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:
Earliest History - Geology
Indians of Barkhamsted
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
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
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
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 (http://www.stonemuseum.org).
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
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
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
This deposit provided soapstone for around 1,500 years and later
became a rock shelter for an Indian group from the Woodland period, who
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
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
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
Others, like James Chaugham and his family, bought their land and
lived among the early settlers making baskets, hunting, fishing, and doing
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.
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
With none of these advantages, Barkhamsted was not settled until
the mid-1700's and was not formally incorporated as a town until 1779.
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
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
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
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.
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