Known as "The Borough" to the locals, the densely-built Borough of Stonington occupies a point of land that projects into Little Narragansett Bay. It has two main streets that link two squares, Cannon Square and Wadawanuck Square, named for the former Wadawanuck Hotel that brought fashionable visitors in the post-Civil War era. The lack of through traffic or modern industry, together with the borough's role as a fashionable summer residence, have preserved its colonial, Federal, and outstanding Greek revival domestic architecture, while the activity of Connecticut's last remaining fishing and lobstering fleet keep it from being simply a quaint, historic village. There is a large community of Portuguese descent.
As of the census of 2000, there were 17,906 people, 7,665 households, and 4,897 families residing in the town. The population density was 462.8 people per square mile (178.7/km²). There were 8,591 housing units at an average density of 222.1/sq mi (85.7/km²). The racial makeup of the town was 95.81% White, 0.63% Black or African American, 0.37% Native American, 1.26% Asian, 0.05% Pacific Islander, 0.46% from other races, and 1.42% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.30% of the population.
There were 7,665 households out of which 26.2% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 51.9% were married couples living together, 8.9% had a female householder with no husband present, and 36.1% were non-families. 30.0% of all households were made up of individuals and 11.9% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.31 and the average family size was 2.88.
In the town the population was spread out with 21.7% under the age of 18, 5.4% from 18 to 24, 28.5% from 25 to 44, 27.0% from 45 to 64, and 17.5% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 42 years. For every 100 females there were 94.5 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 92.1 males.
The median income for a household in the town was $52,437, and the median income for a family was $63,431. Males had a median income of $45,596 versus $32,069 for females. The per capita income for the town was $29,653. About 2.9% of families and 5.0% of the population were below the poverty line, including 5.4% of those under age 18 and 5.7% of those age 65 or over.
Stonington first gained wealth in the 1790s when its harbor was home to a fleet engaged in the profitable sealing trade in which the skins of seals clubbed on islands off the Chilean and Patagonian coasts were sold as fur in China.
Stonington repulsed two British naval bombardments. One, during the American Revolution, was a desultory bombardment by Sir James Wallace in the frigate Rose on August 30, 1775. The other was a more damaging three-day affair between August 9 and 12, 1814. During the War of 1812, four British vessels, HMS Ramillies, HMS Pactolus, HMS Dispatch, and HMS Terror, under the command of Sir Thomas Hardy, appeared offshore on August 9, 1814. The British demanded immediate surrender, but Stonington’s citizens replied with a note that stated, "We shall defend the place to the last extremity; should it be destroyed, we shall perish in its ruins." For three days the Royal Navy pounded the town, but the only fatality was that of an elderly woman who was mortally ill. The British, after suffering many dead and wounded, sailed off on 12 August. The American poet Philip Freneau wrote (in part):
The Stonington Harbor Light, a low stone building, was the first lighthouse established by the U.S. Federal Government, in 1823. In the 19th century Stonington supported a small fishing, whaling and sealing fleet, with some direct trade with the West Indies, enough in volume for it to be made a Port of Entry in 1842; the small granite Customs House faces Main Street just north of Cannon Square.
The New London and Stonington Railroad Company was incorporated on July 29, 1852.
In recent decades, Stonington has experienced a large influx of new home owners using historic Borough houses as second homes. The town has undergone a widespread reconditioning of these homes since the mid 1990's, when an altercation over redevelopment rights attracted substantial news coverage about Stonington's revitalization.
Other famous residents have included the explorer Edmund Fanning, who discovered Palmyra Island south of Hawai'i; Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Fanning; the Beaux-Arts architect Edward P. York, of York and Sawyer; the poet Stephen Vincent Benét, and the garden essayist Eleanor Perenyì. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Merrill, whose 'Water Street' evokes Stonington, moved to town in 1955. Ruth Buzzi of television's "Laugh In" was born and brought up where Buzzi Memorials sits on Stonington Road. Harpsichord maker David Jacques Way's workshop was in Stonington.
Stonington has also been a destination for many famous persons, such as Viggo Mortensen, who rented a home in the area, and his The Lord of the Rings costar Elijah Wood; television host Conan O'Brien, whose sister lives in the Borough; and others, such as George Hamilton, Jimmy Fallon, Trey Anastasio of Phish and Dick Vitale of ESPN. Stonington has been the home to several on-location movie shoots, including Steven Spielberg's Amistad and the Julia Roberts breakthrough movie, Mystic Pizza.