Saturday, April 1, 2017

Lt. Thomas Leffingwell, a Founder of Norwich, Connecticut

The Name

In 1892 Leffingwell researcher Rev. E.B Huntington tried to follow the origins of the Leffingwell name back to England and Wales.  Although the Leffingwell name is English, he couldn’t find any trace of it.  It just seemed to have disappeared. 
This scenario illustrates what is known as “Grimm’s Law”.  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica the law was named for Jacob Grimm who studied the correlations between Germanic, European and Asian languages.  He discovered nine consonants that change sound as a regular phenomenon.  Depending on the cultural shifts of the area and time period, the consonants would determine how the original name changed or in this case, disappeared.
Leffingwell is not a common name but it is constant in spelling and pronunciation.  From the time it was originated as Leffingwell it had gone through several deviations.  By the late 1600’s when Thomas Leffingwell was appointed to the General Court in Hartford, the name had pretty much become standardized as it was back in the time of the Reformation and Columbus.

The Man

1637 sees Thomas Leffingwell, as a young hunter going through the forests in the wilds of Connecticut, similar to James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer.  It is tradition that Thomas was perhaps 14 years old when he came to Connecticut.  The thought is how did a young man of that age come to live alone in this area?  Could it be he was apprenticed to someone?  Hartford was settled only two years before and Saybrook and New Haven were both settled in 1637.  One theory is that he came into Massachusetts Bay with relatives.  A Michael Leppingwell was resident in Boston in 1636 and on the list as a founder of Woburn, Massachusetts and on the tax roll for 1645. Some researchers consider they were close kin.

However he got to Connecticut, Thomas lived in Saybrook with his family for approximately 30 years.  Tradition says at 21 years of age, he went back to England and married Mary (possibly White) bringing her to the Colony.  They had 6 children: 4 boys and 2 girls: all born in Saybrook between 1648 and 1656.  An unproved child, Samuel is assumed part of this family by some researchers, bringing the count to 7 with 5 boys.  During his time in Saybrook, Thomas established himself as a Christian citizen who was held in the esteem and confidence of his fellow townspeople.  He became the people’s public defender.

Celebrating 300 years of Norwich
He proved compassionate towards all who needed help.  In 1645, the Mohegan and Narragansett Indians were at odds with each other.  Uncas, the sachem of the Mohegan tribe, with a small band of his tribal members had encamped at a point of land surrounded by water.  The Narragansett were setting a trap to keep them at a disadvantage and force starvation on the Mohegan tribe.  Uncas knew he was in trouble. He sent word to his English friends at Saybrook for help.  History is conflicted as to whether Leffingwell acted alone or with a group of military men.  Either way, documents record Thomas Leffingwell, “an ensign at Saybrook,” loaded a canoe with beef, corn and other sustaining food and paddled to the Mohegan encampment.  Once the Narragansett saw that Uncas and his band were saved, they pulled back from their siege.  Uncas rewarded Thomas for his help and assistance by giving him a deed of most of the land for the current town of Norwich.  Several years later, in 1659, Uncas with his sons made a formal gift of the same deed to the 35 proprietors for the entire town of Norwich which was approximately nine miles square.

The 35 original settlers were: Deacon Thomas Adgate – Robert Allyn – William Backus Sr. & Lt. William Backus Jr. – John Baldwin – Deacon Thomas Bingham – John Birchard – Thomas Bliss – Morgan Bowers – John Bradford – Hugh Caulkins & John Caulkins – Richard Edgarton – Rev. James Fitch – John Gager – Lt. Francis Griswold – Thomas Howard – Christopher Huntington & Deacon Simon Huntington – Samuel Hyde & William Hyde – Lt. Thomas Leffingwell – Major John Mason – Dr. John Olmstead – John Pease – John Post & Thomas Post – Josiah Reed – John Reynolds – Jonathan Royce – Rev. Nehemiah Smith – Sgt. John Tracy & Lt. Thomas Tracy – Robert Wade – Sgt. Thomas Waterman

In 1667, twenty years after the incident, Leffingwell petitions the court to secure his gift of the claim.  The petition insinuates he was the sole participate in the rescue of Uncas and his band.  However, he recognizes that Uncas had deeded this same land formally to the 35 proprietors rendering Leffingwell’s claim void and by the tone of his petition, Thomas Leffingwell did understand that.  Thomas Leffingwell became a friend to the Indians and faithful arbiter who was well rewarded both by the Colony and the Mohegan tribe.  He was a bold and enterprising man who rose through the ranks with his military service from Sergeant to Ensign to Lieutenant.  The continued accolades for saving Uncas followed him throughout his life.  This act was instrumental in creating a good relationship between the colonists and the Mohegan people. 

Many of the original settlers of Saybrook including Thomas Leffingwell removed to Norwich in 1659. Norwich was destined to grow even further with the nine acres Uncas deeded the settlers in that year – the same deed as indicated secured in 1645 and 1659!  In June 1659, Major Mason the ruling military officer secured the deed for the town and in August secured by William Thompson, Thomas Leffingwell and Benjamin Brewster (grandson of Mayflower’s Elder William Brewster and my 7th great grandfather) was the deed which officially became Norwich.  It was not unusual for the Sachem to deed the same land more than once.  However, in this case Uncas did not give the deed as a symbol of love or gratitude but for the price (70 pounds) and the fact that the land was unusable.
By November, several of the original grants were assigned to Thomas Leffingwell.  He received more than 300 acres in different sized lots.  His house lot was in the most eastern point in the town, he took possession by 1660.

His Maturity

Thomas’ mild mannered personality ensured that he stayed close to his religious roots.  The good connection he had with Mr. Fitch, the pastor of the old Church in Saybrook helped Thomas stay close to his beliefs.  Mr. Fitch had removed to Norwich as an original settler.  In 1694, when Mr. Fitch was no longer able to fulfill his duties as the town clergy, Thomas was appointed chairman of the committee to plead with Mr. Fitch’s son Jabez to take over for his father.  Jabez Fitch declined the position.  He took positions in Ipswich, Massachusetts and later in Portsmouth, NH where he died in 1746.  Four years later, after the enlargement and repair of the Church, Thomas was appointed to direct seating of the members with regard to rank.

As he grew further into maturity, he developed into a good citizen both to the Colony as well as Norwich. He was a surveyor and selectman. His position of distributor of estates tells about his intelligence and business character. He sat on the Commissions Court and practiced as a fair and good judge. Thomas was one of the members of the 1st session of the State General court. He attended 53 sessions during his first year. From 1667 to 1675/6 the Colonial Records of Connecticut recorded many land grants, appointments, and other duties for Thomas.

During the time of King Philip’s War (1675-1678), Connecticut did not have as much trouble during the war as did other areas of New England.  The military banded and went to other area to help with the fighting. Thomas was an ensign when the war started.  An expedition was formed leaving Norwich in March 1765/6 returning by the following April with 44 natives killed or captured. 
This was within the same time frame King Philip was killed at Mount Hope and the first time Thomas was referred to as Lieutenant Leffingwell as was recorded in the Journal of the Council.  By the war’s end and resettling of the town, Lt. Leffingwell and several others were instructed to layout planting tracts.  But again by 1682, Uncas had become restless and troublesome.  He was making increasing demands about restoring his lands.  And again, Thomas Leffingwell is appointed chairman of the committee to help establish mutual satisfaction.   Thomas helped come to the resolution to deed back to him the very land that he had originally deeded to them several times over.
Thomas served his God, family, friends and colony well.   In 1704, Queen Anne authorized and appointed Lt. Leffingwell, Joseph Dudley, Thomas Hooker, James Avery, and John Morgan, (all called) Gentlemen to the office of Royal Commissioners to hear both parties with Justice and equity; to restore the Mohegans to their settlements.  Years after Thomas had died this was reversed and land wrested from the Mohegans.  While Lt Leffingwell had been a friend to the tribe and worked all his life to be Just and fair, it was all dissolved just a few short years after he died.

Lt. Thomas’ son, Thomas and Thomas Jr’s son, Thomas were often confused in historical documentation. The 2nd Thomas was designated as Sgt. Thomas Leffingwell while the 3rd Thomas was called “Deacon” . Until January 1715, Thomas (2nd) had always been “Jr.”. Although there is no documented date when Lt Thomas died, it is suspected that the date was about the time that Sgt. Thomas dropped the “Jr” from his name.

Lt. Thomas provided for his family.  In 1714 when Thomas the elder was about 92, he gave all his property to his children before his death.  His grandson, Samuel took possession of his house.  While Thomas the son, settled near his father’s property.

The Leffingwell Inn

Picture by Michael Herrick, March 3, 2017
In Dec 1679 Sgt. Leffingwell obtained a house from Stephen Backus built in 1675.  This house became the ordinary for the town as well as a munitions storage for emergency use.  Sgt. Thomas furnished this house with elegance and style.   By 1701, he was granted permission to open an ordinary (inn). This house stayed in the family to at least the Revolutionary War when Christopher Leffingwell, a man of high importance to the town, became a valuable supplier of provisions for the Revolutionary War and its soldiers.  The house is now owned by The Society of the founders of Norwich.  Which, if you can prove direct descendant for any of the founders, you can join.

My line from Lt. Thomas Leffingwell: 
Lt. Thomas Leffingwell (1624-1714) m. Mary (White?)
Ensign Thomas Leffingwell (16491724) m. Mary Bushnell
Deborah Leffingwell (1674-1733) m 2) Andrew Warner
Mary Warner (1703-1783) m. Capt. Samuel Storrs
Martha Storrs (1728-1808) m. Capt. Nathaniel Hall
Ruth Hall (1751 – 1832) m. Deacon Nathaniel Storrs
Rebecca G. Freeman (1810-1887) m Caleb Freeman
Levi Whitman (1842-1925) m 2) Fanny Ella Martin
Ruth Elizabeth Whitman (1898-1990) m Forrest B. Emery
Elinor F. Emery (1924-2004) m Bertram L. Gerrish

The Leffingwell Record: A genealogy of the Descendants of Lieut. Thomas Leffingwell, one of the founders of Norwich, Conn. Leffingwell, 1897
The History of Norwich, Ct: from its possession by the Indians to the year 1866. Caulkins, 1866

300th Anniversary of Norwich - By MoonWaterMan - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,