How Hertford’s Samuel Stone helped establish a US state capital
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Hertford Puritan pioneer Samuel Stone founded what would become a state capital and a keystone in US democracy. 400 years after The Pilgrim Fathers sailed to the New World, we look at his remarkable life and legacy | Words: Gillian Thornton
Hertfordshire isn’t short on important figures from history. Just think of Alban, first Christian martyr or Nicholas Breakspear, England’s only Pope.
Queen Elizabeth I spent her childhood at Hatfield House, and George Bernard Shaw wrote his influential plays at Ayot St Lawrence. But however well you know your county, few residents are familiar with Samuel Stone.
Born in Hertford on July 18, 1602, Samuel Stone put his birthplace on the New World map, bestowing it on a settlement founded between Boston and New York. Years later, Hartford (with an ‘a’) would become the capital city of Connecticut state. Nicknamed The Insurance Capital of the World, it would also number author Mark Twain among its residents.
The story begins in our county town where the Stone family lived on Fore Street in the early years of the 17th century. Walk across Mill Bridge today and you can’t miss Samuel, a striking figure in a broad-brimmed hat and frock coat, head held high, prayer book in one hand and the other pointing heavenwards, forefinger outstretched.
Created by sculptor Henry Tebbutt, this evocative statue was commissioned to mark the Millennium by local businessmen Keith Marshall, who retired in October 2018 from the family furniture store on Fore Street.
John and Sarah Stone had their third son baptised at All Saints Church, and in 1617, Samuel became one of the first pupils at the nearby grammar school, founded that same year by wealthy London merchant Richard Hale.
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Originally known as Richard Hale’s School, it later became Hertford Grammar School, before being renamed again as Richard Hale School.
In 1620, Samuel Stone left school to study theology at Emmanuel College in Cambridge, and in 1626, he was ordained at Peterborough. A year later, he became curate at Stisted in Essex, where he lived with wife Hope and daughter Sarah.
But Samuel had his eye on distant horizons, inspired by The Pilgrim Fathers who had left Portsmouth in September 1620 and crossed the Atlantic on The Mayflower to found the settlement of New Plymouth in America.
A dedicated Puritan, Samuel believed that the Church of England should be simplified and stripped of its ornaments and music, all too Catholic for Puritan tastes. A promised land, with Christianity refreshed, awaited across the ocean.
So in 1633, Samuel sailed the Atlantic on board Griffin with his friend Thomas Hooker, arriving in Boston in September. He initially settled in New Towne, where Hooker acted as pastor with Stone his assistant teacher.
In 1638, the growing city was renamed Cambridge in honour of the English university city, and today is home to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Hooker and Stone had moved on before the rebranding. After reportedly disagreeing with some of the other settlers, they set out westwards in 1636 with around 100 colonists, intent on carving out their own future.
Not that they were first on the scene. Dutch explorers had sailed up the Connecticut river some 20 years earlier, establishing Fort Hope, also known as the House of Hope, at the highest navigable point.
Hooker and Stone carried on beyond the Dutch settlers, making peace with the local first nations and putting down roots in a place the original inhabitants called Saukiog. In 1637, Hooker and Stone renamed it Hartford in honour of Stone’s birthplace.
They also adopted the Hertford stag – or hart – on the emblem of their new town. It still takes centre stage on the Hartford flag and city seal, a permanent reminder of a place in England where harts would cross the ford.
Samuel’s friend and colleague Rev Hooker predeceased him in 1647, taken by one of the several epidemics that felled so many of the Puritan colonists. Samuel’s first wife Hope had also died. He remarried in 1641 and had at least four more children.
As for the city he founded, Hartford made a significant contribution to its local society that was to have an impact on a far wider scale.
The Fundamental Orders adopted by the colony in 1639 was the first document to establish a government by the consent of the people. This was later reflected in the drawing up of the United States Constitution, earning Connecticut the moniker, The Constitution State.
With its strategic position on the Connecticut, Hartford grew into an important river port with a thriving merchant district where warehouses were piled high with molasses and spices, coffee and rum.
Ships set sail to England, the West Indies and the Far East. Merchants however lived in constant fear of bad weather, pirates and ship fires, so they decided to group together to share risks, the start of an insurance industry which was formalised in 1810 with the creation of the Hartford Fire Insurance Group.
More than 200 years later, the Hartford Insurance Company is America’s oldest underwriters.
Hartford also became famous as the home of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. Born in 1835, he lived in Hartford with his family from 1874 to 1891, writing many of his classic novels here, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. His impressive Gothic, gabled property is now a museum.
Samuel Stone is commemorated in the town he named with a replica of the statue that stands in Hertford by Mill Bridge.
In January 2003, The Hartford Courant – the oldest continuously published newspaper in the world – reported on a welcome reception held before the statue was installed in its permanent home in front of the Ancient Burying Ground, Stone’s last resting place.
‘The reception caps a project that began when West End residents Karen and Phil Will visited Hertford in 1999 and found considerable interest both in Stone and in forming a relationship with its namesake city in the United States,’ reported Tom Condon.
A committee was set up to liaise between the capital city of Connecticut State and the county town of Hertfordshire, and more than $30,000 was raised by state sponsors for the Samuel Stone statue. And while the two towns are not officially twinned, a number of connections were made and personal friendships forged.
Samuel Stone breathed his last in Hartford, Connecticut on July 20, 1663, aged 61, a world away from his birthplace.
Contemporary accounts describe him as an outspoken and highly principled man, although he left little written work behind him. His A Short Catechism drawn out of the word of God was published 21 years after his death.
He is commemorated in Hartford with a moving epitaph that gives the measure of this principled pioneer:
New England’s glory
and her radient crown
Was he who now in
softest bed of down
Till glorious Resurrection
Doth safely, sweetly
sleep in Jesus here.
In nature’s solid art
and reasoning well
Tis known beyond
compare he did excell
Errors corrupt by
He did oppugne and
Above all things he
Christ above prefer’d:
Hartford! Thy richest
Jewel’s here interr’d.