Excerpted from A Brief History of the Thimble Islands in Branford, Connecticut
by Archibald Hanna
The New England shore and all its outlying islands were formed as a result of a dramatic rise in the level of the ocean after the last ice age. Because the Thimble Islands are made of a crystalline rock of great hardness, they survived erosion from rivers and the grinding of the great ice sheet. Pot Island (also known as Pot Rock Island, Treasure Island or Kidd Island), the location of Thimble Island House, is named because of its pot holes, left behind by the glacier.
The colorful recorded history of the Thimble Islands begins in 1614, with their discovery by Adrian Block (for whom Rhode Island’s Block Island is named). Adrian Block, a Dutchman, was in the service of the Dutch East India Company. In 1614, he sailed up the East River from Manhattan aboard his 16 ton yacht named the “Onrust” or “Restless”. As a result of Adrian Block’s explorations, the Dutch East India Company established several trading posts in Connecticut.
The Branford area was inhabited by the Mattabesec Indians. When the white settlers arrived in the mid 1600’s, the Mattabesec Indians were threatened by the more powerful Pequot Indians to their East and Mohawk Indians to their West. Therefore, in exchange for the white man’s protection, a few trade goods and small reservations for themselves, the Mattabesec Indians sold their land (Branford and North Branford) to the settlers for eleven coats of trucking cloth and a coat of English cloth for their chief, Montowese.
The first maps of the area refer to the Thimble Islands as “The Hundred Islands”. The earliest record of the “Thimble Islands” name appears on a deed recorded in 1739. Local tradition tells us that the islands were named for the thimbleberry (or black raspberry) which flourished on islands at the time.
Another interesting bit of local folklore concerns the infamous privateer* turned pirate, Captain Kidd. Upon learning that he was wanted for piracy, Captain Kidd sailed for Oyster Bay, NY to begin negotiations with Lord Bellomont, his former employer. Kidd was persuaded to come ashore, and he sailed for Boston in July of 1699 – perhaps passing through the Thimble Islands along the way. Upon arrival, Kidd was arrested and shipped to London for trial. He was found guilty of piracy and hanged in May of 1701.
The American Revolution drew concerns, but no real threat to the Thimble Islands. Although there was British Naval activity along the New England coastline, the anchorage among the Thimble Islands was too shallow and the channel too intricate for a Man-of-War. Nonetheless, the residents of Branford, fearing that the islands would provide a screen for the movements of the British, voted that “the proprietors of the islands lying off this town called Thimble Islands be requested to consent that all the timber and wood growing thereon may be forthwith cut and carried off therefrom”.
During this time, the islands had little economic value. Too small and rocky for farming, their principal use was for fishing, oystering and the gathering of seaweed for fertilizer. Some of the islands were used as pastures for livestock.
In 1767, the east end of Pot Island was laid out to Nehemiah Rogers, and the west end to Roswell Pond. The island remained in the hands of various members of the Rogers and Baldwin families until 1846 when it was sold by Ammi Baldwin to William Bryan (or Brien) of Branford. At this time in US history, the growth of trade and manufacturing in the United States resulted in increased wealth and urbanization, which gave rise to a demand for a new type of leisure opportunity, the summer resort.
Mr. Bryan erected the Thimble Islands’ first hotel, Thimble Island House, on his newly acquired Pot Island. In the hotel’s first year, Bryan capitalized on the popular legend of Captain Kidd, and also offered an opportunity for fishing and for invalids to enjoy the fresh air. The idea of a day on the water also appealed to New Haven residents, suffering from the summer’s heat. In it’s first season, the resort’s success enabled Mr. Bryan to add 2 bowling alleys. With the completion of the New Haven and New London railroad in 1852,
Stony Creek and the outlying islands became more accessible to visitors. By 1855, there were regular steamboat cruises around the Thimble Islands, sometimes carrying up to 300 passengers. Among the many recreation and relaxation opportunities at Thimble Island House, the annual clambake on Pot Island was a not-to-be-missed attraction!
The first of many group outings to Thimble Island House was booked by the Young Men’s Christian Association of the Methodist Episcopal Church in August of 1857. There was fishing for the men, bathing for the children and fresh air and a welcome change of scene for the busy mothers.
During the Civil War, no steamers were run, and the hotel seems to have been temporarily closed. In 1864, William Bryan’s son decided to move on to other ventures, and he sold Pot Island to William Harrison Barnes. Genial and popular, Mr. Barnes operated the hotel for the next 32 years. In 1896, it passed into the hands of William Henry Barnes, who ran it somewhat sporadically for the next ten years. In 1912, the island was purchased by the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church of New York City for use as a summer vacation home for the mothers and working women of New York City. The island served as the church’s summer “camp” until 1928. For several summers, the island was unoccupied, then it was leased to private families during the first few years of the 1930’s. In 1937, the church sold the island to Reverend Dr. John L. Davis of New York who used it as a summer home.
* A privateer is a private person or ship authorized by a government by letters of marque to attack foreign shipping during wartime.