Among the women and men who settled the Connecticut Western Reserve in the early 1800s were students of the Litchfield Law School. To get an idea of the impact these individuals had on the development of the territory, I selected one student more or less at random and researched his life and the lives of his children. What I am going to sketch out here is by no means comprehensive, but it does offer an illustrative case study. Much of what I am writing is taken directly from The Firelands Pioneer, a journal first published in 1852 by the Firelands Historical Society, that is an indispensable resource for information about the settling and development of the area farthest west in Western Reserve known as the Firelands.
Recently someone on the “I Grew Up in Litchfield” Facebook group asked when the high school sports team adopted the nickname “the Cowboys.” We did some digging, and came up with roughly the same answer as another member of the group. We thought you might enjoy some of the wonderful sources we used to come to the conclusion that the name was in use by the 1920s, and possibly earlier.
It’s long been a challenge for those researching ancestors who may have been illiterate, poor, or marginalized to learn about their heritage. Institutions like the Litchfield Historical Society were founded and began collecting during the Colonial Revival, a time when there was tension over immigration and clashes between races, classes, and nationalities. Our founders were the descendants of wealthy white immigrants from Western Europe who wished to preserve their history by saving their ancestor’s decorative arts, artifacts, and papers, predominantly those of men.
While we continue working to make our collections more representative and inclusive of all the people who made Litchfield home, a lot of the town’s early history of women, minorities, and the natives displaced by the settlers was lost, or perhaps never documented at all.
In the early 1880’s my great grandparents, Christina Nilsson and Carl Axel Gustafson immigrated to America from the region around Vasterutland, Sweden. In 1885 they were married and started their family. They had a farm in the vicinity of Litchfield but its exact location is lost to memory. Grandpa Gus was always described to me as a huge Viking of a man with a big red beard and Grandma as a tiny woman who loved life. Their lives as hardscrabble farmers weren’t easy.
When women got the vote in 1920, and the time came for Grandma Gus to register to vote, Grandpa absolutely forbade it. I’m not sure how he didn’t know this about her but Christina Nilsson was a very determined woman. So on the appointed day, at lunchtime when Grandpa came in from the farm, she kept his beer glass full the whole time. That ensured that he would take a good long nap. And it had to be a long one because it was a long way to town. She hitched the horse to the wagon, and quietly headed out on the farm road. Family lore has it that by the time she returned from town, the horse was pretty tired from the speed she demanded of it. Grandma Gus got home just 15 minutes before Grandpa woke up. He may have forbidden her, but nevertheless she persisted!
I discovered one of my mother’s birthday calendars and glanced through. There was an entry saying Grandma Gus died February 18, 1931 at age 73, which means she was born in 1858. She and Carl Axel married when she was 46 in 1885. So her determination to vote came when she was 62 years old! So the photo of above with the wagon might actually have been taken close to the time of this incident.
“Grandma & Grandpa Gus” tintypes from their marriage license.
A grand jury indicted Tapping Reeve, founder of America’s first Law School and an esteemed Connecticut Superior Court Judge, for seditious libel against the United States and President Thomas Jefferson in the April 1806 New Haven Circuit Court.
The charge was based on an article Judge Reeve, an ardent Federalist, had sent to Litchfield’s TheMonitor newspaper more than four years earlier, on December 2, 1801, in which Reeve had heatedly declared Jefferson’s violation of the U.S. Constitution, which he passionately insisted was now “marked for destruction.”