Site of the Oldest Ferry in the US

Bissell’s Really Cleans Up My Ferry List
Bissell’s Ferry Site, Windsor/South Windsor

Most Nutmeggers know about the Oldest continuously operating ferry in the US that connects Rocky Hill and Glastonbury (officially Route 160). About half of them probably know about the other old ferry – the second oldest in Connecticut – that connects Hadlyme and Chester. I’ve ridden and reported on both; here and here. Both cross the Connecticut River and both are rather historic and steeped in lore.

The sign on the Windsor side (South Windsor side sign below)

But I’d wager not many know about an even older ferry crossing with an even larger cache: The oldest ferry in the United States; a service that began in 1648, well over a century before there even was a United States. That ferry was Bissell’s Ferry, and it connected Windsor and what is now South Windsor, north of Hartford. Of course, the ferry service is no longer operational and only the one lane roads leading down to the river still exist. Well, the overgrown roads and some important signage.

From Historic Towns of the Connecticut River Valley by George Simon Roberts:

bissellFor thirty years there was no settlement on the east side of the river, the reason no doubt being, that the passage of the Connecticut was laborious in summer and difficult, or impossible, in winter; that the meadows on that side of the river being lower, were subject to floods and, too, there were the Podunk Indians to be considered, who occupied the land on the east side of the river.

The Bissell family is regarded by historians as the pioneer family of the east side. In 1648, it was granted a monopoly of the ferry, still called Bissell’s Ferry, between Windsor and the hamlet of East Windsor, in the Town of South Windsor. There is a tradition in regard to this grant, that is interesting, if not founded upon fact, as Stiles claims. This tradition is, that John Bissell was sent by the Colony to England, in 1636, to purchase and bring back a supply of cattle as the previous winter had been so severe that many of their cattle had died. Mr. Bissell returned with seventeen cows and a bull and as an equivalent for his services he was granted the monopoly of the ferry across the Connecticut.

bissell_ferryIt stands to reason that the oldest ferry in the country began in what Windsorites regard as the first town in Connecticut: Their own. (Wethersfieldians get a bit bent out of shape when confronted with this factopinion.)

Although John Bissell originally operated the ferry so that he could graze his cattle on the East side of the river, it very quickly became a very important economic and transportation link between Boston on the East side of the river and Hartford, New Haven and New York on the West side of the river. The Bissell family had a monopoly on the ferry for 150 years. For me, I’m just happy that both towns on each side have erected signs explaining the important historic site. Otherwise, I really wouldn’t have much of anything by way of pictures to show on my blog.

The western landing was just off of Palisado Avenue at the end of the very short Bissell’s Ferry Road. In South Windsor, from Route 194 still exists the very short Ferry Lane. The ferry ceased operation after 269 years of service, in 1927. Knowing how much the Connecticut floods, I imagine this was a rather difficult and spotty service for those first 200 years.

Regardless, I think this is the final ferry report for the state. I’ll let you know. At the least, you now know the origin of the name of Bissell Bridge (I-291) north of Hartford.

For the heck of it, here’s a cool story about a covered bridge that used to span the Connecticut a few miles north up in Enfield. I can’t really think of a better place to link this, so here you are.


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  1. says

    Myself and 3 others and a dog, have finished a five year dream of paddling the entire length of the Ct River, from Pittsburg, NH to Connecticut. In doing some research for the trip, I found many towns that used ferry’s for crossing the river. Just recently, I found information on Bissell’s Ferry, in Windsor. Great reading. Thanks

  2. Earl D. Wilson, Jr. says

    Thanks for the info and pictures on this ferry started by my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. Look forward to seeing the site on my next visit to CT.

  3. S K Moore says

    I also appreciate the info. I too am supposedly related to John Bissell but have been unable to make the connection from him to Philemon Bissell who is my great, great, great grandfather… I believe.

  4. Bob Berthelson says

    I am preparing an illustrated talk on colonial Connecticut and would like to find a picture of the Bell that was once used to call the ferryman from the opposite side of the river. I am a Bissell descendent from Zebulon Bissell and have long been interested in the family.

    Thanks for your help.

    Bob Berthelson
    Trumbull, CT

  5. Sharon Kay Butler Kennedy says

    Captain John Bissell was my 8th Great grandfather:
    John Bissell (1591 – 1677)
    is your 8th great grandfather
    Thomas Bissell (1628 – 1689)
    Son of John
    Thomas Bissell (1656 – 1738)
    Son of Thomas
    Thomas Bissell (1683 – 1771)
    Son of Thomas
    Jerijah Bissell (1714 – 1806)
    Son of Thomas
    Jerijah Bissell (1751 – 1825)
    Son of Jerijah
    Alfred Bissell (1793 – 1870)
    Son of Jerijah
    Henry Bissell (1838 – 1902)
    Son of Alfred
    Sarah Elizabeth Bissell (1875 – 1963)
    Daughter of Henry
    Flossie Francis Nowell (1911 – 2002)
    Daughter of Sarah Elizabeth
    Sharon Kay Butler
    You are the daughter of Flossie Francis

    My 6th gg (Grandson of Captain John)Thomas Bissell, b.1656 CT married Hester Ester Strong b. 1661 CT. I found Strong’s website & ordered their Family History books, all 6 volumes. My Bissell family that came 1st to America in the 1600’s are in these books…others in my family are in there as well.

  6. Mike Salvatore says

    Great overview of Bissell’s Ferry. The original (1641) landing on the east side of the Connecticut River was in present day East Windsor; there’s an impassible Ferry Road opposite Southern Auto on Route 5, a little south of the Town Street Cemetery.

    Bissell moved his ferry to what is now South Windsor in 1662, the site that you describe. East Windsor split away from Windsor in 1768 and included what is now East Windsor,South Windsor, Ellington, and parts of Vernon, Manchester, and Bolton. South Windsor separated from East Windsor in 1845; it still has the village and post office called “East Windsor Hill,” causing no end of confusion.

  7. Matt Pool says

    Capt. John Bissell is at the beginning of my mothers family tree. All the people on Sharons list are on my tree!

  8. Jeffrey Bissell says

    We traveled to and saw the old farmhouse-I am of the 12 generation of Capt.John Bissell-We were allowed to see the inside of the home and the mainfloor pub. My father was John Bissell also, and we have several books of Stiles Geniology -also enjoyed the visit to the Green on the other side of the river, and found Capt. John’s gravesite-have a picture of it.Quite the historical past. There are now about 8,000 of us from his parentage.

  9. Mary says

    In the mid 1970s it was my privilege to live in the newer part of the Bissell Ferry house on Ferry Lane, exactly one mile from the nearest house. It’s a beautiful and peaceful place.

  10. Royce Pate says

    Captain John Bissell is my 8th great grandpa. Alfred/Alford Bissell daughter Mary Bissell Pate is my great great grandma. I live near Bissell Chapel Cemetery in Athens,Howard County, Arkansas

  11. says

    Thanks for the article on John Bissell’s ferry. Well done.

    My name is Rolf Bissell Parker – Houghton. I am writing a book about T. P. James, a spiritualist and apparent con man from the 1870’s. The editor who revealed some of James’s shenanigans in his paper in Brattleboro, Vermont, was probably Daniel Bissell Steadman.

    It is easy to assume that Daniel Bissell Steadman MUST be descended from Capt John Bissell, but is that definitely the case ? Is there really one and only one derived source of the Bissell name in America?

    If so, that would be great to know. Among other things it would mean that T. P. James was written about by two different descendants of John Bissell, both of whom live in Brattleboro, Vermont.

    Can anyone speak to this question? Are all Bissells liekly to be derived from Capt John? Or more specifically, if anyone can speak to Daniel Stedman’s descendance from Capt John Bissell, that would be great to know.

  12. Frank Steven Bissell says

    It is true, as far as I know, that all U.S Bissells are descended from John Bissell of Windsor. Using the sources mentioned here I have traced my lineage through Benjamin Bissell. I am from the Pittsburgh branch, Frank Semple Bissell and his grandson by the same name.

  13. Elizabeth Blackwell says

    Absolutely floored with the ancestral connection we share….he is my 10th Great Grandfather. I come from the line of Clark Bissell the 34th Gov. of Conn. My Grandmother was also a Bissell. Cheers to all my cousins, many times removed!

  14. Dennis Logan says

    VERY interesting!!!
    Capt John Bissell was my G Grandfather 11 generations back on my mothers side. We descend from Thomas, his second born son. I really enjoy delving into my relationship to Israel Bissell, Joseph Bissell(old north church), Melville Bissell(floor sweepers), William Bissell(Illinois Govr). I just learned that Capt Joseph Bissell is probably buried under The Old North Church! Fun Fun!

  15. Royce L Pate says

    My lineage to Capt. John Bissell is
    Royce Pate myself 1959 bprn in Indiana lives in Howard County, Arkansas
    William Pate 1916-2003 Born and Died in Arkansas buried Bissell Chapel Cemetery
    John Pate 1877-1928 Born and Died in Arkansas Bissell Chapel Cemetery
    Thomas Berry Pate Sr. 1852-1929 Died in Arkansas Bissell Chapel Cemetery
    Mary Bissell 1830-1891 Died in Arkansas Bissell Chapel Cemetery
    Alfred Bissell 1792-1869/70 born in Conn. died in Arkansas Bissell Chapel Cemetery
    Jerijah Bissell II 1751-1825
    Jerijah Bissell I 1714-1806
    Thomas Bissell III 1683-1771
    Thomas Bissell II 1656-1738
    Thomas Bissell I 1628-1689
    Capt John Bissell 1591-1677

  16. George says

    My family the Ricketts were renters at the house from the 50-70s. I would leave the BRONX and spend summers with my cousins fishing, bailing hay and playing in the barns along Ferry RD. “KATE” was the landlord. The garages were a jail..leg irons and other prison gear was stored there. Before our births our Dads, post WW II VETERANS FROM JAMAICA
    WEST Indies PICKED TOBACCO FRUITS Vegetables and boarded at the BFL house. The BFL was an important link in the mercantile process…tobacco nutmeg travelled the CT River to ports in Norwalk New Haven and transferred cargo to ships headed to BWI countries…then on to West Africa and Great Britain. Of course the slave trade was a major component of this system

  17. Michael Brown says

    Thank you for this.

    My line from John Bissell:

    John Bissell (1591-1677), 9th GGF
    Samuel Bissell (?-1700), 8th GGF & (1st wife) Abigail Holcombe (c. 1638-1688)
    John Bissell (1659-1684/5), 7th GGF & Abigail Filley
    John Bissell (1682/3-1770) 6th GGF & (1st wife) Hannah Denslow (1690-1751)
    Elisha Bissell (1728-1804), 5th GGF & (2nd wife) Sarah Thomas (1741-1810)
    Elisha Bissell (1779-1857, 2nd son of name – 1st son of name, by 1st wife d. 1776), 4th GGF &
    (1st wife) Polly Briggs
    Malinda Bissell (1818-1884), 3rd GGM & Daniel Cheney Chase (1816-1895)
    Franklin Chase (1842-1926), 2nd GGF & Mary A. Elliot (1851-1915)
    Winifred Cordelia Erdine Chase (1873-1962), GGM & Joseph Thomas Collard (1871-1962)
    Clara Marie Collard (1897-1993), GM & George Watson Brown (1898-1962)
    my dad & my mom

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