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Waterbury in the 18th Century

Early Settlement

Waterbury began as the Mattatuck Plantation, a land grant given to settlers from Farmington, Connecticut in 1676. In addition to Waterbury, the Mattatuck Plantation included the modern-day Connecticut towns of Naugatuck, Middlebury, Watertown and Thomaston, and portions of Wolcott, Plymouth, Oxford and Prospect. The Village of Mattatuck was settled in 1678 and centered on what is today the Waterbury Green. Town status was granted in 1686, and the name Mattatuck was changed to Waterbury.

Waterbury’s population remained small, hovering at just under 200 people, until the 1720s. The settlers worked as farmers, carpenters, millers and blacksmiths. New arrivals were required to gain permission to live in Waterbury, and normally entered into a contract with the town in which they promised to reside there for a minimum number of years while practicing their trade.

Mid-Century Growth

Waterbury’s population grew rapidly in the middle of the eighteenth century, expanding from 350 people in 1725 to 3,536 people in 1775. During these decades, the town’s activities focused on construction of bridges and highways, the building of Meeting Houses, Sabbath-day houses and schools, tending to the sick and the poor, and settling boundary disputes with neighboring towns.

The eighteenth century saw the growth of commerce in Waterbury, as taverns and general stores flourished with the increase in population. Merchants operated numerous small businesses, establishing trade with towns throughout the colony. Several late-eighteenth-century merchants found success as manufacturers in the early nineteenth century.

Waterbury’s wealthier families tended to be descendents of the original settlers, and much of their wealth came from land ownership. These same families operated general stores and taverns, and produced many of the town’s professionals: physicians, attorneys and clergymen. Many of these prominent families also included slave owners.

The Revolutionary War

Waterbury contributed nearly 700 soldiers to fight against the British; at least five of those soldiers were African Americans. Rochambeau's army marched through town, and George Washington dined in Waterbury on his way to Hartford.

Not all Waterbury residents supported the war. Many people left to join the English army. Other loyalists remained in Waterbury until after the war and then moved to Canada.

After the Revolution

The decades following the Revolution saw Waterbury drastically reduced in size, as its outlying parishes chose to become incorporated as separate towns. The process for each secession took many years, requiring permission from Waterbury and from Connecticut's General Assembly.

In 1780, Westbury and Northbury broke away from Waterbury and became Watertown; the future towns of Plymouth and Thomaston were part of Watertown until 1795. Farmingbury became Wolcott in 1796, and Oxford became a town that same year. Middlebury, composed of portions of Waterbury, Woodbury and Southbury, was established as a distinct society in 1790, but Waterbury blocked its incorporation as a town until 1807. Columbia (now Prospect) and Salem (now Naugatuck) became independent towns later in the nineteenth century.

Despite the loss of so much of its territory, Waterbury flourished at the end of the eighteenth century. A new school was constructed in 1785 on the Green, and both the Congregational and the Episcopal churches constructed elegant new buildings on the Green in 1795. All three projects were funded by public subscription. Merchants began to venture into manufacturing, producing nails, clocks, pewter buttons and woolens. These ventures flourished in the nineteenth century, and Waterbury became renowned for its brass manufacturing industry.

map of connecticut
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Map of Connecticut, 1812
From A New and Elegant General Atlas. Originally owned by Mark Leavenworth, grandson of Waterbury's Rev. Leavenworth. Collection of the Mattatuck Museum.

map of township
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The Old Township of Waterbury
Map originally published in Henry Bronson's The History of Waterbury, 1858.

map of village
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Village of Mattatuck, c. 1683
Map originally published in Henry Bronson's The History of Waterbury, 1858. North is to the right.

view of Waterbury, 1836
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South-eastern view of Waterbury
Engraving by John Warner Barber, originally published in Connecticut Historical Collections, 1836. The spire of the Episcopal church is to the left, the Methodist church is in the center, and the Congregational church is to the right.

view of Waterbury, 1835
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View of Waterbury from Westside Hill
Engraving by Lucien Bisbee, 1835. Collection of the Mattatuck Museum.

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