The amazing story of Black Rock’s history will be presented in installments throughout our anniversary year. Check back weekly for the latest addition!
THE ENGLISH SETTLEMENT OF BLACK ROCK
In 1644 a group of Concord, Massachusetts Puritans, seeking favorable new lands and lower taxes, arrived at the five-year-old settlement of Fairfield. Led by the Rev. John Jones, who became their first minister, the group included roughly a dozen families — Wheelers, Turneys, Bennetts, Middlebrooks, Odells — whose names pepper early history books and whose descendants still live in the area today. A single family, headed by Thomas Wheeler Sr., chose to build on isolated “Shipharbour Creeke,” which eventually became known as Black Rock Harbor. The rest settled further east or north, or in Fairfield center itself. Living in crudely built shelters until they could erect proper homes, the newcomers relied on the sea for food and early trading while clearing land for home lots and farms. They lived under the strict code of Puritan law, in fear of God and of the Uncoway and Pequonnock nations whose land they soon coveted.
Our Second Installment…
1644-1681 LIVING AMONG THE PEQUONNOCKS AND THE UNCOWAYS
Long before the English arrived, the Pequonnocks and Uncoways called Black Rock home. Coexistence between the newcomers and the tribes was sometimes peaceful, with Indians occasionally working for the English settlers for wages. At other times, colonists lived in fear, with troopers, guards, and local militia offering protection until as late as 1724. The Indians’ disgruntlement was understandable — they’d lost much of their land in 1638 when Hartford’s General Court granted it to the English. Settlers said the Indians sold them additional land later, but no deeds were ever recorded before 1656, and the thorniest land disputes generally involved fields the Indians had long ago cleared and still used for planting. The last of the Indian land in Black Rock was the “Old Fort” — near today’s intersection of Fairfield Avenue and Ellsworth Street — which local Indians built for protection against more warlike tribes. In 1681 the Indians abandoned the fort in exchange for an 80-acre reservation on Golden Hill, near today’s Bridgeport City Hall.
1649 BLACK ROCK’S FIRST ENGLISH SETTLER BUILDS ON “SHIPHARBOUR CREEKE”
Five years after arriving, Thomas Wheeler Sr. built a fortified stone house on a rise of ground overlooking what eventually became the nucleus of Fairfield’s deep-water port, Black Rock. The house was surrounded on three sides by water, on the point of land next to what is now called Brewster Cove. A cautious man, Wheeler mounted two cannons on his sturdy plank roof, one pointed down the harbor toward the Sound, to protect against an imagined invasion by the Dutch, the other pointed north toward the Indian fort at the head of Shipharbour Creeke. For three generations the English settlers there consisted almost exclusively of Wheelers and their extended families. His descendants farmed, built and captained ships, traded along the coast and with the West Indies. They were soldiers, military officers, land developers, politicians, and owners of local industries.
Our Third Installment...
1653 GOODWIFE KNAPP HANGED FOR WITCHCRAFT
Few people are aware that the Connecticut Colony’s witch panic — the first in the New World — was fierce and remarkably deadly. Connecticut hanged the New World’s first convicted witch in 1647, and six of the first seven people charged with witchcraft in the colony were convicted. The victims included Fairfield’s Goodwife Knapp, who was publicly hanged as a witch at Try’s Field in Black Rock, near today’s intersection of Fairfield Avenue and Ellsworth Street. Among Knapp’s judges were two leading citizens, Roger Ludlow, a deputy governor and one of the founders of the state, and the Rev. John Davenport, a founder of New Haven. Accused on the basis of hearsay, Goody Knapp refused her judges’ demands that she accuse others of witchcraft: “I must not render evil for evil… I have sins enough already.”
1676 HOW BLACK ROCK GOT ITS NAME
The first use of the name Black Rock is found in 1676 town records, when Sgt. John Wheeler was given permission to build a “wharfe at the blacke rocke.” The name is said to come from the heavy dark ledge of rock that runs through much of the land and shoreline, with evidence still visible in many cellars of the oldest buildings. (Others say there was a large black rock on the harbor on the site of today’s Port 5 Naval Veterans’ club).
1676 FIRST WHARF BUILT ON SHIPHARBOUR CREEK BY JOHN WHEELER
Sgt. John Wheeler owned most of Grover’s Hill and the original family homestead and port through inheritance from his father, Thomas. Sgt. John added to his holdings until he owned well over 1,000 acres. Sgt. John, his son Lt. John, and his grandson Capt. Ichabod — the first shipwright of Black Rock — were responsible for developing the seaport harbor into a lively trading port. Black Rock was one of the few Connecticut villages established as a trading center, where the residents were primarily seafaring families for more than two centuries. Wheelers eventually owned all of Black Rock and beyond, to the harbor of Bridgeport.