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First Name: David

Last Name: Humphreys

Birthplace: Derby, CT, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Continental Army (1775 - 1784)

Date of Birth: 10 July 1752

Date of Death: 21 February 1818

Rank: Lieutenant Colonel

Years Served:
David Humphreys

•  Revolutionary War (1775 - 1783)


David Humphreys
Lieutenant Colonel, Continental Army

David Humphreys was born on 10 July 1752 in what was then Derby, CT, and is now a part of the neighboring town of Ansonia. He was born in the First Congregational Church parsonage, a spacious two-story house at 37 Elm St. called the David Humphreys House. He was the youngest of five children (four sons and a daughter) of the Rev. Daniel and Sarah Riggs Bowers Humphreys.

Humphreys' father was parson of the church from 1733, the year after he graduated from Yale, to 1787-a run of 54 years. Daniel Humphreys was the second husband of Sarah Riggs Bowers, known in Derby as "Lady Humphreys" for her "dignity and refinement of character."

As a boy, Humphreys was passionately fond of books. His father prepared both him and his brother, Daniel, for his own alma mater, Yale College, and entered both of them there. David was 15 years old when he entered Yale and 19 when he graduated in 1771 with distinguished honors. Among his college friends were Timothy Dwight IV, who later became one of Yale's great presidents; John Trumbull, poet and lawyer (not the artist); and Joel Barlow, poet and diplomat.

After graduation, Humphreys became Principal at the public school in Wethersfield, CT, for two years. He then worked as a tutor for the youngest of the 11 children of Colonel Frederick Philipse at the Philipse Manor house in what is now Yonkers, NY.

Philipse was a prominent and outspoken Tory-which only roused the tutor's Patriot leanings. In 1774, Humphreys returned to New Haven, received a Master of Arts degree from Yale and was offered a position as an instructor, which he refused. He instead taught part-time at a private school run by his brother, Daniel, in New Haven. (Two contemporaries who also taught school in their early careers were John Adams and Nathan Hale.)

American Revolution

In July 1776, Humphreys enlisted in the Continental Army as a volunteer Adjutant in the 2nd Connecticut Regiment, then stationed in New York. The Regiment consisted of several companies of Derby men. He later saw action in the battle following the burning of Danbury, CT, and in a later raid on Sag Harbor, NY.

In that raid, the Americans captured 90 prisoners, destroyed 12 enemy brigs and sloops, an armed vessel and an enormous quantity of stores, and returned to Connecticut without the loss of a single soldier. Humphreys was detailed to report the success directly to General Washington in New Jersey. It was probably the first meeting between the two.

Humphreys was promoted to Captain and then Major. He served on the staffs of General Parsons, Israel Putnam and Nathanael Greene. On 23 June 1780, Humphreys was appointed Aide-de-Camp of General George Washington's headquarters staff, and he became a confidential friend and adviser to the General.

After the Battle of Yorktown, Washington entrusted the surrendered British colors, along with the General's report on the battle, to Humphreys and another aide for delivery to Congress. A painting of Humphreys arrived with them, titled "The Delivery of the Standards' to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, November 1781." It now hangs at the headquarters of the New Haven Museum and Historical Society, which also has a ceremonial sword that Congress voted be presented to Humphreys. The sword was presented in 1786 by General Henry Knox. Humphreys was also commissioned a Lieutenant Colonel, with his commission backdated to his appointment as an aide to Washington.

When Washington resigned his commission and presented himself before Congress, Humphreys was one of two aides who accompanied him into the chamber (the other was Tench Tilghman). Humphreys then traveled with Washington and his wife Martha, back to Mount Vernon. Washington later recommended to Congress that it appoint Humphreys Secretary of Foreign Affairs, but the appointment went to John Jay instead.

Public Service in the New Nation

Humphreys was appointed to a commission to negotiate treaties of commerce with European nations. Other members of the commission were John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

In a letter of introduction to Franklin, Washington described Humphreys this way: "This gentleman was several years in my family as Aide-de-Camp -- his zeal in the cause of his country -- his good sense, prudence and attachment to me, rendered him dear to me; and I persuade myself you will find no confidence which you may think proper to repose in him, misplaced. He possesses an excellent heart, good natural and acquired abilities and -- sterling integrity -- to which may be added sobriety and an obliging disposition."

Back in Derby by 1786, Humphreys was elected to the October session of the Connecticut General Assembly. He was appointed head of the state militia and marched to West Springfield, MA, to help deal with the civil strife and tumult of Shays' Rebellion, but by the time he had arrived, Massachusetts authorities were already in control of the situation.

During 1787, his mother died on 27 July and his father on 2 September. At Washington's invitation, Humphreys stayed at Mount Vernon for a time, acting as the General's private secretary. When Washington was elected president and took the oath of office in New York City, Humphreys accompanied him on the trip from Virginia and stood beside him during the ceremony.

In 1791, Humphrey had the distinction of being the first minister appointed to a foreign country under the Constitution, when he was appointed Minister to Portugal, the first neutral country to recognize the United States. In that post he negotiated the ransomed release of American prisoners from the Dey of Tripoli.

In 1796, he was appointed as Minister to Spain, which then controlled the Mississippi River and all of Latin America except for Brazil. John Quincy Adams succeeded him in Lisbon. He remained Minister to Spain until 1801, and during his stay there met and married Anne Frances Bulkeley, a cultured and wealthy English woman. Her father, John Bulkeley, was a banker, merchant and trader.


The couple moved to Boston, where they bought a home on Chestnut Street on Beacon Hill and "entertained lavishly." But Humphrey bought a farm in Derby and managed to spend considerable time there. He also bought a factory in what is now Seymour, CT, that produced scythes and other iron tools. For a time, the community was called "Humphreysville."

Having seen poor conditions in mills in England, he was determined to avoid a similar situation in his Rimmons Falls plant in Seymour. He took in many boys from New York City at the mill, training, educating and clothing them. Humphreys established evening and Sunday schools for the boys and organized them into a uniformed military company which he drilled personally.

"It was largely through his efforts that the state inaugurated its efforts at factory inspection," according to Leo Molloy.

As a farmer, he was actively interested in agricultural improvements, and his farm became an experimental station. He helped found the Agriculture Society of Connecticut and became its first president.

Merino sheep

In 1802, Humphreys bought a herd of Merino sheep in Spain and had them imported directly to Derby. Out of 25 rams and 75 ewes, five rams and two ewes died in the passage. They attracted a good deal of attention in town. "Humphreys considered their fleece of a superior quality and believed that their mixture with American sheep would eventually result in the production, through manufacture, of finer fabrics in America."

He sold some of the sheep, which then were resold in a flurry of speculation. He set up the first successful woolen mill factory in the new country, and it quickly achieved the reputation as the best producer of broadcloth in the U.S. Coats made from the "golden fleece" were worn by President Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Captain Isaac Hull. Humphreys "is regarded as the founder of the woolen industry" in America.

Poet and Author

Humphreys enjoyed writing and had a voluminous correspondence with Washington, now in the Library of Congress. He also wrote for the public and was the author of a "Life of General Israel Putnam," whose staff he served on. He was one of the writers called the Hartford Wits (the others were Joel Barlow, Timothy Dwight IV, John Trumbull and Lemuel Hopkins). In 1802, he wrote an anti-slavery poem entitled "A Poem on the Industry of the United States of America."

He also served again as a Member of the Connecticut State House of Representatives, from 1812-14. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in June 1807.

Death and Burial

David Humphreys died on 21 February 1818 in his room at Butler's Tavern in New Haven, CT, where he stayed when he was attending to affairs in Derby. He is buried at Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, CT.

Honoree ID: 2662   Created by: MHOH




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