Category Archives: Litchfield’s History

Blog posts about Litchfield’s history, from town settlement in 1719 through to modern day Litchfield.

Grandma Gus Exercises her Rights

Contributed by Rev. Dr. Davida Foy Crabtree

“Grandma Gus” Christina Nilsson Gustafson

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.

“Grandpa Gus” Carl Axel Gustafson

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 “Hare-Brained Scheme”: Prosecuting Tapping Reeve

Contributed by Bob Goodhouse

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 The Monitor 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.”

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Sylvia Stocker: The Enslaved Woman who Started a Town Library

Contributed by Dan Keefe with Bob Goodhouse

Twenty-six slaves are listed in Litchfield’s 1790 census including Sylvia Stocker, one of two people enslaved by Isaac Baldwin, Sr. Like all other slaves, she is recorded by number, not by name. In 1805, when Sylvia was 33, Baldwin’s heirs petitioned the Town Selectmen for her freedom and received their approval. Sylvia lived to be 64, and her will is recorded in Litchfield’s town records. Remarkably, she left her small library to the Town Selectmen for use by the poor.   

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Elephant on the Green Part 2, Contributed by Bob Goodhouse

The Festival Program began that Wednesday morning at sunrise on our current Green area with a 17 gun salute and military music, which must have caused some early-morning consternation at the Deming and Tallmadge homes. It included orations and many references to Osborne and Freedom of the Press, an outdoor meadow lunch with 17 toasts given and cannons regularly fired,  as well as a salute to Osborne when a military-style parade passed the old 1806 jail.  Notably, one of the parade marchers was Litchfield Law School student John C Calhoun, later U.S Vice President, U.S. Senator, and famous secessionist leader.

Uriah Tracy by Ralph Earl
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Jane and Prince

The Historical Society began collecting in the 1890s, and was incorporated at that time. The first curator, Emily Noyes Vanderpoel, was the great-granddaughter of Benjamin Tallmadge. Members included descendants of Wolcotts, Demings, Tallmadges, and other early families of means. The Colonial Revival was in full swing, and veneration of one’s ancestors was all the rage. While we can thank these early members for preserving the records of the town’s past, there were certainly omissions. Whether through oversight or lack of available material, there remains little evidence of the African American and immigrant families who worked in Litchfield prior to the Society’s founding. Women are also underrepresented in the archives.

Little is not none, and our staff is making strides towards improving our description of materials that document the lives of underdocumented people. You’ll find examples of this in our finding aids (Tallmadge Collection here), as well as on our Tumblr log of the Elijah Boardman Papers project.

In this week’s Coffee with the Curator, I referenced a few receipts for the purchase of enslaved children. As we discuss Benjamin Tallmadge’s role in American History, we must note that he was an enslaver. Historian Lynne Templeton Brickley documented four enslaved members of the Tallmadge household, two indentured children, and a hired African American. The hired man, Cash Africa, as well as Tom Jackson, one of the enslaved, served in the Revolutionary War. There were other members of the household whose status was unclear. A number of Litchfield families, including the Deming, Wolcott, and Beecher households, included enslaved people and/or indentured servants.

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