The peacefulness of Canaan, the second smallest town in Connecticut, belies a history that is anything but quiet. For it was here, beginning in the early 18th century, peaking in the 19th and ending in the early 20th, that stone blast furnaces poured forth red-hot, high quality Salisbury iron. Mountains and valleys were stripped bare of trees to make charcoal to feed the hungry furnaces. A huge factory once stood at the Great Falls and employed hundreds of men to manufacture cannons, war materiel and huge railroad tires from the famed Salisbury iron. One hundred years ago the center of town, now so quiet, was a beehive of commercial activity, a boomtown, and early entrepreneurs dreamed of channeling the power of the falls to fuel an industrial empire.
Thankfully, the iron industry moved to the easily accessible surface iron mines of the Midwest, the plans for empire collapsed, the ravaged mountains and valleys reclaimed their natural splendor, and the peaceful life of a small town returned. Today, the stunning and unspoiled natural beauty of Falls Village remains its most prized and closely guarded asset, and its rich New England heritage remains firmly in place and guides its future.
The Earliest Inhabitants--Native American Indians
The Institute of American Indian Studies, headquartered in Washington, CT, has conducted a number of archaeological surveys in Falls Village and North Canaan, including sites along the Housatonic River and around Robbins Swamp in Falls Village. The latter revealed sites dating back thousands of years, indicating that Falls Village was settled very early by Native American societies, probably in early post-Pleistocene times soon after deglaciation.
When people of European stock arrived in the Falls Village area in the early 1700’s, much if not all appears to have been Weantinock tribal territory. A well-worn Indian trail along the banks of the Housatonic connected the Schaghticoke tribe in Kent with the Stockbridge Indian community in western Massachusetts to the north and with the Weantinock, Pootatuck and Paugussett tribal communities to the south as far as Stratford on Long Island Sound. It was known as the Berkshire Path.
The Indians on the whole were friendly to the newcomers, although some bitter arguments broke out over land sales and rights to natural resources, such as tree bark for wood splint basket making and rights to frequent Indian fishing and planting grounds. Most Indians thought of land rights as that of occupancy only, not of outright ownership. Representatives of Connecticut’s General Court were called in to settle disputes, which the Indians usually lost.
Connecticut Assembly records report that about 1,000 Indians were left in the state by 1756, most considered friendly. Eventually the Indians in the northwest corner were pushed out, except for the Schaghticokes in Kent, whose village became a major Indian refuge for members of other tribal groups attempting to continue their traditional way of life.
Early White Settlement
For almost a century, white people, mostly of European stock, especially English, had gradually claimed or bought and settled much of the rugged territory in the colony of Connecticut. Nearly twice as many towns were settled in the 30 years after 1690 as in the 30 years before. The estimated population of the Colony of Connecticut in 1730 was 60,000 and growing rapidly. But there was one last section of the Colony, the northwest corner or the so-called Western Lands, that was still mostly virgin wilderness.
In the early 1700’s high-grade iron ore had been discovered in Salisbury. White men, many of Dutch descent migrating from the Hudson River area, began buying up land and water rights from the Indians and a few received grants from the Connecticut General Assembly. By 1735, Thomas Lamb was smelting iron in Lime Rock. The General Assembly considered it illegal for anyone to buy property in the Western Lands without its express approval and consent. The “persons who have encroached and unjustly entered” the territory caused great concern.
The Western Lands, with their beautiful vistas, rich soils, abundant waterpower, exceptional iron ore, limestone and vast stands of virgin timber were ripe for settlement. Pressure was put on the Assembly to open up the Western Lands to development.
In 1731 the General Assembly accepted the report of three men who had been sent to the northwest corner to survey the land and lay out the townships. Word spread about the potential and beauty of the rugged territory. Disagreement about the method of selling the land broke out and complicated the process. The Assembly finally decided to auction off the land to the highest bidders. The money from the sales was to be used for the support of schools in the settled towns in Connecticut. Those who had “encroached and unjustly entered” the Western Lands were told to leave. In 1738 and in subsequent years land in Canaan, Kent, Cornwall, Sharon, Salisbury, Goshen and other towns, in what would become Litchfield County in 1751, was sold, organized, and settled.
On January 3, 1738, at 1:00 o’clock in the afternoon, Town “C” was sold at auction in New London in 53 rights, or shares. The first fifty shares were sold outright with the remaining three shares set apart: one for the benefit of the first “gospel minister settled”, one to be sequestered for the use of the ministry forever, and one for the use of a school in such town. Since Town “C” at that time enclosed about fifty square miles, each share covered a large piece of land. The purchasers, known as proprietors, agreed to settle their land within two years, build a house of at least 18 feet square and seven feet stud, and subdue and fence at least six acres of land and pay their taxes and financial obligations. The occupants had to remain on the land for another successive three years. If these conditions were not met, the property would be forfeited. Proprietors asked the Assembly committee supervising the undertaking to be particularly watchful to see that non-resident proprietors did not send any settlers who would likely become a burden on the town. Strong backs and willing hands were required.
Town “C” was formally named Canaan by the Assembly in May 1738. It is interesting to note that the land in Canaan and Goshen was considered the most attractive, and bids started at 60 pounds for each share. So rapid was the influx of population that the Assembly incorporated Canaan in 1739. Perhaps the biblical name of Canaan attracted the attention of these staunch, church-going Christians. Some towns in the northwest corner would take years to be incorporated.
The names of some of the early settlers—Lawrence (Tavern/homestead), Beebe (Hill road and school), Belden (Street), Hollenbeck (River), Holcomb (farm), Hogoboom (farm) and Dutcher (bridge) are still familiar in the area more than two and a half centuries later.
Taming the Wilderness
After many days of difficult travel through wilderness to reach the Western Lands, the early settlers set about providing for the basic necessities. Protection from the elements and wild animals was secured, cropland cleared and planted, and a place of worship and town government established. It was important to these settlers that the earliest roads would take them to their place of worship, the tax-supported Congregational Church, the official religion of the Colony.
The winter of 1740-41 was especially severe, and many settlers suffered from the extreme cold, deep snow and “extra-ordinary sickness.” Many farm animals froze to death. The sturdy pioneers petitioned the General Assembly for financial relief.
Bears, wolves and rattlesnakes were plentiful in the northwest corner. In their earliest action, Canaan selectmen offered bounties for the tails of dead rattlesnakes. Blackbirds, jays and squirrels were on their hit list too. Old records tell of hunting parties organized in the area. Five bears were reported killed on the same day in one hunt, and five wolves met the same fate in another hunt in 1765. Connecticut offered a bounty of 40 shillings for “cattamounts or panthers.”
From early town and other written records we know that slaves once lived in the town of Canaan. Owning slaves at that time was not uncommon. Slavery as it developed in Connecticut was an outcome of the heritage, customs and religion of the people of the colony. A census in 1774 tallied 5,101 slaves in the colony; by 1790 the United States census recorded 2,759 slaves and 2,801 free Negroes. Emancipation in Connecticut came slowly in measured legal steps until the stain of slavery ended in 1848, except for those slaves aged 64 or older.
Certainly the slaves who came with the earliest settlers must have participated in the backbreaking and dangerous work of taming the wilderness. On small farms in New England slaves usually worked side by side with their masters. Their forced participation in the settling of Canaan and her sister towns has not been adequately disclosed in historical records, diaries or journals. There are a few recorded histories of slaves who lived in the northwest corner, and most of those African-Americans lie in unmarked graves, their personal histories unknown. Their silent, important contributions should be respected and gratefully acknowledged.
Researched and written by Betty Tyburski.
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