Connecticut sketches

For a brief moment I thought perhaps I should write a post about the new UK Space Agency logo or some other topical, relevant subject I've pondered recently. But then almost nothing of what I've written on this blog has ever bowed to the dictates of timeliness or relevance, so why start now. And so:
Historical Collections,
containing a
General Collection of Interesting Facts, Traditions,
Biographical Sketches, Anecdotes, &c.
Relating to the
History and Antiquities
of Every Town in Connecticut,
Geographical Descriptions.
Illustrated by 190 Engravings.
by John Warner Barber.
 second edition.
New Haven:
Published by Durrie & Peck and J.W. Barber,Price: three dollars. *

I purchased this book for a few dollars at a local flea market not too long ago. It was gratifyingly cheap because the condition is so poor— the cover has fallen off, the fold out map is barely tethered to the spine, and virtually all the pages have foxing or are totally discolored. But every page is intact, including one at front with an inscription in brown ink ("H. P. Havens/ bo't 28 March 1838). I like the heft of the book, the substantial rustle of its 550+ cottony pages, the dark whorls of its marbled end papers. 

The numerous little engravings are of a piece: restrained, bucolic, charmingly naive. Within this engraver's earnest but narrow visual repertoire, most every town in Connecticut looks like another: white steepled churches and a few plain buildings set amidst gently rolling hills, enlivened, now and then by a coach, or a chimney belching smoke, that curious 19th century conceit that signals prosperity and purposeful diligence.

Content is a hodgepodge of pedantic identification ["South view of Fair Haven (western part.)"], colorful local lore (there's a surprisingly empathetic Indian presence), liberal use of extracts from old newspapers and town records on a seemingly random array of subjects, and curiously, transcriptions of epitaphs "copied from the monuments" in local burying grounds. This last practice appears to be de rigeur for the author, Mr. JW Barber, for imparting to his readers the true essence of each town: past highlights, if you will. An inscription found in Tolland:
Cap't Amos Fellows was captivated [sic] by ye British troops on ye Island of New York, Sept. 15, 1776, and was closely confined for several months, and there suffered repeated hardships, probably insupportable, died in captivity Feb. 16, 1777, in ye 48th year of his age. His remains are there still, and that his memory may be perpetuated, this monument is here erected by his son. A tribute of a tear is due to him who in his country's cause has lost his life.
Here's one for Molly, a young woman who died in 1792, aged 24:
Molly, tho' pleasant in her day,
was sudd'nly seiz'd and sent away.
How soon she's ripe, how soon she's rotten,
Laid in the grave and soon forgott'n.
Mr. Barber comments on the "rather unrefined" sentiment in that one.
Our author/narrator/tour guide compiled and edited this text in 1837, long ago in our past, but it isn't the 1830s that we learn much about— it's the people of his past that come most clearly into view. Barber relates or reprints many a stirring episode from the Revolution or from Colonial days, and a good number of odd and dramatic local anecdotes of fifty or a hundred years previous. When he returns to his own time, his narrative powers fail him and we're more likely to hear about the height of high tide or the situation of the local quarry.  

In Wethersfield we learn in detail about the tragic Beadle family murder-suicide: mother and five children "consigned over to better hands" by the father, who was "impatient to visit his God."

In Ridgefield we get the sad back story of Sarah Bishop, hermitess:
Her father's house was burnt by the British, and she was cruelly treated by a British officer. She then left society and wandered among the mountains near this part of the state, where she found a kind of cave near Ridgefield, where she resided till about the time of her death, which took place in 1810. She sometimes came down to Ridgefield to attend public worship on the Sabbath. It is said that the wild animals were so accustomed to see her, that they were not afraid of her presence. The following account of a visit to this hermitess, is taken from a newspaper printed at Poughkeepsie, in 1804. "She was without form. Her dress appeared little else than one confused and shapeless mass of rags, patched together without any order, which obscured all human shape, excepting her head, which was clothed with a luxuriancy of lank grey hair depending on every side, as she had formed it, without any covering or ornament. When she discovered our approach, she exhibited the appearance of a wild and timid animal, she started and hastened to her cave, which she entered, and barricadoed the entrance..."
Among the many extracts from old newspapers are several advertisements in this vein, reprinted without comment from the author :
Litchfield, Oct. 6, 1761.
Notice is hereby given, that there is now in Litchfield gaol, a mulatto fellow who calls himself Caesar Sambo, about 5 foot 10 speaks good English, well made, sprightly, about 25 years of age: says he is free... he was traveling without a pass...
A Likely Negro Wench and Child to be sold. — Inquire of the Printer. To be sold by the subscriber, of Branford, a likely Negro Wench, 18 years of age, is acquainted with all sorts of House Work; is sold for no fault. June 15, 1763.
*In 1838, this book cost $3 (or about $71 in today's money according to this site). I paid not too much more than the original price.

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