B efore there was New Haven… before there was even New England… there was Roodeberg.
Doesn’t have much of a ring to it, really, but in 1614, “Roodeberg” was the given name of the land that would become New Haven. The namer was the Dutch seafarer and trader Adriaen Block, who also christened Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island, and who was the first European explorer to confirm that New York City’s Manhattan—part of New Amsterdam, as it was known then—was actually an island.
But the Dutch never settled Roodeberg, allowing a party of Puritans from England, who came by way of the Massachusetts Bay Colony some 24 years later, to settle the land that Bay Colony soldier Captain John Underhill described as the “famous place called Queenapiok”—one of many spellings used at the time, with historians generally settling on “Quinnipiac” for contemporary usage—“which hath a fair river fit for harboring of ships, and abounds with rich and goodly meadows.”
The Quinnipiac expedition’s leaders, trader/statesman Theophilus Eaton and reverend John Davenport, were cut from similar cloth, described in Rollin G. Osterweis’s book Three Centuries of New Haven, 1638-1938 as a “God-fearing man of trade” and “businesslike man of God,” respectively. In this new land, they and their charges, many of them people of education and means, saw a promise of great and lasting prosperity through its harbor, envisioning a trading port to rival New Amsterdam 75 miles down the shoreline.
Even more compelling to these very religious and independent adventurers was the prospect of righteous self-government, which was found lacking in the more mixed-interest Colony of Connecticut, based in Hartford, and even in the rather agreeably pious Bible commonwealth of Massachusetts Bay from whence they’d come. After all, as free from England’s influence as that latter settlement was on a day-to-day basis, it still existed by the grace of the crown, with a royal charter given by the impious Stuart monarchy, binding it to that authority.
Still, the Quinnipiac-bound settlers left Massachusetts on pleasant terms with the Bay Colony, and, despite being fairly hard-nosed and unyielding folks on a mission to settle lands that weren’t technically theirs to claim, relations with the Quinnipiac native populations were surprisingly good. Surprisingly good-faith, as well: according to Three Centuries, Eaton, Davenport and company treated these native peoples “with a fairness that stands in pleasing contrast to the treatment American Indians frequently received elsewhere.”
Granted, this was probably due in part to the fact that, by this point, the tribes of Quinnipiac posed little real threat to the settlers. Their numbers had dwindled as a result of European germs and raids by aggressor tribes like the Pequots and the Mohawks—so much that one local tribe was documented as having less than 150 members, with fewer than 50 warriors among them. Another had just 10 warriors left.
A series of treaties were signed starting in 1638 allotting specific lands for natives’ use and committing settlers to a provision of shelter for some native populations during future raids. In exchange, the Puritans secured rights to a sizable swath of territory for their colony: hundreds of square miles running from the water’s edge of the Long Island Sound all the way north to present-day Meriden, and about as far from east to west. In another sign of the relative fairness and cooperative spirit attending negotiations, that territory wasn’t strictly off-limits to the natives; they still retained the right to gather and hunt food there.
In the following year, surveyor John Brockett drew up New Haven’s famous nine squares and a couple of offshoot neighborhoods, and settlers began moving into permanent, often quite opulent, dwellings. The next year, in 1640, the name “New Haven” was officially adopted by the General Court, a seven-member ruling body that had been formed the year prior, and which naturally included both Theophilus Eaton and John Davenport.
Charles H. Levermore wrote in The Republic of New Haven: A History of Municipal Evolution that only “two English-American colonies of the 17th century”—Connecticut and New Haven—“formed themselves into compact, self-governing States, without acknowledging dependence upon any other power at home or abroad.”
Early New Haveners’ independent spirit, though quite remarkable and principled, was ultimately the colony’s economic undoing. Michael Sletcher, in his book New Haven: From Puritanism to the Age of Terrorism, notes that the colony was unable to establish profitable relations with its natural trade partner, England, because it had never been issued one of those pesky royal charters. After trying unsuccessfully to be grandfathered in to the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s existing charter, in 1647 the colony sent a merchant representative, Thomas Gregson, to England to make its appeal.
But Gregson never made it. He was a passenger on the ill-fated “Phantom Shippe,” which sank somewhere in the Atlantic, and which some New Haveners later claimed had risen from the depths to sail once more. The loss devastated New Haven’s ambition to become a major trading port, becoming increasingly eclipsed by New Amsterdam to the southwest and Boston to the northeast.
Finally, in 1665, the colony of New Haven was absorbed into the Colony of Connecticut, the only remaining holdout of the settlements that would later, together, form the state of Connecticut. Well before that eventuality, New Haven would bounce back to become its new colony’s co-capital.
But that, dear readers, is another story.
Written and photographed by Dan Mims.