Short History Page

Short History of Barkhamsted, Connecticut

Want some basic historical information on Barkhamsted but don't have a lot of time to read all the details?  Here we present some background on our town that we hope you will find informative.  We are still working on this short history so check back for additional sections as they become available.  Right now we have the following topics:

1.  Earliest History - Geology
2.  Indians of Barkhamsted
3.  Early History and Settlement 

1. Earliest History - Geology

480 million years ago, the African and North American geologic plates experienced a collision of cataclysmic proportions that lasted millions of years.  As the African plate converged on North America thousands of miles of sediments and rock layers belonging to the pre-Atlantic Ocean, called Japetos, were compressed into the width of Connecticut.  As you might imagine, towering mountains similar to the Himalayas were formed in this area.

The Cameron Line is an inactive thrust fault that runs along Rt. 44 coming from New Hartford, crosses the Farmington near the Pleasant Valley bridge, and continues just east of Rt. 181 and west of the Barkhamsted Reservoir. This fault line follows the collision boarder and is similar to the San Andres fault in California.  East of the Cameron Line rocks generally formed from the ancient sediments and rocks of Japetos, which metamorphosed during the great collision and were buried deep within the mountains.  In the Riverton area are some of the oldest rocks on earth, which are over one billion years old and represent proto North America.  All of Barkhamsted's ledges were once deep inside mountains and have been exposed by millions of years of erosion that has removed between three and five miles of rock.

The fine-grained gneiss used in building the Episcopal church in Riverton (now the Hitchcock museum), local homes, and foundations was formed from ancient North American granite that metamorphosed during the collision.  These building stones were quarried from the ledges north of the Jessie Gerard trail near Big Spring in Peoples State Forest.

Soapstone, used for a long time by the Indians to make bowls or other implements was also quarried in Peoples State Forest.  Soapstone was formed from the ancient sea sediments.  Kyanite crystals and small deposits of magnetite on and near Pine Mountain in Tunxis State Forest are gifts of the collision.  Small garnets are found in the mica schist of the Hartland formation, which is common in the eastern part of our town and is metamorphosed ocean floor.

Barkhamsted's rivers and brooks follow the zones of weakness and fractures resulting from plate collision and separation.  In rock cuts near dams and along the roadside you can see the layers of deformed rock telling of those great forces that shaped the foundation of our town.

About one million years ago, the climate underwent a rapid change and in less than half a century Barkhamsted was covered with snowfields.  As the snow depth increased, the bottom layers turned to ice and a great glacier over a mile thick was born.  All of our hills and valleys were deep inside the ice and experienced major erosion as the glacier slipped towards the ocean.  Around 18,000 years ago our hills began to reappear as the ice melted.  But the valleys were still full of ice, higher than the hilltops, and giant rivers ran along the ridge tops.  As the valleys melted out most were occupied by temporary lakes backed up by glacial dams.  Rivers rushing into these lakes deposited layers of sand and gravel, which are over sixty feet deep in the area of Pleasant Valley and Stanclift Cove.  In the deep quiet waters of these lakes and in depressions left in the gravel terraces along the valley walls fine silt was deposited, the origin of our clay beds.  Many early brickyards and dish mills were established near these clay beds.

It took until the early 1900s before most of our town was cleared and the glacial story was more easily read.

For more information on our geologic past read The Face of Connecticut by Michael Bell (1985) and visit the Stone Museum in Peoples State Forest to see soapstone bowls and mineral specimens (


2. Indians of Barkhamsted

The discovery of a high-quality Paleo point in the early 1990s near where Morgan Brook enters the Farmington River would indicate the first Indians entered Barkhamsted about 10,000 years ago.  These early visitors were hunter-gather groups that moved regularly looking for fish, game, and harvestable plants.  There is not a tribal name that we can give to these groups until the time of European contact.  The point was fluted (a large flake was removed from both sides of the point leaving an obvious channel), similar to the famous Folsom points from New Mexico.  The point was used on a dart that was launched by a throwing stick called an atlatl, the bow and arrow were not introduced for another 8,000 years.  We refer to these early people as Paleos. 

They were followed by the Archaic group, who made different types of points.  Some of their bifurcated points have been recovered from the gravel terraces along the Farmington in Riverton and Pleasant Valley.  The Archaic people utilized fish from the Farmington River and its tributaries, hunted the forest, and made extensive use of white oak acorns, hickory nuts, chestnuts, berries, roots, and seeds.  There is good evidence that the Indians throughout southern New England used controlled burning of the forest to keep it free of brush and open enough to encourage the growth of nut trees, grasses, and berries, which fed both Indians and wild animals.  This increased the animal population and brought them near the village for hunting.  The Archaic people moved their villages regularly seeking sources of wood, clean sites, seasonal foods, and winter camps.

Towards the end of the Archaic period, around 3,000 years ago, the native people began using a major soapstone deposit for the making of cooking bowls, smoking pipes, and jewelry.  This site is located off the present-day Bronson Trail in Peoples State Forest.  This deposit provided soapstone for around 1,500 years and later became a rock shelter for an Indian group from the Woodland period, who made pottery.  Walter Manchester first discovered this site in 1901, and in 1948 it was fully excavated by Yale.  Many of the 450 artifacts recovered are on display at the Peabody Museum in New Haven.  The Pequots produced a film on soapstone bowl-making at this site, which they show at their museum in Mashantucket, Connecticut.

About 2,300 years ago, new materials began to arrive from the west:  corn, beans, squash, ceramics, and the bow and arrow were introduced over a period of time.  The raising of crops required cleared and tended land.  Old beaver meadows and sites cleared by fire made good fields.  People still moved about, but more permanent villages were established and at least some people had to stay with the crops.  They still changed their village sites for reasons of sanitation, wood supply, seasonal harvest, and to allow fields to rest.  Some of the natural meadows mentioned in the earliest town deeds were probably the remains of Indian fields, but many had already grown back to forests.  Trade was very important to these people just like it had been for all groups because materials like flint, chert, and jasper used to make points and tools were not found in Connecticut.

From the late 1500s to early 1600s, new trading partners showed up in the form of European explorers and settlers.  Both Europeans and Indians were eager to trade for each other's goods, which brought the Indian population into contact with diseases for which they lacked immunity.  In the early 1600s, diseases such as chicken pox, measles, and smallpox swept inland from the coast.  Early records state that in the 1620s, 1 in 20 Indians survived an outbreak of chicken pox.  These diseases tore apart Indian villages and social structure.  Disease, combined with the Indian involvement in the European wars fought in the new world, led to a major depopulation of this area.

Small family groups remained among the hills, remnants of the Tunxis tribe, which had occupied most of northwestern Connecticut.  Barkhamsted, being one of the last towns to be settled, served as sanctuary for the fragments of Connecticut and Rhode Island tribes into the 1800s.  Some gained the right to continue living on the land of the first proprietors by helping to clear the land, cut wood, make charcoal, and herd cattle.  Others, like James Chaugham and his family, bought their land and lived among the early settlers making baskets, hunting, fishing, and doing odd jobs.  Some of these people followed Samson Occum west into New York at the end of the Revolution, while others blended in to our communities where their descendents remain today.

To learn more about the Indians of Barkhamsted visit the Stone Museum in Peoples State Forest and view Doug Roberts' collection of artifacts on the first floor of the Barkhamsted Town Hall.  The Village of Outcasts, written by Kenneth Fender, Ph.D, provides good insight into James Chaugham and his Lighthouse Community.

3. Early History and Settlement

Barkhamsted was one of the last Connecticut towns to be occupied by white settlers.  Many towns, with excellent coastal locations or with superior farmland or on major rivers, were settled between 1635 and  1700.  With none of these advantages, Barkhamsted was not settled until the mid-1700's and was not formally incorporated as a town until 1779.

 In 1732 the land making up Barkhamsted was assigned to the town of Windsor, ending a quandary that started almost 50 years earlier.  The issue involved not only Barkhamsted but the entire northwest portion of the colony of Connecticut.   In 1686 the colony was fearful of loosing control of these unoccupied and unassigned lands.  This fear was a real possibility with the creation of the Dominion of New England by King James and the arrival of the new royal governor, Sir Edmund Andross.  In an effort to prevent the loss of these lands, the Connecticut General Assembly hastily deeded all the unassigned lands over to the towns of Hartford and Windsor.  The crisis was over after a few years, with a new King and with the demise of the Dominion of New England.  It was expected that the emergency remedy would be undone, that Hartford and Windsor would not actually retain the large tract of land.  For years, the issue was overlooked until some areas of the northwestern lands began to be settled in the early 1700's.  The ownership question had to be resolved.  Probably realizing their claim was weak, Hartford and Windsor nonetheless fought for years to retain rights to the land, in the hope of possible compensation.  Their hopes were realized.  In a compromise adopted in 1726, the General Assembly allowed half the land to stay with Hartford and Windsor.  The other half reverted back to the colony.

In 1732 the Hartford and Windsor land was divided up and the boundaries set.   Hartford would own Winchester, Hartland, New Hartford and the eastern half of Harwinton.  Windsor got Barkhamsted, Colebrook, Torrington and the western half of Harwinton.  The settlement stipulated that each taxpayer (called proprietors) would receive land in those towns in proportion to the amount of taxes he paid in 1720.  Hence, Windsor needed to allocate the lands of Barkhamsted among the 108 proprietors who paid taxes in 1720.  Imagine if you were one of these lucky proprietors!  You now had rights to what would be a number of parcels of land in four towns including Barkhamsted.

The land forming Barkhamsted was allocated to the Windsor proprietors in five divisions or lots.  The first division included lots running up the center of the town, from south to north, as well as lots running up along the eastern border.  Much of the central land in the first division fell between the present Center Hill Road and the East Branch of the Farmington River and therefore lies under the Barkhamsted Reservoir today.  Of this division, each proprietor received a lot containing one acre for each pound (sterling) he paid in taxes.  Which lot he received was determined by lottery.

Each proprietor was granted one acre of the second division for every ten pounds he paid in taxes, or one-tenth the amount of land he received in the first division.  This small division was located in south-central portion of the town, primarily along the West Branch of the Farmington River.

The third, fourth, and fifth divisions consisted of larger lots, which were also distributed by lottery to the Windsor proprietors.  The allocation of the final division was reported in June 1787.  Because so much time had passed, the lots often transferred to others, either by death or sale.

The town first applied for incorporation in 1774, but was not ultimately incorporated until 1779.  Barkhamsted is most likely named for Berkhamsted England, a town in the rolling hills 30 miles northwest of London, from which some of our town's earliest English settlers emigrated.  The name is derived from "borough" (also "beohr" or "berg"), which means both mountain or hill as well as fortification, "ham", meaning town (as in hamlet), and "stede," "sted," or "stedt," which simply means place.

In 1764, Barkhamsted, along with Winchester and Colebrook, were still classified as "towns not inhabited" though some people did live in the area.

Settlement in the western part of town accelerated after the Old North Road (earlier called the New Country Road or the Great Road through the Green Woods) was cleared around 1762.

Connecticut's first census, taken in 1756, lists 18 people living in Barkhamsted, including both Caucasians and Native Americans.  By 1771, the census shows 20 families, and the 1774 count was 250 inhabitants.  In 1778, the petition for a second Ecclesiastical Society lists 50 families living east of the West Branch.

The census of 1800 lists 1,437 residents, showing a great influx of settlers over the latter quarter of the 18th century, the Revolution and post-Revolution periods.  The town's population peaked in 1830 with 1,715 residents, before it began to drop off.  The population declined steadily for over 100 years, bottoming out around 1930 with fewer than 700 residents.  Since then, the population has risen sharply, climbing to the current figure of 3,600 in just seventy years.

Return the Town History main page.

Return to our Home Page.

Terms Of Service | Privacy Policy
All Copy and Images Copyright © 2022 Barkhamsted Historical Society All Rights Reserved.
Powered by Community Server (Non-Commercial Edition), by Telligent Systems