History of Fairfield, Connecticut
For thousands of years prior to English settlement, Fairfield, CT was the home of the Unquowa, Sasqua, Aspetuck, and Pequonnock bands of Paugussett Algonquian Peoples. They lived in seasonal villages, using inland sites for winter encampment while farming closer to Long Island Sound in warmer months. By the early 17th century, the Paugussetts and other Native peoples along the Connecticut coast fell under the military control of the Pequot Nation.
In the 1630s, conflict with European settlers upset the area’s relative peace. European diseases like smallpox devastated Native communities. Further pressure by the English colonists led to a war with the Pequot Nation, concluding in a battle at Munnacommock Swamp in present-day Southport in 1635. That battle effectively ended the Pequot Nation’s supremacy in the region, but also dissolved the Paugussett villages in present-day Fairfield. Most of the Paugussetts in Fairfield were either absorbed into other Native communities, or sold into slavery by the English.
One of the combatants in the “Swamp Fight” was an Englishman named Roger Ludlow. Immediately following the end of the Pequot War, Ludlow, a Puritan, received permission from colonial authorities to establish the town of Fairfield, and he began “purchasing” surrounding Native lands. Eventually Fairfield would extend from the Saugatuck River in the West, to the Pequonnock River in the East, and stretch inland through what is now Newtown, Connecticut. For over a century, the community expanded from the original “Four Squares” of land adjoining today’s Old Post and Beach Roads.
As the 18th century progressed, Fairfield became a home for wealthy New Englanders. Many influential families established their homesteads here, including the Eliot, Sturges, Jennings, Wakeman, Morehouse, Silliman, and Burr families. With that wealth came a relatively large population of enslaved African and Native American laborers. In 1774, enslaved people made up 7% of the town’s entire population, the highest percentage of any town in all of New England.
As tension between the American colonies and the British Crown grew in the late 1700s, Fairfielders found themselves in the middle of the coming Revolution. Many sided with the cause of American independence, including several notable patriots like General Gold-Selleck Silliman, American spy Caleb Brewster, and Samuel Smedley, a famed privateer. Others remained loyal to England and were often forced from their homes.
Fairfield, like other coastal Connecticut towns, became a target for the British Navy during the American Revolution. On July 7, 1779, General William Tryon, along with revengeful American Loyalists and Hessian soldiers, laid waste to Fairfield, burning a majority of the town’s structures, and killing several townspeople.
The local economy struggled to recover in the wake of Fairfield’s burning. Over a period of about 70 years, Fairfield would contract in size, but steadily grow in influence. The town’s proximity to Bridgeport’s factories spurred an expansion in maritime trade, turning the quaint colonial town into a home for ship captains sailing out of Southport and Black Rock Harbor. In the 1840s the railroad, steamships, and Bridgeport industry brought new opportunities to Fairfield while attracting newcomers from around the country and the globe. Black families leaving the South after the Civil War joined migrants from Hungary, Ireland, and other Eastern European countries in their quest to start a new life in Fairfield.
By the early 20th century, Fairfield’s wealth grew even larger. Magnificent estates similar to those on Long Island’s Gold Coast and in Newport, Rhode Island sprang up. While the Great Depression ravaged much of the country’s economy, Fairfield emerged relatively unscathed, allowing for widespread residential development in the wake of World War II. To this day, Fairfield remains an attractive destination and suburban community within easy reach of Metro New York and other large cities. Awash in history, Fairfield strikes a perfect balance between small-town charm and big-city vitality.
To learn more about Fairfield’s fascinating history and the community today, visit the Fairfield Museum and History Center.