Thanksgiving brought to mind the early settlers and the differences in the way we celebrate today. It also brings to mind one of the men who played a major role in those early days.
You may remember the story about farmer John “Whit” Davis, a descendant of Thomas Stanton, whom author Richard Radune described as a Connecticut veteran of the Pequot War in his book “Pequot Plantation,” the story of an early Colonial settlement.
Radune’s comprehensive 307-page booklet of early American life was sent to a grateful me by Robert B. McIntosh, author of “Laurel Glen: History of a settlement in the township of North Stonington, Connecticut,” published by the North Stonington Historical Society.
Very little is known of Stanton’s journey to America and his reasons for sailing remain his own, but after 1637, his presence was impressive enough to influence his peers.
Thomas, born in England in 1616, seemed headed for a military career when he was a teenager, and it is a mystery as to why, at 18, he boarded a ship bound for America. English law prohibited emigration under the age of 20 without proper credentials, but that didn’t deter the youth who simply lied about his age in order to make the trip. He intended to go to Cambridge, Mass., but landed, instead, in Virginia.
Somewhere between the landing in Virginia and the eventual arrival in Cambridge, he lived with the Indians and learned the Algonquian Indian language. (The great Algonquian family stretched from the Carolinas to Canada, sharing a common language but different dialects.) Living with the Indians may have been his only option because he probably didn’t have enough money to pay for accommodations in an English settlement.
He made his way to a new colony in Hartford, where the Lord family, Thomas and Dorothy Lord, who once lived in an English village close to his, had settled with their seven children. He wasn’t there very long before he married their daughter, Ann.
Stanton’s career soared when he was appointed by the Connecticut General Court as an interpreter and Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He was a delegate to the 1638 Treaty of Hartford, which dissolved the Peqout nation following the Pequot War (villages from Connecticut to Maine had been swept by a devastating year-long bloody war between the Indians and colonists), and he served as interpreter for the New Haven colony when it bought land from the Quinnipiac Indians.
A lucky fellow, Stanton, along with a partner, were given exclusive right to the beaver trade with the Indians, which proved a money-maker because beaver skins were in great demand in England.
Thomas and his brother-in-law, Richard Lord, formed an ill-fated business partnership that ended about a half-dozen years later after the pair quarreled over trade for Indian corn. Heated words and threats were exchanged before Lord drew his sword on Thomas and was fined five pounds for his trouble.
After being named Interpreter General for New England by the Commissioners of the United Colonies in 1643, Thomas left Hartford for southeastern Connecticut, where he established a trading post on the Pawcatuck River. (There is a marker next to one of the very early earliest houses on Wequetequock Cove, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it says.)
It was no bed of roses for him during the late 1640s. It seemed he was in and out of court frequently both as plaintiff and defendant for one reason or another. As you might expect, he won some and he lost some, but through it all, he recognized a good opportunity when he saw one and built solid commerce with the Indians in and around southern Connecticut and Rhode Island and Long Island.
The untried pilgrims found life in this raw, new country difficult enough and many were called to duty as legislators on a state level and on lesser levels locally. They were called constables, surveyors and townsmen (or selectmen) who would develop local ordinances or debaters of crucial local issues.
Thomas Stanton was consistently elected to these duties, and the sons of many of the colonists were called but they weren’t in any tearing hurry to answer. The General Court of Connecticut had to pass a law requiring an elected candidate to accept the job or show a damned good reason why he couldn’t. If the candidate refused or neglected the duty, he was subject to a fine.
In 651, Thomas moved his family to Pequot Plantation, built a home in New London and shuttled by boat to his trading post on the Pawcatuck River. He and his wife, Ann, had 10 children — six boys and four girls. During his lifetime, he played many roles as an immigrant in a new world and also as an early pioneer of the West Indies trade.
Thomas Stanton did not enjoy the longer lifespan so many of the English settlers did after arriving in New England. He died in 1677 at the age of 61. But he left an enduring legacy through the land that would remain in his family during their lifetime and even beyond.
Through the years it has been fiercely protected by his family and his descendant, Whit Davis, whom I have always called “a true Connecticut Yankee.”
Gloria Russell has lived in the Westerly-Pawcatuck area all her life and has been a reporter for 45 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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