Wanted: a good, faithful man

On February 6, 1787, the Connecticut Gazette ran a want-ad submitted by a woman searching for “a good faithful man.” I chuckled at what sounded like something on an early dating website, but Sarah Durfey wasn’t looking for romance. She was a middle-aged widow trying to survive during tough economic times. She needed a reliable employee, a man who “understands overseeing and working on a Farm; to whom good encouragement will be given by the Subscriber, near the Rope Ferry. “

When a friend who collects ephemera posted an image of this newspaper clipping, I considered writing a column about the quiet courage of a woman in history’s shadows. But as worthy as that topic is, I learned that the Durfey men had unsung stories, too.

In 1741, Richard Durfey, Sarah’s future father-in-law, bought a farm on Rope Ferry Road in Waterford, overlooking Niantic Bay. The deed included the right to operate the rope-ferry across the Niantic River. For years, the property was known as Durfey’s Hill, and although it’s not an official road, Google Maps still shows the location.

Richard was a consummate multi-tasker; colonial men and women had to be. Besides farming and running the ferry, he was an official surveyor for the colony and a coastal trader.

He also sounds like a live wire. Once during a melee when a mob was trying to spring detainees from a city jail, Richard whacked someone over the head with the back of his cutlass, knocking the man temporarily unconscious. In another example of what I interpret as zest, the Durfey house on Bradley Street (now Atlantic Street) in New London was the site of a celebration where party-goers launched skyrockets off the rooftop. Based on the date, I think this was Richard’s home before he bought the Waterford farm.

Although Richard may have been high-spirited, he demonstrated leadership in serious situations. In 1740, when people were worried about a possible Spanish attack, Richard was one of the authors of a petition to the governor raising alarm about the vulnerable state of New London’s fortifications. A decade later, relations with Spain were somewhat better, but when a Spanish vessel carrying gold ran aground on Bartlett Reef, it created quite a stir. Richard piloted the custom-house barge out to assess the situation and offer assistance.

In 1744, Richard petitioned the Connecticut Assembly for funds to outfit a privateer. A genealogical website I found said that during one of the French and Indian Wars, Richard sailed his ship to Nova Scotia, transporting troops for a siege of the French fort at Louisbourg. I haven’t been able to corroborate this so it may not be accurate, but it sounds like something Richard would do.

Richard died in 1759, leaving two sons in Waterford: Richard, Jr., who lived on the rope ferry farm with Sarah, and Thomas, who had a house on Millstone Point.

During the Revolution, Thomas enlisted in the Continental Army in the 3rd Regiment of the Connecticut Line. His house was used briefly as a barracks, prompting Benedict Arnold to torch it during his assault on New London. Thomas was taken to the British prison ship Jersey, anchored in New York Harbor. Thomas survived the vile conditions and lived until 1794, long enough to see the fruits of his sacrifices.

Sarah’s husband, Richard, Jr., served on a committee to aid soldiers’ families, but died in 1780 before the war ended. I don’t know how hard Sarah’s life was after that, or if she ever got the help she needed. I do know that she was counted in the 1790 census (the very first U.S. census), still living on Durfey’s Hill.

Today, Sarah, her husband, and brother-in-law lie in a cemetery on their old property. The atmosphere is serene although their lives were not; the Durfeys worked hard and had adventures. Along with legions of other good men and women, they built our country.

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