September 19: Remembering Old Saybrook’s “Battle of the Books”


In 1701, the Connecticut General Assembly passed an act establishing a “Collegiate School” in hopes of creating a place “wherein Youth may be instructed in the Arts and Sciences who [through] the blessing of Almighty God may be fitted for [public] employment both in Church & Civil State.” For the first several years of its existence, the Collegiate School was located in the shoreline community of Saybrook, until the General Assembly decided in 1716 that New Haven would be a more fitting place for the school. Several prominent colonial leaders and patrons applauded the decision to move the Collegiate School to New Haven — including wealthy merchant Elihu Yale, whose generous donations induced the Assembly to rename the school Yale College in his honor.

The residents of Saybrook, however, were not happy at the prospect of having their prestigious Collegiate School taken away from them. In late 1718, when college officials attemptEd to collect the college’s library books in order to move them to New Haven, every Saybrook resident they encountered denied knowing anything about their whereabouts, and local tutors refused to let the officials into their homes or the former college buildings where the books had been previously stored. Finally, in December, Governor Saltonstall sent a sheriff to remove the books from Saybrook by force if necessary, authorizing him to commandeer deputies and local carts and oxen to help ensure their safe transport. In response, an angry mob sabotaged the carts, turned several of the sheriff’s oxen loose, and even tore up wooden bridges along the path to New Haven. The books did eventually make their way to the new Yale College — although up to a fifth of the total number was presumed lost or otherwise spirited away at Saybrook.

Over 250 years later, on September 19, 1975, town officials in Old Saybrook finally extended a long-overdue apology to the citizens of New Haven for the hostile behavior of Saybrook’s citizens in response to the removal of Yale’s college library from their town. First Selectman Barbara Maynard issued an official apology in hopes that both of the ancient Connecticut towns would be more amenable to working together to celebrate the United States’ upcoming bicentennial. Proof positive that it’s never too late to say you’re sorry — on this day in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Tedd Levy, “Looking Back: Yale Was Founded in Old Saybrook,Shoreline Times

Judith Ann Schiff, “How Yale Moved to New Haven,” Yale Alumni Magazine

When Old Saybrook Was A College Town,”

Yale University and the Yale Boulder Plot,” Cypress Cemetery Association