Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM American National Biography Online. © Oxford University Press, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in American National Biography Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Fitch, Jamesfree

(02 August 1649–10 November 1727)
  • Bruce P. Stark

Fitch, James (02 August 1649–10 November 1727), Connecticut land speculator and magistrate, was born in Saybrook, Connecticut, the son of the Reverend James Fitch and Abigail Whitfield. In 1659 his father led a group of people to settle the town of Norwich, situated where the Quinebaug and Shetucket rivers combine to form the Thames. Fitch was raised largely on the frontier in close proximity to the Indians, with whom his father had numerous contacts. He gained knowledge of the unsettled lands in eastern Connecticut and learned to manipulate the Native Americans who controlled them. Fitch served in King Philip’s War, was chosen commissioner or justice of the peace for Norwich (1678–1680), was selectman (1679–1680), was appointed treasurer of New London County in 1679, and made captain of the Norwich trained band in May 1680. In 1677 he married Elizabeth Mason, daughter of Deputy Governor John Mason, leader of Connecticut forces in the Pequot War. She was the younger sister of his stepmother, the second wife of the Reverend James Fitch. They had four children who survived infancy. After her death in October 1684, Fitch married Alice Bradford Adams, widow of the Reverend William Adams of Dedham, Massachusetts, in May 1687; he fathered eight more children.

In the wake of King Philip’s War, Fitch secured deeds in 1680 and 1684 from Owaneco, chief of the Mohegans, to two huge tracts in northeastern Connecticut, the Quinebaug and Wabbaquasset lands, encompassing more than one thousand square miles, thus making him the largest landowner in the colony. Fitch’s purchase of the two tracts of land set the stage for most of his future political career, as he became the leader of the colony’s “native right” men, people who believed that although royal charters gave Englishmen the right to govern, the charters did not grant them ownership over land, which only the Native Americans had the right to convey. In addition, his acquisition of these Indian lands drew him into conflict with Wait-Still and Fitz-John Winthrop, powerful sons of Governor John Winthrop, Jr., who claimed some of the same territory.

Fitch was first elected deputy to the General Court from Norwich in April 1678, a position to which he was reelected the next five legislative sessions between October 1678 and October 1680. He was first nominated for a seat on Connecticut’s twelve-man upper house in October 1679 and was elected to that body in May 1681. Fitch strongly opposed Connecticut’s incorporation into the Dominion of New England, although he accepted a justice of the peace’s commission from Governor Edmund Andros. A lifelong supporter of charter government, he led the fight to restore the old government in 1689. When news of the Glorious Revolution reached Connecticut, the former leaders, led by former Governor Robert Treat, Secretary John Allyn, and the Winthrops, procrastinated. Fitch, however, called for new elections to be held in Hartford on 9 May 1689, the reestablishment of charter government, and the dismissal from their former offices of those who had surrendered too easily to Andros. He achieved his first two goals, but the freemen voted to restore all the old magistrates to office. Fitch and his allies hoped to turn out the old rulers in the election of 1690, but delay gave the friends of Treat and the Winthrops the opportunity to retain power. Election laws were modified both to loosen the requirements for becoming a freeman and to make it more difficult to defeat incumbents. The new freemen responded by continuing the old rulers in office. Fitch articulated his views on the efficacy of charter government and the wrongheadedness of Connecticut’s leaders in two hotly worded but not extant manuscript pamphlets, “A Plain Short Discourse” (1691) and “A Little of Much” (1692), regarded as “two scurrillous libels” by some of his opponents.

Immediately after the restoration of charter government in Connecticut, Fitch and Nathan Gold of Fairfield were appointed by the General Court to travel to New York City to meet Captain Jacob Leisler and the other captains “to giue there best aduice … in any thing wherein they may be helpfull” (Trumbull and Hoadly, vol. 3, p. 468) in instituting a government favorable to the new monarchs William and Mary. Fitch was selected to a commission to settle the boundary with Massachusetts in May 1695, appointed to the committee to revise Connecticut’s laws in October 1696, chosen major of the New London County militia that same session, placed in charge of the fort in New London in August 1697, and served on a 1698 committee to settle the boundary between Connecticut and Rhode Island.

During the 1690s Fitch continued to oppose the colony’s traditional rulers through his leadership of the “native right” men, his attempts to arouse popular passions against the colony’s traditional leaders, and most importantly through his efforts to settle families in new towns on the land he had purchased from the natives of eastern Connecticut. From his base of power in New London County and his alliance with other important figures in the county, Fitch began to move tenants into the Quinebaug country in the early 1690s. He settled his family in what became the town of Canterbury in 1697. The Winthrops responded by sending their own tenants into the region, with the result that the area became enmeshed in conflict. Fitch’s control of the New London County Court gave him the initial advantage.

Fitch might well have gained total political control over Connecticut but for the success of Fitz-John Winthrop’s mission to London to gain formal confirmation of the colony’s 1662 charter. When news reached Connecticut in December 1697 of Winthrop’s triumph, the old order quickly struck to secure their advantage and defeat their most implacable opponent. Previously, county courts were presided over by local councillors like Fitch, but new legislation in May 1698 vested control of the county courts in the general assembly. Worse yet, Winthrop was elected governor of Connecticut in the 1698 elections. Fitch was replaced as presiding officer over the New London County Court and lost his council seat in 1698, although he regained it in 1700. His allies in the upper house dwindled as some died and others were defeated for reelection. Fitch struggled to discredit Governor Winthrop, and although this effort proved to be unsuccessful, he continued to wield considerable power for much of the next decade. In 1706 and 1707, however, the legislature investigated all Indian claims in eastern Connecticut and deprived Fitch of control of all remaining lands he claimed through deeds from Owaneco. Two years later, in 1709, he was defeated for reelection. In poor health, Fitch made a final effort to sell lands in eastern Connecticut by issuing a proclamation on 22 March 1717 “to give further encouragement for the settling of a new town” (Larned, vol. 1, p. 151), in direct opposition to an order from Governor Gurdon Saltonstall prohibiting such an action. He was ordered to desist by the sheriff of New London County, refused to obey, was condemned by the general assembly in May 1717, and was forced to apologize for his behavior. In March 1723 the elderly Fitch had a poem published in the New England Courant on the Anglican heresies at Yale College, an institution he had supported with a large gift of land in 1701. Fitch died in Canterbury four years later.

James Fitch for a period of some twenty years was an extremely powerful political figure in Connecticut. His aristocratic enemies who represented the traditional rulers of the colony characterized him as “Black-James” or the “greate Land pirat,” and Fitch and his allies were considered “the principall bane and Ruin of our Ancient Order and Peace” (Bushman, p. 102). In his leadership of a faction devoted to charter government and “native right,” and his reputation as “the cheife patron of theire charter privelages” (Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, 6th ser., vol. 5, p. 112), Fitch exerted a major, albeit disturbing, influence over the affairs of the colony and played a critical role in the evolution of Connecticut society, from one stressing traditional Puritan values to one emphasizing more acquisitive and assertive Yankee ones.

Bibliography

No major collection of Fitch papers exists, although significant material about him can be found in a number of sources. Letters and documents by and about Fitch have been published in several works, most notably “The Winthrop Papers,” Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, 5th and 6th ser.; Ellen D. Larned, History of Windham County, Connecticut, vol. 1 (2 vols., 1874, 1880); “The Wyllys Papers,” Connecticut Historical Society Collections 21 (1924); and “Early Letters and Documents Relating to Connecticut,” Connecticut Historical Society Collections 24 (1932). Additional material is in the Winthrop Manuscripts, Massachusetts Historical Society; and in the Connecticut Archives, Connecticut State Library, especially in Civil Officers 1st ser.; Colonial and State Boundaries, 1st ser.; Crimes and Misdemeanors, 1st ser.; Indians; Miscellaneous, 1st ser.; Private Controversies; and Towns and Lands, 1st ser. J. Hammond Trumbull and Charles J. Hoadly, eds., The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, vols. 3–6 (15 vols., 1850–1890), is invaluable.

Most information known about Fitch comes from his enemies, like the correspondents in The Winthrop Papers and royalist Gershom Bulkeley in “Will and Doom, or the Miseries of Connecticut by and under an Usurped Power,” Connecticut Historical Society Collections 3 (1895): 79–269. An important article is James M. Poteet, “More Yankee Than Puritan: James Fitch of Connecticut,” New England Historical & Genealogical Register 133 (Apr. 1979): 102–17. Further information can be found in Frances Manwaring Caulkins, History of Norwich, Connecticut from Its Possession by the Indians, to the Year 1866 (1866); Roscoe Conkling Fitch, History of the Fitch Family (2 vols., 1930); and Thomas M. Jodziewicz, “Charters and Corporation, Independence and Loyalty,” Connecticut History 29 (Nov. 1988): 27–46. Richard L. Bushman, From Puritan to Yankee: Character and Social Order in Connecticut, 1690–1765 (1967), and Richard S. Dunn, Puritans and Yankees: The Winthrop Dynasty of New England 1630–1717 (1962), were responsible for rediscovering Fitch and emphasizing his importance in what they and Poteet characterize as the colony’s transformation from Puritan to Yankee in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.