Fairfield 375: Town's first Independence 'fireworks' were no sky show
EDITOR'S NOTE: Fairfield, established in 1639, is one of Connecticut's oldest communities. From its settlement 375 years ago by English colonists on "four squares" of land that Native Americans called Uncoway to the vibrant town of 60,000 residents that it is today, Fairfield's history is a chronicle of compelling events and colorful characters.
The Fairfield Citizen will highlight vignettes from that rich history throughout this 375th anniversary year on a regular basis.
Independence Day is commemorated in Fairfield each year with a fireworks display burning brightly in the sky over the shoreline.
But "burning" took on a completely different meaning a few days after one July 4 as the fledgling nation was still fighting to maintain its recently declared independence.
On July 7, 1779, a two-day invasion of Fairfield was launched by British troops, who ultimately laid waste to much of the town. About 2,000 British invaders, led by Gen. William Tryon, burned many of the buildings within the original "Four Squares" at the center of the community. It was Tryon's attempt to draw Gen. George Washington into a battle that Tryon thought would end the former colonies' fight to gain independence, according to author and historian Thomas Farnham. Clearly, Tryon was wrong.
It all began when the Fairfield Coast Guard saw the British fleet off Black Rock Fort in the early morning hours of July 7. The guard warned Fairfielders, who had been worried about a British attack, with the shot of a musket. Many townspeople quickly moved inland to areas that now are parts of Trumbull and Weston and other inland points, but others steadfastly remained in their homes.
The British boarded small boats and came ashore at what is now the end of South Pine Creek Road. The troops marched along the beach and onto the meetinghouse green as men of the Fairfield militia fired on them. The Fairfield militia managed to keep the British in the center of town by setting up fortifications on Round Hill, destroying a bridge across Ash Creek and continually returning heavy fire.
Tryon, his plan foiled, ordered his troops to start burning the town's houses and other buildings. During the attack, 97 houses, nearly as many barns, several shops and even some churches, schools and the courthouse were burned.
Ten Fairfield residents were killed during the onslaught.
The British finally retreated on the morning of July 8, stymied by the Fairfield militia who held their ground. As the British re-boarded their boats, a few Loyalist residents left with them, as well as a few who were taken prisoner.
The British force made two more stops -- first to burn houses in Greens Farms, followed by a major attack on Norwalk -- as they made their way back to New York.
Although the immediate damage had ended, according to historians it took many years for Fairfield and its residents to recover from the fiery attack.
Fairfield residents can follow the incursion of the marauding British soldiers on Sunday, July 6, when the annual Burning of Fairfield walking tours, sponsored by the Fairfield Museum and History Center, stop at the few homes near Town Hall Green that survived. Docents in period costumes will portray prominent citizens of the era at historic buildings on the tour.
"We use actual letters and depositions from 1779," said Walt Matis, the museum's volunteer coordinator. "These are the real words of Fairfield citizens and individuals who lived through the burning of Fairfield."
The tours will run every half-hour starting at noon through 3 p.m. Cost is $10 for adults and $5 for students. Advance registration is required online at www.fairfieldhistory.org or by calling 203-259-1598.