The American Indians settled here first, followed by Colonists and whalers. All were drawn to the rugged Connecticut coastline to the place we call Mystic.
The first European settlers came to Mystic about 1654. The name is derived from the Indian term missi-tuk, meaning a river that moves with the tides and wind. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the town was a center for fishing, whaling and shipbuilding in New England.
Mystic Seaport–The Museum of America and the Sea–is on the banks of the Mystic River. It provides a perfect introduction to the seafaring world of the mid-1800s. The sprawling, open-air museum consists of more than 60 buildings that make up a re-created village by the sea. Many of the buildings were moved from other locations in New England.
One of the buildings is a cooperage where round, wooden containers were made to carry provisions on the ships. Another is Plymouth Cordage Co., where the ropes that hoisted ships’ sails were made.
The Mystic Seaport museum also contains a large collection of wooden boats and formal exhibit galleries. One of the highlights is the scale model depicting Mystic River life in the 19th century.
By Land and Sea
The pride of Mystic Seaport is the majestic tall ship Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaling ship in existence. The Morgan survives from a time when whale oil was crucial to the U.S. economy. In its heyday, the ship was a state-of-the-art floating factory. Visitors can climb on board to see where whale blubber was boiled and processed into oil.
Next to the Morgan is a much smaller whaleboat that was used to pursue and kill whales. A crew demonstrates the skills required to harpoon the mighty masters of the deep.
For older history, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center in Mashantucket is the place, and it’s just 10 miles north of Mystic. This museum of American Indian life, opened in 1998, was organized and built by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. It features Indian and natural history exhibits from ancient times to the present.
Visitors travel down an escalator into the heart of a re-created glacial crevasse, traveling back 18,000 years. Dripping ice and recorded sounds of glacial movements add to the ice-age ambiance.
The museum’s re-created Pequot Village, based on archaeological evidence, presents an opportunity to observe 16th century Pequot life at the time of the first contact with Europeans. A Pequot’s day in late summer is presented in 30 dioramas, each using life-size mannequins.
In one, women prepare food using intricately woven baskets. In another, two boys hunt small animals. Details such as bull rushes, trees and a stream add touches of realism to the scenes.
Museum visiters next see the period of fur trade between the Pequots, other American peoples and European settlers. Trade conflicts culminated in the Pequot War, which began in 1636. In May 1637, about 600 Pequots were massacred in Mystic during a surprise attack. The war ended in 1638.
The museum and research center ably depict the challenges facing the Indians and the Europeans during the settlement of North America.
Under and Over
Travelers can return to the 20th century by visiting the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine and the first to go under the North Pole. It’s berthed in Groton at the Historic Ship Nautilus and the Submarine Force Museum on the Thames River, about 10 miles from Mystic. Guests walk through the sub’s narrow passageways and see the compact machinery and living quarters.
The museum, the only one of its kind operated by the Navy, has thousands of artifacts and photos that document the history of submarines from the Revolutionary War to the present.
After the tour under the sea, Mystic visitors can experience life on the waves by going for a cruise aboard the tall ship Argia, a replica of a 19th century coastal schooner. Cruisers snack on tea and biscotti as they sail the Mystic River into Long Island Sound, passing old houses and boats of all descriptions.
The captain of the Argia, Amy Blumberg, likes to share stories of local lore, such as the tale of Dean Kamen, an eccentric multimillionaire inventor who owns North Dumpling Island and once declared it a kingdom independent from the United States, even banning brussels sprouts, which he hated.
There is plenty to see in this small section of New England, including historical houses, art galleries, boutiques, restaurants and cozy inns. Just as it once attracted settlers and sailors, Mystic continues to draw people.
Before You Go
Contact AAA to make arrangements for a Mystic getaway. For more information, contact: