With Its Dignified New Name

Learn how Fair Haven became Fair Haven in this excerpt from Doris B. Townshend’s Fair Haven: A Journey Through Time.

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The village of Dragon on the banks of the river presented a pretty scene in the early 1800s. Large schooners and sloops were anchored at the docks, their bowsprits overhanging Front Street, where the tide occasionally crept up to the high basements of the oystermen’s houses. The road with its surface of crushed white shells glistened in the sunlight. From the river banks, bustling with noisy activity, the land stretched northward in cultivated fields and copses of towering poplars, pines, oaks and maples. To the east the heights elongated into a chain of wooded hills with the splendid summit of East Rock in the distance.

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Perhaps it was the picturesque beauty of this waterside village that made its inhabitants dissatisfied with the name Dragon. At any rate, this notice appeared in the Columbian Register on Saturday, March 20, 1824:

We understand that the inhabitants of Fair-Haven (often called Dragon) held a meeting last week, and unanimously resolved that it was their wish that the village should hereafter be known by the name Fair-Haven; and that they request their friends in the neighboring towns to give them their original, rightful and Christian name.

Some of the village historians had perchance read in the colonial records about Captain Richard Russell when he first viewed the area in 1639: “The sight of the harbor did so please the captain of the ship that he called it the ‘Fayre Haven.’” Or it could be that people got the inspiration from the Fair Haven Society, whose church stood on the site of the North Church on the New Haven Green.

Further substantiation of the time of the name change is found in the following dates: The Dragon Turnpike Company was incorporated in 1817 by Herman Hotchkiss, John Rowe and Elizur Dudley. In May 1824, the Fair Haven Turnpike Company was incorporated.

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Although Fair Haven was the official title after 1824, Dragon survived unofficially for many years. One lady, the wife of Dr. Charles Thompson, helped to perpetuate the discarded name, so it is said, with her grand airs and pretentious house on the corner of Grand and Atwater. She was accustomed to riding in an elegant carriage complete with footman, for which the local wits dubbed her: “The Duchess of Dragon.” In the transitional period, the village was often called “Fair-Dragon.”

No doubt, the upright citizens and high society of New Haven took a dim view of the rough crowd down by the river: “With the exception of a few families, the adult population engaged in the oyster business was grossly intemperate, and fell an early prey to the degrading device,” stated a newspaper of 1847.

Yale students, however, passed no such verdict. They used to come to John Rowe’s tavern on the corner of Grand and North Front Streets in the mid-1800s to see the fair maidens of Fair Haven. One day, a group of Yalies visited the public house to arrange for a party with the local beauties. Some jealous young oystermen pounced on the hapless Yale boys and captured all but two. These escapees rushed back to the college and brought reinforcements, led by their “bully.” Storming the tavern, they overcame the local boys and rescued their comrades. The scheduled party with the belles of Fair Haven turned into a victory celebration. …

With its dignified new name, Fair Haven seemed to gain in stature in every way. “The population and business in general is constantly increasing and there is every promise of this being one of the most prosperous villages in the state,” commented John Barber in his Connecticut Historical Collections of 1836.

Encouraged by such approbation and motivated by aggressive hometown pride, the Fair Haveners on the Neck petitioned the General Assembly in 1839 to be set off from the City of New Haven. The resolve was passed with the result that the fire engine and engine house located in Fair Haven but belonging to [the city] became the property of “The Neck School District” under the care and direction of five Fair Haveners appointed at the annual meeting of the school district. All debts and liabilities existing against the city were liquidated. Fair Haven now had a certain degree of self-government.

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Fair Haven: A Journey Through Time by Doris B. Townshend
Published in 1976 by the New Haven Colony Historical Society (a.k.a. the New Haven Museum)

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