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Descendants of founders celebrate Norwich’s beginnings

October 6, 2018

Norwich — Descendants of the city’s 35 founding families and members of the American Indian tribe that in 1659 sold them the 9 square miles upon which they built the city walked the original pine floorboards at the Leffingwell House Museum and ate cake Saturday in celebration of the Rose City’s beginnings.

The Society of the Founders of Norwich wore colonial-style garb, staged a scavenger hunt for historical artifacts and regaled visitors with stories of the people who settled the land in which three rivers — Yantic, Shetucket and Quinebaug — merge and flow into the Thames River.

Michael Passore of Dayville and his twin sister, Michelle House, descendants of the Backus, Bingham and Leffingwell families, have been visiting the Leffingwell House regularly since Passore started researching his genealogy.

“The state it’s in is amazing,” Passore said of the well-preserved red colonial structure at the intersection of Washington Street and Route 2. The original two-room home was built in 1675 by Steven Backus and later belonged to Ensign Thomas Leffingwell, who added rooms and operated it as an inn. The house was moved from its original location in the 1950s to make way for Route 2.

Mohegan Tribal Elder Bruce “Gentle Wind” Chapman wore a ribbon shirt, traditional jewelry he made of bones, glass and beads, and leaned on a native walking staff while telling a condensed version of the early transactions between his tribal ancestors and the city’s founders. The early interactions between the founders and Mohegan Sachem Uncas set the tone for the centuries of friendly relations that followed.

Uncas and Lt. Thomas Leffingwell, an Englishman who had settled in the Saybrook Colony, liked to hunt together, Chapman said. When the Narragansetts attempted to defeat the Mohegans in 1645 by surrounding and starving them at Fort Shantok, a Mohegan who was able to sneak away went to Fort Saybrook to ask for help. Leffingwell gathered soldiers who filled canoes with supplies and headed up the Thames River. They arrived at Fort Shantok with torches blazing, Chapman said. The Narragansetts retreated, and Uncas, grateful for the rescue, offered the founders the land for the city.

The transaction was formalized in 1659 when the 35 founding families purchased the tract for 70 pounds.

Dayne Rugh, president of the Society of Founders and Leffingwell Museum, dressed as Christopher Leffingwell, the great grandson of the city founder Thomas Leffingwell. Thomas had come to the colonies as a teen, leaving his parents in England, and changed the course of history, Rugh said.

Christopher Leffingwell renovated the Leffingwell House in 1760, and it is virtually unchanged, he said.

At noon, founders society board member Arthur Mueller, dressed in the breeches, linen shirt and tricorn hat of the period, read the names of the city’s founders as Kevin Harkens, president of the Friends of the Norwich Bell, rang a brass bell for each.

Mayor Peter A. Nystrom, a Leffingwell board member, read a proclamation from the city declaring Saturday Founders Day. He said descendants of 13 of the founding families still live in the city and that Norwich’s rich history still is being discovered as people continue to donate items and research the artifacts. One recent discovery is a set of shipping documents, prepared in four languages and signed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Nystrom said.

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, presented a citation from the General Assembly and said, “If you don’t spend two to three weekends a month at the Leffingwell House, you’re missing out. This is a place to come to understand how important Norwich is to the surrounding area. It is our history that makes us one of the most important communities in the state.”

Norwich became an important port city and in the 19th century, a major manufacturing hub. Osten said it still flourishes today, referencing the ongoing renovation of the Ponemah Mill, the expanded Foundry 66 office space and the community theaters downtown.

k.florin@theday.com

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