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Madison History

This brief history of early Madison is an excerpted transcription of a document found in Madison’s Heritage: Historical Sketches of Madison, Connecticut, edited by Philip S. Platt for the Madison Historical Society in 1964. The author of this particular essay is unknown; the subheadings have been added by the MHS for this online version. Even in its original form, it was acknowledged by its editor as “far from complete” but also as “a reasonably accurate account of the main facts of the first 250 years.” We offer it here until such time as we create a thorough history of the town’s full 370 years, from European settlement to the present.

Missing from this history is an account of the pre-contact history of the Native American people who lived here prior to (and well after) Dutch exploration and English settlement. In truth, their history is, of course, just as real and important as the history of any other groups of peoples. So, herewith are the facts as we know them of the first people who inhabited this region.

Pre-Contact Era 12,000 BC to 1630 AD

As is true for all New England communities, the history of Madison begins long before its incorporation as a separate named town in 1826. The regional topography and the local waterways certainly postively influenced the area’s fitness as a place of human habitation—a history that began, perhaps, as much as 12,000 years ago.

Covered with glacial ice at least a mile thick during the Late Wisconsian glaciation, about 22,000 years ago, Connecticut, Long Island, and the Long Island Sound between them were formed by the action of the advancing, melting, and receding ice floes. Trapped in the ice were such loose materials as sand, gravel, silt, clay, and till, and these were dropped as the glacier receded, creating ridges of this unsorted glacial debris. Two of these ridges, called moraines, formed during fluctuating periods of warming and cooling and created Long Island. Water collected behind this land mass and formed glacial Lake Connecticut in the place we know as Long Island Sound. By 17,500 years ago, the ice front had melted back as far as the area now called Fenwick, in the place where the Old Saybrook moraine formed. Slightly later, the Hammonasset-Ledyard double moraine formed. Visitors to Madison’s Hammonasset State Park can see the evidence of the latter moraine in the rocks at Meigs Point.

By 15,500 years ago, the ice had melted away, and Lake Connecticut had completely drained. As the glacier melted, the sea level rose and began to fill in the ice-scoured basin we now call Long Island Sound. Meltwater that flowed downhill washed fine sediments into low-lying areas, creating sand and gravel deposits in Connecticut’s valleys and leaving undisturbed glacial sediments of all sizes on the hilltops and in flat areas. These conditions contributed to the growth of forests, the contours of rivers and streams, the abundance of flora and fauna, and, then, the influx of a human community. 

The first humans are believed to have appeared in this area approximately around 10,500 B.C. Primarily hunters who moved seasonally with the migrating large mammals that provided meat, hides, and sinew, these people gradually became more settled and agrarian. By the time just prior to the European contact period (after 1550 in the modern era), five tribes of American Indians lived in the area near and around what is now called New Haven and Middlesex counties. From east to west, the Pequots and Mohegans lived in the Old Saybrook/New London area; the Hammonassets lived in the Madison and Clinton coastal area; the Menunkatucks lived in the Guilford area; and the Quinnipiacs lived in the area around present-day New Haven.

The Hammonassets were mostly farmers who subsisted on corn, beans, and squash, like most New England Woodland Period tribes, but they also fished and hunted. The word Hammonassett means "where we dig holes in the ground" and refers to the cultivated areas farmed along the southern Hammonasset River, which runs approximately 30 miles from Bunker Hill in Durham to its outlet into Long Island Sound.

The Hammonassets spent their summer farming along the Hammonasset River, just north of the present park area. As far as it is known, they did not have a permanent village in the park area, though they probably hunted on this land and fished the local waters. During the winter they moved to the protectively wooded area that is now near the present Durham-Killingworth town line. According to a field report by Tom Paul of the New England Antiquities Research Association, many pre-colonial (and probably native-built) stone structures exist in the upper Summer Hill Road area in Madison, in the northern part of town on the eastern border of Killingworth and the Hammonasset Reservoir, in the area occupied by the Hammonassets before the colonial period. These Indians lived on the west side of the Connecticut River to the Hammonasset River along the Sound and also resided westward of that river in North Madison and North Guilford.

The white European newcomers who arrived in June of 1639 bought land from the Pequots; from Shaumpishuh, the female sachem of the Menunkatucks; from Sebaguenosh or Sebeguencsh, the sachem of the Hammonassets; and from Uncas of the Mohegans (who was the son-in-law of Sebaguenosh). Records indicate that, for a variety of reasons relating to overlapping ownership, the Hammonasset area may have been purchased as many as four separate times. George Fenwick of the Old Saybrook Colony also bought land from Uncas, and Reverend Henry Whitfield, in partnership with Fenwick, bought part of the area as well. By 1650 George Fenwick had granted his portion of the lands to the Guilford planters, and at that time, the town of Guilford had firmly established and defined boundaries—at least for the time being.

The story below, as told in Madison’s Heritage, fleshes out much of the tale of the town's development in the subsequent years.

Madison 1639-1889

Early Settlers

In 1639 a group of colonists from Surrey and Kent, England, settled along Long Island Sound and formed a community that they called Guilford. Their settlement grew and prospered, and they purchased additional lands from the Indians. Among their purchases was one of particular interest, made in the fall of 1641. This was the securing of a tract of land between what is now Guilford and Tuxis Pond, by Reverend Henry Whitfield, from Wequash, a Pequot sachem. The price paid for this land was a frieze coat, a blanket, an Indian coat, one faddom Dutchman’s coat, a shirt, a pair of stockings, a pair of shoes, and a faddom of wampum. Three months later, the Mohegan chief, Uncas, claimed the land was his by inheritance. In order to avoid unpleasantness, the settlers paid again, this time more generously in the same type of goods. Shortly thereafter, the land between Tuxis Pond and the Hammonasset River was bought from the same Uncas by Mr. George Fenwick of Saybrook. Reverend Whitfield persuaded Mr. Fenwick to donate his purchase to the settlers of Guilford.

All of the section of land east of the East River was called East Guilford. The settlers petitioned to have church services locally, and in 1703, after much delay, this was allowed. Later, petitions were made to Guilford that East Guilford might be made a separate town, and, in May, 1826, this was granted, and the name Madison, after the fourth U.S. President James Madison, was given to the new town. 

Meetinghouses and Churches

The first meetinghouse of the town was constructed in 1705, located on the southeastern section of the present green. It was roughly built and boasted neither bell nor steeple and was at first without galleries. Over time, pews and glass windows were added to the structure. The first minister was Reverend John Hart, who accomplished much in the forming of a foundation for the Madison church. His death at age 49 occurred in 1731, in the twenty-fourth year of his ministry.

In May 1743, a new meetinghouse was dedicated, after the first meetinghouse was deemed inadequate. The new meetinghouse was two stories high and had two tiers of windows. In 1799 a steeple was added, and a few years later a bell was purchased. Sabbathday houses were also constructed about this time on the Green.They were roughly built usually of one story, containing one or two rooms and a large fireplace. To these the families came on Sunday morning, built their fires and tilled up their foot stoves with hot coals and with the sounding of the bell went to church and shivered through the two- or three-hour service. Then they returned to their fires, ate their lunch, renewed the coals in their foot stoves, and readied for the second sermon of the day. 

The second pastor, hired in approximately 1734, was Reverend Jonathan Todd, noted for his impressive sermons. It was during his term of ministry that a distressing and widespread epidemic prevailed in the town during the years of 1750-51. All work was interrupted, and there were hardly enough well ones to take care of the sick and bury the dead. Many heads of families were claimed in this wave of sickness, and forty-three lives were tolled in one year, which was a large and distressing mortality for that period and for the population of the town. Mr. Todd labored unceasingly, day and night, until even his health was broken. He died February 24, 1791, at the age of 77 after holding the pastoral office for 57 years.

In 1757 another church was organized in North Madison, and in 1802 a third church was built in the Rockland area. A Methodist Episcopal Church was established in 1839, but it disorganized a few years later. In 1837, the present Congregational Church was constructed on the north side of the Green.

The Madison Green

The Madison town green was formerly an open common, crossed by numerous cart paths and encumbered with buildings. The north section of the tract was a swamp,which was later filled. In October 1845 the Society voted the land for a Public Square and Parade Ground for all the citizens of this town to use, improve and enjoy. In March 1842 it was voted to have all buildings removed and the ground was made level. Fencing was erected around the Green, and beautiful trees were planted.

Early Commerce

Shellfishing was carried on to a large extent despite the fact that the town does not boast a large harbor. It was found that small vessels could anchor with safety around Tuxis Island, and East and West Neck River were dammed and used for oyster beds by the Madison Channel Company. However, the river was found to be unsuited for oyster beds and the project was abolished. 

In 1792 a company from Rhode Island established a porpoise fishery on the western part of the beach. Porpoise used to be caught in abundance along the Madison shore; sometimes as many as 600 to 700 were caught in a season.  The skins of these fish were tanned, making good leather for smiths’ bellows and other purposes. Oil used for illumination was also extracted from the fat of the porpoise, and the remainder of the animal was sold for fertilizer. White fish were also caught in large numbers, sometimes a single net taking 200,000 a day. These were sold for fertilizer at the rate of one dollar a thousand. 

Madison was noted for its extensive shipbuilding industry at both East and West Wharves and at other places along the shore. Twenty-seven different kinds of vessels were constructed.  Among them were scores of three-masted schooners and ships used for the West Indies trade.  This industry flourished until 1890 when a portion of the yards were destroyed by fire. Since then the trade has never been revived. 

In North Madison magnetic iron was secured, and garnets were also found in a ledge of that section. Owing to the rich timberlands in the northern part of the town, sawmills prospered and charcoal was manufactured. Grain mills, sawmills, papermills, and other mills were established all about the town. 


Neither was education neglected in Madison in the early days. For a time Guilford managed the schools of this vicinity but the town was soon capable of making the necessary provisions and took the affair upon themselves. The first schools were established in the north, south, and east Societies, but were of no great importance. Most of the children were instructed at home by their parents.

In 1821 Captain Frederick Lee and some other men established an Academy in the Neck District, and it opened in the fall of the same year under the supervision of Mr. Samuel Robinson. The building remained in the Neck District for a few years, but it was later moved to the northwest corner of the [Green.] Later on, it was again moved to a place east of the Green. The Academy was a tuition school, but it was incorporated and repaired in 1889 and given over to public education. In 1892 all town schools were consolidated, and the Academy became town property. In December 1877, Madison appropriated $500 for a high school to hold sessions in Lee's Academy, open to all town pupils of twelve years or older at the rate of $4 for a term of twelve weeks. This historic building was moved to its present situation in the summer of 1923 at the cost of $700, this amount being paid by the Historical Society, which arranged for the preservation of this well-known landmark.

In 1884, the East Guilford philanthropist Daniel Hand erected a brick academy in his native town, situated on the same land as the present school building. The expense of this building and land was $15,110 and was presented to the town in November 1884 on condition that an academy always be kept there. In 1888, Daniel Hand, then of Guilford, gave $1,000,000 as a permanent fund, "the income of which shall be used for the purpose of educating needy and indigent people of African decent, residing, or who may hereafter reside, in the recent slave States of the United States, sometimes called the Southern States." When Mr. Hand died, in 1891, he left the residue of his fortune, amounting to $500,000, to be added to his original gift.


A library was established in Madison in 1793. The first library contained 250 volumes. In 1883 the Madison Library Association was incorporated and had its library in an old school building that stood across the street from the Allis-Bushnell House on the Boston Post Road. In March 1895 this building and its collection of 800 volumes were destroyed by fire. In 1897 a small building was rented for the purpose of creating a new library and was opened twice a week to the public. The Reverend H. D. Latham, a resident of Madison, bequeathed, upon his death, a legacy of about $700 to the Association for the establishment of a permanent fund. The library continued in this manner until the construction of the E. C. Scranton Memorial Library in 1900. 


Note: This section on Madison’s transportation history was written by MHS Board member Paulette Kaufman and used in the text for the MHS exhibition, A Road Runs Through It: How the Turnpike Transformed Madison.

From colonial times well into the nineteenth century, Madison’s roads were precarious and often impassible. Rough, rocky and rutted, they were dusty in summer and muddy in spring. Lack of upkeep was a major problem. The towns’ able-bodied men were compelled to provide labor to build and to maintain the local roads. However, few complied, so stagecoaches and wagons could do no more than 8 miles per hour. 

In 1671 a colonial post road was established as the main overland route between New York and Boston to improve communication between the New England colonies. The southern route of the three post roads that traversed Connecticut followed the shoreline from Providence to New York. Now called the Boston Post Road, it was, at that time, mostly a brush-filled path. [Note: In October 2008, a 2.3-mile section of this road, also known as US Route 1, from the intersection at Neck Road to the intersection at Lovers Lane, was designated a Scenic Road in recognition of the "significant natural, cultural, scenic, and historic features along its borders."] 

After the Revolutionary War toll roads, or turnpikes, were chartered to private stock companies by state governments who lacked capital to finance a public system. The states’ contracts established the routes and the tolls.
It was then up to the corporation to negotiate the right of way with local landowners and then to build and to maintain the road. By the 1850s Connecticut was crossed by 1400 miles of toll roads.

In 1811 the first of four toll roads to operate through Madison was constructed.  The Durham and East Guilford Turnpike Company was chartered to Phineas Meigs, Daniel Hand, Jr., Frederick Lee, and others to create a 13.5-mile road from the meetinghouse in Durham to the Stage Road in East Guilford (Madison). 

For centuries the sea was the most efficient route for carrying people, produce and merchandise along the coastal route from Maine to Florida. Madison men sailed their ships, using the wind and tides to sail up along the New England coast or down the Atlantic coast and on to the Caribbean and South America.

Sloops, barks, schooners, and brigs were built with Madison timber and Madison labor along the shoreline in yards run by the Miners at East Wharf, the Hoyts at West Wharf, the Bassetts at the Neck, and the Hotchkiss’ and Blatchleys at East River. In 1850, a hundred or more men were employed in the shipyards, building two boats per yard, each taking nearly a year to complete.

The wind power was free, and the only fee required after 1790 was for a coastal trading license. A sloop with a three-man crew could make the round trip to the New York market in three days, carrying a cargo of 1,000 bushels of vegetables, or pigs, chickens, and barrel staves, or quarried stone. The boats then returned home to Madison with items like coal from Pennsylvania. It has been estimated that as many as forty coasters operated out of Madison at one time.

The future of Madison’s shipbuilding was more or less doomed when the New Haven and New London Railroad’s steam locomotive pulled into Madison on July 1, 1852 on its inaugural route. The New Haven and New London Railroad line was the state’s first rail line, running from Stonington to Providence, Rhode Island. Trains stopped at least three times a day in Madison to pick up freight, passengers and mail. By 1858 through a series of mergers and leases, the “Shore Line Route” was completed between New York and Boston with the help of Madison’s native son Cornelius S. Bushnell. The railroad made it possible for Madison farmers and merchants to ship their goods to inland cities. Rail lines also carried more tourists to the beach resorts popularized in the 1850s along the Connecticut shore.

Around 1900, when the Shore Line Electric railway laid its tracks from Stony Creek to Chester, Madison entered the age of the electric trolley. Connecticut native Frank J. Sprague had developed the technology for this new form of public transportation. Another Connecticut native, multimillionaire Morton F. Plant, financed the construction of the electric railway that began operation in 1910, quickly becoming New England’s fifth largest trolley system. The single-car trolley in Madison carried up to forty passengers, ran every hour on the half hour at speeds as high as 42 mph, and made stops in Madison at the East River, in the center of town, and at Hammonasset State Park. Financial difficulties forced the trolley line into receivership in 1919. By that time Henry Ford had produced a Model T for $850, an amount that was at the time just four months of a factory worker’s salary. Easier travel between cities and towns along the shoreline contributed to the creation of Connecticut’s first suburbs.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Hartford was considered the automobile capital of the world. There the Pope Manufacturing Company was producing more than half of the motorized vehicles in the United States. Colonel Albert Pope, one of the country’s most prosperous industrialists, had derived his success from the Columbia bicycle.
Pope’s innovative use of mass production techniques and of interchangeable parts established him as one of the first manufacturers of mass-produced automobiles. Pope also was the nation’s leading champion of the “Good Roads” movement inspired by cycling enthusiasts, which paved the way for today’s interconnected federal highway system.

The Pope-Hartford Touring Car model, launched about 1903, could carry five passengers, cruising at about 50 mph, all for the price of $2750. When Hnery Ford introduced the Model T in 1907, his car was considered the first affordable automobile, selling for less than a third of the Pope cars. As they became cheaper, automobiles began to compete with public transportation. Because they offered a greater amount of freedom than the fixed locations and timetables of trolleys and trains, cars like Ford’s Model T led to the demise of the trolley system and to the growth of suburbia. By the end of the 1920s, 25,000 vehicles a day were using US Route 1, and in 1958 five million new cars were put on the road.

Town Government

Until 1897, Madison town meetings were held in the Congregational Church basement.  All the records were kept in the home of the town clerk.A special town meeting was called in October 1874, and a vote was made to build a vault for the Probate and Town records. A brick building was constructed containing two vaults. [This building is now known as the Memorial Town Hall on the Green. A new town campus, created in 1998 on the grounds of a former private school, presently houses all of the Madison government offices. The Memorial Town Hall is now home to the Charlotte L. Evarts Memorial Archives and several community rooms.]

Madison and the Wars

At the onset of the Revolutionary war when the alarm first came from Lexington, Madison sent twenty-three men who served until the anxiety subsided. The town remained undisturbed until the War of 1812. In September 1814, the citizens of Madison were aroused to action early in the morning when a messenger dashed through the town with a cry that “The British are coming.  Turn out! Turn out!” A number of men went down to the wharves to defend the vessels on the docks from attack. Upon reaching the shore, the defenders found two barges and a number of armed men rushing for the wharf.  As the Madison volunteers had no ammunition to fire, a heavy draft chain, 10 feet long ,was loaded into the cannon and fired. This proved so successful in scaring the British that they quickly rowed back to their ship and did not attack Madison again.

The Mexican war excited little interest in the town; only two Madison men were in service in that conflict.

When Lincoln called for volunteers in the Civil War, Madison was quick to respond, furnishing both men and money. Two men were worthy of much credit for their services in the building of the USS Monitor (also see the biography of Cornelius Bushnell). The women of Madison also gained recognition in the Civil War for their untiring services in supplying food and necessities. Madison supplied more than 200 men and $16,065 in the war.

Credits: The following sources were consulted in the preparation of this text:

  • Living Resources and Habitats of the Lower Connecticut River, Bulletin Number 37, The Connecticut College Arboretum, New London , Connecticut, December 2001
  • Madison’s Heritage: Historical Sketches of Madison, Connecticut, edited by Philip S. Platt. Madison Historical Society, 1964.
  • "Hammonasset Line, Chapter 1: A Summer Solstice Sunset Line." A Field Report by Tom Paul. Presented March 30, 2001. New England Antiquities Research Association.
  • "History of Hammonasset Beach State Park." Researched and written by Gary Dunn of the CT DEP.

Madison Historical Society
14 Meetinghouse Lane
Madison, CT 06443-3155