The prevailing version of history has been that Native Americans didn’t actually live in the Berkshire area prior to the founding of Indiantown (Stockbridge). They were just passing through, for hunting, trade or interacting with other tribes. Well, it’s easy to see how, if colonists of European extraction were appropriating Native American land, that would be a convenient truth.
But a series of archaeological digs and research is amassing evidence that Indigenous people, known as the ancestors to their Mohican descendants, maintained permanent residences here prior to the time of contact. The latest evidence, and perhaps the most convincing, is the discovery of a probable Indigenous dwelling behind the newly discovered first meetinghouse site on Main Street in Stockbridge.
Joseph Park’s bicentennial history of Pownal, Vt., tends toward semi-permanent winter hunting camps as the extent of Native American presence, yet he also describes the many artifacts collected along the Hoosic River by Alonzo Whipple in the 19th century and the nearly 500 that Gordon Sweeney accumulated in the 20th century. Most of Sweeney’s are at the University of Vermont, although some reside at the Solomon Wright Library in Pownal.
When it came time to relocate a bridge in Pownal in 1979, Peter Thomas of the Vermont Agency of Transportation cited the discovery of those two men that there were arrow and spear points going back to 4000 B.C., concluding an “annual settlement pattern.” There were also tantalizing stories of cornfields, suggesting more permanent residence.
The narrative clarified in 1990 when David W. Parrott, archaeologist with the Mahingan Institute in Monterey, discovered a variety of stone tools and traced the source of the stone not to the west but to an ancient quarry in Monterey. These seemed to indicate a settlement dating back as much as 4,000 years, although structural evidence of homes was not found. High humidity in the Northeast makes it unlikely to find ancient wooden buildings.
Three years later, Mitchell Mulholland with Eric Johnson, of University of Massachusetts Archaeological Services, conducted a dig in connection with a Tennessee Gas Pipeline in the vicinity of Kampoosa Bog, Stockbridge. The artifacts showed that Native Americans lived in this area earlier than suspected; that they were settled before the coming of Europeans, not just passing through; and that they were more populous than previously thought. The site was destroyed after the artifacts were removed.
Research conducted with the construction of the Bennington Bypass (Route 279 opened in 2004) further supported the emerging story. The artifacts collected at the Silk Road Site showed evidence that the Walloomsac River led Indigenous people to seasonal encampments from 5000 B.C. to 1500 A.D., while the nearby Cloverleaf Site preserved the remains of a prehistoric village dating from 1800 to 1000 B.C. The sites are commemorated at an information center.
The town of Stockbridge and the Mohican Nation of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band sponsored the current dig to find the location of the 1739 meetinghouse, which formalized the start of a multicultural experiment: Natives and whites sharing a community. Under the guidance of primary investigator Ann Morton and with the aid of ground penetrating radar, a mixture of pros and amateurs seem to have located the meetinghouse, even though the foundation stones were removed to build the new meetinghouse. Furthermore, by examining the hues and compaction of the soil they also seem to have located a prehistoric native dwelling nearby. Both units will be filled in.
Due to European land thefts from the Mohicans with whom they were to co-exist, the Indiantown experiment didn’t turn out well. The least that Berkshire communities can do now is to admit that Mohican ancestors lived here long before the rest of us.
At least, that’s how it looks from the White Oaks.