A brief history of New London

For New London, geography is destiny. Our deep, wide harbor, a relic of the ice ages, has shaped our development, our commerce and our identity.

The Pequots called this place Nameaug, or “good fishing place.” In addition to deer and smaller mammals, they ate fish and shellfish from Long Island Sound. They used fish to fertilize crops and carved culturally important wampum beads from whelk and quahog shells.

John Winthrop Jr, an alchemist and the son of the Governor of Massachusetts, founded New London in 1646, settling here with thirty-six other families. Farming was difficult because of our rocky soil, but the harbor offered other opportunities. Our shipbuilding industry began in 1651 when John Coit opened New London’s first shipyard. At a time when roads were few and poorly constructed, shipping was the easiest form of transportation. New Londoners shipped livestock, lumber, barrel staves and other goods along the East Coast and to the West Indian plantations, leaving with sugar, molasses and rum.

During the Revolutionary War, New London’s privateers captured more than five hundred British ships in Long Island Sound. In 1781, the traitor Benedict Arnold led an attack on New London, burning wharves, ships and over one hundred and forty homes and businesses. Across the river in Groton, Arnold’s troops won the British’s final victory of the Revolutionary War.

It took decades for New London to recover. However, by the 1830’s New London had become a major whaling center. By 1847, we were the second largest whaling port in the world, with fifteen whaling companies and 2,500 men at sea. Until the invention of the oil well caused the whaling industry’s decline, nearly all New Londoners’ livelihoods depended on whaling either directly or indirectly. Whaling brought people here from all over the world, and whaling money built our downtown, our finest homes, our hospital, our public library and our monuments.

After the whaling era, New London’s economy shifted to manufacturing. In addition to ships, we manufactured items such as cotton gins, textiles, paper boxes and tooth powder. Sheffield Pharmaceuticals, founded in 1880, still produces toothpaste, ointments and creams.

New London is home to three colleges. The United States Coast Guard Academy relocated from Fort Trumbull to its present location in 1930. Connecticut College was formed as a woman’s college in 1911 after Wesleyan College stopped admitting women, becoming co-ed in 1969. Mitchell College formed in 1938. During World War II, the college discontinued its day classes so that the United States Army and Coast Guard could use its facilities.

In 1938, a hurricane damaged seaside homes in southern New London, leading to the creation of Ocean Beach Park.

Today, New London’s historic waterfront remains the heart of the Whaling City, driving tourism, recreation and shipping and contributing to our designation as the site of the future National Coast Guard Museum.