Writing on Water: Historic houses have their own stories to tell if we dig a bit
I like to dig into my family history and try to decipher life in the generations before me. On a recent excavation, I realized that I’ve lived in houses in southeastern Connecticut that are steeped in the histories of other families going back to the 18th century and perhaps therein lies the real truth of our local history; the stories imbedded in the walls of these ancient homes.
In 1949, my family moved from an old farmhouse in Mystic on High Street where my grandparents lived to an old mansion that had fallen on hard times.
The mansion was built in 1791 for Enoch Burrows, on Main Street (Route 27) in Old Mystic, across from the former Sirtex mill at the head of the Mystic River.
In 1903, Grace Dennison Wheeler described the house in her book, “Homes of Our Ancestors in Stonington,” as a “large, white house, with three tiers of bay windows, and a delightful view of the Mystic River winding among its green islands … the long flight of marble steps which leads up to the front door came from Mr. Burrows’ marble quarry … near Pittsfield…. Along with a marble sink and [marble fireplaces] … brought down the Connecticut River and landed at the dock before the door.”
She goes on to describe Enoch as a landholder, owning many farms and Ram’s Island, and that his wife, Esther Denison, was a delightful hostess with “a good force of domestics to execute her commands.”
It eventually became the home of their son Silas Enoch Burrows (1794-1870) and then passed to Enoch’s grandchildren into the 20th century. The occupants who were living there when we moved in were said to be “squatters.” The original Old Mystic National Bank, built by Silas in 1833, was still standing next door in what is now a parking area. It was moved to the Mystic Seaport in the 1950s.
Because of its size, and possibly because my mother had always wanted to live in a castle, my parents bought this spooky and cavernous house to convert into a nursing home for 34 residents. While my father and grandfather wired, plumbed, and created indoor bathrooms, we lived upstairs in the garret under the roof rafters where, from the long windows in the turret tower, my brothers and I thought we could see all the way to Mystic.
I don’t recall being afraid of the little brown bats that lived with us; we needed bats for bugs and cats for rats. We eventually moved to a house my father built behind the mansion but I never forgot the atmosphere of decayed grandeur the place conveyed.
Over the years, I wondered about the history of this house and its occupants, especially after reading on the genealogical site WikiTree that Enoch (on his mother’s side) was only 18 degrees in family relationship from the esteemed black poet, Langston Hughes, making them distant but direct relatives.
I was curious about how this relationship could exist, especially because there is scarce evidence that black people lived in the Town of Stonington in the 18th and 19th centuries, even though they had arrived as slaves. It seems that some of this lack of notation in the early 1700s was related to the Governor of Connecticut’s belief that there were too few slaves to count for tax purposes.
But according to original source material, by 1774 all the principal families of Norwich, Hartford, and New Haven, and all the ministers, lawyers, public officials and a third of all doctors were said to have one or two slaves. New London County had become the greatest slaveholding section of New England.
At the same time, free Black people were prohibited from residing in, buying land, or going into business anywhere in New London County without the consent of the town Selectmen, and that consent was rarely given.
Free Black people had to move on and settle somewhere else in order to survive.
Back to the Burrows family, according to the “Stonington Chronology 1649–1976,” Silas (Enoch’s son) was born into a land-rich family and was brought along in the merchant trade by his father and grandfather, the Rev. Silas Burrows, the first pastor of Fort Hill Baptist Church in Groton. Enoch presided mainly in local politics, especially between 1810 and 1819. He progressed from Stonington Town Representative to Town Selectman to State Senator.
In 1815, Enoch and his father Rev. Burrows, commissioned Christopher Leeds in Old Mystic to build two small steamboats for young Silas, age 21, and from that point he was launched into an international career of business with ships in Russia, Hong Kong, South America and beyond.
Young Silas was known for his generous charitable acts and he took a particular interest in aiding shipwrecked mariners. He received international attention for his attempt to find Sir John Franklin’s expedition ships that were lost in the Arctic.
He became involved with all manner of shipping commerce. The archives of the Mystic Historical Society reveal the contents of one of Silas Burrows’ schooners, “Trader,” on a “Manifest of Slaves, Passenger on board,” a document with “names, sex, height, class (race), and owners” of nine males and one female, going from Savannah to New Orleans. They were marked as “sold.”
This documentation of the transport of human cargo by someone within whose house I had lived shocked me. How could I know so little about the inhabitants of a place I’ve known of for my entire life?
When I lived in Enoch Burrows’ mansion as a child, I remember waking in darkness to the aroma of coffee, toast and boiling oatmeal wafting up the back stairway from the kitchen three stories below along with the sounds of Mrs. Hall, the nursing home cook, and her metal spoon clicking against the sides of a stainless steel basin as she scrambled eggs.
If only those old walls could speak and tell me the whole story of our past.
Ruth W. Crocker lives in Mystic. She can be reached through her website, ruthwcrocker.com.
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