CAPTAIN WILSON'S SONS OF LIBERTY
THERE were no more patriotic men in Litchfield county when Lexington rang with the sound of musket shots than the men of Harwinton. The older of them had known the encompassing hills when all was a wilderness where wolves howled at night. Now homes were scattered here and there; roads had been built, there was a busy mill, and a blacksmith shop, fertile fields lay where formerly forests had thrived, and law and order prevailed everywhere. No king in England or his nobles could have accomplished this. It is the work of the man of energy that reaps the laurels in a land such as this.
Captain John Wilson was such a man. He had come into the wilderness as one of five settlers, a Caleb in Israel, who had wandered into the land to possess it and remained, hale and hearty, to judge therein. Deacon, captain, selectman, and deputy in the General Assembly, during the stirring days that followed the battle of Lexington, he was a moving spirit, although he was then sixty-four years old. So was Daniel Catlin, Justice of the Peace. When it was the mind of the town that the mode of taxation be altered and a committee was selected to confer with a committee at Litchfield on the subject, it was Captain John Wilson and Daniel Catlin, Esq. who were chosen. Catlin was the judicial authority; but when it came to the executive it was Captain John Wilson. I suspect that the Captain was a member of the secret debating club session of the legislature, called by Governor Trumbull at about the commencement of the disagreement with the home country, when six of the ablest jurists of the State were appointed to debate the right of parliament to tax the colonies--three affirmatives and three negative--when every one went home, after two or three days' argument, convinced to the marrow of the justice of the American cause.
The Sons of Liberty were the "Klu Klux Klan", of Harwinton, and Captain Wilson was their natural leader. The freemen in town meeting volunteered to supply thirty-six men for the war and guaranteed their pay, sent four men to assist in guarding the sea-coast at Horse Neck, and directed that cattle should be collected for the soldiers at the front. Committees appointed by them provided shoes, stockings, shirts, and other "cloathing" for the soldiers, and cared for their families. Daniel Catlin, Esq. swore in all who took the oath of fidelity, and kept a record of their names. Militia men who refused to serve when called on were fined. All these things were done under the law and with the sanction of the authorities.
Captain Wilson and his "Sons" knew no authority. They defied authority. Independence had been the characteristic of the Sons of Liberty, ever since the first society was started in Connecticut in 1765 for the purpose of preventing the enforcement of the stamp act. By actively defying law they caused the rebellion, and they did not hesitate to break the law, if by so doing they could forward the success of their cause. They did many services for their country, however, which no law could do. They patrolled the towns in which they lived and rode those, who believed as they did not, on a rail. Tar and feathers, a peculiarly American mode of punishment, was the product of their ingenuity; and they were no respecters of persons. The churchmen, who were also worshipers of the king, were their special prey, and any sign of sympathy with the government of Great Britain set them in immediate action.
The reason that we have to do with the Harwinton Sons is because the southeast corner of Harwinton town reaches down almost to Chippeny Hill, and Stephen Graves, the loyalist, lived in that corner, and the impression made by the Harwinton Sons upon Stephen Graves was so strong that it was handed down and preserved by his descendants. There were patriots in Farmington in which town New Cambridge and Chippeny Hill lay; and there were patriots in Waterbury, in which town Northbury lay, and they were active; but the Harwinton Sons were the most active, for they had Captain Wilson. There was only one Captain Wilson, and he watched all Harwinton. The churchmen in the corner did not escape him although his home was in the further northwest section, almost in sight of where Torrington now stands. A characteristic of a Harwinton Wilson, according to a typical living member of that family, is that he is "dreadful full o' zeal." Captain Wilson was dreadful full of zeal. There were miles of hills, rough paths, and mud for the elderly man, but rough paths were a mere incident to the Captain. By night and day, in season and out of season, he swooped down upon the loyalists to their discomfort and terror. The men fled at his approach, and the women watched over the long northern hills for his men. They saw violence there and force; a deacon and a gentleman, who stood in the doorway, hat in hand, but with an armed force at his back, demanding admittance. He was hunting for men that he might take them and tie them to a tree and bare their backs and flog them until the blood ran. For Connecticut must be free, and shame would it be for the goodfolk of Harwinton that traitors should dwell in their midst.
The loyalists united and worked their fields together in bands for protection. The housewife kept watch, and, at the first sight of a prowling patriot, blew a blast on the dinner horn. Other women, listening in distant farm houses, blew the warning farther over the hills, giving the men opportunity to escape to the den or to a place of safety. Mrs. Ebenezer Johnson, who of the loyalists was the nearest to Harwinton center, one day espied one or more of Wilson's raiders, and blew her tin horn. They searched the house for it without success. Waiting until they were fairly outside, she untied the horn from her garter and blew a defiant "toot! toot!" They returned and searched the premises thoroughly but again without success.
There is another story of Harwinton that is worth telling before we pass on to the life of Stephen Graves. Once upon a time two Whigs, each by himself, went Tory hunting. One was a leading citizen of Harwinton, later commonly known as "Squire Brace", who discovered something or somebody on or near the Graves farm. The man also discovered him and made for him, supposing him to be a Tory. Brace, less courageous, turned and fled, closely followed by his pursuer, until he finally fell down exhausted. What was said by each to the other has not been recorded in the chronicles of Whig and Tory, but tradition says that the prostrate runner was never allowed to forget that race for life. Brace was later a strong Federalist, and became Mayor of Hartford, State's Attorney for Hartford county, and a member of Congress. Asa Smith, once a teamster in the latest French war and who died about 1828, aged ninety, was thus remembered in rhyme by his son Miles, who lived not far north of the Graves place, and, like most of the conservatives of the Revolution, was a Republican.
As for Uncle Ase,
He thinks it no disgrace
To vote for federal Brace,
Fall down and skin his face.
An echo, probably, of town meeting day.