History & Settlement
At the time of the first European exploration, the Pequot tribe controlled most of Eastern Connecticut. After many conflicts during the Pequot War, the home territory of the Pequot’s was claimed by the English as spoils of war. The remainder of the Pequot territory, including the present towns of Norwich and Preston, was retained by the Mohegan’s. Although Connecticut’s major centers of Native American population in the historic period were outside Preston, a small number continued to live in the area into the 20th century. Impoverished, they managed to eke out a subsistence living by hiring out their labor or producing baskets and woodenware for sale.
In 1646, New London was settled by colonists from Massachusetts. The first English settler within the bounds of modern Preston was Jonathan Brewster who acquired land from Uncas at the mouth of Poquetanuck Cove on the Thames River, later called Brewster’s Neck.
1600s Settlers Journey
Norwich was founded in 1659 at the mouth of the Connecticut River by settlers from Saybrook. The original territory, purchased from Uncas, was roughly square in plan, with each side about 9 miles long. This included a strip of land on the east side of the Thames, Shetucket, and Quinebaug Rivers, part of which is now in the town of Preston. While fields were laid out on the east side of the rivers early in the history of the settlement, permanent occupation did not take place until after King Philip's War of 1675-1676. Following the war, the Indian menace over, settlement began in earnest.
As Norwich settlers moved eastward across the Shetucket River, a number crossed the boundaries of Norwich to land farther east, still in the possession of the Mohegan’s. In October 1686, 19 persons petitioned the General Court for the incorporation of a new town. This was granted in January 1687. On March 17 of that year, Owaneco, son of Uncas, deeded the area of the new town to the English inhabitants. Preston received its name from the English home of the Park family, early settlers. The town then included most of the present town of Griswold and the eastern half of the present town of Preston.
The settlers of Preston were English colonists who migrated from already established towns, the most prominent of which was Norwich. This was primarily an internal migration of families within the colony of Connecticut, many of whom were children or grandchildren of immigrants from England. More desirable land tended to be settled first, particularly that around Preston Plains and to the west of Preston City. The English character of these settlers is evident in their surnames: Amos, Avenuery, Crary, Meech, Park and others. Place names within the town often reflect these early names or those of later settlers.
Earliest Town Government
Town government had much the same form as today. The major town officers were the townsmen, later called selectmen, and the recorder, later the town clerk. Other town officials such as fence viewers, branders, and surveyors reflected the concerns of a rural, agricultural community.
Origins of Long Society
A second village within the town of Preston, Long Society, had its origins in the beginning of the 18th-century. As early as 1698, the residents of Norwich living east of the Thames, Shetucket, and Quinebaug Rivers petitioned the General Assembly for permission to establish a new Congregational society. In 1786, Long Society was transferred from Norwich to Preston by act of the General Assembly. The result of these complex transactions was that Preston's boundaries had altered dramatically by 1815. The geographical center of the community shifted towards Norwich to the west. Long Society was now nearer both the center of population and the geographical center of the town. Town meetings, which had been held at Preston City, were moved to the Long Society meetinghouse in 1856. In 1889, town meetings were moved across the street to the former district school, a small brick schoolhouse. This building functioned as the Town House until the construction of the present Town Hall off Route 2 in 1974.
With the annexation of Long Society to Preston in 1786, the village of Poquetanuck became part of the town of Preston. Unlike Long Society and Preston City, which had their origins in the location of meetinghouses there, Poquetanuck developed around industrial activities centered on the two brooks that flow into the head of Poquetanuck Cove and was influenced by the establishment of an Episcopal Church and parish early in the 18th century. A gristmill was established here in 1685. About 1707, Samuel Whipple established an ironworks on Forge Brook, now either Cider Mill Brook or Joe Clark Brook, at the head of the cove. This location was actually in the town of Groton at that time. In 1725, Walter Capron established an ironworks on Poquetanuck Brook in the town of Norwich. Other activities soon followed. Shipbuilding, the export of potash and other products of the countryside, and a variety of handcrafts flourished. Saint James Episcopal Church moved to the south of the village in the late 18th century, just south of the border between Norwich and Groton, later the division between Preston and Ledyard.
Growth in 19th & 20th Centuries
Except for the areas later incorporated into Norwich, Preston experienced little growth in the 19th and early 20th-centuries. As with many rural communities, Preston witnessed an outflow of its rural population to urban centers or to Western farmlands. There was immigration as well, particularly of recent European immigrants from northern European countries. Some inflow of "Yankee" stock from other area towns also occurred. The basic ethnic character of the town appears to have been relatively stable.
Demographic change seems to have accelerated in the early 20th century. An increased outflow of older established families was matched by an influx of new immigrants. From rural European backgrounds, the new arrivals helped maintain the established character of Preston by continuing to farm the land. Italians and Poles made up a substantial portion of the newcomers. Also notable were Jewish farmers, who began to settle in Preston shortly after 1900. The Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, Inc. of New York assisted many of Preston’s Jewish population by extending loans for land acquisition.
Preston finds itself dealing with modern problems. The town finds itself between two large casinos, Foxwoods, located in Ledyard, and Mohegan Sun, in Uncasville. The pressures on the highways and roads, as well as fire and emergency services, have been great. In addition, the loss of farmland to development continues to change the character of the town.
(Much of this information was taken from Historical and Architectural Resources of Preston, CT [Richard C. Youngken for the Connecticut Historical Commission, 1995} Compiled by Linda Christensen, 2011)