In the early spring of April, 1638, the ship Hector brought a group of English colonists into what is now New Haven harbor. The settlers were led by Theophilus Eaton, a merchant, and John Davenport, a Puritan minister. The professions of the colonists’ leaders were significant because they revealed the motivations of the settlers in seeking a new home in America. As Puritans they did not like the laws of the King’s Church of England and as businessmen they resented the high taxes. Virtually unsettled, America offered the opportunity to establish a theocracy whereby their religious beliefs could be enjoyed without oppression. Also, with its seemingly limitless natural resources, America provided the opportunities to trade and to prosper with little constraint. The land near the Quinnipiac River would be cleared, the ground tilled and a new home established where the settlers could have their own church, make their own laws and build a busy commercial town.
The settlement was made between what was called East and West Creeks. As merchants, they wanted to by near the harbor. A half mile square between the creeks was marked off. This square was divided into nine smaller ones; the middle one was to be the market place. The land in the surrounding eight squares was sub-divided and given to the settlers. The size of the land received was determined by the amount of money invested in the Company that had been formed in England to finance the settlement and by the number of family members. John Brockett, a surveyor, was credited with laying out the town’s pattern but his role has been questioned by recent researchers. Among the settlers were carpenters, masons, joiners and other craftsmen, who soon began to replace the crude huts and cellars with permanent homes modeling them on the houses that they had left in England. With the exception of the wealthiest settlers like Eaton whose house on Elm Street had nineteen fireplaces, most of the houses were of one room, a story and a half with the chimney at one end. (For more information: “Colonial Connecticut—Learning to Look and Understand”, Y.N.H.T.I., Volume IV, 1978.) The early homes would be improved, expanded and rebuilt throughout the colonial period as the colonists prospered and had the time to improve their dwellings.
The New Haven settlers being strict Puritans built a “Meeting House” in the middle of the center square within a year of landing. For meetings and for worship, the “House” was a simple, square framed building with a small tower rising from the center of its steep sloping roof. From the tower, at eight o’clock Sunday mornings, two drummers sounded the signal for those who lived at a distance that the service would soon begin. After the long sermons, both in the morning and in the afternoon, the colonists would meet with friends, visit and trade news. The Market Place became the meeting ground for business, social activity, worship, sports and even a training area for the local militia upon which to drill.
In 1670, a second “Meeting House” was built; a ships bell was bought and put into the tower to replace the drummers. Like the first, this “House” was also simple and unpretentious. It was square in design with sloping roofs up to a turret at the top. Church and state existed as one in the New Haven Colony. Seven church members, known as the “seven pillars”, constituted the government as well as leading the church. Until 1664 and the union with the Connecticut Colony, this was how the colony was ruled. The union also brought an end to prosperity as commercial ventures ended and the colonists concentrated on farming.
The colony’ 6 houses were typical of a provincial community and the Green became neglected. A State House was built there in 1717 for the legislature which would meet there, New Haven having become the co-capital with Hartford as of 1701. The town’s public place remained an area where merchants bought and sold, where animals grazed and Yale College sprang to life although activity focused on the harbor. A wharf was constructed to reach the many snips and their cargoes that began to bring new wealth to New Haven. The wharf would eventually extend 3500 feet outward by the 1750’s. This increased trade and wealth brought a new beginning to the town. From the other sides of the square, thoroughfares extended settlement into surrounding areas. In 1756, the old “Meeting House” was again replaced with a larger one of brick. This third one was barn like, oblong in form with the roof running up to a ridge pole. The entrance was on the broad side and a square tower was built at one end with a steeple.
The Revolution interrupted New Haven’s renewed prosperity. After the War, with attention returning to domestic affairs, New Haven, under the leadership of Mayor Roger Sherman found a new pride in its appearance. New streets were opened and the elm trees planted. The Green would be rescued from a period of neglect. It was graded, fenced and transformed into a true public place and civic center. The Federal period was the most important period in forming the physical appearance of New Haven’s center. The energy that began then would continue until the Civil War. New Haven became the most important city in Connecticut. New Haven, because of the curious minds at work here, would attain national prominence as a result of innovation and inventiveness.