Dudleytown, Cornwall CT
Quote from “The Lure of the Litchfield Hills Magazine, summer 1964”
By Paul Hilliard Chamberlain, Jr.
Curator, Cornwall Historical Society
When Lowell wrote, “The pine is the mother of the legend”, he might well have been writing about a myth still in the making…a New England fantasy which has captured the hearts and minds of many, and with each newly-intrigued phantom follower, the myth is given new life, and wider scope.
Such is the case of Cornwall’s deserted village of the damned, Dudleytown. Indeed, this relic of poor planning has now grown into a legend so preposterous that it tries both the credulity and patience of anyone even remotely concern with the facts.
Topsy-like, the legend of Dudleytown reached its present proportions without the assistance of any particular individual. It took the combined efforts of a number of almost disinterested persons to create the ghostly aura which today surrounds what is probably Connecticut’s most celebrated aggregation of sickly cellars and washed out roads.
What is this ghostly legend? How did it come about? These are questions easily answered. The reason for the legend, however, is a difficult one to track down…especially when considered in the glare furnished by the nemesis of all addicts of the supernatural…the cold, hard, unvarnished facts. First, lets take a look at the legend in its basic form. Dudleytown was first settled in 1747 by Thomas Griffis (sometimes referred to in town records as Griffin) some two years before a road was laid out for the region. Griffis was a farmer, as were most of the people who eventually settled near him. Until relatively recently, Cornwall’s way of life was that of the plow and harrow, in spite of the rocks which God, in his infinite wisdom, scattered over every hill and valley.
Dudleytown, as it came to be known, was located on a plateau which received little sun during the day because of its exposure, and because the little hamlet was always in the shadow of a mountain regardless of where the sun was (Bald mountain, Woodbury mountain, and Coldfoots triplets). If the rest of Cornwall may be used as a guide, white pines and hemlocks of gargantuan stature covered the land in the Dudleytown area. Of course, there were also the oaks, and good showing of native chestnut, as well as a liberal sampling of other native trees. To imagine what a job Dudleytown’s early settlers were faced with before they could plow a furrow in the soil, just walk through Cornwall’s famous Cathedral Pines. Then picture yourself reducing a similar area to fields with nothing more than an axe!
The early settlers were hardly breed, however, and it wasn't long before farmer Griffis had neighbors…who cleared more land, built new homes, and constructed stone walls from Dudleytown’s most abundant natural resource. At least two of these neighbors were Dudley's. Abiel and Barzillai, veterans of the French and Indian wars. That there were Dudley's. in Cornwall before 1747, there can be no doubt…Abiel appears on the tax list of 1744, and by 1748 Gideon Dudley had been recognized as a tax payer. The exact relationship of these Dudley's. is not known, but it is presumed they were brothers. There was also an Abijah who may have been a sibling, as well as a Martin Dudley. By sheer weight of numbers, the Dudley name overwhelmed that of other early settlers, and was forever given to that rocky part of Cornwall with which we are dealing.
So far, no ghosts have been seen. For this, we must do a bit of genealogical specter searching in the Dudley’s family closet. We know the Cornwall Dudley's. came from Guilford (a town which can also claim a Dudleytown) on the Connecticut coast…and we know the Dudley's. stemmed from English Nobility. By retracing our ghostly family back to the Merry Olde England of the sixteenth century, we can at last find a skeletal finger pointing to dark deeds of the dismal Dudley's. One Edmund Dudley, having displeased the subjects of King Henry VII, lost his head on the chopping block of said sovereign. Edmund the headless had a son, John (later the Duke of Northumberland) who apparently inherited a disliking for royalty. John plotted to overthrow the Royal Line by marrying his son, Lord Guilford Dudley, to Lady Jane Grey (the original “Queen for a Day”) who was proclaimed Queen after Edward VI’s death. The plot failed, however, and heads rolled.
This time, it was the Duke’s head, as well as the head of his son, and Lady Jane’s which rolled off the executioner’s chopping block with assembly line efficiency. The Dudley's. weren’t finished with England yet, however. About this time, Lord Guilford Dudley’s brother came back from France, and took his revenge out on the English by introducing the dreaded Plague. Dudley-late-of-France was a military man, and most a generous one. His plague was given not only to his own men, but also to thousands of civilians, thereby decimating most of his own command and a large part of the English populace. There was yet another brother…and this one a most important one to ghost chasers. This lad, known as the Earl of Leicester, was a great favorite of Queen Elizabeth. While he might easily have shared the fate of his brother, Lord Guilford, he had a good head on his shoulders, and he meant to keep it. Discretion being the better part of valor, the Earl left England forever, never to darken its shores again. It was his descendant, William Dudley, who first came to Cornwall after the French and Indian wars.
We have now completed the circle…we are again back in Cornwall, with the Dudley's. Cornwall in the mid-1700 wasn’t a large settlement, by any stretch of the imagination. Incorporated in 1740, it was inhabited by hard toiling farmers, millers, and an occasional blacksmith, cooper, and tinker. That Dudleytown was not quite as independent as other sections of Cornwall is easily seen.
Although Dudleytown’s log cabins eventually gave way to frame buildings and well laid out farms, it still was completely dependant on other Cornwall settlements for nourishment, both physical and spiritual. Dudleytown grew flax, yes…as well as wheat, corn, and other foods. Its small streams were dammed to supply power for at least three mills of various types. But it was isolated by its very location. Its spiritual needs were supplied by the Congregational Church in Cornwall Plain, and to a lesser extent, in nearby Warren. When death came to a Dudleytown family, it didn’t reach the burial stage until after an ox cart had carried the departed to the Cornwall cemeteries. For not only has there been no record of any church having been established in Dudleytown, there is no burying ground to be found within its confines. One of the earliest headstones in the Cornwall Plain cemetery, near my home, bears the name of a Dudleytown resident…at least three miles from the closest Dudleytown home site.
If Dudleytown may be reconstructed at all, it would have to be materialized as a very small, closely-knit farming area where good land was at a premium. There were plenty of glacial rock and granite ledges, however, as is evidenced by the maze of stone walls bounding farm lots, roadways, bridges, fords, and sluiceways. The fords and bridges were built at convenient stream crossings, and seldom does one see any sign of the rock having been quarried. This doesn’t hold true at the Caleb Jones home-site, nor at occasional fence corners. Although I have not yet found a quarry ledge in my woods wandering in the area, it is immaterial…the homes with which we are now concerned were built nearly a hundred years before these cut stone structures.
Having drawn a level headed picture of Dudleytown in its early years, lets get a better look at the horrible happenings that plagued the residents of the settlement. The first recorded fatality occurred in 1792, when, during a barn raising, Gershom Hollister toppled from a partially completed structure, and was killed. Lay this to an over-abundance of cider, a loose or slippery plank, or a mis-step…but not to a Dudley, please. For this time, Abiel was an old, old man…an 83-year-old man who had been a town charge for nearly twenty years. Abiel died in 1799, having earned for himself a place in Starr’s History of Cornwall as an especially long lived resident and little more. In 1804, General Heman Swift’s third wife, Sarah Faye, was killed by lightning during an April thunderstorm. Much has been made of this in several articles and books; it was the curse of Dudleytown, hard at work. However, General Swift’s home was not in Dudleytown. It may be admired to this day on the Cornwall Bridge-Warren road, still as far from Dudleytown as ever!
Another favorite story of Dudleytown phantom followers concerns the wife of Horace Greeley, Mary Cheney. Mary WAS born in Dudleytown, and DID die a violent death. She met Mr. Greeley in a vegetarian boarding house long before that gentleman’s white hat became famous, and his advice, “Go west, young man”. Perhaps overwrought by arduous political campaign, Mary Cheney Greeley shuffled off this mortal soil just one week before her husband lost his bid for the presidency of these United States. She accomplished this all by herself, by the simple expedient of placing a noose around her neck, and stepping off a chair, with nothing more than the rope to break her fall. It did, quite permanently, and added another page to the terrifying history of Dudleytown.
This brings us to 1813…and so far, we have seen Dudleytown’s curse accounting for an average of only one person every seven years. Nat a very impressive figure in these days of mass mayhem by motor car. A family named Carter also suffered from the Dudleytown curse, according to popular legend. Nathaniel Carter came to Cornwall from Killingworth. His stay was a brief one, and he soon journeyed to the Forks of the Delaware, near present day Binghamton New York. The October following his resettlement, a band of Indians swooped down on his cabin, killing his wife and infant child. Two older daughters and a son were carried away to Canada. The Indians killed Nathaniel as he returned to his cabin. His two daughters were rescued by Redcoats from fort Niagara…ransomed, probably…but the boy, who liked life in the North woods, refused to return to civilization.
The lad was adopted by Cherokees, and took unto himself an Indian bride. From this union came a son, named Ta-wah, who was later converted to Christianity. After being baptized David in 1823, he elected to enter the ministry. He entered the Foreign Mission school of Cornwall in 1824, and was an excellent student. However, he was dismissed the following year because of his association with two other Indian boys, Elias Boudinot and John Ridge, when the trio became enamored of the three of Cornwall Belles, and expressed a desire to tie the knot. Discrimination reared its ugly head, and Ta-wah, or David Carter, if you prefer, went quite literally “over the hill”. He stayed in Goshen for a time, then retraced his footsteps to the land of the Cherokees. That the Dudleytown curse was on his soul is evident by his later life. The poor lad became a journalist and edited the “Cherokee Advocate”, and finally was appointed as a judge of the Supreme Court.
We have seen how Abiel died at the age of 90; legend hath it that when he reached 60, he left Dudleytown, vowing never to set foot back on that god forsaken rock heap as long as he lived, not if he had become a ward of the town. He didn’t, and he did. Another Dudleytown man reached the ripe age of 104…this was William Tanner, who lived and died in the very house where Gershom Hollister went that morning in 1792 to help a neighbor raise a barn…and was killed doing so. Tanner wasn’t quite right in his head when he finally left Dudleytown feet first, but after 104 years of scratching out a living on Dudleytown Mountain, it’s no wonder Abiel Dudley and William Tanner are exceptions, of course…most Dudleytown residents, including Abiel’s brothers, pulled out of the area long before they could attain an old age and its comforts. As more and more disgruntled farmers pulled up stakes, and moved on to greener pastures, fewer and fewer settlers came to Cornwall to take their places behind the plow.
By the time the Chestnut blight hit Connecticut in the early 1900’s, there wasn’t a soul left to claim permanent residency in Dudleytown. A sawmill moved in temporarily to salvage the dead and dying Chestnut timber. A farmer ran sheep for a few years, and charcoalers continued to ply their trade to some extent, but no one really cared to live in the area, for it was impossible to scratch a living from the shallow, rocky soil. The curse had run it's course...it had killed a New England town. So much for the legend…the myth that is all that is generally remembered of Dudleytown. There remain only the facts: That Dudleytown was a mistake from the beginning is obvious by glancing at its geographical location. Surrounded by hills, and located at an elevation nearly 1500 feet, it stands to reason that the crops upon which the farmer/settlers were so vitally dependant would never flourish. Even the hardy Apple Trees were dwarfed by long winters, followed by cold springs and summer, then early falls, high winds, and poorly watered soil.
The soil was rocky…terribly rocky, to judge from the size and number of stone walls in the area. And the soil itself was not rich black loam a farmer looks for, such as is found in the valleys of Cornwall. These valleys hold rich deposits of fertile soil, the result of sedimentary actions eons ago, when the valleys held large lakes. On the Dudleytown plateau, glaciers had scrubbed much of the topsoil away before a man hove into view, red or white. A soil test today, of course, would not tell you what type of soil Dudleytown had in the 1700’s, but the fact that the farmers often failed to raise even enough hay to feed their livestock would point to poor soil. And the fact that hills were one time famous for their Oak and beech sands would echo this, because these trees are seekers of acidity. Although Dudleytown would appear to be well watered to the casual visitor, there were several small brooks running through the area, fed by two main swamps. Actually, the land is not too amply endowed with water. Today, one finds stone walls running through swamps, which means that these swampy areas were either used as pastures, and therefore seasonally dry, or that these boggy places were non-existent in the 1700’s.
Man’s greediness helped destroy Dudleytown, too. When the iron furnaces of Litchfield county were going full blast, the hills were completely stripped of timber, burned into charcoal, and carted to furnaces in Cornwall Bridge, Kent, and other nearby towns, to provide fuel for the smelters. Several drawings and photographs now in the Cornwall Historical Society’s collection picture Cornwall completely denuded, except for a few apple orchards. Once the trees were gone, the rains of spring and summer and the run-off of winter snow soon took most of Dudleytown’s soil down the mountain. We must also consider that with a limited amount of tillable land available, Dudleytown’s young people looked elsewhere for their livelihood…and never came back, because they had homes of their own, and children of their own to think about. Certainly, there were occasional events, which kept the legend living. A Cornwall farmer, who had cut hay on fallow fields, lost several haycocks after a thunderstorm. Lightning? Of course not! ‘Twas the Dudleytown Demons! Livestock wandered away, and became lost forever. Was it because summer pastures were poorly fenced? Why, no…they were sprinted away by haunts, even though the craggy cliffs of Coltsfoot were within easy walking distance for a hungry cow.
The myth persists though, although recently, it hasn’t been too active. Several homes have been built near old Dudleytown, and no one has reported being bewitched. For the most part, However, Dudleytown remains a sylvan retreat for hikers, campers, and nature lovers. The owls which gave Dudleytown the nickname “Owlsbury” still hoot in the tree tops; wildcats still yowl from the rocky ledges, and in the winter, the only creatures who disturb the silence are the woodsy ones who live there. Today, the old Dudleytown names are gone…remembered only as cellar holes. There are no Brophys…no Jones…no Rogers, Cooks, Bennetts or Agags, and, of course, no Dudley's. There are only ruffled grouse, drumming on a 200 year old stone wall; white tailed deer, drinking form a pool which once watched a mill wheel turn; owls, woodpeckers, chipmunks, and tiny snow fleas call Dudleytown their home.
To those who prefer to think that Dudleytown may provide a glimpse of a spook, or that it is death to dwell on the mountain because of a centuries old regicidal curse…may we realists hope that they will nurture their dreams, and pass them along to friends who love Dudleytown for its silence, its remoteness from a mechanical world, and its awe-inspiring, unspoiled beauty. If nothing more, Dudleytown deserves to remain as is…silent, remote, completely peaceful. This, if nothing more, as a tribute to those hardy pioneers who did their best to tame the wild and rocky Connecticut wilderness…and failed.
OTHER ARTICLES/BOOKS/PAMPHLETS ON DUDLEYTOWN
· David E. Philips “Dudleytown, Cursed Village”, LEGENDARY CONNECTICUT, Traditional tales from the Nutmeg State. Wllimantic, Connecticut: Curbstone Press, 1992, p. 142.
· Glenn E, White, “The Curse of Dudleytown” in FOLK TALES OF CONNECTICUT. Vol. II. Meriden, Connecticut: The Journal Press, 1081, p. 45.
· Joseph A. Owens, “Dudleytown Never Had a Chance”, MYSTERIOUS NEW ENGLAND. Dublin, New Hampshire: Yankee. Inc., 1979. p. 313
· Iveagh Hunt Sterry and William H. Garrigus, “THEY FOUND A WAY”. Brattleboro, Vermont: Stephen Daye Press, 1938. P. 184
· Harriet Lydia Clark, “TRUE FACTS ABOUT DUDLEYTOWN”. Cornwall, CT: Cornwall Historical Society, 1989.