In 1721, the Connecticut General Assembly ordered Jeremiah Fitch to begin paying rent to John Clark for land he lived on near Coventry, Conn. Or to leave. Fitch, however, felt he didn’t need to pay rent because he already owned the land. And with that he set the stage for the Hartford riot of 1722.
Give Me Land
By the 1720s, Connecticut was running out of open land desirable for farming. Hartford and New Haven had plenty of people, and the state experienced a population explosion.
For many decades, Connecticut didn’t have too many people, but too few. As that changed, land grew more valuable and settlers looked for areas away from the population centers to start farms.
The appeal of Eastern Connecticut near the Rhode Island border began growing. With good farm land, it had few settlers. But who owned it?
The state had claimed ownership, though it had trouble enforcing the claim. The Mohegan Indians claimed to own it. Though Indians had “sold” land to early colonizers, the tribe insisted the sale only represented their allegiance to the new English government. Though that placed the land under English jurisdiction, the actual right to live on the land stayed with the Mohegans. Unless, of course, they chose to sell it.
This set up conflict between the proponents of state rights and native rights. Caught between these two sides were those people who bought property from the Mohegans, only to be told that they didn’t own it at all. In Canterbury, some lamented that to buy a piece of land settlers had to pay for it over and over again.
None of the ownership issues slowed land speculator James Fitch from aggressively selling and leasing farms in the area, based upon his claims that he had obtained the land by virtue of its sale by the Mohegan Tribe.
Into the early 1700s Fitch was held somewhat in check by the government, run by the powerful Winthrop family. But Fitch still amassed a fortune (and paid a fortune in legal bills) from land speculation.
By 1722, the area of eastern Connecticut was awash with disputed land that had multiple ownership claims. In 1721 the legislature had made its fateful order that Jeremiah Fitch’s claim to his land was invalid. (Jeremiah was a distant cousin of James Fitch.) It ruled he must vacate the property, declaring John Clark owned it by virtue of a government grant. Fitch refused to leave, and Sheriff James Whiting arrested and jailed him in Hartford.
The Hartford Riot
Seeing that Fitch’s future was their own if they didn’t act, his supporters from the towns east of Hartford crossed the Connecticut River and went to the Hartford jail. They declared their intentions, broke down the door and released Fitch (along with other prisoners).
All in all it was a remarkably civil riot. Sheriff John Whiting caught up with the rioters as they boarded a boat to cross the Connecticut and return home. As the ferryman was loading his boat with the rioters, Whiting struck one man, John Smith, with his cane. Smith cautioned the sheriff: “Colonel, don’t strike hard. If you do, I’ll turn on you.” With that, the ferry departed with the rioters.
For the next several months a state of lawlessness pervaded Eastern Connecticut as the sheriff attempted to bring justice and arrest the rioters. The Assembly had given sheriffs greater authority and made it a crime for more than three people to congregate without government approval. Yet the native rights mob ran the countryside.
The native rights protesters repeatedly ran off the sheriff and grand jury members who attempted to come into the towns east of Hartford. The dispute then culminated in an armed standoff in March of 1723 at the church in Coventry. A party of sheriff’s deputies faced off against Jeremiah Fitch’s son and others.
In May of 1723 the major players in the native rights movement had finally been rounded up for trial over their part in the riot and its aftermath. More than 10 men were eventually convicted. They received punishments that ranged from fines of 10 shillings and a stern lecture to being branded on the forehead with the letter “B.”
With that, the native rights protests largely ended and the government began to assert its ownership rights over the lands of Eastern Connecticut. Jeremiah Fitch, meanwhile, was convicted of no crimes related to the riot. He had not participated in the break-in at the jail as he was already locked inside it.
Thanks to Unrest in the “Land of Steady Habits”: The Hartford Riot of 1722, James M. Poteet and A Complete History of Connecticut by By Benjamin Trumbull. Illustration: View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, Thomas Cole (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Map of Pioneer Hartford Goldie, J. & Goldie, R. (1927) Map of pioneer Hartford: founded , incorporated 1784, showing early landmarks and the locations of historical events. [S.l.: s.n] [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2007630431/.
This story last updated in 2022.