Groton is the home of the Electric Boat Corporation, which is the major contractor for submarine work for the United States Navy. The Naval Submarine Base New London is located in Groton, and the pharmaceutical company Pfizer is also a major employer. The Avery Point section of Groton is home to a regional campus of the University of Connecticut.
Groton was established in 1705, when it separated from New London, Connecticut.
Groton is the home of General Dynamics Electric Boat Division, which has been supplying the Navy with submersibles since 1899. Electric Boat employs thousands in the Groton/New London area, but since the end of the Cold War, it has laid off many workers.
The Old Mystic Baptist Church, founded in Groton, was the first Baptist church in Connecticut.
A hundred years before the town was established, the Nehantic people were settled in the area between the Thames and Pawcatuck rivers. The Nehantics were brutally attacked by another band of natives. These invaders burned their wigwams, destroyed their cornfields and food supplies, and a few possessions were stolen. Many of the Nehantic warriors were tomahawked. The survivors fled to Misquamicut in what is now Rhode Island.
The newcomers to the land were the Pequots. The Pequots were a branch of the Mohawk people who moved eastward into the Connecticut River Valley, displacing existing settlements of indigenous peoples. The Pequots finally rested and made their headquarters in what is now Groton. They built three villages at Groton Heights, Fort Hill, and Mystic.
The Pequots made canoes from burning out the insides of straight tree trunks. The rivers in Groton were the Pequots' transportation routes: on the west side was the deep Thames River; on the east, the Mystic River with shelving shores and a safe anchorage. On the south was Fishers Island Sound, part of Long Island Sound, rimmed by a ragged, rocky shoreline with many coves and inlets and three sandy beaches at Eastern Point, Bluff Point and Groton Long Point.
Between the rivers the land was undulating and rough, with the exception of Poquonnock Plains in the center, which was a smooth stretch of land that went to the sound. To the north of Poquonnock lay the center of Groton until 1836.
The summer of 1614 was the first time the Pequots encountered white settlers. They started trading furs for the settlers' goods, such as steel knives, needles and boots. In 1633 the Dutch bought land from the Pequots and granted permission to the River Indians to bring their fur for trade. Meanwhile the English bought land for settlement from the local tribes. The Dutch had unintentionally killed the Pequots' chief. This prompted revenge by the Pequot tribe, who then attacked. Soon after, the new leader of the Pequots, Sassacus, realized that they were in grave danger because both the English and the surrounding Indians hated them.
In 1630 John Winthrop the Younger stayed behind in Groton to take care of the manor while his father led 100 Puritans to Boston. He became a business agent for the colonists, but in 1631 he sailed a ship in search of remedies. He became New England's first recognized scientist.
The first settlers of Groton were subsistence farmers. The land that they had to work with made it very difficult in the beginning. It was mainly made up of rocks and trees; earlier, glaciers had wiped away all of the top soil. Therefore, all of the rocks and trees had to be removed before they could work the ground. Livestock was also very important to the settlers. Cattle provided dairy; pigs and sheep provided animal protein (and wool); and oxen did the heavy farm work. In 1660, gray wolves in the area had become such a problem that the settlers offered to give 20 shillings for each wolf that was killed.
Though the land was poor, access to the region's waterways left room for commerce and trade. Groton became a town of oceangoing settlers. Most of the community began to build ships, and soon the first traders made their way to Boston and Plymouth to trade for food, tools, weapons and clothing. John Leeds was the earliest shipbuilder, coming as a sea captain from Kent, England. Leeds built a 20-ton brigantine, a two-masted sailing ship with square-rigged sails on the foremast and fore-and-aft sails on the mainmast; Thomas Starr built a 67-ton square-sterned vessel; and Thomas Latham launched a 100-ton brig with mast standing and fully rigged on the Groton bank. The sturdy ships built in Groton engaged in very profitable trade with the islands of the Caribbean. Many ships and their contents were lost due to storms, but the profit was worth the risk.
Rough times came to Groton when the French and Indian War ended and the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765 were passed. And once Parliament closed down the port of Boston, it crippled Groton's commerce.
On September 6, 1781, the Revolutionary War Battle of Groton Heights was fought between a small militia detachment led by William Ledyard and numerous British forces led by Benedict Arnold. No one at Fort Griswold had expected an attack, especially after six years of false alarms. At sunrise, a force of 1,700 British regulars landed on both sides of the mouth of the Thames River.
The British fleet had sailed from Long Island the evening before, and only a sudden shift in the wind prevented a surprise attack during the night; it was 9 a.m. the next day before the transports could come ashore to land the troops.
Benedict Arnold led an 800-man detachment, which destroyed stockpiles of goods and naval stores. Arnold had been unaware of the orders given to spare most of the town. He was also unaware that one of the ships that they were to destroy was filled with gunpowder. Upon ignition the ship burst into flames and created an uncontrollable fire which destroyed 143 buildings.
Later, a British force of 800 men moved towards Fort Griswold, which was garrisoned by 164 militia and local men. The British sent a flag of surrender to Fort Griswold but William Ledyard refused and returned the flag. The British then assaulted Fort Griswold.
The memorial for the Battle of Groton Heights was put up in 1830 for the 88 men and boys who were killed at Fort Griswold. Fort Griswold is currently the only intact memorial in town left from the Revolutionary War. The monument has become the town's symbol and is now featured on the Groton town seal.
Early 19th century
Shortly after the Revolutionary War, Groton started to re-establish its commercial activities. Shipbuilders began to build again: in 1784 Victory was launched, in 1785 Success was launched, and in 1787 five sloops were built, along with the 164-ton Nancy. Shipbuilders along the Mystic River were the busiest. These ships went on trips to Florida, and the resulting profits made Mystic the most thriving part of the town. Groton had been putting out many vessels, but in 1723 came big shipbuilding. It was the largest merchantman built before the Revolution, weighing at 700 tons. Ships were being sailed to Lisbon and England. Soon enough, England and France were fighting. Since the United States took a neutral position and continued trade with both sides, profits were large. Between 1784 and 1800, 32 vessels were built in Groton. 28 more were built from 1800 to 1807, when business came to a sudden stop with the Embargo Act.
In June 1812 the United States declared war on Great Britain. Most of the United States' small navy was landlocked in the Thames River. This frightened the people in Groton for fear a repeat of the affairs of 1781, and many residents fled inland for safety. Those that didn't flee demanded protection and militia. These residents built a fort on a hill of rock that held one cannon and maintained constant guard. The fort was named Fort Rachel, after a woman that lived nearby. The British never attacked but created a blockade that ruined Groton's trade.
On August 12, 1814, the day after the British attacked Stonington, some men from Mystic lured a British barge to Groton Long Point, which gave them 2,600 dollars in prize money. The men in Mystic captured a sloop, the cargo of which they later sold for 6,000 dollars. Seventeen Mystic men also tried out a new weapon, the spar torpedo, to rid themselves of the unwelcome guards. They brought the torpedo from New York; it was long, in diameter, and had a crossbar at one end. The men failed to sink the HMS Ramillies. On their first attempt the torpedo went into the water; on the second attempt the explosive caught on the Ramillies’ cable and exploded. All the men made it safely to the shore while being fired at by the British ship and the American sentries at Eastern Point.
Groton received word that the war was over on February 21, 1815. The land-locked frigates left the Thames in April, leaving Groton to resume its marine pursuits.
After the War of 1812 whaling became a very important part of Groton's economy, but most of the expeditions were still for seal skins. Before 1820 sealers went to Antarctica, where their ships would drop them off. They would kill the seals and then prepare the skins for some weeks, until their ship returned for them. By 1830 whaling had become Mystic's main business. By 1846 Groton became second among the world's whaling ports. Whaling was difficult and dangerous, but boys would go out to sea to make their fortune nonetheless, in the hope that some of them would eventually come to command a vessel.
In 1865 Ebenezer Morgan made one of the most profitable voyages. He sold his cargo for 150,000 dollars. Three years later he raised the first American flag on Alaskan territory, and there he collected 45,000 seal skins. When he retired it was said that his estate totaled up to 1 million dollars.
William H. Allen, another son of Groton, spent 25 years commanding a whale ship. Old sailors said that "whales rose to the surface and waited to be harpooned." When he retired he spent 12 years working as a selectman.
Late 19th century
In 1849 the discovery of gold in California created a demand for speed that resulted in the creation of the clipper ship, a fast sailing ship with multiple masts and a square rig. The most important vessel built at the Mystic River Shipyard was the clipper ship Andrew Jackson. In 1859 it sailed from New York to San Francisco in a record time of 89 days and 4 hours. Both clippers and sailing packets were built in the shipyards of the Mystic River at that time. The Mystic shipyards started building ships with a greater cargo capacity after the Civil War.
Gideon Welles, during the Civil War, wanted three experimental ironclad steamers to be built in private shipyards and used against the Confederacy's wooden fleet. A company in Groton was chosen to build a bomb-proof steamer designed by C.S. Bushnell of New Haven. 100 men were hired, and a big shed was built so construction could continue rain or shine. The ship was ready for launching in 130 days. There were many skeptics who believed the ship would corrode once it hit the salt water or sink, and there were very few who thought it might float. Thousands came to watch Galena's launch on Valentine's Day 1862. Reporters commented that she floated like a duck. When it came time for the Galena to enter battle she was pierced 13 times. Thirteen of the crew members were killed and 11 were wounded from flying metal fragments. During the Civil War, 56 steamships were built for government service in shipyards on both sides of the Mystic River.
After the war there were dozens of excess war steamships, and after 1870 shipbuilding moved up to Noank within the Groton town limits. One of the largest shipyards, Palmer Shipyard, had been established in Noank in 1827. A marine railway built in Groton in 1860 allowed them to pull vessels out of the water for repairs, which brought in a lot of business and money. The shipyard was running up to 1913 when one of the Palmer brothers died, but during World War I the shipyard was used again. Iron ships began to be demanded, and their construction attracted workers to Groton. Housing was beginning to run short, so Groton Realty had to hurry to build hotels and cottages. The ships which brought the workers in turn also brought more business to the Realty.
Groton used to include what is now the town of Ledyard, which separated from Groton in 1836. The original center of Groton, still known as Center Groton, is at the present-day intersection of Route 184 and Route 117, now in the north-central part of town, due to the departure of Ledyard to the north. Groton Center was the location of the town's first school, church, tavern and stagecoach shop.
In the 20th century, the shipbuilding industry moved from the Mystic River to the Thames River. Electric Boat is the town's largest employer. During World War II, Electric Boat completed submarines every two weeks. In 1954, Electric Boat launched the , the world's first nuclear-powered submarine. Presently, the Nautilus is decommissioned and permanently berthed at the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Library and Museum. Due to the long-standing history of submarines in the town, and the fact that Groton has one of the largest submarine bases in the world, some people refer to Groton as the "Submarine Capital of the World". The National World War II Submarine Memorial - East, including parts of USS Flasher (SS-249), is located in Groton.