A Brief History of
the Connecticut River
From the Rocky Hill Historical Society
A river is more than just a phenomenon of nature. It is a means of transportation, food, water and a power supply. In the colonial days people depended upon the river to a greater extent than we do today. Towns grew up close to rivers and people used it more often for transportation, food and as a water supply. Today it serves its purpose by providing transportation and power for industrial uses.
The history of the Connecticut River is far more interesting than its present use. In this paper I will try to give a brief description of the Connecticut River as it was about 300 years ago. The portion of the river concerned is the part where it by-passes the town of Rocky Hill and the neighboring town of Wethersfield. What made this river change its course? What resulted from this occurrence? What has been done to prevent it from changing its course again? These are the major questions which I will attempt to answer.
When the town of Wethersfield was settled in 1633 the course of the Connecticut River was different than it is today. It entered the town of Wethersfield from its northern border about 50 yards east of the present main road between Hartford and Wethersfield. It then flowed south until it reached the area where the State prison1 is now located. It curved again to form the bend where the present Wethersfield Cove is located. Then the river, flowing a northeastward course, turned and recrossed the northern boundary line of Wethersfield about 200 yards from the same main road mentioned above. The Connecticut River was now flowing southward. Then the river proceeds straight south for about another mile until it forks and forms an island. This island was called by the Indians of this area “Mannhannock”i but was given the name of Wright’s Island after the white man who owned it. The river still flowed southward around this 200 acre island and made a slight turn as it crossed the border line between Rocky Hill and Wethersfield. It made one more turn by the town of Rocky Hill where the Rocky Hill Ferry is located. This was the description of the Connecticut River from the northern border of Wethersfield until it reaches the Rocky Hill Ferry.
It happened that in the area where the river crossed the northern border of Wethersfield in the shape of the letter S; it underwent a change in its course. When a river changes its course soil is moved around in almost any direction. New land may turn up or former dry land may be under water. This is what happened to Wright’s Island and the meadow lands along the river when the Connecticut River’s course changed in the area of the State prison.
“After Wright’s Island became in effect a part of the mainland, the petition of the owner, James Wright, that it be set off to Glastonbury, was granted by the Legislature in 1792, and as a result of several settlements of line some 350 acres of Wethersfield in 1870 was on the east side of the river and about 80 acres of Glastonbury on the west side.”ii
What caused the river to change its course? In the area of the State prison the Connecticut River encountered a bed of hard red sandstone or shale lying under the soft alluvial meadow soil. This soil was gradually washed away by the river’s current until it dug deep enough to reach this layer of rock “or the Great Rock as it is Called.”iii When the river met this layer of rock it was hindered from flowing the way it had been, which was southwestward, and once it had cut a new course, it proceeded southeastward. This new course went through the old river bed in the center of the S and left only Wethersfield Cove and Keeny Cove in the old river bed on the northern border of Wethersfield.
It is not known how long it took the river to change its course. From 1633 until 1696 the river was washing away the soft meadow soil and gradually digging deeper until the Great Rock appeared in “1696”iv, (the year 1696 is estimated). This ledge of red sandstone was not visible when the town of Wethersfield was settled. The Great Meadow extended over and beyond it. The people who farmed this meadow in 1681 lost their land when the river changed its course and cut through this meadow. After 1691 Wethersfield continued to grant this land to the public. As the river changed its course the previous landing places were washed away and new ones were made. Although the Great Rock caused the river to wash away the early settlers land, it has contributed much to science in the way of fossils.
Almost as important as the river itself are the meadow lands which lie along either side of the river. Meadow lands are the periodically flooded lands along the river which are cleared and suitable for mowing or plowing. When the river floods after heavy snow falls and heavy rains in the spring, the Great Meadow and the Rocky Hill Meadows are under water. The flood waters bring fertile topsoil and deposit it over the meadows. This is one reason why the meadows are good farm lands.
The Great Meadow, which is located east of the present Wethersfield Cove, consists of 3,500 acres of good farm land. When the river changed its course this meadow was cut in half and as a result the land on the east side of the river was given to Glastonbury.
The Mile Meadow is bounded to the north by Beaver Meadow, a small meadow in Wethersfield, and to the east by the Connecticut River. At its lower point it meets the Rocky Hill Ferry. The whole Mile Meadow and part of Beaver Meadow are now in the town of Rocky Hill. This land is generally referred to as the Rocky Hill Meadows.
The first man to farm these meadow lands was John Oldman who settled in Wethersfield.
“John Oldman passed by the future sites of Windsor and Hartford, came to Wethersfield in about 1633 and planted in 1634 by the Great Meadow and the Great and Little Plaines. Most of the fields were south of a great bend in the Connecticut River. Oldham found good soil.”v
There is a great risk of having the river wash away the meadow soil. Today the river has been “tamed” by placing rocks along the river where the river makes a change in direction. There are two places where most of these rocks have been placed. These places are along the west side of the river where it bends toward the town of Wethersfield and the town of Rocky Hill. These are the best places to strengthen the river’s banks because the rocks, which were taken from the Rocky Hill Quarry, prevent the river from cutting into the soft soil of the Great Meadow and the Rocky Hill Meadows. Along the river, between Rocky Hill and Hartford, there is a line of trees behind the rocks to keep the soil together. Most of these trees are soft maples. The east side of the river is protected by trees alone. These trees were not planted on purpose like those on the west side of the river (see p.9). These are the major steps in flood control which have been taken to keep the river where it is.
The Connecticut River has changed its course only once and it is most likely that it will remain the way it is today. This is the way the river looked close to 300 years and the way it is now. Today man can change the course of a river or keep it under his control for his own use, but 300 years ago the river was uncontrolled by man and it went on a course that nature would have it flow.
Rocky Hill Town Reports, 1950-1965
Newspaper items, 1957-1964
Herbert J. Stoeckel
Jared B. Standish
My thanks to Aurora Manso for her assistance.
1 The Wethersfield Prison was located in Wethersfield when this article was written in 1966 but was subsequently moved to Somers, Connecticut.
i Henry R. Stiles, The History of Ancient Wethersfield Connecticut, (New York, 1904), Vol. 1, p.83.
ii Charles W. Burpee, History of Hartford County – Connecticut, (Chicago, 1928), Vol. II, p.1307.
iii Henry R. Styles, The History of Ancient Wethersfield, Connecticut, (New York, 1904), Vol. I, p.84.
iv Ibid., p.84.
v Charles W. Burpee, History of Hartford County – Connecticut, (Chicago, 1928), Vol. II, p.1299.
Brief History of the CT River