Stephen D. Butz’s book “Shays’ Settlement in Vermont” (History Press, 2017) reveals a little-known side of the Shays’ Rebellion story that played out in a final confrontation in Sheffield in 1787.
When Perez Hamlin and other Regulators yielded to a superior Massachusetts militia force that chilly February day, instigators of the farmers’ revolt including Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays were elsewhere, sheltering on a mountaintop north of Arlington, Vt., on the New York border.
That location has become an active archaeological site. Butz merges scarce documentary sources with evidence found on the ground (recovered during several summer field schools) that remote Egg Mountain was home to a small community cluster that included a fort, a mill, a store and several dwellings.
The account brought to mind my own modest archaeological discovery more than 20 years ago: the site of a collier’s hut on Monument Mountain in Great Barrington. Small potatoes in comparison, but interesting.
I found it when relentlessly hiking Monument Mountain Reservation and environs to determine what route Melville, Hawthorne and others followed on their 1850 picnic sojourn.
By that time, the mountain forests were being depleted to supply charcoal to the iron blast furnace in VanDeusenville. I mapped some 262 outdoor hearth sites, four outdoor cooking circles and the remains of a lean-to and of a cabin, as I described in “Faded Tracks on Monument Mountain” (2009).
Buried historical treasures
According to my journal entry for Sept. 25, 2000, the cabin footprint is on two levels and includes a chimney. I found broken glass and part of a bone china saucer. I stubbed my shoe on a protruding piece of iron next to a tree stump and uncovered three metal brackets buried in the leaf litter. They were about 11 inches long and 7 inches wide, with four bolt holes. All three were curved. Part of a door hinge? I scuffed up another piece of flat metal with two holes. These pieces are all about a quarter inch thick.
Wedged between two small trees was a molded cast-iron door — scroll-decorated on one side, measuring 5 by 63/4 inches — parts of a wood stove. (After taking photos, I left all the artifacts in place.)
Circling the cabin site are several obvious circular hearth sites. This was seasonal home to the collier and his helper as they tended their stacks of smoldering hardwood.
This above-ground approach to archeology has a name: field-walking. “Field-walking is an archaeological method of sampling artifacts laying on the surfaces of exposed and disturbed soils,” according to an internet source. “It is a method used to detect new sites and past land-uses across a landscape. Practiced by professional archaeologists, it is also a favorite method of amateur and voluntary archaeologists.”
Peeking into the past
Was there documentary information about the cabin? Yes. The Berkshire Courier for Oct. 12, 1893, carried a story about a group of men from Housatonic village who climbed up the mountain from that side to visit Peeskawso Peak (at the time known as Squaw Peak) one Saturday afternoon and along the way passed a cabin — from which a gunshot sounded.
“Last Saturday afternoon seven men from this village took a stroll to Monument Mountain, and as they descended a hollow on the mountain they came suddenly on a hut nearly hidden by the foliage. On entering the hut they found it vacated. The hut was built of small logs with a board roof. It also had a part of a floor laid under which seemed to be a great cavity or cellar. Desiring to visit the higher point where it is said the squaw made her fatal leap, they remained but a short time, as it was getting late, determining to make the place a second visit on their return. On their way home, and when within a few yards from the cabin, they discovered a light therein, and a pistol shot was fired at them, which they promptly answered. Two or three shots were exchanged, when our Housatonic friends came to the conclusion that their society was not needed and immediately started for home wondering whether they had discovered the home of the Stockbridge burglars or the hermitage of some individual who desired to keep his fellow man at a distance.”
“Several shots were exchanged,” The Pittsfield Sun exaggerated, “when the explorers deemed it advisable to retire, which they did without further acquaintance.”
At the time, the infamous Stockbridge Burglar was at large. He had broken into homes of the well-to-do and swiped their jewelry, thus the mild hysteria.
The Berkshire Eagle reported the following week: “The story in circulation with regard to the secluded hut on Monument mountain turns out to be simply a hoax. When the story first came out a number of citizens with [Great Barrington Police] Officer [Ludger] Pilon, became interested and were about to investigate the matter by marching to the spot and learn the cause of the conduct of those stopping there, when it came out that the whole thing was a joke. [Friends had followed the first group, it turned out, and shot off a pistol in mock menace.] Had not those persons better find something else to do than to play such jokes on the public?”
One of these days I’ll revisit the place and commiserate with the spirits of the colliers.