In our present-day minds, the lines that separate the City of Hartford from its surrounding suburbs are permanently fixed in place. Each of these towns, as Connecticut prefers to think of them, are separate municipalities that exercise considerable authority, under the power of the state, to govern the residents within their boundaries. Voters in each town elect leaders of their local government (known as a mayor and city or town council in some areas, or a board of selectmen and women in other areas). Town governments maintain local roads and services, collect taxes on property held within their borders, and set zoning ordinances that determine the location and size of homes that may be constructed. Towns also operate local school boards, which are responsible for providing a public education for the children who reside within their borders.
These lines seem so permanently fixed in place because they carry consequences that are strictly enforced. Your legal residence determines where your children may attend public school, and by extension, the quality of the educational experience. If a family cannot prove that they reside within the town boundaries, by presenting legal documentation (such as an apartment lease or utility bills in their name for a specific address), local officials will remove them from the school. Public schools patrol their borders by hiring investigators to track down families who they suspect have “jumped the line” and registered their children to receive a public education in a town outside of their legal residence. With Connecticut’s average expenditure of $10,000 in instructional costs per pupil (and over $16,000 in total spending per pupil), the stakes are higher here than in most other states. Everyone knows where the Hartford city limits end, and the suburbs begin, or so it seems. And for anyone not yet fully informed about these invisible lines, a local real estate agent or your neighbors will certainly point them out to you.
But only a century ago, these lines between the capital city and its surrounding towns were still a work in progress. Town boundaries were in flux during most of the 1800s, as local governments continued to be carved out of one another. Several times during the 1920s, Hartford’s most prominent business leaders proposed to bring “back home” the suburb of West Hartford, which had separated decades before, by annexing it back into the city limits. Around the same time, residents of suburban Newington held similar annexation discussions with leaders from the City of New Britain. Both of these efforts failed, and have been forgotten by most people. Yet this story about the construction of town boundaries deserves to be told and remembered, even if only to spark our historical imaginations about what might have happened due to a different spatial configuration of the metropolitan region.
To understand how the present-day outlines of the capital city and suburban towns took shape, look back to Connecticut’s colonial period and retrace the story of how towns were carved out of one another. In the 1630s, Dutch explorers and English Puritans sailed up the Connecticut River to establish trading posts and new settlements among the indigenous River tribes, on land dominated by the Pequot, who the English battled and destroyed. The first settlements along the river—Windsor, Wethersfield, and Hartford—became known as the three Constitution towns. Free planters from these towns met in Hartford in 1639 to adopt principles of self-governance, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, by some accounts the first such constitution in Western history. They established the role of a governor and magistrates, elected by vote of the free men. Connecticut’s new leaders approved petitions from residents across the colony to create their own towns, and to send representatives to its legislative body, later named the General Assembly, located in the capital of Hartford.
After Connecticut’s leaders authorized the incorporation of new settlements on the outskirts of Hartford, such as Farmington in 1645 and Simsbury in 1670, they gradually carved up existing towns into smaller and more manageable municipalities over the next two centuries. For instance, immediately north of the city in the present-day suburb of Bloomfield, a community of farmers petitioned the General Assembly in 1736 for permission to establish their own Congregational parish. (Prior to 1818, the Congregational Church was the government-backed faith of Connecticut, as there was no separation of church and state.) Since residents from Windsor, Simsbury, and Farmington signed the petition, their parish was given the tripartite name of Wintonbury, yet remained subject to the Town of Windsor. The parish’s attempts to win legislative approval to become its own town, separate from Windsor, did not succeed until 1835, and in that year it adopted the new name of Bloomfield.
But for other communities, closer ties to Hartford made separation more difficult. The present-day suburb of West Hartford previously was known as the “West Division” of Hartford. In 1710, residents successfully petitioned the state for the right to establish their own church, the Fourth Parish of Hartford. This decision granted the West Division some degree of political identity, such as the “power to hold parish meetings, call a minister and collect a tax to pay him, build a meeting house, have schools, and manage other affairs,” wrote local historian Nelson Burr. But the West Division still remained part of the Town of Hartford for another century. In 1854, Republicans in the West Division, in growing conflict with the Democrats in Hartford, finally gained legislative approval to break away from the city to incorporate as their own entity, the Town of West Hartford.
Explore the Scrolling Map
Scroll down the narrative of the full-size interactive map, or click and use arrow keys, to see how Hartford County divided into 29 separate towns from the early 1600s to the late 1800s. Boundaries shown here are not exact, but approximated from the best available digital sources: UConn Libraries MAGIC historical maps; Atlas of Historical County Boundaries at Newberry Library, and the Connecticut State Register and Manual. View the code by Ilya Ilyankou and Jack Dougherty.
In 1871, after the town of Newington incorporated separately from Wethersfield, the borders of Hartford County remained politically stable through the present day. Elsewhere in Connecticut, town boundaries continued to be carved up through 1920, resulting in a state that had been subdivided into 169 municipal governments. But not all were content with the contours of these political boundaries, as seen in the city-suburban annexation battles to come.
- Elizabeth Sweetser Baxter, The Centennial History of Newington, Connecticut (Newington, CT: Lucy Robbins Welles Library, 1971); "Annexation Bill Rejected by House,” Hartford Courant, March 21, 1925, http://search.proquest.com/hnphartfordcourant/docview/553948362/abstract/1004F5FC89AB4EB7PQ/12?accountid=14405; “Annexation of Elm Hill Is Agitated: Petition Circulated to Secure Sentiment of Residents --Maple Hill May Be Included Newington,” Hartford Courant, May 15, 1927, http://search.proquest.com/hnphartfordcourant/docview/557364020/abstract/1004F5FC89AB4EB7PQ/16?accountid=14405; “Annexation Favored In Newington: Maple Hill and Elm Hill Residents Vote Approval of Plan to Join New Britain,” Hartford Courant, November 26, 1930, http://search.proquest.com/hnphartfordcourant/docview/557917194/abstract/1004F5FC89AB4EB7PQ/2?accountid=14405; “New Britain Takes First Step In Plan For Annexations: Mayor Authorized to Name Committee to Negotiate With Towns,” Hartford Courant, February 19, 1931, http://search.proquest.com/hnphartfordcourant/docview/557959785/abstract/1004F5FC89AB4EB7PQ/4?accountid=14405; “Newington Legislator Dead At 64: George W. Hanbury, in Assembly Since 1927,” Hartford Courant, April 1, 1933, http://search.proquest.com/hnphartfordcourant/docview/558278076/abstract/C53B3A30E2054013PQ/33?accountid=14405. ↵
- “West Hartford’s Annexation Will Be Recommended,” Hartford Courant, August 8, 1922, http://search.proquest.com/hnphartfordcourant/docview/557093317/abstract/9EA85A45E6224EADPQ/3?accountid=14405. ↵
- “Willing to Fight Ceding East Side of West Hartford: Representative Meech Would Accept Renomination by Republicans Expects Issue to Come up in Assembly Annual Loss of 5,000 in Taxes to Town Involved, He Says,” Hartford Courant, August 19, 1922, http://search.proquest.com/hnphartfordcourant/docview/557093626/abstract/9EA85A45E6224EADPQ/2?accountid=14405. ↵
- The Chamber of Commerce, “Formal Steps For Bringing West Hartford ‘Back Home,’” Hartford 10, no. 4 (January 1925): 1, 4, 14.“Editorial: Hartford and West Hartford,” Hartford Courant, April 28, 1925, http://search.proquest.com/hnphartfordcourant/docview/553973807/abstract/9EA85A45E6224EADPQ/4?accountid=14405. ↵
- Nelson R Burr, From Colonial Parish to Modern Suburb: A Brief Appreciation of West Hartford (Noah Webster Foundation and Historical Society of West Hartford, 1976), pp. 5, 41-2. ↵
- "Town Borders in Hartford County, CT, from 1600s to Present," 2016, http://jackdougherty.github.io/otl-town-borders/index-frame.html. Historical maps digitally archived at UConn Libraries MAGIC, http://magic.lib.uconn.edu/historical_maps.html; John Hamilton Long, ed., Atlas of Historical County Boundaries: Connecticut (Chicago, IL: Newberry Library, 2010), http://publications.newberry.org/ahcbp/pages/Connecticut.html; Secretary of the State, “Section VII: Local Government, Connecticut Towns in the Order of Their Establishment,” Connecticut State Register and Manual, April 2014, http://www.ct.gov/sots/cwp/view.asp?a=3188&q=392440. ↵