New London's Origins: Colonial Ambition and Maritime Success

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Panoramic view of New London Harbor by Ted Hendrickson

Used with permission

In the course of his travels in the 1640s between Boston and Saybrook, Connecticut, John Winthrop saw the broad estuary merging with Long Island Sound, just west of Rhode Island, and soon recognized the potential for this deep harbor protected by the natural breakwater of Fishers Island. 

Winthrop returned in 1645 to make plans, and a year later established Nameaug, his “plantation” on the banks of the "Great River" as it was known by the native inhabitants. Ten years later the settlement was officially named “New London,” and the town would thereafter derive its livelihood and reputation from its deep, wide harbor.

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The story of John Winthrop, Jr. is eloquently told in Prospero’s America by Connecticut State Historian Walter Woodward. A reader is soon impressed by Winthrop’s ambition, intelligence, and industry. 

He was drawn to the wilderness of the Thames watershed, seeing it as a place where he could fulfill his ambition to use alchemical knowledge for nothing less than the betterment of the world.  Combining religion, science and philosophy, alchemy was a popular endeavor among the intelligentsia, not only in England, but in Germany, Italy and Turkey - to each of which the cosmopolitan Winthrop traveled as a young man before emigrating to the New World. 

Winthrop

Frank L. McGuire Maritime Library

In its most religion-oriented manifestation “alchemy united the quest for useful knowledge and the quest for grace and focused both on the mission to render Christian service to a world reshaping itself in preparation for the return of Christ.”  

There was also a medical dimension: one of the goals of the alchemist was to find the alkahest, an elixir, or universal solvent, that would cure all diseases. Winthrop became famous as a physician, traveling far and wide to treat the sick, both English and Native American. And there was the metallurgical dimension: “Just as Winthrop sought the purification of metals in the alchemical furnace, the Puritan sought the purification of his or her soul in the crucible of God’s judgment.”

Why this excursion into 17th century alchemy? Because John Winthrop intended to mine silver-bearing lead at the head of the Thames watershed near Southbridge, Massachusetts, and transport it down to Nameaug, at the mouth of the Thames, for export as well as for his ongoing alchemical investigations. 

And thus New London would become a port for both coastal and oceanic shipping.

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By the time the colonial period ended, New London was one of the many New England ports that were crucibles of commerce forming the economic underpinnings of the new United States of America. 

“As early as 1760 Connecticut was compared to ‘a cask of good liquor, tapped at both ends, at one of which Boston draws, and New York at the other.’ …the development of an active commerce along the coast and to the West Indies had tied the region’s many prosperous farms to the outside world since the late seventeenth century. New Haven, New London, and Stonington harbors enjoyed relatively deep water, while river ports like Middletown and Norwich had the advantage of reaching far into the interior as marketplaces for the surrounding countryside. Farmers bringing in their surplus crops could purchase in exchange English goods imported via New York and Boston. This role as entrepôt to a thriving agricultural community brought growth and prosperity to the ports of Connecticut.”

                                     --New England & the Sea, 47

New London's Origins: Colonial Ambition and Maritime Success