(or, de-colonizing Windsor’s history)

Sometimes I joke that, having served previously as director of Wethersfield Historical Society, I’m the only person to be historical society director of both of Connecticut’s “first towns.” Many of you are aware of the (mostly friendly) rivalry between Windsor and Wethersfield over this “first town” designation, and we are frequently asked to render an opinion on “who was first.”

But what does the distinction of being “first” really mean? Whose cultural perspective does this distinction reflect, and what might be a more inclusive way of acknowledging Windsor’s origins?

Of course, the true first post-glacial settlements were those of the region’s Indigenous peoples beginning around 13,000 years ago, according to our state archaeologist. Even the Dutch beat the Plymouth traders who settled Windsor in 1633 when they arrived in what is now Hartford several months earlier. This has led the towns of Windsor and Wethersfield to temper their first town claims to something more like “first English settlement” or “first English town” and then to squabble about the true meaning of the word “town” vs “settlement,” subscribing to the philosophy that with enough qualifiers you can be first at almost anything!

Welcome to Windsor and Wethersfield signs

Welcome to Windsor (with town seal) and Wethersfield (with red onion logo) signs. | Photos by Michelle Tom and Kristen Wands.

At the time of their arrival in Windsor (or Matianuck, as it was known to the English in 1633), the English reported encountering its first residents who they identified with tribal names like Poquonock, Nowashe, Sicaog, and Tunxis. Centuries before the invention of modern fast rail lines, these people had long-perfected “transit-oriented development,” by densely populating the shores of the region’s waterways during the warmer months to foster a sophisticated network of trade, travel, communications, and sustenance.

By 1633, however, these communities were sparse, reflecting populations already ravaged by the spread of European-borne diseases that often preceded colonial settlement throughout the region. Reverend John White used this fact in 1630 as a selling point to recruit future Windsor settlers in Dorset, England, noting that “a three years plague” had decimated native inhabitants and that their cleared lands were to be had for the asking.

Just a year later in 1631, when faced with more powerful competitors like the Pequots to the southeast, this region’s smaller tribal groups sent representatives to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in hopes of enticing gunpowder-wielding Englishmen to settle nearby as a counterweight to this territorial threat. The English were not slow to see the advantage of occupying a position north of the Dutch on the primary trade artery (the Connecticut River) to intercept the beaver trade coming south, not to mention the acres of already-cleared rich agricultural land.

View of the Connecticut River from “Plymouth Meadows,” the early English name for the site near the confluence of the Farmington and Connecticut Rivers where a group from Plymouth set up a trading post in 1633. | WHS collections 2015.44, photo by Christina Vida, 2015

There were, as it turns out, three distinct groups of English who vied for the land that we now call Windsor. While this fact alone made it virtually inevitable that this English invasion would have occurred sooner or later, the “invitation” from what they called the “River Indians” was certainly a convenient excuse. Future generations of English and Americans would later fall back on this invitation as justification for occupying central Connecticut in force and dispossessing not only the Pequots but ultimately all of its Indigenous peoples of their land and livelihood (“we were invited, so it was ok”). Be careful what you ask for.

Towns of Windsor and Wethersfield, CT logos

Town of Windsor, CT logo, with a “1” in the negative space of the star. Town of Wethersfield, CT logo, with red onion.

Today’s Windsor and Wethersfield both proudly display symbols of their colonial-era pasts. The big number “1” on Windsor’s town logo is bold reference to its “first town” claim. Wethersfield claims to be “Ye Most Ancient Towne” in Connecticut, and its red onion logo symbolizes one of the town’s major colonial-era exports. Many of these red onions ended up in the West Indies to feed enslaved plantation workers whose labor growing sugar cane was too valuable to be diverted to food production.

Both towns have a history rooted in Indigenous dispossession and violence and complicity in the system of chattel slavery that endured for over 200 years. Does this mean that Windsor and Wethersfield’s English colonists were not intrepid, courageous, or hardworking? Of course not. In fact, many endured countless hardships as they struggled to establish a foothold in their new homes, and not all directly interacted with the Indigenous population. They were, however (perhaps unconsciously for many), part of a broad sweep of history that some historians call the “European invasion of North America.” The 1633 Plymouth trading post in Windsor, which entitles the town to its distinction as Connecticut’s first, was essentially a reconnaissance mission for the larger English occupying force that later came overland and up-river to settle Windsor, Wethersfield, and Hartford.

So, what does it mean to be “first”?

For years the mostly white residents of Windsor and Wethersfield took pride in (and fought vigorously over) the claim to being the first settlement of the new English colony and eventually the state of Connecticut. They were, however, essentially fighting over who was first to invade and dispossess the Indigenous peoples’ of their tribal lands. The word “dispossess” strikes me as a very sanitary word, for behind it lies a history of violence, enslavement, and oppression. Putting it more clearly, Indigenous (Chickasaw) historian Jodi Byrd states that “The story of the new world is horror, the story of America is a crime.” From this perspective, one might wonder if Windsor townspeople should not be so quick to take pride in this notoriety?

This image depicts the attack on the Pequot’s fortified village at Mystic on June 5, 1637 and was included in John Underhill’s account of the Pequot War published in London in 1638. From mptn-nsn.gov.

While no one is responsible for the actions of their ancestors, we are responsible for our actions today, and for the society that we live in, which is a product of the past. To be clear, this is not an effort to assign guilt, as some have suggested. Author Emma Dabiri notes, “guilt and shame have nothing to offer. As a ‘white’ person, dwelling in either state as a response to racism is self-indulgent and white centered; it will also dictate that you prioritize making yourself feel better, rather than bringing about any meaningful change.”

It is more about avoiding what Indigenous historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz calls a “race to innocence” where “individuals assume that they are innocent of complicity in structures of domination and oppression.” She notes that “in a settler society that has not come to terms with its past, [emphasis added] whatever historical trauma was entailed in settling the land affects the assumptions and behavior of living generations at any given time, including immigrants and the children of recent immigrants.” In other words, we all have some responsibility for acknowledging and coming to terms with the town’s past.

How do we “come to terms” with this past? What is the role of a local historical society in engaging its community in this history and how might we more effectively partner with today’s Indigenous people to understand and address it?

Perhaps celebrating “being first” is not a good way to begin addressing past injustices.

Instead, perhaps acknowledging the role of English and European colonizers in forcibly  removing Indigenous people from their land and creating narratives inclusive of Indigenous voices is a more respectful and historically accurate way to account for the establishment of colonial towns like Windsor and Wethersfield. Understanding and coming to terms with our history should not end with this meager acknowledgement, however. Recognizing that Connecticut’s Indigenous people were not eliminated but are still here today is also essential. There are thousands of descendants of the state’s earliest Indigenous residents who still call Connecticut home (some of you may be among this group), each with stories that are vitally important.

“Doing history” inclusively means that people have agency in telling their own stories and in establishing their own historical narratives. A local historical organization (and its broader community) should aspire to being a trusted partner in this process. Being “first” has long been an element of pride for the  predominantly white Windsor community. Local historical societies have traditionally reinforced and celebrated that pride.

Today (2023), with a Windsor comprised of 52% people of color and 48% white people, we must redefine how a historical society reinforces and celebrates community pride, while serving as facilitator of an inclusive historical narrative. We must partner with all members of our community to come to terms with the reality of our colonial-era past in a way that acknowledges and embraces our Indigenous precursors and neighbors, and seeks to partner with and uplift, to the extent that they desire, the history and stories of Windsor’s true “first” people.

To hear Executive Director Doug Shipman and Librarian/Archivist/Assistant Director Michelle Tom discuss this topic in podcast form, check us out on Amazing Tales CT with Mike Allen.

By Doug Shipman, executive director, 2023

oldest town in Connecticut