Above is a handwritten draft of Connecticut native Noah Webster’s “American Dictionary of the English Language,” which was first published 187 years ago today on April 14, 1828.
The book, which Webster worked on for two decades, contained more than 70,000 entries, including 10,000 new words believed to be distinctly American. You can see from those listed here that many of these “Americanisms” came from the Indians, and were learned by Colonial settlers, while others represented young America’s new system of government:
caribou, chowder, congressional, gubernatorial, hickory, log house, moccasin, moose, skunk, squash, succotash, tomahawk, wigwam
Believing that many traditional, British spellings were unnecessarily complex and confusing, Webster also simplified the spelling of many words, including changing:
centre to center, colour to color, musick to music, plough to plow
Webster was a teacher, lawyer and abolitionist. He died in 1843, but he can still be seen, felt and learned from at locations throughout Connecticut.
In West Hartford, his birthplace and childhood home is now a museum: the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society.
Also in West Hartford, a statue of Webster stands outside the city’s public library.
At Webster’s alma mater, Yale University in New Haven, an 8-foot likeness of Webster is one of eight statues that stand at either side of the clockfaces on Harkness Tower on High Street.
Webster is also buried in New Haven along with many other notable Connecticut residents at (the always-worth-a-visit) Grove Street Cemetery.
Many young people learn their first facts about young America’s witch trials through the Newbury Medal-winning The Witch of Blackbird Pond, written in 1958 by Massachusetts author Elizabeth George Speare. Inspired by Colonial Wethersfield, Connecticut’s witchcraft history, the novel is part of language arts curriculums in middle schools around the country. It’s also, however, one of greatest sources of mistruths about both Connecticut’s witch panic and those that took place throughout young America.
An excerpt from Connecticut Witch Trials: First Panic in the New World explains:
Partly based on fact, the book tells the story of orphan Kit Tyler who, after her grandfather dies, travels by ship from her home in Barbados to live with her Aunt Rachel and Uncle Matthew in Connecticut’s Wethersfield Colony. The only place she feels free in this strict, Puritan community are the meadows, where she makes friends with an old Quaker woman known as the Witch of Blackbird Pond. When Kit’s friendship with the “witch” is discovered, Kit is accused of witchcraft.
Comparing fiction versus fact, the latter occurrence makes much sense. Being a “companion … of a known or convicted witch” was one of the colony’s Grounds for the Examination of a Witch and often employed. Other details and circumstances, however, don’t add up to reality, said Wethersfield Historical Society volunteer Martha Smart, who for 14 years worked at the Connecticut Historical Society as a reference librarian.
“Although it happens in the book, no one accused of witchcraft in Wethersfield was actually tried in Wethersfield,” said Smart, who several times a year leads historical tours of downtown Wethersfield that include a stop at the Buttolph-Williams House on Broad Street, which is featured in the novel. She and other docents there also tell the story of Mary Johnson, the Wethersfield woman and first colonist to admit to witchcraft (who is the focus of Chapter 3 of Connecticut Witch Trials: First Panic in the New World, written by long-time journalist at Literary New England Radio Show host Cindy Wolfe Boynton).
“Unlike the ‘witch’ in The Witch of Blackbird Pond, no woman in any Puritan community would be allowed to live alone,” Smart continued, “even if she were considered strange or an outcast. Married women were required to live with their husbands, and unmarried women to live with family members. Also, Quakers and Puritans did not mix. They lived in separate communities. But even though Puritans saw Quakers as dissidents, they would not persecute them as witches on religion alone. Remember that the Puritans left England for religious freedom, so even though they did not agree with the Quakers, they certainly did not attack them. Blackbird Pond is a great story, but it needs to be treated as such—as a story. It doesn’t portray the truth of Connecticut’s struggles with witches, though it can be used to teach tolerance and the need to be more accepting of those who are different.”
Also important is the fact that The Witch of Blackbird Pond is set in 1687: the last year of what Connecticut State Historian Walter Woodward called “a quarter-century of silence where witch hysteria faded and not a single witchcraft execution occurred.”
Fanciful facts about Connecticut’s witch trials that are true?
- Sir Winston Churchill, former English prime minister and one of the most significant world leaders during World War II, is a descendent of Mary Staples of Fairfield, Connecticut. Mary was accused of witchcraft in 1654, exonerated, and may have been charged again in1692, though records are inconclusive.
- Lexicographer and textbook creator Noah Webster, whose name in the United States has become synonymous with “dictionary,” is a descendent of Lydia Gilbert of Windsor, Connecticut, who was tried and hanged in 1654.
If you didn’t already know, Literary New England is in the midst of a 5-day Witch-A-Thon. Check out earlier posts to see all the frighteningly wonderful things we have going on! The Witch-A-Thon ends tomorrow at midnight.