New Haven’s History

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Less than four centuries ago the area which is now New Haven was the home of a small tribe of Native Americans, the Quinnipiack, who built their villages around the harbor. They harvested seafood, hunted with bow and arrow for food and furs and grew maize, the staple of their diet.

Sleeping GiantOn April 24, 1638, a company of five-hundred English Puritans led by the Reverend John Davenport and Theophilus Eaton, a wealthy London merchant, sailed into the harbor. They soon discovered that the Quinnipiacks and other local tribes were much distressed by raiding bands of Pequots and Mohawks from surrounding areas. It was for this reason that Momauguin, the sachem of the Quinnipiacks, and other tribe members agreed to sell the tribe's land to the Puritans. In return, the settlers pledged to protect the natives and to allow them the use of the lands on the east side of the harbor.

New Haven's founders not only hoped to create a Christian utopia, they also saw in New Haven's spacious harbor an opportunity to establish a commercial empire that would control Long Island Sound and possibly the coastline as far south as Delaware Bay.

By 1640 a complete government had been established and the settlement, originally called Quinnipiac, was renamed Newhaven. The town plan was based on a grid of nine squares. In accordance with old English custom, the central square, now the Green, was designated a public common. By 1641 New Haven had grown into a community of approximately 800.

Over the next few years, however, the flow of newcomers began to weaken and trade with the outside world shifted more and more to Boston. In an attempt to establish direct trade with England, the settlers managed to assemble enough produce to fill a vessel which would become known as the "Great Shippe." However, after setting sail in January, 1646, the ship and its crew were never heard from again. This disaster ended the dream of creating an economic empire and over the years New Haven became overshadowed by New Amsterdam and Boston.

In 1649, King Charles I of England was accused of treason and beheaded. His son, Charles II, became king eleven years later and sought vengeance against the men who had signed his father's death warrant. Two of them, Colonel Edward Whalley and his son-in-law Colonel William Goffe fled to America and, in 1661, they were hidden by John Davenport in a cave on the top of New Haven's West Rock. They were later joined by a third regicide, John Dixwell. Three of New Haven's streets are named after the regicides and their story has become an integral part of New Haven's history.

In 1664, the forces of King Charles' brother, the Duke of York, seized New Amsterdam. Rather than face the possibility of rule by the Catholic duke, New Haven surrendered its hope of remaining independent and united with the Connecticut Colony. By 1701, New Haven had grown to be the village center of a mainly agricultural township and became co-capital of Connecticut, along with Hartford. It was not until 1873 that New Haven lost its status as co-capital.

In 1700, a small Puritan college known as the Collegiate School was founded in Old Saybrook. Eighteen years later it moved to New Haven, and, after receiving a large benefaction from Elihu Yale, was renamed Yale College. It would eventually become a world renowned university and a major economic factor in the city.


By the time the Revolutionary War began, New Haven had evolved from a colonial village into a growing town of about 3,500 that would contribute men, financial support and arms to the revolutionary cause. At one point in the war New Haven was invaded by 3,000 British soldiers. Unlike Norwalk and Fairfield the British did not burn the city and casualties were relatively few.

In 1784, New Haven was incorporated as a city and Roger Sherman, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, was elected first mayor.

Eli Whitney Cotton GinShortly before the turn of the century Eli Whitney, a Yale graduate, invented the cotton gin, a machine that revolutionized the cotton industry in the South. Later, Whitney established a gun factory along the Hamden border. New Haven's status as one of the major American arms-manufacturing centers has its roots in the Whitney Arms Company. Whitney's operation was eventually bought by the Winchester Arms Company, which became one of New Haven's largest employers.

In 1839 nearly fifty African Mendi Warriors had been captured in Africa by Spanish slave traders. While off the coast of Cuba aboard the Spanish schooner Amistad they mutinied and were eventually found by a United States patrol boat. Since New Haven had a United States District Court, the Mendi and their leader, Cinque, were imprisoned and tried in the city. At the end of a three-year trial that would receive national attention, the court ruled that the Mendi had been kidnapped into slavery in violation of Spanish law. The return of the Mendi to their homeland would be remembered as a triumph of the anti-slavery movement in the North.New Haven Harbor

New Haven's economy flourished during the Civil War era. The city's carriage industry became for many years one of the nation's largest. New Haven also produced rubber goods, clocks, beer, pianos and a wide range of other products.

The city's population also surged after the Civil War. At the outbreak of the war, the population was 40,000; by the turn of the century it had grown to 108,000. Many of the new citizens had immigrated from abroad from such areas as Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe. By 1900, 28 percent of New Haven's population was foreign-born.

Immigrant labor would help New Haven become a leading producer of clocks, plows, wagons, guns and clothing. However, after World War I anti-immigration laws drastically reduced the flow of European immigrants. African-Americans from the South and Hispanics from Puerto Rico became new sources of post-war immigration into the city.


After the world wars, new roads and the increasing availability of the automobile opened the floodgates on the middle class exodus to the suburbs. As suburban communities gave birth to industrial parks and shopping centers, New Haven's economic condition became progressively worse.

In 1954, Mayor Richard Lee began his first of eight terms as Mayor of New Haven. Lee hoped to stem the emigration of the middle class, eliminate the slums and revitalize the economy. More than $300 million dollars was spent in public and private construction in renewal areas during Lee's administration.

One of the more dramatic development projects undertaken during Lee's administration was the rebuilding of downtown New Haven. The project, completed in 1965, included the office tower facing Chapel Street, a shopping mall, a 300-room hotel and Macy's and Edward Malley's department stores.

Despite Lee's efforts, New Haven's population continued to decline. Downtown New Haven experienced the closings of Macy's, Edward Malley's, the hotel and many long-time businesses.

New HavenHowever, revitalization of many areas of the city continued after Lee left office in 1969. Wooster Square, which in the 1950's was a slum, is now home to new commercial and industrial buildings and an established historic district. In 1994 The Audubon Arts Center Complex was completed. Revitalization is also occurring in Science Park, the East Shore community, the harborfront, Upper State Street and many other areas.