Jonathan Trumbull, Senior is the most important governor in Connecticut’s long history. This is not only because of the many key contributions he made as a patriotic leader to his beloved state of Connecticut during the American Revolution, but just as importantly, what he contributed to help ease the suffering of soldiers under Gen. George Washington throughout the American Revolution. Most of the information in this article is drawn from a short biography of Trumbull, Connecticut’s War Governor: Jonathan Trumbull, by Dr. David Roth. This was published in 1974 as part of Connecticut’s bicentennial series and is generally regarded as the best book on this important governor’s life.
The Three Trumbulls
I refer to Governor Trumbull as Jonathan Trumbull, Senior for two reasons: first, many people are easily confused when they first hear that Jonathan the father and his wife, Faith, named one of their sons Jonathan Junior, and named another, their youngest son, John. One can only imagine how each was called in the Trumbull household. If mom yelled, “John!” Did three Johns appear?
Jonathan Junior served in the Continental Army as colonel and secretary to General Washington, beginning in 1781 and culminating with the Yorktown campaign. His younger brother John also served as a colonel in the Continental Army, including three campaigns culminating in the traumatic Battle of Rhode Island in the summer of 1778. Following the war he trained to eventually become one of the most famous painters in early American history; his works include four large murals that have hung for two hundred years in the United States Capitol Rotunda.
Jonathan Trumbull, Senior was the first of three Trumbulls to serve Connecticut as governor. His aforementioned son, Jonathan Junior, not only later served as U.S. speaker of the house but also as Connecticut’s governor for twelve one-year terms from 1797 to 1809. One of Jonathan Senior’s grandsons, Joseph Trumbull, was the third Trumbull to serve as governor of Connecticut, with a one-year term from 1849 to 1850.
What makes Jonathan Trumbull, Sr. unique is that he was the only man to serve as a governor in threeeras: colonial governor before the American Revolution, state governor during the conflict,and state governor during the era immediately following. He served as governor of Connecticut from 1769 all the way through to May of 1784, dying a year later at age seventy-four in 1785.
Trumbull was not initially destined to serve as the state’s governor. The Trumbulls were the classic early New England Yankees, and their deep faith as Puritans exhibited the Protestant work ethic. Jonathan Senior’s father wanted him to become a minister, so he was sent to Harvard in the 1720s for divinity training. Then Jonathan’s older brother Joseph, who had inherited their father’s merchant business, died in a ship lost at sea in the Caribbean, forcing young Jonathan Trumbull to switch career plans and run the Trumbull family business.
That business experience proved immensely important for the pragmatic, practical mind of Jonathan Trumbull. He learned to profit from supplying Connecticut’s provincial forces during both King George’s War in the 1740s and the French and Indian War in the 1750s and 60s. He opened a general store on the huge green in the rural, bucolic farming town of Lebanon in eastern Connecticut. He sold everything from spices and tools to flints and black powder. He became a wealthy merchant in the 1750s but by the 1760s he was deep in debt because of outstanding accounts from so many of his clients.
The only thing that prevented Jonathan Trumbull from publicly declaring bankruptcy was the growing rift between Connecticut and Great Britain that would eventually erupt into the American Revolution in 1775. After decades as a member and then leader of the state assembly, Trumbull was elected deputy governor from 1766 to 1769. Following the death of Gov. Thomas Fitch in October 1769, Trumbull became governor. It was an era of growing animosity between the Connecticut Colony and Great Britain.
Trumbull’s Three Meetings with General Washington
Governor Trumbull met with General Washington three times in Connecticut during the American Revolution. The first time was in early April of that fateful and famous year of 1776. Trumbull’s son-in-law, Colonel—later Brigadier General—Jedediah Huntington, arranged for General Washington to meet at the home of Jed’s father, Jabez Huntington, major general of the Connecticut militia. With them at the Huntington House in Norwich was Governor Trumbull. This was a strategic conference to discuss how Trumbull would lead Connecticut in helping Washington’s upcoming campaign in the summer of 1776 down in New York City with both militia and military provisions.
The second time Trumbull met with Washington was during the well-documented conference between Generals Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the newly arrived French army. The two patriot leaders, along with their retinues, met for several days at the Webb House in Wethersfield in late May of 1781. They planned operations for whether to attack the British in New York as Washington wished, or instead elsewhere, which the French preferred, such as further south in Virginia. Washington’s diary as well as Trumbull’s diary indicate that during Washington’s five-day stay for his conference with Rochambeau he joined Trumbull for divine services at Wethersfield’s Congregational Church on Sunday, May 20, and later that day had an in-depth conference with Governor Trumbull at the Webb House. Trumbull also dined with Washington, Rochambeau and their suites (including Generals Knox and Duportail) on the 22nd at the nearby Stillman Tavern where the French stayed during their visit. Trumbull noted in his diary that he dined with both groups of generals again on the 23rd at another tavern.
The third meeting of Governor Trumbull with General Washington is seldom mentioned and took place during the early summer of 1781 in Danbury as the French army under Rochambeau marched from Connecticut into New York state. The difficult coordination of three key elements—the French army and navy, along with the Continental Army, resulted in the amazingly dramatic and successful siege at Yorktown, Virginia.
However, it was Trumbull’s incredibly patriotic response as Connecticut’s leader during the war that forged his name and legacy in both Connecticut and the national narrative for the United States of America’s War for Independence.
Three Trumbull Family Tragedies
Three family tragedies shocked Governor Trumbull during the American Revolution. The first occurred on November 23, 1775, a day that Boston Patriots had declared a “day of public Thanksgiving” throughout the Massachusetts Colony.
On that day Trumbull’s oldest daughter Faith, who suffered from chronic depression, committed suicide by hanging herself in Dedham, Massachusetts, while her husband and two brothers served in Washington’s army besieging the city of Boston. She was thirty-one years old.
The second Trumbull tragedy was the untimely death of his second oldest son, Joseph, who had served as commissary general for the Continental Army for several years, and who died of an illness in the summer of 1778 at age forty-one. The third and final family tragedy was the death of his dear wife Faith, who passed away after an illness at the age of sixty-one in 1780. His deep Christian faith and his patriotic dedication to his job as governor kept him going.
Trumbull Responds to Washington’s Three Emergency Requests
Despite these family tragedies, Trumbull rose to the occasion each time General Washington, his country and his army needed Connecticut’s help to feed long-suffering soldiers. Trumbull organized and supervised Connecticut’s responses to three emergency requests: for the Continental Army in 1778, again in January 1780, and once more in July 1780, this last time for the French army.
Connecticut was able to feed her state’s soldiers as well as others thanks to being blessed with rich soil provided by three important rivers: the Housatonic, the Connecticut, and the Thames. Trumbull personally and professionally was most familiar with the Thames River, as it formed in Norwich not far from his farming town of Lebanon. Most famously, Trumbull’s efforts provided beef cattle to the armies, but the state also provided hogs for food as well as mules for hauling heavy loads like cannons made in forges such as Salisbury in the northwest corner of Connecticut.
The first time Washington pleaded for help in letters to Governor Trumbull was during the difficult winter for the Continental Army at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania from December 1777 through May 1778. Two-thirds of Washington’s soldiers were nearly barefoot and thousands went without blankets during the bleak mid-winter. Washington wrote in anguish to Trumbull, “Our sick . . . naked, our well . . . naked, our unfortunate men in captivity . . . naked!”
To the rescue came patriot Governor Trumbull. Several months later, by March of 1778, Washington wrote in praise to Trumbull, “Among the troops unfit for duty and returned for want of clothing, none of your State are included. The care of your legislature in providing clothing . . . for their men is highly laudable, and reflects the greatest honor upon their patriotism and humanity.”
But the soldiers needed more than clothing. They also desperately needed food. After receiving another desperate letter from Washington during that long winter, Governor Trumbull convened his Council of Safety and delegated a commissary, Col. Henry Champion of Colchester, with the help of his son, to collect cattle that were brought to Hartford and drive them hundreds of miles overland across New York and New Jersey, all the way down to Valley Forge. Champion was able to collect 300 head of cattle at Hartford. The fate of this herd makes clear the scale of the challenge of feeding the army at Valley Forge—the entire 300 head of cattle were devoured in just five days. Thankfully, Champion and Trumbull ensured the survival of the army by driving additional large herds to Valley Forge later that winter and into the spring.
As famous as that winter at Valley Forge was, the harshest winter of the entire eighteenth century was that of 1779 into 1780. Washington decided to return his Continental Army to where they had wintered the previous year, Jockey Hollow in Morristown, New Jersey. Unfortunately, that winter was so consistently cold that New York harbor froze over for the only time in recorded history. By the time soldiers arrived in camp, two feet of snow already covered the ground. On January 3, 1780, by which time the soldiers’ log huts were only half-built, the worst blizzard of the century hit the region. Strong winds created drifts up to six feet high. Three days later, Washington wrote again to Governor Trumbull, pleading for help. Once again, Trumbull oversaw the amazing response by Connecticut, sending tons of provisions to the soldiers. Thanks to Trumbull’s leadership of a patriotic team, the food crisis was over by the end of the month. Governor Trumbull’s efforts led to Connecticut being called “the Provisions State.”
In July 1780, as the fledgling United States struggled to celebrate the fourth anniversary of its independence while struggling in military operations with mixed results in various fields of battle, Governor Trumbull for a third time responded to Washington’s pleas to feed an army. The difference this time was that it was not the Continental Army but General Rochambeau’s French army, newly arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, that needed beef and other food provided to them. The farmers of Connecticut responded to Trumbull’s cries for help, not so much out of patriotism but because the French paid the farmers with gold coins, something seldom seen in the financially-strapped states during the American Revolution. The French army enjoyed feasts of beef in Newport that summer. That same army marched across Connecticut and all the way down to Yorktown a year later to help secure the independence of the United States as part of the allied siege of Yorktown from September through October 1781.
When George Washington received the news of Governor Trumbull’s death in 1785 by letter from the governor’s son, Jonathan Junior, who had served the commander-in-chief as a secretary from 1781 to 1783, His Excellency responded with a complimentary letter regarding the contributions and character of the governor.
You know, too well, the sincere respect and regard I entertained for your venerable father’s public and private character . . . A long and well spent life in the service of his country placed Governor Trumbull amongst the first of patriots.
Washington understood well that countless soldiers survived thanks to Gov. Jonathan Trumbull, Senior’s heroic leadership. His patriotic leadership inspired his son John Trumbull to immortalize the American patriots as well as the French and British in his many historic paintings, while Jonathan Trumbull, Junior carried on the family legacy of service as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives as well as twelve-term governor of Connecticut.
George Washington, diary entry, May 20, 1781, The Diaries of George Washington, 1 January 1771–5 November 1781, ed. Donald Jackson, Volume III (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978), 359–361; Jonathan Trumbull, Senior, Diary, May 20-23, 1781, Jonathan Trumbull, Senior, Papers, Connecticut Historical Society.