The Lester family legacy

When Andrew Lester left Great Britain for Massachusetts in 1640, this intrepid immigrant probably never dreamed that in just a few generations his descendants would be so prolific that a school and a road (Lestertown Road) would be named for them.

Andrew moved from Boston to New London in 1651, where he was assigned land on Alewife Cove. A few years later one of his sons moved to Starr Hill in Groton, and around 1730 his great-grandson, Peter, acquired a large tract of land in North Groton (now Ledyard). His property was bounded by Morgan Pond (the Groton Reservoir) and today’s Vinegar Hill Road. Peter and his wife, Anna, established a large farm there and had twelve children.

In 1793 their youngest son, Nathan, built his own house on Vinegar Hill. When you visit this idyllic property, now on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s easy to imagine stepping back in time and living happily here. It’s harder to comprehend that amid this rural serenity, the Lesters experienced not only the challenges we all face, they suffered epic wartime loss.

On September 6, 1781 the Lesters joined about 150 militiamen and volunteers to defend Fort Griswold from Benedict Arnold’s attack. Peter’s son, John, his teenaged grandson Jonas, and two of his sons-in-law (Amos Lester and Rufus Hurlbutt) were all there. So were Daniel and Wait Lester, possibly brothers from lateral branch of the family tree. The battle lasted less than an hour. When it was over they were all dead except Amos who was severely wounded but escaped.

The lasting impact of this bloodbath rippled down the years. In 1789 as Peter drafted his last will and testament, the financial consequences to his family weighed heavily on his mind. A will isn’t an inherently cheery document, but it sometimes offers insight into a person’s character and what he holds dear.

Peter’s will reflects a conscientious father trying to provide for all his loved-ones, with special distributions to the family’s war widows and fatherless grandchildren. Another heartbreaking situation that required a specific bequest was the imminent death of his ailing eldest son, Peter, Jr. The soon-to-be widow and her surviving children would need material support, too. (Amplifying this tragedy, Jonas, the boy killed at Fort Griswold, was one of Peter Jr.’s sons.)

Finally, Peter left half of all his property to his son, Nathan, and gave him responsibility for Peter’s three unmarried daughters. The women were to be provided with a cow and hog annually; they should also be supplied firewood and have access to the cider stored in the basement. (Apparently the Lesters enjoyed cider. At one point they had 98 barrels of cider in the cellar, 44 of which were “old.”)

This must have been a pivotal time in Nathan’s life. He was losing his father and brother, and assuming new responsibilities for the entire family. Perhaps he was also contemplating marriage, not a step to be taken lightly when you’re a middle-aged bachelor. In 1793, possibly in anticipation of matrimony, Nathan built the home on Vinegar Hill, and three years later he was a married man.

The house is a classic 18th century farmhouse with a central chimney, keeping room, pantry, borning room, and a work area for looms. The cellar has unusually high ceilings where one can imagine cured hogs might have been hung. It was a sensible home for the times, and it had the architectural bones to age gracefully. The National Register of Historic Places describes the house today as “essentially unaltered” and “in a superb state of preservation.”

The house is open from Memorial Day through Labor Day. (Check The Nathan Lester House Museum and Farm Tool Museum website for specific days and times.) The garden and extensive grounds can be explored daily throughout the year.

The property is a remarkable family legacy, but the Lesters left us an even greater one. Their sacrifices helped make a country.



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