Routed for History: Slavery and freedom in South Berkshire

Posted

In 1956, Berkshires Week published a two-part series, "Routed for History," a driving tour of historical markers and monuments in the Berkshires. This part of the tour, published in September 1956, which is re-created here with modern updates, still holds relevance. The first installment ,on North Berkshire, was re-published earlier this summer and can be found online at berkshiresweek.com.

The web of our nation's history, though not studded with Berkshire stars, has woven into its various strands of local origin. Many strong ones — concerned with independence — came from South Berkshire.

An afternoon's drive, with only brief forays off the numbered state and national highways, will take you past sites where Americans first used force in resisting King George, where slavery got its first comeuppance, where the nation's biggest revolt of taxpayers reached a bloody end.

Cabin in 1725

The county's first white settlers of record came here from the east. Matthew Noble and his daughter, traveled from Westfield to the Berkshires, arriving in Sheffield, where they built a cabin, in 1725.

They were soon followed by others, mostly settlers who came from the Housatonic River Valley. As the number of settlers grew, so did encounters with the local American Indian tribes.

The pioneers welcomed a 24-year-old minister, who was to be missionary to the Indians, in 1734. The Rev. John Sergeant lived in a simple cabin near the village of the Stockbridge Mohicans for a time, before building a fine house for himself and his bride, Abigail Williams, on Prospect Hill in 1739.

In 1928, the Sergeant homestead, known as Mission House was disassembled and moved piece-by-piece to its current location on Main Street, where it was restored by Miss Mabel Choate (then-owner of nearby Naumkeag).

Stockbridge would continue to grow and in time become the home of various famous men, and probably is more justified in calling itself "historic" than any other town in the county.

Among those who called the town home were theologian Jonathan Edwards, who came to Stockbridge and ran the Sergeant mission after being dismissed from his Northampton parish and before succeeding his son-in-law, Aaron Burr, as president of Princeton University.

Stockbridge was also the birthplace and later burial place of Cyrus Field, who was responsible for laying the trans-Atlantic cable, and the boyhood home of his two famous brothers, Stephen Johnson Field, associate justice if the Supreme Court from 1863 to 1897, and David Dudley Field, a noted lawyer. It was also the birthplace of Stephen Dudley Field, a nephew of the brothers and a prominent engineer, who invented and installed the first electric street car in New York City.

At one time, three men who attended Stockbridge district schools — Justices Field, Brown and Brewer — were on the Supreme Court together.

For some years, Stockbridge was the residence of Mark Hopkins, president of Williams College, and of Joseph Choate, noted lawyer and ambassador to Great Britain. In the town is the ancestral home of the Sedgwicks — political, social and literary leaders who brought as visitors such luminaries as actress Fanny Kemble and historian Count Alexis de Tocqueville.

Open to the public

Mementos of most of Stockbridge's famous — including a table-desk used by Jonathan Edwards and a mahogany secretary used by sculptor Daniel Chester French — are in the historical room of the Stockbridge Library for public view. (Temporarily located at the The Merwin House, 14 Main St., until the library renovation is complete.)

A resident of Stockbridge was Mum Bet, originally a slave belonging to Col. John Ashley of Sheffield. Her place in history, however, is secured by a court decision held by many historians as the marking the end of slavery in Massachusetts when the commonwealth was but a few years old.

Mum Bet's story starts at Col. Ashley's house in Sheffield — the oldest-authenticated house in the Berkshires.

Fire iron

One day in 1783, in the kitchen of the Ashley homestead, Mum Bet's mistress struck at the slave's younger sister with a hot fire iron. She injured Mum Bet, who left and refused to return to the Ashleys. Col. Ashley went to the law to recover his property.

Theodore Sedgwick, a lawyer and one of the first senators from Massachusetts, defended Mum Bet and won her case. He did it by citing the new state's three-year-old constitution, which led off its Bill of Rights with the phrase from the Declaration of Independence: "All men are created free and equal."

During the trial, which was held in Great Barrington, Sedgwick argued that as there were no slaves in Massachusetts because of this declaration, Ashley could neither own nor collect indemnity for one. The Sedgwicks, however, collected a lifetime of gratitude from Mum Bet. She took the name of Elizabeth Freeman after the court declared her free.

Buried in the pie

Elizabeth Freeman proved a devoted companion to the ailing Mrs. Sedgwick and had almost the sole care of the Sedgwick children. She was laid to rest in 1829 beside one of the children, the celebrated writer, Catherine, in the family's private plot, commonly known as the "Sedgwick Pie," as the family is laid to rest in a pie-like fashion.

The agitation which had fired the "free and equal" doctrine that emancipated Mum Bet reached a pre-Revolutionary peak in Great Barrington, which has the distinction of being the first American community to resist by force the attempts of King and parliament to coerce the Colonials. News of the passage of the Boston Port Bill in May 1774 and of the almost certain passage of a new set of laws for Massachusetts aroused high feelings in Berkshire County.

Leading the way

A Berkshire County convention held at Stockbridge on July 6, 1774, assailed the new laws and declared the right of the colonists to resist hem. On Aug. 16 of that year, representatives from every town in the county assembled at Great Barrington, where a court session was about to open, blocked the way by which the judges sought to reach the courtroom and ordered the judges to leave town.

The judges complied in fear of the crowd, said to have numbered 1,500 men. The action of the local citizenry set an example soon to be followed all over the colony and culminated eight months later at Lexington and Concord. The incident is commemorated by a large marker in the center of Great Barrington.

Great Barrington is also a point on the Knox Trail, Route 23, which leads from the New York state line at Egremont to Route 20 at Woronoco. It follows the route pursued by Col. (later General) Henry Knox and his expedition in the early days of the Revolution.

59 cannon

Artillery was one of the critical lacks of the Continental Army. To remedy that lack, Knox, at his own suggestion, and with Washington's approval, in the fall of 1775 journeyed to Fort Ticonderoga, which Ethan Allen had capture in May. Under his direction, 59 cannon and a supply of ammunition were dragged by 80 yoke of oxen from Lake Champlain to Boston, arriving at their destination late in January 1776.

It was the mounting of these guns on Dorchester Heights that compelled Gen. Howe to evacuate Boston on March 17. Knox's ability to drag his artillery train over the Berkshire Hills in the dead of winter is a tribute to his hardihood; the fact that the route he chose is now a motor road is a tribute to his judgment.

In Great Barrington stands the house where William Cullen Bryant, poet from Cummington, was married in 1821 while serving as the town clerk. Great Barrington also was where William Stanley did electrical pioneering and invented the transformer that led to the Stanley Electric Co., of Pittsfield, an early unit in the General Electric Co.

Shays' lunge

For sheer political and social history, however, by far, the most important happening in Berkshire County was Shays' Rebellion. Daniel Shays wasn't himself a Berkshirite and the rebellion didn't start here, but a skirmish and a final battle were fought in South Berkshire. Shays, the leader, was a Revolutionary officer from Pelham.

Massachusetts suffered severely from the war of independence. At its close, the state was burdened with a heavy debt and forced to collect high taxes. The impoverished common people, with business at a standstill and currency worthless, found themselves in dire straits with no way to pay their debts or taxes or to make a living. The jails were filled with debtors. Farms and homesteads sold at sheriff's sales to satisfy creditors, brought almost nothing.

Shays' Rebellion was a spontaneous outburst of popular discontent and popular reaction against the lawyers and those of the owning class who were profiting. It is estimated that at one time there were 12,000 rebels under arms and that half the people in New England were in sympathy with the rebellion.

Tough county

The rebellion had a particular attraction for Berkshire County residents because this county had been the first to suspend the court sittings at the outbreak of the Revolution and had been very reluctant afterwards to allow them to resume.

The county was the scene of several of the sporadic and disconnected attempts by mobs to prevent courts from assembling in the winter of 1786-87; shots were fired between the state militia and the rebels at West Stockbridge. In the final engagement that took place in Sheffield, two rebels were killed and 30 wounded.

While 14 rebel leaders were indicted for treason, all except one were pardoned within a short time; one man was given a prison term of seven years.

In the immediate sense, the rebellion failed. In the larger sense, it succeeded. It was one of the factors that convinced the people that a strong central government was needed; that led to the adoption of the federal Constitution.

More than a century later, Shays' Rebellion entered American literature. Springfield journalist Edward Bellamy, later to become noted for another novel, "Looking Backward," wrote a romance of the rebellion calling it "The Duke of Stockbridge."


TALK TO US

If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.



Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions