Yale Emeritus Professor of History John Demos explored gender relations in colonial America at a Bidwell House lecture June 20, 2015. He discussed how male-female difference was understood at the time and what that meant for everyday life.
A video of the talk is available on You Tube — Lenox History.
Throughout the talk John emphasized. that the Colonial period covered more than 150 years and that roles evolved over time.
In the Colonial era women were largely defined by what they lacked – powers of reason and moral discipline (fear of witches in its most primitive form). Only about 30% of women were literate vs. 60-70% of men and it was women’s role to receive guidance from men — even as to child rearing.
However, somewhat in contradiction, women were also though of as “help mate.” Their role was to be self sacrificing and to help others – but not necessarily passive. Women would have been quite active in household management and for many of the home industries on which the local Colonial economy depended. These responsibilities included production of textiles, candle making, basket making, care of domestic animals tending the family garden, care of young children and for home medical care. When the husband was absent, the wife would be expected to act in his stead as a “deputy husband.”
The male-female dependency of Colonial household in early New England is demonstrated by the high marriage rate – there were almost no single person households in that era. There were fewer females than males but the imbalance was less than it had been in the south. As a frontier society, there would have been more need for everyone to pitch in to survive and it is likely New England females enjoyed more status than their counterparts in the mother country.
By the 19th century women had become more the rearers of children and had become more instrumental in administration of the church. Literacy among women probably had improved by this time and many women were involved in home education. Increasingly men were out of the home for work and women ran the household. Men and women started to have more distinct and separate spheres of influence.
We have not yet found first person accounts of what greeted the early settlers (say 1750’s) but we can make some educated guesses based on accounts from similar settlements. The Berkshires, particularly in the Lenox area, had been used more for hunting than cultivation by the Indians, so there would not, as there had been in the eastern part of the state, have been any prior clearing. Most land would have been heavily wooded with original growth forest and probably thick with underbrush. Without clearing, food was limited to hunting and gathering.
Initial clearing was generally done by girdling the trees, felling them and letting the stumps die off. While the land was still full of stumps, it would have been difficult to grow wheat or other European crops. Probably, therefore, initial agriculture would have been to grow native plants such as corn, beans and pumpkins and raise livestock that could live by foraging – such as pigs and goats. This would have been so much work that the settler probably would have cleared a couple of acres one year, then a few more the next. Obviously meadowland or previously cleared land was at a premium. Reportedly, by 1800, the land was bare of trees!
Timber was potentially a cash crop. It could be sold for planing into planks, for ship masts, for pitch or for fuel. However, it’s not clear that there was, in the earliest days, a way to get raw logs to market. Felled trees may have just been used to build rudimentary log shelters and for fuel. One source* reports it took an acre of timber to heat a family for a year!
Travel and Transportation of Goods
Accounts of initial settlement of Sheffield and Pittsfield report individuals coming to clear their lots on paths that could barely accommodate one person or horse single file. In that condition any goods (from farm tools, to nails, to blankets and clothing) would have to have been carried in on the back of a horse or a man. Enough improvement in roads to accommodate an ox cart would have allowed settlers to bring in goods made nearby such as nails, planed planks, tools and ground corn. Goods manufactured outside of the rural Berkshires – such as bricks, cloth, guns, glass, books and paper – would have to have been moved from a port city; perhaps up the Hudson and then over and up from the road through Great Barrington?
It is not yet clear what roads might have been available. Early plot plans for Mt. Epraim/Yokuntown show some county roads (presumably these could have accommodated carts or other means of hauling goods), but we have not yet found a date for when these roads would have been cleared. The county roads (whenever they were put in) appear to have connected Sheffield, Great Barrington, Stockbridge and Poontusuck (Pittsfield) – much as Route 7 does today.
Early Farming and Industry
The settlers might or might not have had oxen or other work animals. Horses were generally a luxury for the wealthy and many farmers would have had to borrow (in return for some other bartered favor or crops) the use of farm animals to haul goods and break the soil. Cattle and sheep would become important sources for both sustenance and sale. But in the early days, foraging animals such as goats or pigs would have been most common. They probably would have been driven in from of the walking or riding settlers and allowed to wander freely (with notched ears or other markers of ownership).
Setting up mills for planing logs, forging iron, and grinding corn and other grains would have been a priority. Maps from the 1790’s show several mills in Lenox. Until mills became available, settlers would have had to transport raw materials to Stockbridge or other towns settled earlier to have them worked.
Initial houses would have been windowless and rudimentary, perhaps with only one room initially with a fire place that would have to double for light, heat and cooking. There may have been a loft for sleeping and generally a dirt floor.
Settlers would have upgraded to frame houses with stone foundations as soon as they could, but often the original log house would stand into the 19th century.
As the children and grandchildren of early settlers of Westfield, Sheffield and western Connecticut, the Lenox settlers would have known what they had to do to make corn meal, hunt for game, find wild berries and herbs, and slaughter and smoke their meat. Their parents or grandparents would have created similar shelters for the first phase of their housing. They probably would have had a treasured metal pot and metal crane for cooking, melting ice, etc.
Settlers would upgrade housing, crops and livestock as quickly as money or more readily available resources permitted.
Daily Life in Colonial New England, Claudia Durst Johnson, Greenwood Press, Daily Life History Series
Daily Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, George Francis Dow, Arno Press, A New York Times Company, New York, 1977
Early Life in Sheffield Berkshire County, Massachusetts, A Portrait of Its Ordinary People from Settlement to 1860, James R. Miller, Sheffield Historical Society 2002
The History of Pittsfield 1734-1800, J.E.A. Smith, Lee and Shepherd, 1869