Middletown became of the richest towns in all New England in the 1700s. during that time, thousands of ships loaded with local products like lumber, barrels, horses, pigs, corn, butter, and beef.
The ships sailed down the Connecticut River and on to coastal towns in the south, or to Caribbean islands such as Barbados, St. Kitts, and Turks Island.
In the islands, ship captains traded their Connecticut goods for rum, sugar, molasses, coffee, salt, nutmeg and occasionally African slaves. The vessels then sailed north to sell their cargoes in Boston, New York, Middletown, and other cities.
Benjamin Williams, a merchant from Bermuda, was drawn here by the thriving maritime trade. He settled in Middletown, married a local woman named Martha Cornwell in 1787, and quickly made his fortune in shipping.
By 1797 he had completed construction of the grand mansion you see before you, a testament to his success. Inside, fine furniture, silver, and paintings would have decorated the rooms.
Ship owners and merchants like Williams often made enormous profits on their voyages, but the risks were high as ships sometimes sank in storms. For the sailors, of course, the risk was much greater they lost not just their fortunes but their lives, Many Middletown families were left to mourn sons, husbands, and fathers
who went to sea never to return.
Benjamin Williams died a wealthy man in 1812, as the West Indies trade began its decline here, Six years later another Middletown man bought the house. He was Henry deKoven, a merchant ship captain who sailed to Europe and China.
The merchant who built this house, Benjamin Williams, advertised in the newspaper for local farmers to sell him their produce and livestock (including "shoats," a term for young hogs). Williams and other merchants filled their ships with such cargoes, which they sent to the West Indies. There they traded the Connecticut goods for island products - sugar, rum, coffee, limes and spices - which they brought back to sell in Middletown and other eastern cities.
In the 1700s and early 1800s, local sea captains and their crews sailed hundreds of ships to the islands of the West Indies, shown at lower right in the 1797 map above. The voyage south usually took from four to six weeks, depending on weather.
The American Gazetteer, by Jedediah Morse, 1797.
Courtesy Wesleyan University Library, Special Collections and Archives
Middlesex Gazette Newspaper, Oct. 26, 1801
Middlesex Gazette Newspaper, Oct. 12, 1804
A detail of an 1825 Middletown map (inset) clearly shows this home, then inhabited by the Henry deKoven family.
The deKoven House is one of the few structures which remain in the neighborhood today. Gone are the ships and wharves along the river, as well as Water Street (replaced by Route 9), Lumber Street, Elm Street, and Center Street. Many of the buildings along Water Street were warehouses that held ships' cargoes.
H.L. Barnum's Map of Middletown, 1825;
Courtesy the Middlesex County Historical Society