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Historical Society Talk Highlights Connecticut's Ohioan Roots

New book tells the story of the emigration of the Nutmeg State's citizens to the wilderness of the Western Reserve.

The Land of Steady Habits shares an intimate past with the Buckeye State which may surprise those unfamiliar with the region's history. In fact, the Connecticut towns of Danbury, Fairfield, Greenwich, Groton, New Haven, New London, Norwalk and Ridgefield have "sister cities" in Ohio.

It all began with the Revolutionary War, when residents of the Connecticut towns whose homes were destroyed in 1779 and 1781 in fires set by British soldiers were sent to the Western Reserve Firelands to start anew.

At the recent annual meeting of the Middlesex County Historical Society, Dr. Richard Buel Jr., professor of history emeritus at Wesleyan University, spoke on the settling of the Western Reserve in northern Ohio.

Buel shared with the audience, many who live, or have lived, in Ohio, the latest Acorn Club book that he edited, “The Peopling of New Connecticut: From the Land of Steady Habits to the Western Reserve.” This book published by the Connecticut Historical Society, a collection of primary source documents, tells the story of the emigration of Connecticut citizens to the wilderness of the Western Reserve.

Buel said that from 1690 to 1750, the population growth due to high fertility and low mortality made it difficult to have enough land to keep the children of families on farms. This prompted the need to travel further west. That, coupled with the government’s need for funds, started the movement into land in Connecticut’s Western Reserve.

There was such a need for women that some couples made a business from escorting young women to the western wilderness.

One of the challenges for Connecticut, explained Buel, was that at the height of the emigration, all the people traveling to New Connecticut were in their prime, leaving mostly elderly and young in the original colony.

“This had a major impact on Connecticut after the mass exodus,” said Buel.

Buel said the role of disease and the role of religion in whether a settlement in the Western Reserve became a viable community surprised him. “Although the people who stayed in the original Connecticut colony had few health problems, the people in the wilderness were unhealthy. Their key malady being malaria,” said Buel.

Although some people in the wilderness had let relatives know that things were hard there and they were considering returning to Connecticut from the Western Reserve, the reports from 1812-1830 from the missionaries made living in New Connecticut or the Western Reserve seem as good as Connecticut.

The “Peopling of New Connecticut” illustrates the personal element of the western movement using primary sources such as letters, journals and early newspapers. By utilizing these materials, Buel has recreated an important time period in Connecticut history in very understandable terms.

“It wasn’t too difficult to find the documents. They are in databases. The majority of them are extracted from newspapers. I just had to wean out the right building blocks for a coherent picture. I wrote the editorial glue that gave the historical context required,” said Buel.

Buel taught at Wesleyan University from 1962 to 2002, during which time he published five books. Buel feels “In-Irons: Britain’s Naval Supremacy and the American Revolutionary Economy” was his most important book. “The Way of Duty” that he wrote with his late first wife Joy, is the most popular. This book was made into a 1994 TV movie called “Mary Silliman’s War.”

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