Like most people, I find oral histories fascinating. What better way to learn about the past than getting it from a first-hand source? Someone who has either lived it, or had their family’s history passed down to them from their parents or grandparents? Stories you’re not likely to find in any history book. Accounts of people, homesteads, and events that no one ever thought to record simply because they were everyday happenings. Yes, oral histories can be quite the treasure.
Perhaps one of the areas where oral histories are most problematic has been in their use in dating houses and describing past events that took place in them. With no accurate official written records of early build dates, family lore has long been relied upon to trace the origin and history of our oldest homes. That is sometimes helpful and sometimes not.
When I first began looking at our inventory of Easton’s historical houses, I was struck by the seemingly large number of structures than dated back to the early 1700’s. They simply added up as being too many in an era when Easton was mostly rolling hills of forest lands that were only accessible by a few upright highways that separated the Fairfield Long Lots when Easton was still part of that town. The cross highways that so many of the oldest “dated” houses in town sit along weren’t initially surveyed until 1725 or later, casting serious doubts that many of those houses would have pre-dated the layout of any passable roads.
So, why were so many of these old homes assigned such early construction dates? Chock much of it up to those oral histories that were passed down through the generations, some of which even made it into a print over the years.
One that definitely made it into print is the David Jennings house located at 120 Silver Hill Road. Beginning in 1939, the property was owned by author Edward Bellamy Partridge and his wife Helen. An artist’s rendition of the house was even on the cover of Partridge’s 1945 novel, January Thaw. According to Partridge, the residence was the setting for the story, and that story was later dramatized and made into a successful Broadway play.
In a February 25, 1960 article written by the Partridges for an old house edition of the Redding Times, much of the home’s embellished and sometimes inaccurate oral history is laid out as a factual account of the home’s past. “The house, originally a Jennings structure was built in 1700. The date was arrived at by a member of the Jennings family with the assistance of a team of architectural researchers who measured and photographed the fireplaces, doors, and moldings and the return on the overhang before any modern improvements were made by us…the date has been verified by those who have lived here.”
Silver Hill Road was originally part of the Fourth Cross Highway that was ordered built in the Fairfield Long Lots during a December 24, 1734 town meeting in Fairfield. So, in 1700, there wasn’t even a road in place that would have run from today’s Sport Hill Road west to Black Rock Turnpike. It turns out through modern research the actual build date for the house described by Partridge was closer to 1765. The home was constructed by David Jennings – who wasn’t born until 1742. Partridge also claimed the house was originally “built for a tavern.” It was, in reality, built as a simple home for the Jennings family about the same time that David Jennings first married. It did eventually become a tavern, but not until many years later.
“Concealment from Indians or Tories or even slaves spirited north in the underground railway could be made in the secret room at the side of the chimney on the second floor,” was another provocative line from the Partridge’s article. While making no direct claims that any of those events actually occurred, the written words certainly give a strong suggestion they might have. By the second half of the 18th century, Indians weren’t a particular threat to the folks who were then building homes in the Long Lots. That land had been sold by leaders of those same Indian tribes to the Town of Fairfield in 1670, and by the early 1700’s most of the remaining Native Americans in the area had already moved further inland. The last colonial census done in 1774, prior to the Revolutionary War, estimated only 4 persons of native heritage were still living in the area of Fairfield that would eventually become the town of Easton. And while there were more than a fair number of loyalists in the parish, there would have certainly been no need to hide in a “secret room” from any them. Finally, it seems that almost any house built prior to the mid-1800’s has been at one time or another credited with being part of the underground railroad even when only a handful of structures were actually used. Fact checking an account relayed or implied through an oral history is seldom considered and almost never done. I’m certain these tales were all handed down to the Partridges from mostly well-meaning folks, but almost all of them had been embellished along the way or were just plain wrong to start with.
And this is the problem. Those oral histories relating to the old Jennings homestead became written history. And not just by anyone, but rather by a well-respected author and the then owner of the house in question. I have no doubt that the Partridges believed what they wrote about that house, but without question, much of what they recorded on paper was somewhat inaccurate at best. By no means is the Partridge house the only home in Easton that has previously been tagged with an erroneous build date or come with fanciful stories that don’t often jibe with the actual history of the area, and in everyone’s defense, our ability to determine dates and corroborate events has greatly improved over that last 25 years. The problem for today’s historians is correcting all those misconceptions that have become accepted as being factual over the years. It’s a dilemma that we don’t take lightly and need to approach with caution., but deal with it we must.
Historical information for this post has been largely obtained from the 2009 Historical and Archeological Assessment Survey of Easton, Connecticut, researched and written by Stuart Reeve, David Silverglade and Kathleen von Jena. Quotes in this post attributed to the Partridges were taken directly from an actual copy of the February 25, 1960 Redding Times.