Fort – Fort Saybrook – Old Saybrook, Connecticut

“These are they who arranged the settlement from which we are sprung. Little except anxiety, toil and financial loss came to them from it. But they were honoruable men: they played a conspicuous part in the great events of a great time, and wrought for that liberty under law which both England and America  today enjoy. It is fitting that we should remember and give thanks for them.”

– Rev. Edward M. Chapman, November 14, 1910

At the mouth of the Connecticut River stood the first English for in the colony of Connecticut built in 1635. It was destroyed by fire in 1647. Beyond it, on the bank of the river stood a second fort built in 1648. The earthworks of this fort were demolished in 1870.

The Connecticut River is the only river that flows the length of New England, 400 miles from the Canadian border to Long Island Sound. The river has withstood intensive development mainly because of the sandbar blocking entrance to large vessels.

Efforts to improve navigation along the Connecticut River date back to 1773 when the legislature approved a lottery for marking the Saybrook bar. Today the Army Corps of Engineers maintains a 15-foot channel. For three centuries the river served as a ready-made highway for trade and travel. Ferry service between Saybrook and Lyme began in 1662. Shipbuilding along the river was once a major industry, accounting for over 1,000 vessels. By 1824, there was regular steamboat service between Hartford and New York. The eight-town Gateway Commission protects the estuary as far as 17 miles upstream by means of a conservation zone.

Panoramic photo of the Fort Saybrook Monument Park.

English Efforts at Settlement The Earl of Warwick, President of the Council for New England, received from King James I, the right to settle the area from Narragansett River to the Pacific. In 1631 he conveyed the Patent to 15 Puritan Lords and Gentlemen for refuge in case the Puritan Revolution failed and King Charles I was restored to the throne. Three leading Patentees were William Flenner, Lord Brooke, and Colonel George Fenwick.

John Winthrop, Jr., son of the Governor of Massachusetts, was commissioned Governor of the River Colony by Patentees. He arrived in Boston in October, 1635 and learned that the Dutch were planning to occupy the mouth of the river. So he dispatched a small bark with 20 carpenters and other workmen under Lieutenant Edward Gibbons and Sergeant Simon Willard to the mouth of the river with directions to take possession of the place and raise a building.

They landed November 24, 1635, and tore down the Dutch Coat of Arms and mounted a shield on which the painted a grinning face. In a few days a Dutch ship approached but when they saw the soldiers and two well-placed cannon they withdrew. Winthrop changed the name of the point to Sayebrooke in honor of Viscount Saye and Sele (William Fiennes) and Lord Brooke.

Map of Saybrook showing improvements through 1790

Artist’s rendering of Lionel Gardiner’s Fort

Monument to Lion Gardiner near the site of the fort he had built.

In 1635 Lieutenant Lion Gardiner, a tall redheaded military engineer, was engaged by Governor John Winthrop, Jr. to build a fort and lay out a town for the Warwick Patentees. His contract was for a period of four years at an annual salary of 100 English pounds. Gardiner arrived in the bark BATCHELOR with his wife Mary in March of 1636 and began to build a stout palisade fort and a windmill for grinding corn. The next month his son David was born the first recorded birth of an English child in Connecticut.

Gardiner designed a fort at Saybrook in the European tradition as a square, palisaded fortification containing several structures, surrounded by an earthen embankement and moat. A movable drawbridge crossed the moat at the entrance on the western side. Cannon platforms were placed in each corner. The fort was well positioned to guard against an attack from upriver or from Long Island Sound. Its cannon could fire a mile away as far as Poverty Point on the opposite side of the river.

The English settlers found it impossible to pacify the Pequots, who in 1633 murdered a party of nine Englishmen at the mouth of the River. After Fort Saybrook was built, three hundred Pequot warriors constantly harassed the Fort, wounded Lion Gardiner, butchered livestock and burned storehouses and haystacks outside of the palisade. In May 1637, the Hartford and Saybrook colonies declared war on the Pequots. A force of ninety men under Captain John Mason was joined by Uncas, a renegade Pequot chieftain and his braves. They launched an attack by sea from Fort Saybrook and destroyed the Pequots’ main encampment near Groton. Following his service in the Pequot War Captain Mason was named the second Commander of the Fort.

When Gardiner’s contract expired in 1639, he bought the island between the north and south forks of Long Island, that later became known as Gardiner’s Island. Gardiner himself died in Easthampton, New York.

The burial place of Lady Fenwick.

George Fenwick, who was the only Warwick Patentee to settle in Saybrook, arrived here in 1639 to become its second Governor and to replace Lion Gardiner. With his wife and son, two sisters and servants, he took up residence in the great hall within the fort. Lady Alice Fenwick was a lovely auburn-haired widow of a nobleman. Governor Fenwick sold the Saybrook Colony to Hartford in 1644. The terms were an annual payment to him of 180 pounts – one-third in good wheat, one-third in peas, and one-third in rye or barley. The Saybrook seal eventually became the official seal of the State of Connecticut.

Lady Fenwick died in 1648. She was the daughter of Sir Edward and Lady Elizabeth Apsley, the widow of Sir John Boltier, and wife of George Fenwick who was the Governor of Saybrook Colony from 1639 to 1644. The brownstone monument over her grave was made by Mathew Griswold, a stonecutter. In return for agreeing that his family would perpetually care for the grave, Griswold received a large gift of land across the Connecticut River in Old Lyme. Lady Fenwick was moved to the Cypress Cemetery when the railroad was built in 1870.

In 1647, Gardiner’s fort burned to the ground, and a new, less elaborate fort was built nearer the river. George Fenwick returned to England the next year and died March 15, 1657.

Panoramic shot showing the original site of Yale University, founded in 1701.

Yale College was founded on this storied peninsula in 1701. This makes Yale the third-oldest institution of higher education in the United States, after New College (later Harvard University) that was founded in 1636, and The College of William & Mary that was founded in 1693. Later the college pulled up roots and relocated to New Haven, leaving their original campus behind.

Coming of the Railroad to Saybrook The Connecticut Valley Railroad obtained their State Charter on July 17, 1868. Surveys for the route along the Connecticut River from Hartford to Saybrook Point were completed in 1869. Track construction followed and was completed in the summer of 1871. The early earthwork fortifications at Saybrook Point were leveled during the construction of a turntable, a roundhouse, and railroad yards at the Point. The first ceremonial train traveled forty-five miles from Saybrook to Hartford on July 29, 1871.

Remains of the de-commissioned turntable tracks

In 1882, the Valley Railroad was acquired by the New Haven Railroad. Five trains daily provided service each way between Saybrook and Hartford with running times of two to three hours. Service was terminated in 1922 on the tracks from Saybrook Junction to Saybrook Point.

Prior to the construction of a railroad bridge in 1862 and an automobile bridge in 1911, ferries provided the only passenger service from Saybrook across the Connecticut River. The ferry was chartered in 1662 by the General Court at Harford. John Whittlesey and his brother-in-law William Dudley were the first ferrymen, a business that the two families maintained for several generations. When the railroad opened in 1872, the ferry SHAMPISHUE carried the railroad cars across the River. By 1888, the steam-powered LADY FENWICK had replaced the old sail-bearing ferries. The COLONIAL was the last Saybrook ferry to cross the Connecticut River and made her final run in 1911.

The Monument and Memorialization Phase The heirs of Alfred E. Wolcott purchased the land where Yale College got its start and donated this to the Town of Old Saybrook on April 1914 with the stipulation that it never by used for burials.

Stones commemorating the site of Yale College, 1701, later Yale University.

Fort Saybrook Monument Park consists of nearly 18 acres, about eleven of which are marshland. The park adjoins the mouth of the Connecticut River, a major New England estuary and tidal river. It has been recognized by an international convention as globally significant and contains one of the least developed or disturbed large-river tidal marsh systems in the U.S., and the most pristine large-river tidal marsh system in the Northeast. The lower Connecticut River has been identified by the Nature Conservancy as one of the 40 Last Great Places in the Northern Hemisphere. This site has great ecological, historical and cultural significance and is presently maintained by the Fort Saybrook Monument Park Association. Fort Saybrook Monument Park offers a rare opportunity for all visitors to learn about the rich and varied past of this important place in the world.

If anything the park suffers from its relative anonymity being just far enough off the beaten path to be overlooked and lacking clear directional signs to attract visitors there. Secondly, the many interpretive markers with overlapping content and themes, make it challenging for visitors to fully grasp the significance of the site and what it is all about. Lastly, complex stories such as the Pequot War and the struggle between the English, Native Americans, and Dutch for control of this area, go largely untold. This site has amazing significance on many levels from the 17th century forward. Hopefully thoughtful efforts will be made to give this important site its rightful place among similar attractions lining Long Island Sound.