Saturday, June 30, 2018
Benjamin and Sarah Burt:
Surviving Frontier Tragedy
All of the town’s first settlers lived lives of hardship that today would be difficult to imagine. One couple, however, endured incredible adversity before even setting foot in Ridgefield: Benjamin Burt and his pregnant wife Sarah were captured by French and Indian fighters, forced to hike hundreds of miles through mid-winter snow to Montreal, and were held captive for two years.
This, after Sarah Burt’s mother, stepmother and several siblings had been slaughtered in frontier attacks.
Yet the Burts survived and became leading citizens of Ridgefield, raising a sizable family and owning considerable property. Their descendants still live in the area three centuries later.
Benjamin Burt was born 1680 in Northampton, Mass., one of a dozen children of David and Mary Holton Burt. Northampton in the late 17th Century was on the western frontier — not unlike the Far West a century and a half later. There was a constant threat from hostile American Indians. It was a time when England and France were at war and the French, who had allied themselves with the Mohawks and other natives, were attacking New England settlers and settlements.
When he was 11, Burt got his first taste of the dangers of frontier life. David, an older brother, was a soldier at a fort in Schenectady, N.Y., on Feb. 29, 1690, when it was destroyed by French and Indian fighters. David was taken prisoner and never heard from again.
As a young man Benjamin learned the smithing trade and in 1701 moved to nearby Deerfield, Mass., to work as a blacksmith. There, a year later he married Sarah Belden.
Sarah had already been through hell.
On Sept. 16, 1696, Mohawks and French descended on the Belden farm at Deerfield, killing Sarah’s mother, and three of her siblings, aged one, four and 16. Sister Abigail, 13, was wounded. The Indians captured her father, Daniel Belden, along with her 21-year-old brother and 13-year-old sister. Sarah, then 15, escaped by hiding in the barn.
Sarah’s captured father and his two children were marched 268 miles to a town outside Montreal, Quebec, where they were sold to Jesuits to work as servants at a seminary there. Although they were in effect slaves, Daniel Belden later reported that they were “favorably dealt with” by the Jesuits.
All three were eventually set free with the help of a “Dutch gentleman” after the French and English signed a treaty in 1698. They returned to Deerfield where they were reunited with Sarah and Abigail. Later that year, Daniel married Hepzibah Buell, who also had a tragic end.
By 1704, the British and French were fighting again. On Feb. 29, a band of 200 French soldiers and 142 Mohawks attacked Deerfield in what became known as the Deerfield Massacre.
And among the captives were Sarah and her husband, Benjamin Burt. Sarah was eight months pregnant.
The 25-day trek to Montreal was brutal.
The Rev. John Williams, a pastor at Deerfield, was also taken prisoner after seeing two of his children killed in the raid. He later described the ordeal of the march: “The condition and sufferings of these unfortunate creatures cannot be adequately described; in the few brief, agonizing minutes of the attack, they had neither forethought nor time to make the least preparation for such a fearful journey; poorly clad and shod, the rocks, bushes, and brambles soon rent their scanty garments and when sodden with the penetrating melted snow their power to resist the icy blasts was almost exhausted. At night when the exertion of motion no longer stimulated their blood, they could only save their vital warmth by lying close together in the snow, a feebly palpitating mass of misery.”
A Burt family historian reported that the captives “suffered from fatigue and insufficient food, and when they lagged or were disabled, they were slain.” Nineteen people on the march were murdered, mostly pregnant women. One of them was the wife of Pastor Williams, who later penned this verse:
“I saw in the naked forest
“Our scattered remnant cast,
“A screen of shivering branches
“Between them and the blast;
“The snow was falling ’round them,
“The dying fell as fast.”
In an 1893 book on the Burt family, “Early Days in New England,” Henry Martyn Burt wrote about Sarah Burt’s travails: “The writer has often in fancy depicted to himself this ancestress, subjected in her early wifehood to that direful ordeal; the days of unmitigated misery in the deep snows of the bleak and trackless wilderness; the piercing cold; the sore, aching, frost-bitten limbs; the ever gnawing hunger; the slaughter of her step-mother and of the many women burdened like herself; of the long nights haunted by the vague dread of the morrow with all its known and unknowable terrors. Was it with joy or dread that she felt within her the throbs of her unborn child?”
The Burts survived the march and, like Sarah’s family had been eight years earlier, were sold to the Jesuits to work as servants. Sarah gave birth to a son, Christopher, on April 25, shortly after arriving in Montreal.
Now a family of three, the Burts spent two years in Quebec before they were given their freedom. On May 30, 1706, they sailed aboard a ship up the St. Lawrence River and down the Atlantic Coast, arriving in Boston Aug. 2. While on the voyage, Sarah gave birth to a second son, named Seaborn Burt. Like his father, Seaborn would become a major character in early Ridgefield. (Historian George Rockwell incorrectly assumed Seaborn’s name was the result of his being born when his parents were immigrating to North America. Benjamin Burt’s father had come to Massachusetts around 1635; the Burts were already a well-established New England family by 1706.)
The Burts returned to Deerfield but clearly, with 18 family members having been slaughtered in battles with Indians and Frenchmen, the town offered not only great dangers but also bad memories. They decided to move to Norwalk in much safer southern Connecticut where Sarah had family. The Burts had another connection with Norwalk: Benjamin Hoyt — one of the 112 Deerfield settlers captured with them — was also living in Norwalk. Hoyt would soon be among the founders of the new town of Ridgefield in 1708.
Sarah’s uncles, Samuel and John Belden, were early residents of Norwalk, which had been founded in 1649. John Belden would become one of the proprietors — first landowners — of Ridgefield, along with Benjamin Hoyt.
The new community of Ridgefield needed a blacksmith, a tradesman who could produce nails, door hardware, and kitchen utensils for houses, plows, shovels, and other tools for the farm, and axles, brackets and other parts for wagons. Most of the Proprietors knew Burt from his Belden and Hoyt connections, and offered him the job.
As an incentive to move to Ridgefield, the Proprietors offered Burt a home lot and one-28th of the outlying land. In exchange, he would have to agree to work at least four years to gain full title.
The Burts apparently liked Ridgefield, for they remained here the rest of their lives. They probably lived initially at their granted home lot on Main Street, at the north corner of Catoonah Street (which for years was called Burt’s Lane). However, they may have later moved out near Lake Mamanasco. They added three more children to their family after moving here, and as many as eight offspring may have lived here. Some later moved to New York’s frontier.
Burt served his community in various offices, including being a selectman in 1720.
He was apparently a wise investor in land and local industry. His name appears frequently in land transactions. By the 1730s, he owned a saw mill on the west side of Danbury Road, selling it in 1746 to David Osburn.
In 1742, Burt purchased the gristmill at Lake Mamanasco. Probably the major wheat- and corn-grinding mill in town, it had been built around 1716 by Daniel Sherwood, the town’s first miller.
Sarah Burt died in 1749. After Benjamin’s death in 1759, he bequeathed the mill to his son, Seaborn, who continued to operate it until his death in 1773.
Meanwhile, members of the growing Burt family were acquiring much land around Lake Mamanasco. In fact, so many Burts lived in that vicinity that the lake was often called Burt’s Pond and an old path on nearby West Mountain was referred to as Burt’s Road. (The land for Sunset Hall, the famous estate on Old West Mountain Road owned in 2018 by Dick Cavett, was once an old Burt farm belonging, in 1890, to Stephen Burt, great great grandson of Benjamin.)
Many of the Mamanasco Burts ran into hard times when the Revolution broke out. Most were Tories and fled Ridgefield. Several children and grandchildren of Benjamin went to Canada and wound up establishing a Burt clan that today is large and spread throughout several of the provinces.
During the Revolution, the ownership of the Mamanasco mill seemed to be in chaos; part of it had been owned by Burts who had fled. At one point, the Proprietors seemed to step in and take control of it.
After the war, some of the Burts returned to Ridgefield. Among them was Theophilus Burt, one of Seaborn’s sons, whose property had been confiscated by the state in the 1770s; some was sold off with the notation he “hath absconded and taken side with the British troops against the United States of America.” On his return, Theophilus petitioned the General Assembly for title to his old land; the assembly in 1792 restored title to what was left of his property in government hands, probably including a share in Mamanasco grist mill. Burts continued to have an interest in the mill into the 1800s.
Benjamin Burt is a rare example of a first settler for whom we have a sample of writing. That
In the 1753 letter, Benjamin asks his son, Benjamin Jr., to give Christopher a cow, adding that dad would pay for it when senior and junior next get together. Christopher had evidently had a life of considerable hardship, which Burt family historian Henry Martyn Burt attributed to the traumatic birth in Canada. He “did not have a prosperous life,” the author said. He “came into life under such distressing circumstances, ... which does not appear to have lessened in his declining years. The prenatal influences upon the child, which must have colored his whole life, no doubt had much to do in unsettling what otherwise might have been a prosperous and stable career.”
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