Town of Litchfield History

Litchfield is nationally famous as one of the most beautiful residential communities in America and is considered to be New England’s finest surviving example of a typical late 18th century New England town. Situated in the midst of the Litchfield Hills at an elevation of approximately 1,100 feet above sea level, the village is a show place of elegant white colonial and 19th century private homes overlooking broad green lawns which border its residential streets.

Litchfield was incorporated in 1719 by an act of the Colonial Assembly of Connecticut on lands bought in 1716 from the Tunxis Indians for fifteen pounds. In 1720, the first settlers arrived to take up the 60 home lots and the settlement grew and prospered, many small industries flourished, and Litchfield became an important stop for the New Haven-Albany and Boston-Hartford stage coach lines. The Town became the County Seat in 1751. During the American Revolution, it became an important center for the Army Commissariat and George Washington truly slept here in the Sheldon Tavern (now a private residence). It was during the period following the Revolution that many of the fine colonial houses were remodeled and expanded, lovely federal houses built and the Borough and nearby villages assumed their present format.

By 1810, Litchfield’s population reached 4639, and it was the fourth largest town in Connecticut, but this changed when railways came up the Housatonic and Naugatuck Valleys. Areas with abundant water power were opened up to industry and Litchfield’s population dwindled to 3500 by 1910, since then the population has risen to 8686 (2009 Dept. of Public Health estimate).

There are many points of historical interest in Litchfield. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, and her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, the great abolitionist preacher of the pre-Civil War Period, were born in Litchfield while their father, Lyman Beecher, was pastor of the Congregational Church – the site of their birthplace is marked, as is the site of the church. America’s first Law School, the Tapping Reeve Law School, had its beginning in Litchfield in 1775, when Mr. Reeve started teaching with his brother-in-law, Aaron Burr, as his first pupil. Well over 1200 students attended the law school during its 58 years of existence, coming from every state that then made up the Union. Many of its graduates went on to become famous and distinguished; among them were two Vice Presidents, three Justices of the Supreme Court, ten Supreme Court judges, six Cabinet Members, ninety representatives of Congress, twenty six Senators, seventeen Connecticut Senators, six Connecticut Governors and ten Governors of other states. The school closed in 1833; however, the Law School building has been restored to its original site and, along with the Tapping Reeve House, is owned and maintained by the Litchfield Historical Society. Both buildings are open to the public from mid-May through mid-October.

Some of Litchfield’s historical houses that still stand today as sturdy and beautiful as ever include Sheldon’s Tavern, built in 1760 for Elisha Sheldon. While his son Samuel ran the house as a tavern, George Washington slept in the northeast bedroom. Litchfield also boasts the Ethan Allen House, home to Ethan Allen who later won fame when he and his “Green Mountain Boys” captured Fort Ticonderoga from the British. The Oliver Wolcott, Sr. house was built in 1753 for General Oliver Wolcott, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and former Governor of Connecticut. During the Revolution, in the rear of this house, the ladies of Litchfield cast bullets from the lead statue of King George III, which had been torn down in New York and transported to Litchfield. The Alexander Catlin house, built in 1778 for Alexander Catlin, one of the founders of the Litchfield China Trading Company, which brought fine products such as silks, teas, indigo, chocolate, cotton, wool and rum from the Orient and Indies; and the home of the famous Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge of Revolutionary fame, which still stands on North Street.

The houses are not pointed out just as monuments to a time long ago; they have been continuously lived in, complete with many changes and additions throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. All are now in private hands with selected ones open to the public on Litchfield’s Annual Open House Day held the second Saturday each July, as a benefit for the Connecticut Junior Republic. For more information on which houses are open and ticket prices, please contact the Connecticut Junior Republic at 860-567-9423.

In 1959, the Borough of Litchfield was designated a Historic District by the Connecticut General Assembly. Ten years later, part of the District was made a National Historic Landmark.

The Borough of Litchfield is circled by Bantam, East Litchfield, Northfield and Milton, each a part of the Town of Litchfield, each having a beauty all its own. The area around the Green in the center of Milton is also a Historic District.

Litchfield is not striving to become a bustling commercial center; however, it is growing and developing in an orderly manner. Its beauty and charm is a constant attraction to the discriminating individual looking for the ideal place to live.