Wilton exhibition expands view of colonial life

Sometimes, history can get caught in a bubble and it’s not always apparent what is going on elsewhere at the same time.

This can be especially true in a historic home with period rooms that does not make a connection to events or people of the times.

In an effort to broaden the reach of the room that served as an 18th-century kitchen in the Wilton Historical Society’s Betts House, the room now includes more than just the hearth, spinning wheel and other period furniture. There are personal belongings of some of the people who lived here before Wilton was incorporated as a town in 1802. Also included in a display case in the house are papers that include diplomas earned by David Lambert II, a transfer deed for land, and a document that establishes the boundary between Ridgefield and Norwalk.

To tell the story of how Wilton evolved, the society looked back to its first inhabitants — the Siwanog Tribe. Before the first European settler arrived — Jonathan Wood with his family from Long Island in 1706 — native Americans farmed, hunted and fished in an area they called Pimpewaug.

On display from the society’s permanent collection are native American artifacts most of which were dug up by farmers or in stone walls, including a mortar and pestle and ceramic bowl from Cheesespring Road, a hand ax from Catalpa Road, and numerous arrowheads. A beaded necklace and moccasins are from Fairfield County.

Text that accompanies this exhibit explains the calamities that befell the native Americans following the arrival of Europeans in the 1600s including a plague in 1616-19 and two wars — the Pequot War (1636-39) and the King Philip’s War (1675-78). These events severely reduced the indigenous population.

By the time Wood arrived, and many others soon after, there were only about 100 Siwanogs left, living on Chestnut Hill and the area north of Merwin Meadows. As their land was sold, white settlers took over. Wilton was primarily a farming community and eventually there were also mills, blacksith shops, dry goods stores, and a tavern. Not everyone came willingly. According to the exhibition, enslaved Africans were brought here as early as 1735 and slavery persisted into the early 19th century.

The settlers’ day-to-day life is preserved with a collection of clothing and documents.

The most eye-catching piece is a crimson silk waistcoat dating to about 1760 that belonged to an E. Mott. Associate curator Nick Foster explained the item made its way back from an antique store in Wyoming.

A pair of fancy ladies’ wedding shoes dating from about 1742 and two rhinestone buckles hint at mid-century fashions. The buckles functioned much the way elastic might today in keeping a man’s breeches from flapping around his knees.

Education in a farming town at this time was sporadic, but one very well educated man was David Lambert II, who earned both a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from Yale College in 1761 and 1764. He was the first man from Wilton to graduate from college, according to Bob Russell’s book, “Wilton, Conn.”

Other documents include a deed transferring the sale of 12 acroes from Ezekiel Wood to Azor Belden for 54 pounds in 1755. Foster estimates that would be about $15,000 today.

Wilton was part of Norwalk until 1801 and a document dating from 1716 describes the boundary between Norwalk and Ridgefield. At a time before formal surveying, landmarks mentioned were a spruce tree and a “heap of stones.”

“We are trying to give context” to a period room, Foster said. “We wanted to speak to a lot of different perspectives.”

The Wilton Historical Society is located at 224 Danbury Road, Wilton.