The sign identifying the house on Old South Road in Litchfield where Ethan Allen was born. BZ photo
(Editor’s note: This is the first story in a series of stories on individuals who were of historical significance in Litchfield.)
By Dan Keefe
Did you know that not all of the 48 original families who settled Litchfield in the first three years were headed by the men we call our Founding Fathers? The one exception was the widow Mercy Allen, who is Litchfield’s Founding Mother and was the grandmother of Ethan Allen, an important figure during the Revolutionary War.
Three hundred years ago Mercy Allen purchased one of the 60 shares of Litchfield entitling her to a 10-15 acre home lot. In 1717 prior to coming to Litchfield, Mercy had been widowed at the age of 48 and left with seven children ages 7-20. She did not see a future for her family on the small subsistence farm in Coventry and wondered how she would be able to provide a future for her four sons and three daughters. Hearing that shares were being sold in a new town being formed in northwest Connecticut, she saw an opportunity to provide an inheritance for her children.
Feeling that Hartford & Windsor Committee holding title to the land might balk at selling a share to an aging window, Mercy sent her son, Nehemiah, to purchase a share which he quickly transferred to Mercy. (Later, Nehemiah purchased land for himself on the north side of South Street.)
Grantees or their sons were required to, “build tenant-able houses on each lot or division of not less than 16 square feet and personally inhabit, by last day of May 1723 & for 3 years ensuing & not lease or dispose of share for five years hereafter without consent of inhabitants or first planters”.
Mercy was one of the grantees whose 10-acre homestead sat at the top of Gallows Lane on South Street. The minutes of a town meeting show that the Allen family settled-in before mid-1723, and Mercy was one of the 11 heads of family, and the only woman, charged with building the southern fort (one of four built at the time) where people could withdraw for protection if threatened with an Indian attack.
In August of that year, Joseph Harris, whose homestead adjoined the Allen’s farm to the south, was killed by Indians while harvesting hay on what we know today as Harris Plains. His death left 20-year old Mary, his wife of 8 months, a widow who was four months on the road to motherhood. It is easy to imagine Mercy reaching out to support the young widow, sharing both her lifetime of experience and the skills of her children in supporting Mary with the overwhelming responsibilities of a new farm. Mercy probably was midwife for the birth of Mary’s daughter, Abigail, in January, 1724.
Just four years later when Mercy heard the “call to come home,” this rare astute woman who had never remarried had to decide how her estate would be divided. Mercy’s will is the only one we can find that was drafted by a woman in Litchfield’s 18th century history. In the inheritance customs of that time usually the majority of land and personal property went to sons with token gifts to daughters since it was thought that sons needed the land and other resources to provide for their families and the daughters would be provided for by their husbands.
Mercy broke the mold in her will with both her sons and daughters receiving approximately equal shares with daughter, Lydia, receiving an allowance for “tending me in my present illness.”
A final condition of her will bequeathed “all my provisions prepared for next year” to her children provided they continue to live together with the adult children providing care for the youngest sons, Joseph and Ebenezer, until they reached adult status and could receive their inheritance.
Mercy’s son, Joseph, who was 20 at her death, later married Mary Baker. Ethan Allen was one of their eight children and according to tradition was born in the Allen home standing on Old South Road.
Without Mercy’s courage, resourcefulness, and foresight Litchfield would not be able to claim Ethan Allen, son of Joseph, as one of our own nor would we have had Mercy to claim as our exceptional Founding Mother.
Note: most of the facts in this summary are from the Litchfield Town Clerk’s Office, or from the Litchfield Historical Society (www.litchfieldhistoricalsociety.org)