In May, 1639, a congregation of puritans led by the Rev. Henry Whitfield left England to seek religious freedom in the New World. They arrived at Quinnipiac (New Haven) later that summer. After negotiating with the local Native Americans, who were represented by the squaw sachem (female chief) Shaumpishih, the group purchased land halfway between New Haven and Saybrook. There they established the plantation of Menuncatuck, which would later be known as Guilford.
The first houses were small huts with thatched roofs, wooden walls, and dirt floors. Like most 17th century New England towns, Guilford was organized around a common, or green. Guilford, unlike other villages, had no defensive walls surrounding the community. Instead, large stone houses were built for the leaders of the plantation. These homes, especially Rev. Whitfield’s house, were strategically located and used for shelter during times of danger.
Guilford became part of the New Haven Colony and then the Connecticut Colony later in the 17th century, Guilford’s William Leete was one of the first governors of these colonies. By the next century, the town had become a thriving coastal community with agriculture and fishing supporting the economy.
Many colonial style homes survive to this day, making Guilford a popular destination for historic preservationists researching 18th century domestic architecture. During the Revolutionary War, Guilford was attacked by British troops from New York. The local militia was able to defeat the invaders.
In the 19th century heralded an expanding shipbuilding and maritime trade. With the coming of the railroad, industries such as foundries, canneries, shoe shops, and carriage makers evolved. Quarries opened and supplied local granite to the world, including blocks for the base of the Statue of Liberty. Guilford’s own Fitz-Greene Halleck was hailed as America’s first poet and is honored with a statue in New York’s Central Park.
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