This community on the Mystic River in southeastern Connecticut is composed of portions of the towns of Groton (west of the river) and Stonington (east of the river). The area was originally home to the Pequot Indians, who were expelled by English colonists in 1637. The English soon set up a small community at the site, which by the eighteenth century became a seaport and shipbuilding center. In the early nineteenth century, whaling became one of the seaport’s major industries. The local shipyards flourished in the years leading up to and during the Civil War, but the postwar years saw a gradual decline in the industry. Today, Mystic is home to Mystic Seaport, a seventeen-acre indoor-outdoor museum featuring a re-creation of the seaport as it existed in the nineteenth century.
75 Greenmanville Avenue
P.O. Box 6000
Mystic, CT 06355-0990
ph.: (888) 9SEAPORT (973-2767); (860) 572-5315
Web site: www.mysticseaport.org
In the early 1600’s, the inhabitants of the area surrounding the Mystic River in southeast Connecticut were the Pequot Indians, a warlike people feared by all the surrounding tribes. Fittingly, the word Pequot means “destroyer.” At that time, the Pequots possessed a forty-five-mile tract of land between the Connecticut River and the Weekapaug Creek, including the Mystic River area. One of the Pequots’ primary territories was on Pequot Hill in the region that would become Mystic. The area’s fertile soil allowed them to plant maize, beans, squash, pumpkins, and tobacco.
In 1631, English colonists in Boston and Plymouth became aware of this fruitful valley and wished to settle there. In May, 1637, Captain John Mason of Windsor and a group of seventy-seven Bostonians marched toward the area to invade the Pequots’ territory. The English arrived during a boundary war between the Pequots and the Rhode Island Narragansett tribe. Although the Pequots were primed for battle, they were no match for the English, who, when they reached Pequot Hill, were joined by 160 Massachusetts men. The next morning, a bloody massacre took place on the hill; few Pequots escaped.
The English retreated, in the process having to cross more Pequot territory. By that time, word of the massacre had reached the other two Pequot fortifications. Although the Pequots were soon in close pursuit of Mason, the colonists arrived at Pequot Harbor on the Thames River to find vessels waiting to take them back to Boston.
A month later, Captain Isreal Stroughton and 120 more men joined Mason to pursue the remaining Pequots. After finding the tribe hidden in a swamp, the English killed many of them and took the rest as prisoners in what is now known as the Great Swamp Fight.
After the massacre, Massachusetts claimed the right to settle the area. The Massachusetts General Court granted these rights in 1646, but they were soon transferred to Connecticut by the Commission of the United Colonies.
Housing development began in the area immediately after the Pequots’ expulsion. The Magistrates of Connecticut divided the remaining Pequots into three groups and made them join other existing tribes in the surrounding areas. A treaty for perpetual peace was signed between the English and these tribes. Still, some Pequots were unhappy with their new tribes and tried to move back onto their original land. Because they were now becoming increasingly friendly with the English, they were permitted to stay.
In October, 1665, the General Session at Hartford decided to officially grant Mystic its name. The name had already been given to the area by the Pequots in the form of missi-tuk or “great river.” Also, the Mystic River was designated as the official boundary between the surrounding towns of Stonington and Groton.
When settlers first began to move into this area surrounding the Mystic River, they did not form any kind of common colony. They had mostly come by water and preferred to lay scattered holdings along the line of the river. From the beginning, Mystic saw a steady growth of small manufacturing, starting with the building of grist and saw mills that used waterpower from local brooks. To support the needs of the early shipyards, the colonists erected planing and lumber mills along with mills that manufactured cotton and wool fabrics, brass, iron and wooden tools, textiles, engines, and machines. Mystic’s deep granite ledges and access to convenient transportation contributed to the success of granite quarrying.
Meanwhile, the colonists were also busy developing other aspects of their economy. Services were exchanged as each colonist became an expert at a particular trade: Coopers, yeomen, weavers, carpenters, and shoemakers were soon common. Usually, apprenticeships were granted to young men for the chance to master a trade.
During growing season, the settlers harvested Indian corn, peas, and wheat. Although some of the soil in the Mystic area was fertile, much of the area was hilly and rocky, leading some residents to make their livelihood by raising poultry. Within the area, barter was common, but when cash was necessary, Indian wampum was adopted as the major form of currency.
The settlers soon realized that they could make a more profitable living by fishing and shipbuilding. Construction of shipyards began all along the shore. The first shipyards were built around 1750 at the head of the river. By the early 1800’s, shipbuilding was the primary source of wealth for most of Mystic’s residents.
In 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain. British ships appeared immediately offshore to blockade all ports. Terrified, citizens fled inland. The citizens of Mystic felt their town needed protection from the British fleet, so they built Fort Rachel on the granite crags forty feet above the shipping channel and stationed fifteen men there. Shortly after the fort was built, Captain Jessie Crary of Mystic and his sloop were taken hostage by the British. Crary escaped and enlisted several volunteers to help recapture his ship. About a month after they found the sloop, the men at Fort Rachel successfully fended off an armed British attack, despite the presence of traitors among the fortsmen. A year later, a regular guard was posted at the fort and he would remain there until the end of the war.
During the postwar years, life returned to normal and Mystic continued to grow. The shipbuilding industry resumed and built better and faster boats that increased the range and speed of trade. As residential areas began to expand, neighborhoods often took the form of block buildings, typically consisting of several houses, a bank, a drugstore, a grocery store, and a few other public services. Many ladies sewed “seaworthy” clothes at home, then exchanged them at stores for credit. The stores sold the garments to vessels, which carried “slop chests,” or small stores, onboard that sold personal items to sailors during voyages.
Until 1816, Mystic’s boats were used for fishing, but soon the demand for whale oil, whalebone, sperm oil, and ambergris made whaling as profitable as fishing. Whaling became the principal activity for Mystic from 1830 to 1850.
In 1829, a group of public volunteers, including many seafaring men, came together to erect a church to be used by members of all denominations. In thanks for the large contribution made by local sailors, the church was named the Mariners Free Church.
Early trade with Boston provided household goods, military accoutrements, woolen clothing, powder and lead, and implements of husbandry. Trade with Virginia was unnecessary, as the Mystic harvest satisfied the local demand for tobacco and wheat. By the 1830’s, regular voyages were being made to New Orleans and Galveston. Direct trade with the South was very prosperous. Representatives of Mystic shipowners were stationed all the way from Baltimore to Galveston. The range of Mystic’s trade extended far out into the Atlantic, and included trade with the British West Indies and later with the Caribbean. Exports included pork, cheese, horses, lumber, and tallow, while imports were sugar, salt, molasses, and rum.
The earliest vessels were of simple structure, usually designed by the master carpenter and built of white pine, spruce, and tall white ash. From the beginning, however, demand for bigger and better craft constantly increased. From the 1840’s to the 1860’s, the shipyards turned their attention to whalers, coasters, carraway boats, fishing smacks, packet sloops, and round-sterned, lofty clippers. Several of the smaller shipyards suffered when the demand for wooden sailing vessels lessened as a result of the exhaustion of Mystic’s timber supply and a newfound confidence in steam power. Steamboats were especially used to transport passengers between towns. New clipper ships that carried larger cargoes were being launched, and whaleships still plied the river.
Many shipyards were owned and operated by large families and were passed down through several generations. These sites proved through the decades to be the strongest and most successful shipyards in the area. One family operation, started by Robert Palmer in 1832, launched almost six hundred merchant, naval, sail, steam, and tow vessels in its 113 years of shipbuilding. Other famous family shipyards were the Greenmans, Irons and Grinnell, and Maxson and Fish. Perhaps the most famous family operation was built by Charles Mallory around 1836 and passed on to his son, C. H. Mallory. In addition to designing some of the largest and fastest vessels of the time, the Mallorys turned out many of the ships used in the Civil War.
As the Civil War drew closer, the citizens of Mystic and its neighboring towns began to prepare themselves. In 1860, the towns united in a protest against slavery; many young volunteers joined to create a company that became part of the Fourth Regiment, and the Mallory family donated money and the use of a hundred-ton yacht to the Union. The ladies of the Baptist Church formed a Soldiers Aid Society to provide soldiers on the battle front with food and bandages.
In 1862, a call went out for men to serve in the Union army for nine months. Most of the enlisted men from the Mystic area spent that year defending the north side of New Orleans at Camp Parapet. Back home, Mystic continued to grow as more families were attracted to shipyard employment. The latest demand in shipbuilding was for war transports and gunboats. Between 1850 and 1870, fifty-six steamers were launched from Mystic’s shipyards, and the population of the Mystic area increased threefold.
Around this time, Mystic suffered several serious fires. In 1858, a fire broke out in the Mallory store and spread to other stores and hotels in the neighborhood. There was no fire company in Mystic, and a bucket brigade from the river had to be formed until an old hand-pumped fire engine could arrive from the next town, though not in time to save blocks of buildings from being destroyed. Six years later, after another large fire demolished a house and carriage shed, two volunteer fire companies were formed, and they purchased an old hand-brake fire engine. Shortly after, another fire broke out in a local mill. When the second-hand engine proved gravely ineffective in combating the flames, the townspeople donated money for a brand-new engine. In 1881, however, an entire block was destroyed by yet another fire.
In many ways, the turn of the century was a lean time in maritime Mystic. Shipyard employment thinned after the Civil War, and diphtheria was rampant and infected many citizens. Despite these challenges, it was also a time of great change. New industries began to develop, including motor works. In 1899, telephones were installed in the Mystic area. The Mystic Light and Gas Company provided the area’s first electricity in 1906, and soon after the Mystic Valley Water Company brought running water to homes. Other additions included a post office, a public library, a greenhouse, and a laundry. With the exception of some recreational vessels, the style of boats also changed. Gasoline engines and then diesel engines followed steamships in replacing the clipper ships of old.
In order to preserve the memory of its maritime heritage, three men formed the Marine Historical Association in 1929. Now known as the Mystic Seaport–The Museum of America and the Sea, the institution encompasses over seventeen acres on the site of what was once the George Greenman and Company Shipyard, and operates as a “living history museum” where visitors can see exhibits of maritime crafts being practiced. The museum is home to three major vessels: the Charles W. Morgan (1841), America’s last surviving nineteenth century wooden whale ship (today a National Historic Landmark), the training ship Joseph Conrad (1882), and the fishing schooner L. A. Dutton (1921). Its more than sixty buildings display maritime art and artifacts, ship models, scrimshaw, carvings, paintings, and photographs. The Coastal Life Area is a reconstruction of a nineteenth century seafaring community complete with a bank, schoolhouse, tavern, rigging loft, shipsmith, cooperage, and mast hoop shop. The Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard provides equipment and craftsmen to restore and preserve wooden vessels. Also featured at Mystic Seaport are a planetarium, a small boat shop, various educational programs, and a maritime history library.
Anderson, Virginia B. Maritime Mystic. Mystic, Conn.: Marine Historical Association, 1962. Emphasizes the seaport’s great shipbuilding period. Greenhalgh, Kathleen. A History of West Mystic. Groton, Conn.: Groton Public Library and Information Center, 1986. Tells the history of the western part of modern-day Mystic and some of its surrounding communities. Hauptman, Laurence M., and James D. Wherry, eds. The Pequots in Southern New England. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. A collection of essays that explore Pequot history, culture, and identity.