A Pittsfield marker honoring controversial politician isn't in good standing

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PITTSFIELD — The city needs to right a bit of local history by resetting the Elm Street monument marking where the "Sage of Pittsfield" called home.

The polished granite monument and commemorative plaque honoring 19th-century politician Henry Laurens Dawes has been on its side at 15 Elm St. since it was knocked over by a vehicle.

Pittsfield public works employees moved the marker to a prone position in the wake of the mishap, which caused minimal damage.

Municipal officials are working with the city's insurer on the cost of righting the monument and repairing the sidewalk, according to the Pittsfield Housing Authority, which owns the parcel that hosts the monument.

The office of Mayor Linda Tyer understands the importance of righting the marker.

"As this is a historical monument, the city wants to ensure that any repairs are done in alignment with this significance," said Roberta McCulloch-Dews, director of administrative services. "This will be the focus of any next steps ahead."

The weathered bronze plaque indicates that Dawes resided at 15 Elm St. from 1863 until his death Feb. 5, 1903. The Housing Authority, which has owned the property since 1978, leases it to The Brien Center.

The origin of the monument was not clear. Kelton B. Miller, longtime owner and publisher of The Eagle, commissioned and paid for about 20 bronze plaques to identify historically significant sites in Pittsfield, but it could not be determined whether the Dawes plaque was among them.

Dawes, a Cummington native born in 1816, moved to Pittsfield in 1848 to begin an accomplished and controversial political career that would do more harm than his intended good for Native Americans.

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Dawes represented the Berkshires for several years in the Legislature before embarking on a 36-year stint in Congress — 18 years in the House of Representatives (1857-75) and 18 years in the U.S. Senate (1875-1893). He later became known as the "Sage of Pittsfield," according to several Eagle articles and archival material in the local history section of the Berkshire Athenaeum.

Native Americans might argue with Dawes being described as sage, someone who is wise and thinks before he acts.

Dawes, a self-described friend of Native Americans, was chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs when he authored the General Allotment Act of 1887, referred to as the Dawes Act.

The senator's legislation called for breaking up the tribal reservations by granting citizenship to the Indians as well as granting homesteads of 160 acres to heads of families and 80 acres to single men to be farmed or used to establish businesses. He felt, according to local historians, that individual land ownership would protect the Indians from losing their land, as he saw happen to the Stockbridge Indians.

But, as The Eagle's Gerard Chapman wrote in 1989, Native Americans were communal and saw individual land ownership going against their tribal identity. Unfortunately, the federal legislation led to land speculators buying vast amounts of property from the Indians who didn't buy in to the Dawes Act.

"Today, historians cite the loss of millions of acres of indigenous land as an unintended result of the Dawes Act," Pittsfield native Judy Winters wrote in an Eagle op-ed column two years ago.

Dawes did chalk up some positive deeds during his political career. Historians say he spearheaded the establishment of a national network of schools for Native Americans, supported tariffs to protect the textile industry in Western Massachusetts and advocated for daily weather bulletins, which led to the the creation of the U.S. Weather Bureau.

Locally, Dawes supported the Berkshire Athenaeum and also was honored with a street in his name, Dawes Avenue, and an elementary school on Elm Street that opened in 1908 that was later torn down.

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6233.


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