Windsor, Connecticut’s first
English settlement, is located north of Hartford where
the Farmington and Connecticut Rivers join. With a
population of 28,237 according to the 2000 census,
Windsor today is an attractive suburban town invested in
its “first town” status and known for its growing
corporate sector, diverse population and the Loomis
Land and water shaped
Windsor’s settlement patterns from its earliest years.
For the local River Indians, the Connecticut and
Farmington Rivers were transportation corridors to the
interior fur trade, also providing fish for sustenance
and fertile floodplains for seasonal agriculture. The
River Indians existed between two stronger warring
groups, the Pequot and Mohawk Nations who exacted
regular tributes from them in exchange for an uneasy
peace. In 1631, River Indians journeyed north to
English settlements at Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth,
inviting English settlement in the Connecticut valley
with descriptions of fertile lands and abundant
wildlife. Their hope with such an alliance was to
strengthen defenses in their area. (DeForest, pp.
There was little interest
from the English in Massachusetts until 1633, when word
reached them that the Dutch had established a trading
post in what is now Hartford. Now, the pressure was on
to establish an English outpost on the Connecticut
River, a major transportation artery with headwaters far
to the north, providing access to promising fur trade.
A party of Plymouth settlers under the leadership of
William Holmes sailed upriver past the Dutch fort in
Hartford, arriving on September 26, 1633 to establish a
trading post just south of where the Farmington River
joins the Connecticut. (Stiles, p. 25) Within the next
two years, two other groups of settlers would arrive,
the first from Dorchester Massachusetts and the second,
a group that had just migrated from England under the
auspices of Lord Saltonstall.
By 1635, English groups had
established plantations or towns at Dorchester (renamed
Windsor), Newtowne (renamed Hartford) and Watertowne
(renamed Wethersfield). In April of 1636,
representatives from the three towns held a court in
Hartford, an alliance that would evolve into the Colony
of Connecticut. One year later, that same court
authorized an “offensive warr” against the Pequot under
the command of Captain John Mason of Windsor. In
Windsor, a palisade was hastily erected for protection.
Settlers within the palisaded area temporarily gave up
their home lots to accommodate families moving in from
outside the Palisado. The quick and brutal engagement
between the River Town and Pequot forces under the
command of Windsor’s Captain John Mason resulted in
decimation of the Pequot peoples. Windsor’s palisade
was gone by 1640 although reference to it remains to
this day in Windsor’s Palisado Green.
The early town of Windsor
was distinguished from neighboring towns by its size.
The first land distribution in Windsor was 16,000 acres
distributed to 92 settling families. By contrast,
Hartford distributed 5,000 acres to 120 residents.
(Bissell, p. 25) With such a large geographic area, it
was inevitable that settlers far from the center of town
would eventually petition to form their own townships as
they struggled with mandatory church attendance and
centralized civic duties. Simsbury was the first of
Windsor’s “daughter towns”, splitting from Windsor in
1670. Coventry, the southern portions of Enfield and
Suffield, Tolland, Litchfield, Harwinton, Morris,
Bolton, Vernon, Torrington, East Windsor, South Windsor,
Ellington, Barkhamstead, Granby and East Granby,
Colebrook, Manchester’s north side, Bloomfield, and
Windsor Locks, the last township to split from Windsor
in 1854 were all located on lands granted at one time to
Windsor. (Howard, pp 23-25).
Windsor was a homogeneous
and socially cohesive community in the seventeenth and
early part of the eighteenth century. Large land grants
were subdivided to meet the needs of the second and
third generations; of the 289 marriages in Windsor in
its first fifty years, 74% were those where both parties
had been born in Windsor. (Bissell, 139).
Almost 1,000 acres of
Windsor’s land was fertile meadowland, supplying
valuable feed for livestock in the earliest years of
English settlement, then agricultural products. By
virtue of its location on the Connecticut River, Windsor
functioned as a vital port. Merchants on both sides of
the river shipped timber products, brick, livestock,
wheat, tobacco and other produce to supply plantations
in the West Indies, importing sugar, molasses, salt, and
British manufactured textiles, ceramics, hardware and
glass on return trips. Windsor’s Hooker and Chaffee
mercantile firm maintained a store and packing houses
right off Windsor’s Palisado Green. Small scale
shipbuilding took place at the mouth of the Scantic
River in what is now South Windsor, Warehouse Point in
what is now East Windsor, and along the Farmington from
as far upriver as today’s village of Poquonock (Stiles
The American Revolution and
naval politics of the post-revolutionary period
disrupted Windsor’s shipping and trade. Closer to home,
a draw-bridge completed over the Connecticut River in
1810 just downriver of Windsor in Hartford also damaged
Windsor’s shipping interests, facilitating Hartford’s
ascendance to economic powerhouse of the region.
Windsor, however, would soon play a significant role in
maintaining the region’s economic viability.
In 1824, in response to the
state-chartered Farmington Canal which gave the New
Haven- Northampton transportation corridor a competitive
advantage over the Connecticut River towns, the
Hartford-based Connecticut River Company was formed.
Its purpose was to finance the building of a canal
around the Enfield rapids north of Windsor. Irish
laborers arrived to build the canal bed and Catholic
masses began to be held in 1827 – the first regular
masses in the area. The canal opened amidst much
acclaim on November 11, 1829. (Stiles 508). For fifteen
years, scows carried goods around the rapids; two small
sternwheelers, the Agawam and the Phoenix, carried
passengers between Hartford and Springfield. By the end
of 1844, the canal was effectively eclipsed by the
Hartford and Springfield Railroad with connections to
New Haven, (and from New Haven to New York by steamer)
Worcester, and Boston.
The Windsor Locks Canal was
no longer an effective transportation artery, but it
contributed power for a number of industries that had
began to grow up on its banks, including paper mills,
thread mills, a rolling mill, and a foundry. This area
in the Pine Meadows section of Windsor and small
manufactories in the Poquonock section of town on the
Farmington River drew more Irish immigrants to the
area. In 1830, Irish comprised one percent of Windsor’s
population. By 1850, residents of Irish descent made up
thirteen percent of Windsor’s population and by 1860,
almost 20 percent.
century, Windsor had developed five smaller village
centers, each with its own distinctive character.
Wilson, Windsor Center, and Hayden Station were railroad
stops. Poquonock was the industrial section of town on
the Farmington River with wool, paper, and cotton mills
and Rainbow, a smaller industrial village on the
Farmington with a number of small paper mills. Irish,
Polish, and Lithuanian immigrants brought new religions,
languages, customs, and foods to Windsor’s industrial
villages. But Windsor was never known as an industrial
Products of the land would
continue to play a major role in Windsor’s economy.
Windsor’s soils were rich in clay deposits. By the
mid-19th century, close to forty brickyards
were operating in town (Howard, 230). The markets for
Windsor brick included rapidly industrializing urban
centers throughout Connecticut. Growing urban
populations in Hartford also needed dairy and market
products that Windsor’s fertile soils continued to
produce well into the twentieth century. Jane Zukowski
Cranick recalled “I remember moving to Wilson in January
of 1929. (…)It was a small community of German and
Polish immigrants who made a living by farming. (…) They
all took their produce to market in Hartford in the
early morning hours. I would wake up and hear the horse
and wagon, with lanterns aglow, on their long trek into
the city.” (Storytellers I, p. 52).
The sandy loam of Windsor’s
soils was perfect for tobacco growing. Starting in
1640, a mere seven years after town settlement, tobacco
seed imported into Connecticut from Virginia was used to
grow tobacco in Windsor. (Howard, 221) The first
shade-grown tobacco produced in this country was grown
under cheesecloth tents in the village of Poquonock,
starting in 1900 (Howard, 222.) The tents blocked
direct sunlight and increased humidity, thus
approximating the optimal growing conditions of the
plants’ native Sumatra.
World War I and the tight
immigration restrictions following it reduced the stream
of European immigrants into Windsor. Tobacco growers
shepherding the growth of an expanding industry began to
recruit college students, including young
African-Americans from Virginia to Georgia for summer
work. With World War II came further labor
restrictions and tobacco growers looked to the West
Indies for help, recruiting hundreds of West Indian men
during the war. Local high school students, college men
and women, and beginning in 1947, Puerto Rican men
worked seasonally in Windsor’s tobacco fields and
sheds. Many of the West Indian and Puerto Rican
migrants eventually settled in the area. (Johnson, p?)
The twentieth century was a
time of rapid growth for Windsor. Starting in 1895,
electric trolleys connected the town with the cities of
Hartford and Springfield, making it possible for Windsor
residents to commute to work in these cities. Between
1920 and 1930, Windsor’s population increased 47
percent, to 8,290 residents. Of these, 9.3% were of
Lithuanian descent, 6.5% were Polish, 5.8% were of
English/Scottish extraction and 5.6% were
French/Canadians. African-Americans comprised 2.6% of
Windsor’s population. While 78.4% of Windsor residents
at that time were native-born whites, only 42.2% of
Windsor’s residents had a grandparent native to Windsor;
the town’s population was diversifying in unprecedented
ways. (Suburbanization p.27).
Village centers in Windsor,
particularly the Wilson, Windsor Center, and Poquonock
areas became more demographically differentiated.
Skilled and unskilled workers from Hartford increasingly
populated Wilson, the section closest to Hartford;
business and white-collar workers populated Windsor
Center, and farmers populated Poquonock.
(Suburbanization 53). Newcomers were interested in
modern conveniences: electricity, sidewalks, modern
schools. Conveniences like these cost money; many
Windsor natives and farmers were alarmed at escalating
costs for public services and feared they would destroy
Windsor’s historic charms. In the 1930’s one older
resident protested to the local newspapers. “Unnecessary
expenditures are made continually. Take, for instance,
the… expense for (street) lighting. We do not need to
have such illumination at night. I remember when we
went out carrying kerosene lanterns and we got along
very well indeed without cost to anybody but those who
used the lanterns. Plenty of light is furnished by the
automobiles. …We were satisfied without a Public
Library or street sprinkling or fire hydrants. The
modern contraptions seem only invented for the purpose
of spending money and increasing taxes.”
(Suburbanization 136). By 1929, Windsor had joined the
Metropolitan District Commission; indoor plumbing,
electricity, paved roads, automobiles, and air transport
(Bradley International Airport opened in Windsor Locks
in 1946) would become the norm in the next two decades.
The town’s next period of
explosive growth occurred in the 1950’s. In 1950,
Windsor’s population stood at 11,833. A decade later,
it had climbed to 19,467 residents. Interstate I-91
reached Windsor in 1956; the highway, and Windsor’s
proximity to Bradley International Airport attracted
residential and commercial development. By now, truck
farming and agriculture in Windsor had been largely
replaced by the large-scale agricultural operations in
the nation’s Midwest. With the Surgeon General’s 1964
Report on Smoking and Health, tobacco farming in Windsor
would begin its decline. What the town did have in
abundance was land in its northwest quadrant formerly
devoted to farming. At the same time, corporations in
congested and expensive cities were looking for
attractive locations near transportation hubs for
relocation and expansion opportunities. Throughout the
1950’s, Town Manager Bob Weiss worked tirelessly to
bring new corporations to Windsor land now zoned for
light industry and corporate use. By 1960, New York
City’s Combustion Engineering’s center for nuclear
research was thriving and 400 employees had been
relocated to the Windsor area. Commercial development
along Cottage Grove and Day Hill Roads continues into
the 21st century.
In the past fifty years,
Windsor’s population has continued to diversify.
Increasing numbers of people moving from Hartford to the
suburbs were members of minority groups. Windsor’s
African-American population increased more than tenfold
between 1970 and 2000, reaching about 27 percent of the
town’s population. That year, median income for
Windsor’s black households was larger than for its white
households. Windsor residents of Hispanic descent make
up 5 percent of the population, with Asians comprising
another 3 percent.
Windsor today is a town rich
in history. It is a town that has experienced economic
transformation in the past century, and enormous
demographic transformation in the past few decades.
While not immune from the tensions change brings,
Windsor is strong in its sense of communities and
continues to work towards community-building.
Sources for additional
Bissell, Linda. “Friends,
Family and Neighbors: Social Interaction in Seventeenth-
Connecticut.” Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 1973.
De Forest, John W.
History of the Indians of Connecticut. Hartford: Wm
Jas. Hamersley, 1851.
Hinckley, Marcia Dort. “‘We
just went on with it.’ The Black Experience in Windsor,
Masters of Arts Thesis, Trinity College, 1991.
Howard, Daniel. A New
History of Old Windsor. Windsor Locks, CT: The
Johnson, Fay Clarke.
Soldiers of the Soil. New York: Vantage Press, Inc.,
Stiles, Henry R., M.D.
The History and Genealogies of Ancient Windsor;
Windsor, South Windsor,
Bloomfield, Windsor Locks, and Ellington. 1635-1891.
2nd ed. Vol. I. Hartford, CT: Case. Lockwood
& Brainard Company, 1892. Reprint Rockport, ME: Picton
Dorset Pilgrims: The Story of West Country Pilgrims Who
New England in the 17th
Century. 1989. 2d American ed., Interlaken, NY:
Heart of the Lakes, 1995.
Whetten, N.L. and E.C.
Devereux, Jr. “Windsor: A Highly Developed Agricultural
Area.” Studies of
Suburbanization in Connecticut. Agricultural
212. Department of Sociology. Connecticut State College.
Storrs, October 1936.
Windsor Historical Society.
Images of America: Windsor. Charleston: Arcadia
A Chronicle of 20th Century Life in
Windsor. Town of Windsor, 1999.