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Full text of "History of the Webb house"

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THE WEBB HOUSE 



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HISTORY OF THE 
WEBB HOUSE 



HISTORY OF THE 
WEBB HOUSE 

BY 
M^S^ WILLIAM H. H. SMITH 

READ AT THE WEBB HOUSE BEFORE THE 
SOCIETY OF COLONIAL DAMES 

OCTOBER 28th, 1919 



A Boston writer says, 
"When we consider the momentous 
results of the Yorktown campaign 
planned in the Council Room of the 
Webb House by men of highest 
station in the State, the Army and 
Navy, it may be claimed that this 
is the most historic house in New 
England" 



THIS HOUSE IS NOW OWNED BY IHE 

CONNECTICUT SOCIETY OF COLONIAL DAMES 

OF AMERICA 






GIFT 

A(JTHr^R 



WEBB HOUSE 

TO give adequately the history of the 
Webb House or any other New England 
mansion of an early time it would be 
necessary to go over the entire history of 
England, political and religious, or at least that 
of the four Georges. But I refrain — and begin 
only with the first settler of that name, Richard 
Webb, who came from County Dorset in 1620 
(this seems very early but is the date I found), 
first to Cambridge, then to Boston 1632; went 
with the great Hooker migration to Hartford; 
there recorded on the Grand Jury in 1643, then 
to Stratford, Norwalk, and finally to Stamford. 
He left one of the three largest estates in his 
town (Stamford) and was followed by a line of 
Josephs, eldest sons. One of these born in 1700, 
married, in 1 728, Sarah Blatchley and for second 
wife Elizabeth Starr; was First Lieutenant in the 
Revolutionary War though seventy-five years 
old. 

His son Joseph, born 1729, married 1748, 
Mehitable Nott of Wethersfield. He is the 
Joseph Webb who, in 1752, built this house, 
having been married four years. He and Mehit- 
able lived here until he died in 1761, a period of 
only about nine years. He bought the property 



6 History of the Webb House 

of Samuel Wolcott who owned large tracts of 
land hereabouts. The Silas Deane house next 
door was also on land bought of the Wolcotts. 

With the promptness with which such matters 
were then adjusted, his relict Mehitable rnarried 
in 1763, the Hon, Silas Deane, and they lived at 
the Goodrich house, second house south ot Webb 
house, while building the handsonie house next 
door Mr. Deane was a self-made man and a 
climber who climbed so successfully, that he, to 
some degree, dominated the councils m Washing- 
ton, where he was a prominent member in Con- 
gress Mrs. Deane's first husband, Joseph Webb, 
died when he was only thirty-four so she was still 
young and thought it best to keep these two 
elegant mansions in the family. Mehitable at 
her second marriage gave this house to her son 
Joseph Webb, born 1749. In 1774 he married 
Abigail Chester, a member of the wealthy and 
influential family descended from Leonard Ches- 
ter Armiger, whose tabletomb in Wethersfield 
graveyard is dated 1648, second oldest in the 

Now let us place these four young people in 
these two hospitable homes^ They were elegant 
entertainers. There were Mr. and Mrs. Deane 
next door, and her son Joseph aged twenty-five, 
and Abigail aged nineteen, doing the honors here. 
It is probable that on Washington s first visit in 
Wethersfield he stayed at Mrs. Deane s as a 
letter from Mr. Deane to his wife Madam Mehit- 
able mentions that General Washington with his 
staff and suite may visit there on the way to 
Boston and enjoins her to prepare to entertain 



History of the Webb House 7 

them properly, lodging as many as possible at 
her house, and others at taverns, a rather large 
order, as Washington travelled in state with staff, 
suite and servants. 

Wethersfield was then a rich and handsome 
town. In driving down Main or Broad Street 
we notice many fine mansions of the period and 
we know of others burned or demolished, built 
about that time. Some indigenous trees, here 
and there forest trees, were of good size, but most 
of the planting was new. With the exception of 
the growth of trees the appearance of the street 
was much the same then, as now, and the town 
was considered a winning rival to Hartford. 

The Great River was a fountain of wealth to 
all settlers near its banks; fish were salted and 
packed away; furs bought from the Indians for 
almost nothing were exported for many of the 
elegancies of life in return, and lumber and 
minerals also; and game was plentiful. This 
house, with its lofty gambrel roof, its many rooms 
with high ceilings, its substantial frame and the 
beautiful interior finish and handsome stairway, 
was perhaps the best of several similar houses of 
this period. The Belden, Lockwood, Lockwood- 
Belden, Marsh, Latimer, Crane, Griswold, and 
Newson, houses adorned the wide avenue, while 
the new church edifice was the pride of the town, 
the lines of the spire springing from the ground 
and not from the roof, according to Sir Christo- 
pher Wren's plan. Good taste in architecture, 
without and within, characterized this period. 

Much cheap sarcasm has been expended on the 
"Washington houses," the many places where 



8 History of the Webb House 

the great Washington stayed on his journeys up 
and down. I want to meet that point now. 
Before the Revolution he was an army officer 
under the Crown. The tendency in promotions 
and precedence was to favor English officers 
above American. Washington would not sub- 
mit to this and went to Boston to settle this 
question with the presiding general there, claim- 
ing for Americans equality in birth, breeding, 
ability as officers, and the right to equal stand- 
ing. With his force and concise common sense, 
he gained the point for himself and his brother 
soldiers. 

When the break with England came, although 
he did all in his power to avert the rupture, yet he 
met the case with amazing courage and prompt- 
ness. He was the leader of a desperate cause, he 
needed the assistance of every family in America, 
and he sought it, stopping in their homes and 
striving to meet and interest young men of every 
station. When he went to Boston to take com- 
mand of the American Army, "the embattled 
farmers," he was already well known as an officer. 
He gladly accepted invitations all along the 
route, going and returning. This handsome, 
richly dressed young general, of dignified, majes- 
tic mein and courtly manner, was invited and 
welcomed at many houses on the way. Recep- 
tions were given by the leading families; he 
danced the minuet with the young ladies; con- 
versed with men of all stations; presented the 
cause of the Colonies and won the enthusiastic 
following that he must have. So when some one 
says, with skeptical wit, that he would like to see 



History of the Webb House 9 

an old house where Washington did not stop, one 
might say there were some such belonging to 
Tories, or indifferent patriots, or those too mean 
to entertain. 

I like to picture early Wethersfield at such 
times, the streets gay with dashing young aides 
riding hither and yon with invitations or mess- 
ages to men of importance, well knowing that 
Priscilla was peeping from behind the blinds; 
dignitaries from Hartford, Windsor and towns 
below, coming in coaches, or more likely on 
horseback, to pay their respects to the young 
general, and to consider with him the momen- 
tous situation. 

Entering Hospitality Hall, we find young Abi- 
gail Webb, mistress of the mansion, receiving in 
the North Parlor, sometimes discreetly sifting 
her guests a little, sending some of the less im- 
portant to the punch or toddy bowl in the keep- 
ing-room, and conveying men of influence and 
sagacity to converse with the great man and his 
suite holding his court in the Council Room, not 
yet having that name. Later on, I fancy they 
would all mingle sociably and no one would neg- 
lect the punch bowl or the * ' four kinds of cake, 
the least number that would be handed about. 

I love their youth, Washington himself only 
forty-three, their splendid vitality, their ardent 
courage, their fire and fortitude. This was 
Young America! Young Wethersfield, Young 
Aristocracy with its motto, "Noblesse Oblige." 

Here Washington gathered about him young 
men from all families, Goodrich, Robbins, Gris- 
wold, Coleman, Saltonstall, Welles, Belden, 



10 History of the Webb House 

Kellogg, and so on, and all the ardent youth of 
the town became his followers through Trenton 
and Valley Forge. 

At night when all had left and the General sat 
talking it over with the Webbs, sipping their last 
toddy together, and after they had escorted him 
to his north front chamber, placing wax candles 
in silver candlestocks there, and the great man 
stood by the window and through the young 
trees and over the lilac bushes, looked across to 
the new meeting house with graceful spire silver- 
ed by the moon, what were his thoughts then? 
Where the splendid optimism with which he had 
talked downstairs ! 

However that was, the next morning found the 
cheerful guest striding over to the new church to 
climb the steeple. From that height he looked 
across the beautiful River to the wooded hills be- 
yond, and even his own Virginia could not offer 
a lovelier view. I think in his mind he may have 
repeated Connecticut's motto, "Qui transtulit 
sustinet," and have taken new courage. 

Samuel Blatchley Webb, a younger brother of 
Joseph, was on Washington's staff, having enter- 
ed service at the outbreak of war under Capt. 
John Chester — Webb then a handsome, splend- 
id officer of twenty-two was said to have in- 
fluenced Washington to make this rendezvous 
at the house of his brother Joseph. 

Then followed years of war until the Conti- 
nentals felt that a decisive move must be made 
or drag on indefinitely. So now we come to the 
Council of May, 1781. General Washington had 
arranged that Count de Rochambeau, Admiral 



History of the Webb House 1 1 

of the French fleet, then at anchor near Say- 
brook, Count de Barras, the Chevalier de Chas- 
tellux, all attended by their suites, General Knox, 
General Duportail, Governor Trumbull, Colonel 
Wadsworth, were to meet him at Joseph Webb's 
house, at Wethersfield. 

Again my fancy peoples these rooms with gay 
uniforms, stiff brocades, powdered hair, shoe- 
buckles and knee-buckles of brilliants, a high 
comb or brooch here and there, set with small 
diamonds, that company of dazzling youth, 
brave with high purpose. Here again Dame 
Abigail and Madam Mehitable came to the front 
as ladies of the mansion. The Frenchmen and 
their aides were entertained at these three 
houses; again Washington had his north front 
chamber here; again the ladies did the honors, 
assisted by the young ladies of the neighborhood. 

A mile toward Hartford, Colonel Solomon 
Welles had built a large, handsome house for his 
large and handsome family, twelve in number, 
mostly grown up. Seven were girls. He was a 
stern man and would not allow his girls to marry. 
Suitors were discouraged, though their brother 
Roger had been in Yale College and must have 
had friends who would like to visit him and the 
sisters seven, Eunice, Sarah, Hannah, Penelope, 
Prudence and young Mehitable and Mary. 
Roger had been in service since Washington's 
early visits here, going from college into the 
army, and his sisters were among those who as- 
sisted at the Deane and Webb houses during 
these important events. 

Obviously General Washington would incline 



12 History of the Webb House 

to the formal ritual of the Church of England and 
was a member of the American echo of that 
Church. But with his broad views he would be 
edified by any sincere form of worship, and wher- 
ever he was, he attended the Sabbath services. 
Here at the Webb House, a committee waited 
upon him to ask at what hour his Excellency 
would wish to attend Divine Service. He re- 
plied "At the usual hour, gentlemen. The time 
of public worship is not to be altered on my ac- 
count," — which shows the respect paid to his 
plans and opinions, and the modesty with which 
he accepted it. 

What a flutter of ribbons and furbelows in the 
"singers' seats" and also in the "high seats" as 
the great General and his brilliant aides and staff 
marched with clanking swords up the center aisle 
to the many seats reserved for them! It is re- 
corded that the General paid close attention to 
every word of anthem, hymn and sermon. The 
Welleses were always singers. It is probable 
that some of the daughters of Solomon were in 
the singers' seats, as well as their brothers, while 
Colonel Solomon marched with the officers. 

While the foreign admiral and generals met in 
this momentous Council with the Governor of the 
State and our Commander-in-Chief, Abigail 
somewhat anxious and sobered from stress of 
war, but still fresh and young, rallied her girl 
friends about her to serve the punch bowl and the 
stirrup-cup. Times were again gay in the streets 
and in Hospitality Hall during the five days of 
this Council, where was matured that plan which 
has been called by an English writer "an episode 



History of the Webb House 13 

never surpassed by daring on one side and sur- 
prise on the other, in the history of all time." 

How did they dare to do it? The plan, as we 
know, was completely carried out. The few 
troops rode or tramped through marsh and forest 
down to Virginia ; the ships tacked and zigzagged 
against the wind along down the coast. Army 
and navy met before Yorktown and laid seige for 
six weeks and the formal surrender took place. 
Young Roger Welles was Captain under the 
Marquise de LaFayette, one of 100 picked men, 
all over six feet tall, who formed his particular 
command. During the seige Roger led an attack 
on a redoubt and carried it, driving the guard 
farther in toward the fort. In his letters home, 
young Capt. Welles writes most enthusiastically 
that "the Marquis conducted himself like a 
Fabious and not like *the ambitious boy' that 
Lord Cornwallis was pleased to call him." Also 
he wrote of the capitulation: "The most pleas- 
ing sight I ever beheld was to see those haughty 
fellows march out of their strong entrenchments 
and ground their arms." Alexander Hamilton 
was the first man to enter the Fort at Yorktown 
after the evacuation, closely followed by Roger 
Welles, the second man inside those walls after 
British officers and Hessian troops had been 
ordered out. 

In those days the men of the Welles family had 
directed their affections wisely, selecting their 
wives from families of wealth and distinction — 
Goodrich, Pitkin, Chester, Talcott, Colonel 
Solomon married his second cousin Sarah Welles, 
like himself fifth generation in descent from 



14 History of the Webb House 

Governor Thomas Welles. Their fine, new house 
stands on the home-lot of Governor Thomas. 
Many of us are descended from Governor Thom- 
as but perhaps all do not know that the Warden's 
house next to the prison — the Solomon Welles 
house — stands on the Thomas Welles home- 
lot, where Governor Thomas once lived in a 
former house. Solomon's son, Capt. Roger, who 
now comes home laden with honors, was after- 
wards made a Brigadier General. It was his 
eldest son, Martin Welles, a young lawyer of 
Hartford, who in 1821 bought this Webb house, 
which, had meanwhile had two owners since the 
Webbs, — James Fortune and James Belden. 
The Webbs owned it less than sixty years, Mar- 
tin Welles and sons and grandsons, nearly a cen- 
tury. Always within my memory it was called 
the Judge Welles house. 

My mother was named Frances Norton Welles 
after the wife of her uncle, this Judge Martin 
Welles. So this great aunt of mine used to invite 
me occasionally from my age of eight or ten to 
sixteen years old, to stay here a fortnight at a 
time. I was always allowed to sleep in the 
Washington room, and it was with a fearful 
pride and joy that I buried my head in the bil- 
lowy feathers, for fear that I might see his majes- 
tic wraith on the slanting moonbeam. 

Judge Welles had a stern and rather forbidding 
manner like his grandfather Solomon. Aunt 
Welles was as dainty and exquisite as a Dresden 
shepherdess, very small of stature but with a 
queenly dignity and elegance, a true lady of the 
old school. Her housekeeping was generous and 



History of the Webb House 15 

hospitable, her table was handsomely served. 
Every afternoon she dressed in silvery silk and 
real lace, seldom in black, with pretty cameo or 
Florentine mosaic pin, objects of my admiration, 
especially the Florentine flowers and doves. 
She wore a turban of fresh snow-white tulle per- 
fectly arranged. My youthful memories of this 
house and its cheerful tone make me still love it, 
with all its changes. 

Is it a dead past? To me it is alive with the 
best spirit of Americanism, and of Washington 
as its prophet. 

One may say. In these stirring times, is there 
nothing better to do than to dig into old houses? 

The architecture tells of itself much of the his- 
tory and manners of the time, the tough sincerity 
of foundations and chimneys, the many great 
ovens, seven in the fine Churchill house in New- 
ington, one in the cellar capable of roasting a 
whole ox and it was done at several times, and 
the other arrangements for entertainment. Sev- 
eral mansions, besides taverns, had ball-rooms. 
They even had balls at the ordination of a min- 
ister. We have record of them at East Windsor, 
Guilford and at Newington by tradition. One 
of the young ladies of the Churchill family that 
I have referred to, said, that she danced in one 
night through two pairs of white satin slippers at 
one ordination ball. The burden of their Calvin- 
ism must have sat lightly upon them at times! 
Do you suppose that young Abigail Webb used 
that big garret upstairs simply as a store room 
for old chests and dried peppers and onions? 
With all these young men and officers and girls 



16 • History of the Webb House 

about her? Don't you fancy that the village 
fiddler was sent for and placed in the gallery up 
there, that the Sir Roger de Coverly and the 
stately Minuet were often danced there as well 
as in these rooms perhaps ? 

Then, for comfort : the big fireplaces, the toddy 
closets, the cool cellars for vegetables and fruits 
stored in plenty for a year, the cool cupboards for 
mince pies and election cake, always ready for 
company, the saddle-room and the sparkin' 
bench, all these are in the building of the house, 
when the house was the home, and tell their own 
"sermons in stone." Their lesson to us is the 
homemaking, the hospitable home, which we 
have nearly lost. 

As for the Webbs and the Welleses of that 
time, they died, and slept with their fathers. 
And the rest of their acts, and all that they did ; 
how they warred and triumphed, how they pre- 
vailed with the sword, and overcame their ene- 
mies, are they not written in the books of the 
Chronicles of that time? 

Julia Welles Griswold Smith. 



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