By Paul Hicks
From its founding in 1660, the village of Rye gradually expanded from its original settlement on Manursing Island onto the mainland. By 1675, there were homes dotted along both sides of Blind Brook. To the north, west, and south, however, the small community was surrounded by wilderness, where wolves still roamed.
As recounted by Charles Baird in his history of Rye: “The Indians dwelling along the shores of the Sound proved from the first to be pacific and friendly toward the settler, and our inhabitants probably felt little apprehension from them until the outbreak of war, in the year 1675. But in that year, King Philip, of Mount Hope, a chief of the Pokanokets, succeeded in uniting the tribes of Massachusetts and Rhode Island in a desperate effort to exterminate the English. The conflict lasted about two years, and it did not actually spread into the territory of Connecticut, yet every town in that colony shared in the anxieties and sorrows produced by the fearful struggle.”
“King Philip” was the English name given to a warrior chief who led a coalition of tribes in an uprising against New England colonists and their allies, the Mohegans and the Mohawks, between 1675 and1676. In little more than a year, twelve of the region’s towns were destroyed and many more were damaged. Although the battles and deaths occurred mainly in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, communities in Connecticut were threatened throughout the war.
As the residents of Rye had chosen to become part of the Colony of Connecticut rather New York, they were subject to orders issued by governor and council in Hartford, which arrived by letter in July, 1675 and read, in part:
“…accordingly, we…have given order to the several plantations here to put them in a posture of defence speedily, and these lines are to move yourselves forthwith to see that the same care be taken in your parts for your security, and that all plantations have notice hereof, both Guilford and so on to Rye, that they also be compleat in their arms, with ammunition according to law.”
The New England colonies formed a confederacy and agreed to raise a combined force of 1,000 troops. According to Baird, Connecticut supplied 315 men of which Rye probably furnished its quota of seven or eight. He also noted that, in 1677, Rye contained 38 persons owning real estate, or about 200 inhabitants in all.
On March 5, 1676, the town of Rye appointed Thomas Lyon and Thomas Brown to “choose a house or place to be fortified for the safety of the town.” According to Baird, the “fortified” place they chose was probably the stone residence of Peter Disbrow, one of the three original settlers of Rye. Although it has traditionally been called a “fort,” it was much more like a garrison house, designed as a refuge for the residents of Rye. As historian Robert Bolton described:
“It was built of rough stone and clay; its walls was thirty inches in thickness, and one story high, with an old fashioned pitched roof. The dimensions being forty feet in width, and twenty-four in depth. It faced the south, with one of its gable ends fronting on the Turnpike [Boston Post] road. In the upper portion of the westerly end of the wall there was an embrasure or port-hole…”
The Methodist Church acquired the property in 1868, and, in the process of building its parsonage on the site, used many of the “fort’s” original, uncut natural stones in the house’s foundation.
A sign commemorating the “Old Rye Fort” stands today on the east side of the Post Road on the property that was for many years the parsonage (now owned by the Church of the Resurrection). It states that “around 1728, the present frame (north) portion of the house was added, and for 140 years it served as an inn under two names, Frances Doughty’s ‘Sign of the Sun’ and later ‘Van Sicklin’s’.
In 1950, when a driveway was being resurfaced on the property, part of the road collapsed and revealed a well that was sixteen feet deep and four feet in diameter. The commemorative sign refers to it as “Rye’s oldest well,” a claim that would appear to be uncontestable.
Historian Jill Lepore has written that King Philip’s War “was the greatest calamity to occur in seventeenth-century New England and is considered by many to be the deadliest war in the history of American colonization.” In her view, the war “began the development of an independent American identity. The New England colonists faced their enemies without support from any outside government or military, and this gave them a group identity separate and distinct from Britain.”
In view of the historic significance of the site, “Rye’s Old Fort” deserves to receive greater recognition from the City as an historic site as well as possible inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.