From governor to town mascot: Who was Jonathan Trumbull?

TRUMBULL — John Lauria isn't sure how he feels about dressing up Jonathan Trumbull.

Trumbull was governor of Connecticut from 1769 to 1784 and is believed by some to be the namesake of the Town of Trumbull. That's up for debate though, according to Lauria, the past president of the Trumbull Historical Society, because the town could have been named for his son, Jonathan Trumbull, Jr., also a former governor.

Regardless, it's Jonathan Trumbull Sr. who was immortalized in bronze via a statue that now presides over the corner of Main Street and Church Hill Road in Trumbull. The statue has become sort of an unofficial mascot in town, getting dressed up for holidays and other special events, including the town's recent restaurant week.

There was a surgical mask on him in the early days of the pandemic. He's worn a scarf during winter, and even a Santa hat at Christmas time.

"Is that disrespectful or not?" Lauria mused.

Whatever the appropriateness of his occasional costuming, it's clear that the Trumbull statue has become an integral part of town ever since it was dedicated in November of 2002. The statue was created by artist John Blair of Jozef Custom Ironworks and is based on a similar marble statue that sits in the U.S. Capitol.

According to town officials, it took 10 years and three municipal administrations to bring the statue to life. Lauria said, in his opinion, the bronze rendering in Trumbull, and the one at the Capitol, are pretty flattering depictions of Trumbull.

"Based on the paintings I've seen, the statues do him a lot of justice," Lauria said.

Whatever he looked like, Trumbull was an integral part of Trumbull history and Connecticut history. According to the Museum of Connecticut History, Jonathan Trumbull was born in 1710 in Lebanon, Conn. One of the two sons of Joseph and Hannah Trumble, Jonathan would later change the spelling of his name, to Trumbull, in 1765.

Jonathan went to Harvard University to study ministry at age 13, but was never ordained. By 1731, Jonathan and his brother, Joseph, began a trading partnership. Jonathan took over the business when Joseph disappeared during a trading voyage about a year later.

While still pursuing his business interests, Jonathan Trumbull began to pursue public service and, in 1733, he was elected to the General Assembly. During the French and Indian War, Jonathan served as a colonel of the Twelfth Connecticut Regiment, Lauria said.

From 1766 until 1769, Jonathan Trumbull served as deputy governor of Connecticut, and he served as governor from 1769 to 1784. One of the interesting things about Trumbull, Lauria said, is that he was the only British colonial governor to hold onto his job after the Revolutionary War. 

One possible is reason is that he provided the Continental Army with provisions, earning him the nickname "Brother Jonathan" from General George Washington.

Lauria said, though Jonathan Trumbull "never set foot" in the part of the Connecticut that eventually became Trumbull, he's believed to be the town's namesake. But Lauria has another theory. Trumbull had six children, one of whom, Jonathan Trumbull, Jr., became governor in 1797 — which is also the year that a community known as "North Stratford" became incorporated into the state as Trumbull.

In 1996, Lauria wrote a paper pointing out that some sources say the town was named for Jonathan Trumbull Sr., and some say it was named for Jonathan Trumbull, Jr. 

Lee McFadden, chair of the Governor Jonathan Trumbull House in Lebanon said, as far as she knows, the town is named for Jonathan Trumbull, Sr. However, she acknowledged that many members of the Trumbull family made significant contributions, including not just Jonathan Trumbull, Jr., but also another son, John Trumbull, who became a renowned artist.

John Trumbull's works include "Declaration of Independence" and "Surrender of Lord Cornwallis," which both hang in the U.S. Capitol, and "The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill" which is in the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford.

Like many people of his time, Jonathan Trumbull Sr. wasn't without reproach, and McFadden said those affiliated with the Trumbull house are doing more research into Trumbull's relationship with indigenous people of the time, and his status as a slave owner.

McFadden, who is also state vice regent for the Connecticut Daughters of the American Revolution, said research shows that Trumbull may have had two slaves, which wasn't unheard of for wealthy northern landowners of the time.

Such questions are important to examine, McFadden said, because "it's part of our history. We want a true vision of what the past was, both the good and the bad."

Given what a complicated figure Trumbull was, McFadden was somewhat bemused that the statue dedicated in his honor often dons whimsical accoutrements. But, she said, it's probably fine. 

"I think it’s good for people to have sort of a realistic relationship with him," as long as the statue isn't vandalized, she said. "He probably liked the scarf during cold weather."