A Brief History of Burlington, Connecticut

– by Clifford Thomas Alderman

The first human inhabitants of present-day Burlington were members of the Tunxis Tribe, who belonged to a confederation of Algonquian Indians. Legend holds they used the area as a hunting ground.

The first English settlers of Connecticut arrived in 1636, settling the plantations of Windsor, Hartford and Wethersfield. Shortly thereafter the settlers of Hartford desired to expand their land holdings. In 1640, John Haynes, governor of Connecticut, negotiated on behalf of the Hartford settlers a purchase from the Tunxis of a large tract of land west of Hartford. The newly acquired land, named by the Tunxis as Tunxis Sepus, or “Bend in the little river” was renamed Tunxis Plantation and in 1645 was incorporated as the town of Farmington. The original land area of Farmington included the present-day towns of Avon, Berlin, Bristol, Burlington, Farmington, New Britain, Plainville, Southington and parts of other towns.

Early relations between the Tunxis remaining in Farmington and the English settlers was often harmonious but occasionally the two cultures conflicted. By 1774 the remaining Tunxis petitioned the Connecticut General Assembly and were granted permission to migrate from Connecticut to join the Oneida Indians of New York. The last full-blooded Tunxis remaining in Farmington died in 1830.

For many years after its initial settlement Farmington’s remote and heavily forested western lands, known simply as the West Woods (Present-day Burlington and Bristol), remained uncharted and undeveloped. It was not until 1721 that the Farmington proprietors divided the area into tiers and lots. Six tiers of lots were laid out, each three hundred and fifty rods wide, and about 11 miles long, with reservations between for twenty, thirty and forty rod highways.

Even with the land divided and apportioned to landowners development remained slow, due primarily to the rugged terrain. Tradition relates that the first paths established in the northern half of the West Woods were Indian trails and a path established by the proprietors of the towns of Litchfield and Harwinton who passed through. The first known settler in the northern half of the West Woods was a man named Strong, who arrived in 1740. As time passed, other settlers followed. Settlement was scattered, however, and residents by necessity returned to the central village of Farmington for Sunday worship, town meetings, schooling of children and for supplies. In April of 1774 a group of settlers in the northern half of the West Woods, citing the hardships of having to travel to the village of Farmington for worship services, petitioned the General Assembly to be incorporated an independent ecclesiastical society. In October, 1774 the General Assembly consented by incorporating the northern area of the West Woods as the Parish of West Britain. The settlers of the southern half of the West Woods had presented a similar petition in 1742 and were incorporated as the New Cambridge Ecclesiastical Society. The ecclesiastical society as constituted in those days served as more of a political subdivision of the town and a tax was laid upon all persons owning lands within the Society limits for the purpose of supporting the local church and schools. The creation of an ecclesiastical society was also often the first step taken in breaking up large towns like Farmington into smaller independent towns.

Substantial growth of the newly formed West Britain Ecclesiastical Society was delayed as tensions between American colonists and the British over issues of taxation and sovereignty eventually led to the American Revolution. Farmington citizens, including those residing in West Britain, were active participants in the struggle for independence. West Britain resident, Deacon Stephen Hotchkiss, was a member of Farmington’s Committee of Relief and of Correspondence, appointed at a mass meeting in Farmington after the passage of the Boston Port Bill. Others enlisted in the Continental Army. The work of building homes and barns, clearing land and raising crops and livestock was for a time delayed as men took up arms against the British Crown.

Not all residents were supportive of the independence movement, however. West Britain had its share of Tories — sympathizers with the British Crown. Tories Den, a natural cave in the Southwestern corner of the parish, hid many area Tories from the hands of revolutionary forces. The land of one West Britain Tory, Mathias Leaming, was confiscated by Connecticut’s revolutionary government and later turned over to Captain Benjamin Tallmadge of Litchfield, an aide to General George Washington, as partial compensation for his military service. General Washington himself is known to have passed through West Britain on three occasions. George Washington Turnpike is named in honor of the route he travelled through the parish.  (For more information on Tories in the Burlington and surrounding areas, visit The Tories of Chippeny Hill compiled by Burlington native Jonathan Schwartz.)

In 1785 residents of the Parish of New Cambridge sought to have their community set off as a separate town. Concerned that they might not have as strong a case for separation as other larger communities, they petitioned the General Assembly to incorporate both the parishes of New Cambridge and West Britain as a separate town. The petition was granted and the two parishes were formally set off as the town of Bristol. This political arrangement had its flaws, however, and differences over local issues led the two societies to consider division into two separate towns as early as 1795. Although the differences were eventually resolved and a separation averted for the time being, later disputes over the location and expense of local turnpikes led to increased disagreement between Bristol’s two parishes. In 1804 the Parish of New Cambridge petitioned the General Assembly for the separation of the two parishes. This was granted in 1806 when the Assembly set off and incorporated the Parish of West Britain as the town of Burlington. Although America was independent from Great Britain for three decades, tradition holds that the new name for West Britain was chosen by the General Assembly to honor England’s third Earl of Burlington.

While most early Burlington residents engaged in farming, several small industries were established, utilizing the water power of Burlington’s numerous brooks and streams. Burlington’s small mills and manufactories produced a wide variety of products, such as cider brandy, flintlock muskets, wooden shingles, mantel clocks, satinet, carriages, coffins, needles and charcoal. Burlington’s numerous natural resources were harvested, including copper from an ore deposit which straddles the Bristol/Burlington border, granite for building, chestnut for railroad ties and other building materials. In winter even ice was harvested.

The southern portion of Burlington, once known as Poverty Hollow, is today known as Whigville. It was reputedly named after a group of residents belonging to the Whig Party (a forerunner of the modern Republican Party) who carried a banner proclaiming themselves as residents of “Whigville” to a Whig Party convention in Hartford. The central residential area of Whigville remains little changed since its first development.

Central to most Nineteenth Century Burlington families was Church life. Burlington was home to three religious societies — Seventh Day Baptist, Congregational and Methodist. The Seventh Day Baptists settled in Burlington in 1780 but by the early 1820’s they closed their doors and relocated to Brookfield, New York. The Congregationalists, who gathered in 1774 and incorporated in 1783 had established a Sunday School by 1826 and also had a singing society as well as a Women’s Beneficent group. The Methodists organized in Burlington by the 1790’s and grew to such an extent that Burlington was made a “Circuit” and was considered the center of Methodism in northwestern Connecticut. As neighboring communities established their own methodist churches, the Burlington Methodist organization weakened until it was forced to close its doors in 1889. Burlington had no Catholic church until the 1920’s when St. Patricks Church, originally located just over the border in Collinsville, relocated just over the Burlington Border.

Social activities were available in Burlington during the Nineteenth Century as well. By 1852 Burlington Center and Whigville each had debating societies, known as Lyceums, where men would debate the pressing issues of the day, such as “Ought women to have equal rights with men in the world,” and “Ought the fugitive slave law be enforced by the people of the United States.” Training days were also a community activity, when the local militia, organized in 1823, would practice military maneuvers on Burlington Green. Traveling lecturers would occasionally hold presentations in the Congregational meeting house.

Increased westward migration, which commenced in the late eighteenth century, reached such proportions by the 1830’s that Burlington’s population declined significantly. The prospect of rich, abundant and inexpensive farmland enticed many families to move to the then far off states of Ohio, Illinois, Iowa and other points west. By the 1840’s increased industrialization of the neighboring communities of Bristol (Clock Factories), Unionville (Paper Mills and a Nut and Bolt Factory), Collinsville (Axe and Edge Tool Factory) also drained Burlington’s population as young men and women sought opportunities other than traditional farming pursuits. By 1851 passenger train service was established, thus making the greater world more easily accessible to mostly rural Burlington.

Although westward migration and opportunities in neighboring towns continued to drain its population, Burlington sent over 60 men to fight to preserve the Union and put an end to slavery. Burlington men saw service in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, including Antietam, Gettysburg, and Cedar Creek. Several were captured and imprisoned in the infamous Andersonville Prison Camp, where they encountered unspeakable hardships. Those who went off to war were not the only ones to suffer. Wives, children and parents often struggled to keep their families together while their husbands, fathers and sons were on the battlefield. By war’s end sixteen sons of Burlington gave their lives to preserve the Union. Some died in battle while others died from wounds or disease. While some Burlington soldiers returned home after the war, most moved on to other areas and other opportunities.

Post-Civil War Burlington settled back into its familiar pattern of a quiet rural farming community. Overall population growth remained relatively stagnant, although a substantial community developed in the Northeast corner of town near Collinsville. This growth, comprised mostly of European immigrants, was spurred on by the demand for labor at the Collins company, manufacturers of axes, machetes and other edge tools. Germans, Poles, Slovaks and others provided a steady source of labor for the busy Collinsville manufacturer.

Burlington celebrated the centennial of its incorporation as an independent town in June, 1906. The Celebration included a visit by Governor Roberts, an historical address by Bristol attorney and noted historian Epaphroditus Peck, a parade and a large banquet and a host of speeches. With few exceptions, the way of life in Burlington in 1906 remained little changed from the Burlington of 1806. The town remained mostly rural, made up of farms and a few small mills which harnessed the plentiful supply of water from local streams. The industrialization which characterized the neighboring communities of Bristol, Unionville and Collinsville had not materialized in Burlington. After nearly two centuries of settlement and development Burlington for the most part remained a rural community characterized by scenic beauty and ample farmland, populated for the most part by the descendants of the rugged Yankee stock which first settled the area. Burlington’s second century, however, stands in marked contrast to the first, dominated by constant change and development which has molded it into a significantly different place than it was at the beginning of the 20th Century.

The first major change occurred as a result of water needs outside the borders of Burlington. Nearby cities of Hartford and New Britain, seeking to secure adequate water supplies, purchased significant areas of Burlington farmland for the creation of reservoirs. By 1909, the Hartford City Water Company (Present day Metropolitan District Commission, or MDC) secured all the watershed of the north and the City of New Britain purchased farms in the Whigville area, thus securing all of the watershed facing to the south. Soon after reservoirs were built — Nepaug in the north, which includes portions of Burlington, New Hartford and Canton, and the New Britain Reservoir, which is located to the south in Whigville. When the total acreage of these reservoirs and their watersheds are combined, they represent over one quarter of the total land area of Burlington. While the creation of the reservoirs preserved vast tracts of land as open space, it also served to decrease the already limited population as residents formerly located in these areas moved away.

America’s entry into the First World War in 1917 found Burlington once again ready to fight in the defense of liberty. Forty-three men are recorded as having served in “the war to end all wars” from 1917 to 1919. Five Burlington men gave their lives, like Dewey S. Green and Stanley Ericksen, who were gassed in battle, to the brothers Louis and William Novotny, who died during the Spanish Influenza epidemic which swept the world at war’s end.

The Great Depression of the 1930’s also put the brakes on local growth. Residents generally were able to ride out the bad times. A transient camp was established in Burlington for those less fortunate individuals in need of assistance who passed through Burlington.

During World War II one hundred and twenty-five men and women from Burlington answered their country’s call. Those left behind did their part with blood drives, metal collections and other activities in support of the war effort.

Burlington’s population growth in the second half of the 20th Century has its roots in the post World War II economic prosperity, the improvement of roads, and increased relocation of people from cities to suburban areas. The peacetime boom led to significantly increased growth as many people sought homes in Burlington’s still-rural setting. Increased population brought many changes, including the consolidation of Burlington’s remaining one room school houses into a consolidated school in 1948. The Lake Garda Elementary School was established in the 1950’s and the Har Bur Middle School and Lewis S. Mills High School in 1965. Prior to the establishment of Lewis S. Mills High School, Burlington students attended either Collinsville High or Farmington High Schools.

The last two decades of the 20th Century have seen the most dramatic change in the makeup of Burlington. Ranked as the fastest growing town in Connecticut in a 1996 Census study, Burlington now has an estimated population of over 8,000 residents. Many small service businesses have been established to provide necessary services which residents once obtained in neighboring towns.

Burlington hosts several annual community events, including a traditional Memorial Day Parade and Remembrance Service on Burlington Green; Summerfest, an annual family entertainment and fireworks display on Johnnycake Mountain; and Burlington Tavern Day, which honor’s various aspects of the town’s unique history.

Although for most of its history Burlington was a small community, its influence, in terms of the men and women it sent out into the greater world, has been large. Among the individuals who were born or lived in Burlington who have made significant contributions to the history of America include: Katherine Gaylord, early American heroine; Amherst College President Heman Humphrey, under whose leadership Amherst became a world-class institution; Methodist Bishop Leonidas Lent Hamline, for whom Hamline University is named; Silas Brooks, early American Balloonist; Professor Bernard Moses of Stanford University, who was the first to promote the study of Hispanic Culture at American universities; Richard F. Jones, noted builder of Hartford’s Bushnell Memorial; Ludella Peck, one of the first American women educators at the college level; Samuel Monce, inventor of the glass cutter; Col. Ralph L. Gezelman, who was responsible for organizing supply shipments for the D-Day invasion; and John G. Martin, former President and CEO of Heublein, whose Johnnycake Ranch was visited by a host of national luminaries during the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Burlington today provides a link with the nation’s historic past as well as a vision of its future.