The Mahicans frequented what became Berkshire County before 1662, when they moved their council fire from Shodack, west of the Hudson River, to Wnahkutook, Stockbridge, on the Housatonic River. They fished, hunted and passed through on errands of trade, socializing and warfare long before 1734, when John Sergeant set up an Indian mission in Stockbridge. Recent archaeological digs suggest occupation going back thousands of years.
Berkshire communities increasingly appreciate the rolls Natives have played, just as communities increasingly value the rolls that Blacks have played. Ever since the May date of George Floyd’s death under a policeman’s knee, Williamstown residents, bearing Black Lives Matter signs, have been gathering at Field Park Fridays at 5 p.m. for a brief ceremony. It usually involves a reading of the names of black people killed by police, people kneeling or standing respectfully for eight minutes and 46 seconds and perhaps a speech. One day a speaker pointed out, in connection with the 1753 House, that there were people in these parts before the arrival of settlers of European extraction.
The little house in the middle of the grassy park was built in 1953 in honor of those first white settlers. Signs on each side note that it was built with the same tools and materials as the original houses in town. The town library is on one side of the green, the town offices on the other. The green is at the north-south, east-west nexus of the town, expressed as a traffic circle involving state Route 2 and federal Route 7. The house and park provide high exposure both for town residents and those passing through.
The speaker’s comment got one person and then others thinking that the ‘53 House signs could acknowledge that the settlers arrived in Mohican (now Stockbridge-Munsee) territory. At first the idea was to attach additional signs to the bottom of the existing ones. Investigation revealed, perhaps prophetically, that the existing signposts were rotted, so the decision was to redo the signs entirely, with the new wording.
We (the writer is working on this project) wanted to keep the words to a minimum so they would be large enough for passing motorists to read, realizing that we wouldn’t be able to tell the whole story in that format. Bonney Hartley, Stockbridge-Munsee Historic Preservation Manager — then based in Troy, N.Y., now moving to Spring Street in Williamstown — and Heather Bruegl, Cultural Affairs Director, based at the tribal reservation in Wisconsin, responded immediately, suggesting “Homelands of the Moh He Con Neew (Mohican Nation).”
An opportunity to tell more of the story is nearby, where a boulder and a plaque mark the site of Fort West Hoosac. The plaque notes that the blockhouse was built in March of 1756 and “defended on July 11, 1756 despite the scalping of three soldiers” during an outbreak of the French and Indian War. No mention is made of the context: Europeans appropriating Indian lands and involving Indian Nations in European conflicts. Nor does the plaque indicate Indian casualties.
Rachel Payne, a seminarian who interned at the First Congregational Church in Williamstown last summer, has arranged an online panel discussion to welcome the Stockbridge-Munsee Historic Preservation office and to explore the relationship between the Stockbridge-Munsee community and the town, how members of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community are maintaining their connection to their Eastern homelands, including Williamstown, and how town residents can support their work.
The event will be at 5 p.m. on Oct. 29. To register, visit http://bit.ly/homelands2020.
The discussion should be applicable to other Berkshire communities, which might want to consider acknowledging Mohican homelands.
At least, that’s how it looks from the White Oaks.