequot Road to Greens Farms, Bronson and Mill Plain Roads to Greenfield, Jennings Road to Holland Hill. By the 1670′s the settlers began to divide the vacant land in the north of the town between themselves. A series of Long Lots were created, one to a family, running from today’s Fairfield Woods Road, Brookside Drive and Hulls Farm Road north to the Danbury bounds. Redding, Weston, and Easton were all once included within the boundaries of Fairfield. Today, if you drive up one of the old “upright highways” – - Sturges Highway, Burr Street, or Morehouse Highway- you are traveling on the access roads to the lands once owned by those families.
Fairfield prospered during its first century. Surplus farm products were traded for imported goods. Black Rock Harbor, now part of the City of Bridgeport, became the town’s leading port. There, ships were laden with wheat, flax, timber and livestock from the farms and sailed to Boston, New York and harbors as far away as the West Indies. They returned with needed goods such as nails to build their houses, textiles for clothing and furnishings, and molasses to be made into rum. The shipyards and wharves provided employment for many, including slaves. During the colonial period, Fairfield had one of the highest populations of blacks in Connecticut, almost all of whom were enslaved. An idea of how a colonial farming family lived can be gained by a visit to Ogden House, a restored “salt box” farmhouse built circa 1750, at 1520 Bronson Road. The house is operated as a museum by the Fairfield Historical Society.
When the Revolutionary War began in the 1770s, Fairfielders were caught in the crisis as much as if not more than the rest of their neighbors in Connecticut. In a predominantly Tory section of the state, the people of Fairfield were early supporters of the cause for Independence. Throughout the war, a constant battle was being fought across Long Island Sound as men from British-controlled Long Island raided the coast in whaleboats and privateers. Gold Selleck Silliman, whose home still stands on Jennings Road, was put in charge of the coastal defenses. In the spring of 1779, he was kidnapped from his home by Tory forces in preparation for a British raid on Fairfield County. His wife watched from their home as, on the morning of July 7, 1779, approximately 2,000 enemy troops landed on Fairfield Beach near Pine Creek Point and proceeded to invade the town. When they left the following evening, the entire town lay in ruins, burned to the ground as punishment for Fairfield’s support of the rebel cause. Ten years later, President George Washington noted after traveling through Fairfield, that ” the destructive evidences of British cruelty are yet visible both in Norwalk and Fairfield; as there are the chimneys of many burnt houses standing in them yet.”
Fairfield recovered slowly from the burning, but soon after the end of the war its houses and public buildings had all been rebuilt. Today’s Old Town Hall was erected as the Fairfield County Court House in 1794. A second landmark from this area is the Fairfield Academy, built as a private school in 1804 and operated today as a museum by the Eunice Dennie Burr Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Also on the Town Green sits the Sun Tavern, rebuilt by its owner, Samuel Penfield, after the burning and now owned by the Town of Fairfield. In the Stratfield section of the town is another landmark of the Federal era, the Stratfield Baptist Church, built in l8l3, the oldest house of worship standing in town.
Greenfield Hill, famous today for its beautiful homes and for the Dogwood Festival held each May, came into its own in the Federal period. In 1783 Timothy Dwight was called to be the pastor of the Greenfield Hill Congregational Church. A man of many talents, Dwight ministered to his flock, wrote poetry, and opened an academy of higher learning for young men and women. He was so successful at this last job that he was asked to become president of Yale College in New Haven. Around the church and green are beautiful examples of homes built by merchants and prosperous farmers during this period. South of the green stands the restored Bronson Windmill, erected in the late nineteenth century to provide water for the Bronson family’s estate. The Bronsons are credited with initiating the massive plantings of dogwoods which line the roads of Greenfield Hill.
In the 1700s, Mill River village was a small hamlet of a few houses and a wharf at the mouth of Fairfield’s Mill River. By 1831 the village had changed its name to Southport and was a bustling commercial area with warehouses, churches, schools, stores and elegant houses. Southport became a leading coastal port on Long Island Sound, its ships carrying produce and goods back and forth to New York City. A measure of its success is the fact that throughout the 1800s it possessed the only two banks in town. However, competition from steamboats and the railroad took its toll on prosperity. Resourceful shippers teamed with local farmers and businessmen to keep the port going; the Southport onion, a high quality onion was developed and grown on Fairfield’s hills and shipped in Southport market boats, keeping the harbor profitable until the end of the century. Today, much of the old village area is part of an historic district, where buildings from three centuries are protected for future generations.
The urban development that changed the nature of many of Fairfield’s neighbors to the east and west passed the town by in the 1800s. For the most part, Fairfield remained a quiet agricultural town. This unspoiled quality attracted many city dwellers who came to Fairfield starting in the 1840s with the opening of the railroad. They built summer cottages overlooking the Sound and along the main street, now Old Post Road. Many of these elegant dwellings still stand; two of the most spectacular, ‘Hearthstone Hall” and “Mailands” are now part of Fairfield University.
World War I and After
World War I brought Fairfield out of its agrarian past by triggering an unprecedented economic boom in Bridgeport, the center of a large munitions industry. The prosperity created a housing shortage in the city, and many of the workers looked to Fairfield to build their homes. The trolley and later the automobile made the countryside accessible to these newly rich members of the middle class, who brought with them new habits, new attitudes, and new modes of dress. The prosperity lasted through the twenties. By the time of the stock market crash in l929, the population had increased to 17,000 from the 6,000 it had been just before the war. Even during the Depression, the town kept growing. The opening of the Connecticut Turnpike in the 1950s brought another onslaught of development to Fairfield’and by the l960s the town’s residential, suburban character was firmly established.
Today, Fairfield is a thriving community of over 53,000 residents. Its population is extremely diverse, reflecting the different geographic and ethnic backgrounds of its people. Yet, despite the many changes of the last few years, it is possible today to still examine the history of the people who have lived within Fairfield’s bounds during the last 400 years. Through the objects and records they have left behind, we can begin to understand how Fairfield was transformed into the town we know and love today.
The Fairfield Historical Society, 636 Old Post Road, Fairfield, CT 06430, Phone 203-259-1598