Berkshire Colonial History

Berkshire Colonial History

In 1694, Rev. Benjamin Wadsworth, a future President of Harvard, travelled through the Berkshires as part of a diplomatic visit to the Five Indian Nations in Albany. The reverend described what is now Otis as “very woody, rocky, mountainous, and swampy.” Upon passing through the future town of Monterey, Rev. Wadsworth eloquently declared the country “a hideous, howling wilderness.”

With the exception of the highways and power lines, some parts of Berkshire County still resemble the land Rev. Wadsworth denounced and Asher Brown Durand memorialized in his Monument Mountain, Berkshires (1855): a rocky and heavily wooded land void of civilization. Although the virgin timber was harvested centuries ago, a hike on local trails confirms why New Englanders delayed settling the Berkshires.

The wilderness of late 17th-century New England was a dangerous place. Frequent attacks by displaced natives made Puritans fearful of the forest and other dark places (read Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” or The Scarlet Letter to see the associations the Puritans made between Native Americans, the forest and the Devil at work). The worst conflict between the natives and Puritans was King Philip’s War (1675-76), in which 57% of the Puritan settlements in New England were attacked.

But there were other threats in this untamed wilderness, with the French often mounting attacks from their heavily fortified cities on the St. Lawrence River. Because colonial diplomacy was at the mercy of the mother countries, the area between New England and New France became extra battlegrounds for Europe’s wars. After the conflicts of Queen Anne’s War (1702-13) and King George’s War (1740-48), New England created a chain of frontier forts to ward off further French and native assaults. The “local” fort here in the Berkshires was Ft. Massachusetts in Williamstown, which was captured and burned by Indians in 1746, just one year after its completion.

Despite the conflicts and arguments that existed between New England and its neighbors, settlers finally began entering the Berkshires in 1725, beginning with the establishment of Sheffield.

In 1739, John Sergeant became the first missionary to the Stockbridge Indians, followed by Jonathan Edwards in 1750. Edwards is considered to be one of the most original and important American theologians.

The first half of the 18th century was a time of great religious revival in the American colonies. Jonathan Edwards played a key role in this “First Great Awakening” and was offered preaching positions in several parishes from Scotland to Virginia. His surprising choice of Stockbridge encouraged settlement of the Berkshire wilderness by people of strong religious faith. By 1760, Pittsfield boasted nearly two hundred residents, including Shakers, Quakers, and Baptists. Parson Thomas Allen, Pittsfield’s first minister, was known to be very energetic in the pulpit and would go on to play an important role in the War for Independence.

Settlement of Berkshire County was slowed again during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). In the bloodiest colonial conflict, Britain and France determined who would be the supreme power in North America. While the movement of settlers westward slowed during the war, five towns in the county were incorporated: New Marlborough, Pittsfield, Great Barrington, Sandisfield, and Tyringham.

Berkshire County felt the French and Indian War personally when Col. Ephraim Williams was killed at the Battle of Lake George in 1758. Williams left provisions in his will that a free school be established in his town of West Township, provided the community rename itself Williamstown. The town agreed, but did not receive the school, which eventually became Williams College, until the time of George Washington’s presidency.

While Berkshire County has grown extensively since the 1700s, the homes that were built during that century still stand as monuments to the struggles with which the seven hundred original families contended when they tried to scratch out an existence from the rugged Berkshire wilderness. Driven simply by their faith and desire to begin new lives, the early settlers contended with problems ranging from unfriendly topography to marauding neighbors.

Written by Raynor Sebring, Bidwell House Museum 2012 Summer Intern

Source: McLaughlin, David J., The Unfolding History of the Berkshires, Scottsdale, AZ: Pentacle Press, LLC, 2007