CTMQ Required Reading

Of course, “Required” means “if you feel like it.” That’s how I interpreted it all through middle and high school anyway. I will limit these books to entertaining reads, not boring historical accounts or museum industry stuff. These are books I’ve actually read and that I feel really add a professional writer’s insight into some of the stuff I blog about.

1. The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell: I love Sarah Vowell and while her “Assassination Vacation” is a little bit more entertaining, it has nothing to do with Connecticut. The Wordy Shipmates, however, has much for CTMQ fans to devour. Vowell disects and describes the second wave of Puritans who settled New England back in the 1600′s. The original Plymouth Colony folks were boring and insular. However, the Massachusetts Bay Colony crew were far more interesting.

ft_vowell.jpgBut the book really appeals to me when the likes of Thomas Hooker and Roger Williams crop up. Hooker, who founded Hartford, is a zealotous hardcore Puritan with hangups about everything non-Puritan. Williams, who founded Providence was way ahead of his time – fighting for the separation of church and state 100 years before the Constitution framers began their task. He was also tolerant of non-Puritans (yes, even Jews and Muslims and Atheists and Natives) which is sort of what got him banished from Salem, MA in the first place.

Coolest fact: Williams’ Alogonquin-English phrase book was used all the way through the 1930′s by explores in Labrador.

There is a good chunk on our Pequot War, which was a horrible mini-genocide committed by the English on our native tribe. Uncas is in there, as well as Indian Leap in Norwich. Captain John Mason, one of the English responsible for burning hundreds of Pequots alive, get a mention as does the statue honoring him that has had some serious controversy in our state. Read this book. And then read the next one.


2. The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare: Sure this is a book for early teens, but the Washington Post screams, “Irriesistable!” I was somehow able to resist it for 36 and a half years, but that’s not the point. It is a pretty good book and tackles some heady 17th century Connecticut subjects.

1094738669.jpgWhat’s interesting about “Blackbird Pond” is that it sort of flows very nicely from The Wordy Shipmates. It takes place right around the same time as the Pequot War and some other stuff in The Wordy Shipmates. The witch of the title is a banished Quaker – something touched on in the other book.

But mostly, we learn here about Puritanical intolerance coupled with early self-governance in the colonies. The book was inspired by the Buttolph-Williams House (now a museum) in Wethersfield and takes place in that town. Old Saybrook has a part in both these first two books as well. Speare mixes in historical figures with her fictional ones and does it smoothly.

Blah, blah, blah – the book is about an outsider; a girl from Barbados – who comes to live with her extended family in Connecticut and is branded a witch herself by some merely because she has nice clothes and can swim and read. Oh, and she play-acts too. Oogity Boogity. Of course Kit, that’s the girl, is only helping and educating and trying to have a little fun in the stifling town. I don’t have to tell you that it all works out in the end since it’s a kid’s book.

Definitely a fun read for people like me interested in our history and coupled with a visit to the Buttolph-Williams house, it makes for a richer experience.


3. Smoke, Fire and Angels, by Mark Robinson

smokeAfter three years of writing this blog, it’s time for a blatant advertisement. So you know I feel this is important. Heck, I haven’t even asked anyone to donate money to the research for Damian’s syndrome.

Please, visit this website and buy the book. And here’s the thing: The author, Mark Robinson, won’t get a dime of your money. Nor will the publisher. Or the printer. Or me for that matter. Nope… 100% of money the book generates will go to the families affected by the Avon Mountain truck disaster. One-Hundred Percent. (100% of the photos on this page are from Mark’s site as well.)

Those of you from around these parts are familiar with “The Mountain.” I’ve written about it in several different contexts on CTMQ and while I love that it casts a shadow on my house, I don’t love that the road over it is an indiscriminate killer. I’ve joked about driving over it many times – as I take that route pretty much any time I’m heading west.

But it’s no joke. And neither is the book, Smoke, Fire and Angels. Mark spoke at my work a few weeks ago and I bought a copy. It’s a very readable, very moving and somewhat startling book. Mark delves into all the lives affected by the crash (5 dead, another dozen severely injured) and picks apart the company’s whose negligence led to the horror and the state law that didn’t stop it before it happened.

Hey, if anything, just buy the book in order to help out the victims – the killer truck was not insured.

sfa-book-coverIt was July 29, 2005, a beautiful summer day in Connecticut’s Farmington River Valley. I was one of a few dozen drivers heading toward Hartford. Most of us were doing what we did hundreds of times a year: simply going to work. There was no way to know what was coming as we approached the traffic light at the base of Avon Mountain and the intersection of Nod Road and Routes 44 and 10, of chance and fate, of wrong place and wrong time.

This is a true story about real people, the best and the most irresponsible among us. It’s about what happened before, during and after one of the worst crashes in Connecticut history. It’s about innocent victims and heroes – everyday people who did extraordinary things, literally picking up the pieces of the broken lives left in the wake of a poorly maintained, uninsured, fully loaded, out-of-control Mack dump truck.

Again… Buy the book.


4. How the States Got Their Shapes, by Mark Stein

In case you were wondering, I’m a map geek. I’ve mentioned it all over the place on CTMQ and I make no secret of it. (I’m not alone mind you, and I’m not the most afflicted… Trust me.) But I am bad enough that I asked for this book for Christmas and read it in short order.

9780061431388It’s not all about Connecticut – not even close – as you’ve figured from the title. This dry, non-fiction book of history and facts does nothing more than its title promises it will do. It simply tells us how the 50 US states (and Washington DC) got the shapes they have today. I loved it.

I won’t bore you with any details, but if you’re into this stuff, this is a book worth having. Granted, once you’ve read about ¾ of the book, the remaining states’ borders become boring to learn about because you’ve already learned about those surrounding it. I can’t really see a way around that, but with a couple of the more interesting stories at the end (West Virginia and Vermont), it holds interest until the end.

My favorites? Maryland (a calamity of errors), NY/NJ and Ellis Island (just “resolved” last decade), Delaware (so plucky!), Utah/Arizona (the Government screws the Mormons) and yes, Connecticut. Seriously. I’m not “just saying that.”

We all know about The Southwick Jog by now and even the Baby Enfield Jog. But this book taught me much, much more. Like how we got to keep that panhandlish Greenwich and Stamford in exchange for the long triangle of land north – you’ll notice the western border is not north-south, but angles eastward. That’s why.

But far more interesting – and something I’ll be exploring later (somehow) was Connecticut’s Western Holdings. I’d heard bits and pieces of this throughout my travels; notably, the guy who built the Phelps-Hathaway House (now museum) in Suffield owned some land out there. Connecticut, like most colonies, claimed land all the way west to the Pacific.

Over time, the colonies (now states) gave the land to the Feds. One of the last holdouts (in fact, the last holdout was our kickass state. Connecticut refused to give up its “western reserve” which was in what is now northern Pennsylvania and Ohio. And by “refused,” I mean really, really refused.

Did you know we (CT) went to war over this? Yup. The Pennamite-Yankee War (or Wars) is the name given to fighting which occurred between 1769 and 1799 between settlers from Connecticut who claimed the land along the North Branch of the Susquehanna River in the present Wyoming Valley, and settlers from Pennsylvania who laid claim to the same territory.


King Charles II of England had granted the land to Connecticut in 1662, and also to William Penn in 1681. The charter of each colony assigned the territory to the colony; thus overlapping land claims existed. Both colonies purchased the same land by treaties with the Indians. Connecticut sent settlers to the area in 1754. Yankee settlers from Connecticut founded the town of Wilkes-Barre in 1769. Armed bands of Pennsylvanians (Pennamites) tried without success to expel them in 1769-70, and again in 1775. The “wars” were not particularly bloody—in the First Pennamite war, two men from Connecticut were killed and one from Pennsylvania in the course of two years.

In 1771, Connecticut’s claim was confirmed by King George III. In 1773, more settlers from Connecticut erected a new town, which they named Westmoreland. However, the Pennsylvanians refused to leave, and, in December 1775, the militia of Northumberland County, Pennsylvania, actually made an abortive attack on a Connecticut settlement. Then we fought the Revolution and all was finally settled in 1799, with Pennsylvania getting the land.

But this wasn’t the only western land Connecticut claimed very late into the game. We also owned part of Ohio. In fact, surviving architecture in the Western Reserve mimics that of the New England towns from which its settlers originally came. Cleveland’s Public Square is even characteristic of a traditional New England town Green.

Did I say Cleveland? Cleveland is so-named because a team from the land company led by Moses Cleaveland traveled to the Reserve to prepare surveys. The group also founded Cleveland, which would become the largest city in the region. (The arbitrary decision to drop the “a” in the name of the community was done by a printer early in the settlement’s existence, Cleveland taking less room on a printed page than Cleaveland.)

Moses Cleaveland didn’t seem to care, as he never bothered visiting the area again. He died in Canterbury in Connecticut where he is buried. Finally, in 1800, Connecticut ceded the territory to Ohio.

If you read this whole entry, you’ll enjoy at least skimming the book.

Pennamite Wars
Western Reserve Historical Society
Case Western Reserve University


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