The Connecticut shoreline is home to many beautiful, historic lighthouses that have steered ships in Long Island Sound to safety for hundreds of years. One of the state’s most historically significant “lighthouses,” however, is located over 60 miles inland — and refers not to a navigational structure, but to a unique settlement established on the fringes of colonial society.
The “Barkhamsted Lighthouse” was the early 19th century nickname given to the community founded by Mary and James Chaugham and their large extended family, located near the base of Ragged Mountain along the Farmington River. According to family lore, in 1740, Mary Barber, a young white woman likely from Wethersfield, fell in love with and married James Chaugham, a Narragansett Indian. Since Mary’s family disapproved of the marriage, the two decided to settle far away from the Connecticut River valley, building their home in modern-day Barkhamsted, which was then a largely unpopulated region on the outskirts of Connecticut society.
Over the ensuing decades, the Chaughams, their seven children, and their children’s children formed the nucleus of a small village consisting of poor whites, Native Americans, and African Americans in northern Barkhamsted. The community earned its nickname in the early 19th century, when travelers heading south on the Farmington River Turnpike used the light from the settlement’s cluster of homes as a “beacon” indicating they were only a few miles away from the nearby town of New Hartford.
Since the inhabitants of the Barkhamsted Lighthouse were, by many definitions, social “outcasts,” they left behind few documentary records for historians to use to piece together their story. In the 1980s, however, an archaeological team extensively surveyed the Lighthouse site, leading to several subsequent excavations that unearthed a mountain of physical evidence that shed light on this reclusive and historically unique community. Archeologists who examined the site wrote that their findings tell “a fascinating tale of a group of materially poor, ethnically diverse, occasionally maligned settlers eking out an existence on what ultimately were the social and economic margins of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Connecticut.” Their findings led to the state of Connecticut officially designating the Barkhamsted Lighthouse site a state archeological preserve on December 3, 2008, protecting the site against disturbances and development. The lives of a once-marginalized group of Connecticans received recognition, and protection, at long last, today in Connecticut history.
“‘Outcasts’ Build Their Own Village in 18th-Century Barkhamsted,” connecticuthistory.org
Kenneth Feder, “Barkhamsted Lighthouse,” Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office [pdf]