The SoundSite
Home Introduction The Beginning The Sound Today Impact of Development What You Can Do... More Info
The Beginning
The Beginning

History Along the Sound

Native Americans and early settlers alike were drawn to the coastline of Long Island Sound by its ample natural resources. The waters of the Sound provided food and an easier route for transportation than the untamed land.

Native Americans arrive

A few thousand years after the glaciers began to melt, the first humans, early ancestors of Native American tribes, reached the Connecticut coast. They came east following animals, such as herds of caribou. Depending on the season and the availability of food and other resources, they stayed for relatively brief periods. Their encampments were along rivers and on glacial lakes. Not much is known about these first residents, however, because remains of their camps disappeared under the rising sea or have been eroded by wave action. By contrast, early artifacts can be found over most of inland Long Island and show that camps were established there several thousand years after humans first reached Connecticut.

As the earth became warmer and the ocean rise slowed, plant and animal life became more abundant along the coast. The arriving Native Americans developed more sophisticated tools to take advantage of their surroundings. They made tools to fell trees and to dig out logs for canoes. They began to use hooks and nets to catch fish. As these advances made it easier to gather food, the settlements became larger and more permanent.

All along the coast, Native Americans came to rely on fish and shellfish from the Sound, as we know from the large piles of clam and oyster shells among the remains of coastal settlements from this time. The residents also hunted small game such as rabbits and squirrels, cultivated corn, beans, squash, and tobacco, and trapped beaver and foxes for their fur.

It is thought that by the 1600s Connecticut had one of the densest Native American populations in North America. On Long Island, when the first settlers arrived, about 5,000 Native Americans from thirteen tribes were in residence. The Island tribes ran the native equivalent of the United States mint by using sea shells to make wampum.

English and Dutch Settlers

Adriaen Block, a Dutch explorer, sailed through the tumultuous waters at Hell Gate (which he named) to discover Long Island Sound in 1614. He sailed the Sound all the way to The Race and beyond to Block island (which he named "Adriaen's Eylant") and sailed up the Connecticut River past where Hartford now stands.

By 1632, representatives of the Dutch West India Company had purchased from Native Americans the area that is now Old Saybrook, and later Jacob Van Curler bought the area upriver that is now Hartford. At about the same time the English were also beginning to purchase land and settle in Connecticut and Long Island. In 1633, for example, Windsor became the first English settlement in Connecticut and the coastline towns of Greenwich, Stamford, Norwalk, Stratford, New Haven, Branford, Guilford, Norwich, and New London were purchased during the next 25 years. Meanwhile, settlements were established on the North Shore of Long Island - Southhold in 1620, Wading River in 1623, Cold Spring Harbor in 1653, and Port Jefferson in 1655.

The Native Americans and the settlers began their coexistence in a friendly manner. The settlers became farmers for the most part, first clearing the land to plant crops and then raising livestock. Before long, however, it became obvious that the Native American and English ways of using natural resources were too different to survive together.

Settlers and other tribes alike felt threatened by the warlike Pequot tribe. During the short, bloody Pequot War in 1636-1637, the Pequot's village near the Mystic River in Connecticut was raided and its inhabitants exterminated.

Conflict between the settlers and Native Americans reached its peak in 1676 in a fierce war fought throughout Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. There were numerous casualties on both sides, but eventually, the settlers' forces dominated and again the hostile tribes were wiped out. Many Native Americans also died of European maladies such as smallpox and excessive rum.

The eventual outcome was the disappearance of Native Americans from the entire region. By the early 1700s, with the opposition gone, colonial settlements were scattered all along the shores of the Sound.

Maritime development

During the colonial period, travel on the water was just about the only means of contact between settlements. It was natural to look to the Sound for avenues of trade. By the 1700s, trade routes between Connecticut and the West Indies had become a valuable source of revenue. Horses, mules, cattle, swine, and poultry were traded for sugar, salt, molasses, and fruit. This seafaring economy was quite successful until the French and Indian War (1754-1763), followed by the Revolutionary War (1776-1783).

The British occupied Long island during the Revolutionary War, but not the Connecticut coastal towns. As a result, the Sound became a lively scene for privateers - privately owned armed ships sailing from Connecticut ports and dedicated to capturing British supply ships. Almost 500 British vessels were taken, with the spoils divided between the privateers and the colonial government.

After the Revolution, West Indian trade declined dramatically, particularly with the former British colonies. Additionally, the emergence of New York and other major ports took its toll on Connecticut's trade routes.

Shipbuilding, however, remained a profitable activity in seaport towns, especially during the whaling boom of the mid-1800s. Whaling and shipbuilding were important activities in Long Island towns such as Cold Spring Harbor, Sag Harbor, and Greenport and in Connecticut in Mystic and New London.

The whaling industry eventually declined with the discovery in the late 1800s of petroleum, which was a more efficient and less expensive fuel than whale oil. Also, as the whale population was killed off, fewer whales could be found near shore so that the trips were further out to sea and longer in duration, making them less profitable.

Oystering rivaled whaling as a successful coastline enterprise. Connecticut already had laws regulating oystering in the early 1700s. At first, oystermen took mature oysters from the abundant natural beds near the mouths of Connecticut rivers. Oyster cultivation on plots at the bottom of the Sound leased from the state began in the mid19th century.

Commercial fishing for shad and salmon also developed early, but by the 1790s fell victim to manmade changes in the environment. As dams were built along the Connecticut River, the fish could no longer get up the river to spawn.

Although not caught for consumption, menhaden were also netted from the Sound in great numbers. They were used for fertilizer and for oil for the tanning industry. Menhaden remained of commercial significance into the late 1800s when, because of the obvious - the stench created by using fish as a fertilizer - and because of the new synthetic fertilizers, the importance of the menhaden fishery diminished.

Transportation along the Sound

With the 19th century came the invention of the steam engine. Steamships began to ply the Sound between New York and Boston, stopping at various ports along the way. Soon to follow were the railroads. The New York and Stonington Railroad was chartered in 1832. At the same time the Long Island Railroad was founded as an alternative route from New York to Boston, with a ferry making the somewhat hazardous connection across the Sound from Greenport to Stonington.

By 1844 the New Haven line connecting New York with New Haven was opened. Its construction had been challenging because of the large number of rivers, wetlands, and hills to be crossed. Once completed, however, it provided a faster and smoother trip up the coast to Boston than the Long Island Railroad. By 1850, the Long Island Railroad of the day was bankrupt.

The New Haven railroad ran close to the shore in many places, as did trolley lines and paved roads. Here were some of the first intrusions on the delicate habitats of the tidal wetlands. Wetlands were places to be filled in for roadbeds, or dredged for fill and to deepen channels. In building roadbeds at the shore, the natural ebb and flow of water from many inlets was cut off. Meanwhile, pollutants from passing trains and cars contaminated the adjacent wetlands.

The easier access afforded by trains and roads allowed many to discover the pleasures to be found along the coast, however, tourists arrived. Recreational boating became popular, and both the north and south shores of the Sound became meccas for those escaping New York City during the summer months.

Industrial development

During the Revolutionary War, Connecticut was a leader in the manufacture of firearms and gunpowder. When the end of the war in 1786 reduced the need for these products, the resourceful residents of the region developed all kinds of new and useful items to sell. Coastline factory villages sprang up in many places, with the factory owners building housing, schools, churches, libraries, and shops for the workers.

Products such as carriages, shoes, hats, boots, clocks, and hardware became staples of commerce for Connecticut. The American factory system, with the ability to manufacture items with interchangeable parts, started in New Haven in 1798 when Eli Whitney filled an order from the federal government for 10,000 muskets.

Gradually, industrial development changed the focus of Connecticut's economy from farming to manufacturing. The state's larger cities began to increase in size. As its manufactured products made Connecticut famous in other parts of the country, the foundation was laid for continuing population growth and development of shoreline land. On Long Island's North Shore, by contrast, farming remained the major activity until the golden age of mansion building in the 1900s.

Soundkeeper, Inc.