August 19, 2021

Connecticut as Borderland

Anne is from New York City (Stuyvesant Town, on the Lower East Side). I was born in Hartford and raised in Massachusetts. My parents were both raised in East Hartford. When, after living in DC for ten years and with a new baby, we had the opportunity to come to Connecticut in 2010, it seemed like easy way to stay in touch with family to the north and south. For me personally, Connecticut is a borderland. It has been for centuries.

There is a great scholarly literature on borders and boundaries and the ways in which these function — geographically, culturally, politically, mathematically. In Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late 20th Century, for example, anthropologist James Clifford described the ways in which culture is as much a product of movement across borders and between places and as it is a product of place. Thomas Gieryn has shown how scientists engage in “boundary work,” the work of defining and policing disciplinary and professional boundaries. Mathematics, physics, meteorology, and other natural sciences describe “boundary conditions” in the differential equations they use to model everything from the resilience of building materials to climate change. Humanists and social scientists study how minortized groups negotiate socially constructed boundaries of race, gender, and class.

Connecticut is a borderland in so many of these ways. It takes its name from the river, which divides all New England. The Connecticut River is the central feature of the New England states, more than the mountains on our western and northern borders, and (at least for the past century and a half as the economy of New England has moved away from fishing and the Atlantic trade) even more than the eastern seaboard. It dictates the flow of people and goods across the region. Look at a highway or railroad map and you’ll see that they mirror the north-south orientation of the River: with the exception of the Mass Pike, a relatively new road, there are very few east-west roads in New England. Just try driving from Hartford to Providence, a distance of only 60 miles between two state capitals, and you’ll find that the two cities are linked only by secondary roads. It can take hours, and during that time you’ll realize how much the River divides the Massachusetts bay side of New England from the Hudson River side. You’ll see the same thing if you plan a ski trip in Northern New England. Boston people ski in New Hampshire along the north-south I-93 corridor. New York people ski in Vermont along the I-91 corridor. The Connecticut River forms the boundary between those very similar yet very different states. Long ago New Hampshire and New York even fought a war for control of Vermont, leaving it an independent republic for four years at the time of the Revolution. (It was actually named “New Connecticut” for a time.)

But Connecticut has been a borderland for much longer than that. East of the river was the ancestral territory of the Algonquin speaking Pequot, Mohegan, and Nipmuck peoples who lived along Long Island Sound and the Atlantic coast. West of the river was the borderland territory of the Tunxis and related peoples that separated those Algonquin speaking peoples from the Mohawks and other Hudson River and Great Lakes-centered Iriquois speaking peoples. With European colonization the English and Dutch settled on the same boundary. Hartford started as a far eastern outpost of the Dutch Hudson River colonies only to be usurped by English colonists from Boston. Their journey was made famous by Frederic Edwin Church in his painting, “Reverend Thomas Hooker and Company Journeying through the Wilderness in 1636 from Plymouth to Hartford.” That he labeled what is now one of the most densely populated regions of the United States a “wilderness” suggests just how much of a divide the colonists perceived in land between Massachusetts Bay and the Hudson River Valley.

Frederick Edwin Church, Hooker and Company Journeying through the Wilderness from Plymouth to Hartford, in 1636 (original at the Wadsworth Atheneum)

Connecticut itself was founded as three separate English colonies, two focused on the East (Connecticut, centered around Hartford, and Saybrook at the mouth of the river) and one focused on the West (New Haven). For the first century of its statehood, Connecticut had two state capitals, Hartford and New Haven, and its legislature split time between the two. Indeed anyone who has lived here knows that Connecticut still has this feeling of a borderland, a place where two cultures meet, where differences are negotiated and where bargains between them are made. People in Fairfield County take the train to New York. People in Hartford drive to work. The Northeast of the state is populated with rabid Red Sox fans. The Southwest, Yankees. My own town of West Hartford sits smack on the border, and sports allegiances vary house to house — this time of year you’ll see a Giants flag flying from one front porch, a Patriots flag from the next. (My own household is likewise evenly split: My younger son and I are Pats fans. My wife and older son are Giants fans. Thank goodness she likes the Mets and not the Yankees.)

Source: Ben Blatt, Finding the True Border Between Yankee and Red Sox Nation Using Facebook Data, Harvard Sports Analysis Collective

Connecticut’s place in the broader cultural imagination also reflects its liminal status. In film, Connecticut is usually portrayed as a place of ambivalence, detachment, and opacity (viz. The Ice Storm and The Stepford Wives). Connecticut’s greatest legends are about people who can’t be pinned down: the Leatherman and Nutmegger.

People from the rest of New England often doubt that we’re part of New England at all, and people from New York generally move to Fairfield County suburbs and Litchfield County farms as a form of “escape.” Like other borderlands: Turkey, Tijuana, Tibet, we are both and neither. We are both New York and New England, but we are also neither, which is probably why there’s so little state patriotism here. We are not meant to be a people, but rather a buffer and trading zone between two much stronger peoples. (Another time, I’ll write about how Connecticut people love to hate Connecticut, something not unrelated to the state’s status as a borderland.)

As I get older I realize that I have always personally felt this way: both and neither. In high school I was both a jock and a nerd, but also neither. Now at work, I’m drawn both to solitary scholarly pursuits and collaborative administrative ones, even though they’re often mutually incompatible and unrewarded. Like Connecticut, I am a borderland, and it suits me just fine.

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