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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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014 112 067





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Online LibraryJ. Welles (Julia Welles) GriswoldHistory of the Webb house → online text (page 1 of 1)