years after the founding of Jamestown and nineteen years after the
Pilgrims landed at Plymoth, a group of English Puritans journeyed across
the Atlantic Ocean. Their goal was to establish a community in the New
World free from religious persecution. They were led by their
minister, Reverend Henry Whitfield.
The Whitfield family home also served as a fort for the community. Its massive stone walls and chimneys, steeply-pitched roof, and casement windows reflect the style of post-medieval domestic architecture found in England – rare in 17th century America and unique today. Through the years, the “Old Stone House” has undergone many changes and many families have called it home. Today, it is Connecticut’s oldest house and New England’s oldest stone house.
Since 1899, the Henry Whitfield State Museum has been owned and operated by the State of Connecticut. Restored by noted architects Norman Isham and J. Frederick Kelly in the early 1900s, the house is an important example of Colonial Revival restoration work. In 1997, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Today, visitors may tour two buildings on the site. At the Visitor Center, you can pick up travel information in the lobby, browse through the gift shop, purchase admission tickets, view changing exhibits in two galleries, or use the research library. In the Henry Whitfield House, you can take a self-guided tour through three floors filled with 17th – 19th century furnishings and artifacts. An introductory exhibit on the first floor details the house’s history and museum staff is available to answer questions. Educational game sheets are offered to children (but they’re so interesting that many adults take them through the museum as well!). A stroll around the landscaped grounds completes the tour. Please allow approximately one hour for your visit. The Visitor Center is wheelchair-accessible.
The Henry Whitfield House has stood in Guilford for nearly four centuries. The first stones were laid in 1639 – the same year the Taj Mahal was under construction, three years before Isaac Newton was born, and five years before the end of the Ming dynasty. Guilford was a fledgling settlement of about 350 English Puritans. It was 135 years before the American Revolution, when New England was more medieval than colonial. Over the last 365 years, the house has changed in both form and function – from minister’s home and community stronghold to tenant farm to state museum and National Historic Landmark.
Today, the Old Stone House is the oldest house in Connecticut and the oldest stone house in New England. It stands not only as a tangible link to the town’s English origins, but as a testament to the generations that followed and preserved this piece of America’s history.
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The First Settlers
The first settlers of this area arrived over 11,000 years ago when the climate was much colder. These Native Americans traveled hundreds of miles over the course of a year to acquire food and resources just to survive. As the climate warmed, the need to travel great distances lessened. Eventually, the Menuncatuck tribe settled in this area – – fishing and farming along the coastline from spring to fall, then moving further inland for the winter where trees and ledges offered protection from the elements and where game was plentiful.
New England’s Native American population sharply declined in the late 16th and early 17th centuries due to diseases like smallpox and the plague, introduced by European traders and explorers. By the time the Puritans under Henry Whitfield arrived in Guilford in 1639, the Menuncatuck tribe numbered less than 50 people. Their female chief Shaumpishuh negotiated with the Whitfield party and deeded the land to the settlers. The tribe moved from the area, mingling with the Totokets and Quinnipiacs and living on the fringe of white society well into the 1800s.
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In May of 1639, a group of Puritans set sail from London. They were seeking freedom from religious persecution by the English government and the Church of England (Anglican Church). Their destination was the New World – first, the plantation of Quinnipiac (New Haven) and then on to settle their own plantation nearby. After a six-week voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, they arrived safely in New Haven harbor. In late September, they purchased a large tract of land from Native Americans midway between New Haven and Saybrook Fort.
They called their new home the plantation of Menuncatuck after the Native Americans who lived here. Four years later, in 1643, they chose the name Guilford. Although no written documentation exists, the name was most likely taken from Guildford in the county of Surrey, England – the area where some of the settlers had lived.
In the fall of 1639, the colonists began constructing the 40 to 45 homes that would make up the village. Most were simple, one- or two-room, wood frame houses of medieval design. But four large stone houses were constructed as the town’s defensive system. This differed from other New England settlements that were typically surrounded by tall palisades (fences) for protection. Four leaders in the community, including their minister Henry Whitfield, were called upon to build and maintain the fortified stone houses. They lived in them year round, and in times of need, their neighbors would enter for protection.
They were concerned about three different threats – the King of England, other European settlers (particularly the Dutch), and Native Americans. They had just fled religious persecution in England, and they were concerned that the king would send English troops to punish them. The Dutch, who were at war with the English, were living nearby in New Amsterdam (New York City) and had trading posts throughout the region. And although they had friendly relations with the Menuncatucks and nearby tribes, there was concern that less friendly Native Americans would come into the area. There is no documentation indicating that the colonists ever had to use their stone houses as forts.
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Henry Whitfield was born in England about 1590 (his exact birth date is unknown). He entered New College at Oxford to prepare for a career as a lawyer, but changed his mind and graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity degree. He was ordained a minister of the Church of England in 1618 and became Vicar of St. Margaret’s Church in Ockley, Surrey. That same year he married Dorothy Sheaffe. Over the next twenty years, they lived comfortably in Ockley and had nine children.
With the reign of King Charles I came new edicts for the Church of England. Those who did not obey were persecuted, and many were in danger of imprisonment and even death. A faction within the Anglican Church, called the Puritans, wanted to reform the Church away from its leanings towards Catholicism. During the 1630s, many Puritans, including Henry Whitfield, were called before the High Commission Court and censured for refusing to read to their congregations from the Book of Sports, a guide to after-church leisure activities that would not violate rules of the Sabbath. Puritans saw it as blasphemy because they believed the Sabbath was reserved solely for worship. Whitfield eventually decided to join the rising numbers leaving the country to seek religious freedom in the New World.
As a wealthy man, Guilford’s minister, and a leader of the plantation, it was Henry’s responsibility to build and maintain one of the four stone houses. He lived here with Dorothy, seven of their children (two had died in infancy while in England), and an unknown number of indentured servants.
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The Counter Migration
Charles I was the King of England when a group of Puritans led by Henry Whitfield settled Guilford in 1639. They came to New England because Charles I, as head of the Church of England, was persecuting them for their religious beliefs. It was also a time of political upheaval in England – – there was a struggle for power between the king and Parliament that led to the English Civil Wars during the 1640s.
In 1649, fifty-nine Puritan leaders served as judges for the trial of King Charles I, accused of treason during the Civil Wars. Found guilty, he was beheaded, and Oliver Cromwell became the leader of a new Commonwealth government, one without a king.
Following this shift in power, an appeal was made by Cromwell to New England for officials and religious leaders to return home. Approximately half of New England’s leaders returned home to England, including Henry Whitfield and his family in 1651. Two daughters, Sarah and Abigail, stayed behind because they had married and had families of their own. Upon his return to England, Henry obtained a position with a parish in the Diocese of Winchester.
With Cromwell still in power in 1657, Henry passed away and was buried in Winchester Cathedral. One year later, after several turbulent years in power, Cromwell died of natural causes. Two years later, Charles II claimed the throne – a period in English history known as the Restoration. The new king rounded up many of the men who had signed his father’s death warrant and tried them for regicide (killing a king). Edward Whalley, William Goffe, and John Dixwell fled to New England, hiding in the Boston area, the New Haven area, and western Massachusetts.
Although the three men lived under aliases and occasionally in hiding, they managed to evade British authorities for the rest of their lives. Whalley (Cromwell’s cousin) and Goffe (Whalley’s son-in-law) were hidden in Guilford for a short time in the cellar of William Leete’s barn. Today, a plaque on the cellar at the corner of River and Broad Streets tells their story. New Haven also commemorates the Regicides with a memorial at Judges’ Cave at West Rock (another hide-out for the fugitives) and with three streets named in their honor: Whalley Avenue, Goffe Street, and Dixwell Avenue.
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Home Sweet Home
For 260 years, families lived in the Old Stone House and called it home. Even after it became a museum in 1899, the caretakers continued to live in the house until a barn on the property was converted into a residence in 1923. Just think of all that these walls have seen over the years – births, deaths, laughter, tears, family dinners, arguments, and celebrations.
After the Whitfields returned to England in 1651, it took them several years to sell the property. Robert Thompson, head of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England (also called the New England Company), purchased the house about 1670 but never lived here. He rented the house to tenant farmers, the beginning of a long tradition at the Whitfield House. Thompson heirs owned the property for over 100 years until Wyllys Elliot purchased it in 1772. Just over two weeks later, he sold it to Joseph Pynchon, who may have been the first owner to reside in the house since the Whitfields. Jasper Griffing bought the property in 1776, once more renting the house to tenants. It descended through the Griffing, Chittenden, and Cone families (all related through marriage) until it was sold to the State of Connecticut in 1900.
The owners of property can be traced through land records, but trying to find the families who actually lived in the house is another matter. The owners who rented the house most certainly kept records of names, rental amounts, and other information, but those records have not been found. We do know that those who lived in the house probably farmed the land that surrounded it. In the late 1800s, the property became a model cattle and dairy farm, and had many visitors. It was the first farm in Connecticut to grow ensilage corn and alfalfa, an idea brought back by farm manager Everett Dudley after a visit to Ohio to purchase cattle.
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Dorothy (Sheaffe) Whitfield – bequest from husband Henry
Nathaniel Whitfield – bequest from mother Dorothy
Robert Thompson – purchase from Whitfield
Thompson heirs – bequest from father Robert
Wyllys Elliot – purchase from Thompson
Joseph Pynchon – purchase from Elliot
Jasper Griffing – purchase from Pynchon
Nathaniel Griffing – bequest from father Jasper
Frederick Griffing – bequest from father Nathaniel
Sarah (Brown) Griffing – bequest from son Frederick
Mary (Griffing) Chittenden – bequest from mother Sarah
Sarah (Chittenden) Cone – bequest from mother Mary
State of Connecticut – purchase from Cone
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Henry & Dorothy Whitfield family
Samuel & Martha Griffing family
Peter & Eliza Chapman family
Edward & Nancy Page family
Everett & Amelia Dudley family
Frank Hall & wife
Seymour & Ella Tarr family
* Owner ^ Tenant
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Open To The Public
As early as 1897, the Connecticut Society of the Colonial Dames of America was petitioning the State of Connecticut to purchase the Old Stone House and convert it into a public museum. On June 22, 1899, the Connecticut State Legislature passed a resolution creating the Henry Whitfield State Historical Museum. Several groups contributed to the $8,500 purchase price for the house and approximately eight acres of surrounding land: State of Connecticut ($3,500), Town of Guilford ($3,000), Connecticut Society of the Colonial Dames of America ($1,000), and Guilford residents ($1,000). The paperwork transferring ownership to the State was finalized on August 20, 1900.
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When the State purchased the Old Stone House, it hardly resembled the 1639 home of the Whitfields. Architect Norman M. Isham oversaw the partial restoration of the house in 1903. The goal was not to completely restore the house to its original appearance, but to create a more appropriate environment for the collection of the new State Historical Museum. A full restoration of the house needed to wait until thorough research could be completed.
The only changes Isham made to the exterior were replacing the rectangular panes of glass in the double-hung sash windows with diamond-paned leaded glass and installing a new solid wood front door. The majority of the work took place on the inside – – the interior walls and the first floor ceiling in the front part of the house were removed, creating a large two-story hall. This material was probably not original to the 1639 structure. The space became the main exhibit gallery for the museum until the second restoration took place during the 1930s.
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During the height of the Colonial Revival movement (and the same time Colonial Williamsburg was created), a second restoration transformed the Whitfield House. J. Frederick Kelly was the architect who guided the work through three phases: the removal of the rear addition to the house, the removal of the stucco from the exterior walls, and then the completion of the bulk of the restoration with the help of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s work programs during the Great Depression. During this last phase, it was determined that only the granite walls were original to 1639. The rest of the material (woodwork, windows, etc.) was from various periods in the house’s history. It was decided to remove everything but the stone, and then bring in material that would better replicate the materials used in 1639.
Three factors determined how Kelly restored the house – – physical clues left in the building, research, and educated guesswork. Physical clues discovered during the restoration included the foundation (this provided the house’s original size and shape), ends of beams embedded in the stone walls (this provided the original heights of floors and ceilings), and filled-in windows, fireplaces, and niches. Research yielded no images of the house before the 1830s (when the house was already 200 years old) and no detailed descriptions of it. But examples of the same architectural style found in the northern part of England were studied to provide architectural details. Educated guesswork was used to fill in the gaps when physical clues and research could not help. Kelly fully admitted that his work could not be an exact restoration of how the house first looked. This was impossible given the lack of primary sources. But he was also a product of the Colonial Revival movement, whereby it was more important to create an atmosphere that inspired the visitor and made the original colonists and their stories exemplary, moral, and patriotic.
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National Historic Landmark
In 1997, the Whitfield House was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior. Landmark status is given to a site when it possesses national significance in the history of the United States. The Whitfield House was given this honor not because it is a 1639 structure, but because it is an example of Colonial Revival restoration work that stands as a testament to the historic preservation movement in America.
The house’s appearance has remained virtually unchanged since Kelly’s 1930s restoration. Sixty years of weathering plus damage from animals and insects led to a large renovation project from 1999 to 2000. This included reshingling the roof, replacing the dormer windows, installing a new gutter system, and repointing portions of the masonry. By replicating the work that was done in the 1930s, the restoration was restored.