Category Archives: People

Transportation and Settlement for Early Lenox Settlers

Life for Early Lenox Settlers

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.

Clearing Trees

americanagriculturist1864Initial 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

Would Have Come to Pontoosuck on Narrow Trails Through the Woods
Early Would Have Come to Berkshire County on Narrow Trails Through the Woods

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.

House Meeting Settlement Guidelines Re-creation in Williamstown, MA
House Meeting Settlement Guidelines Re-creation in Williamstown, MA

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

Margaret Emerson, Holmwood, and Ventfort Hall

On May 9, 2015, Cornelia (Nini) Gilder, co author of Houses of the Berkshires*, gave a great talk at Ventfort Hall about Margaret Emerson McKim Vanderbilt Baker Amory (1884-1960).

Local Connections

Nini Gilder Channeling Her Mother’s WWII Red Cross Service

In a clear case of six degrees of separation, Nini shared a photo of Margaret as a Red Cross Director at Hickam Field in Hawaii.  Nini had the photo because Margaret (now going by “Mrs. Emerson”) had been Nini’s mother’s boss during WWII.  In the spirit of that remarkable coincidence, Nini sported her mother’s natty Red Cross uniform for part of her talk (with a photo of Margaret in the background).

Margaret’s management experience came from supervising her 20+ servants, multiple households…. and lots of money.

Margaret Emerson as a Young Beauty

To Begin…Rich and Beautiful

We can only hope that someday Margaret’s colorful, old money life gets made into the movie it deserves.  Before marrying money, it helps to start beautiful and with a fortune of your own.  Margaret was heir to the Bromo-Seltzer (started in Baltimore by her father) fortune and married a wealthy Baltimore physician,  Dr. McKim.  She went to Reno to obtain a divorce, on the grounds of cruelty and failure to provide**, in 1910.  She wed fabulously wealthy AlfredVanderbiltAlfred Vanderbilt in London in 1911.  One source reported that Dr. McKim was on the verge of bringing an alienation of affections suit against Vanderbilt (whose first wife had divorced him claiming adultery) but was paid $200,000 by Margaret’s father to drop the suit**. (You can’t make this stuff up.)

Vanderbilt Hotel, Built 1913, 4 Park Avenue

A grandson of family patriarch, Commodore Vanderbilt, Alfred was a sportsman and coaching enthusiast but also made a few decent real estate deals such as the Vanderbilt Hotel. (It helps if your family’s holdings include a home on what would become Park Avenue and Grand Central.)




VisitorstoSagamoreIn 1901 Alfred had purchased a magnificent Adirondack Lodge at Sagamore Lake.  It would remain in Margaret’s family until 1954 and be the site for entertainment of notables such as Gary Cooper, Jerome Kern and General George Marshall.***

Alfred had two children, Alfred II (1912-1999) and and George III (1914-1961) with Margaret before sailing on the doomed Lusitania, in 1915,  for an the Annual Meeting of the Horse Breeder’s Association and to bring supplies to the Red Cross.   A gentleman to the end, Alfred allegedly perished after giving his life jacket to a woman who could not find hers.

The Widow Comes to Lenox

The widow would have been familiar with Lenox as a visitor to her husband’s cousin (Emily Vanderbilt Sloane – Elm Court) as well as other society cottagers.   Mrs. Sloane’s daughter (Lila Vanderbilt Sloane Field) was a good friend would become a neighbor having built High Lawn in 1909.   Shadowbrook,_Lenox,_MA So it is not surprising that Margaret chose, a month after her husband’s death to come to Lenox where she rented a modest summer place – Shadow Brook.  In 1916 she had to find new quarters as the property had been sold to Andrew Carnegie who could no longer, because of the war, go back and forth to his castle in Scotland.

From 1916 to 1917 she rented Ventfort Hall.  Nini had several pictures of the children enjoying the grounds including a birthday party photo that included Nini’s mother.

Erskine Park and Holmwood

Erskine Park_NEW
Erskine Park Which Was Razed to Make Room for Holmwood

Erskine Park had been built for George and Marguerite Westinghouse in 1890 and was, by 1911, surrounded by 600 landscaped acres.  Margaret bought the property on the condition that the elaborately decorated house be razed.

Holmwood (Later Foxhollow and More Recently Enlighten Next)
Holmwood (Later Foxhollow and More Recently Enlighten Next)

She went right to work to build a brand new Delano and Aldrich designed Colonial Revival home with a large music room and portico.  She particularly liked the fact that the grounds included space for croquet, tennis, and a gymnasium for the boys.  Nice pad for a few weeks a year (since the family also lived in Palm Beach, New York,  and the Great Sagamore).  Holmwood, named for a spot in England that was the site of a memorial to Alfred Vanderbilt, was sold to the Foxhollow School for Girls in 1939.

More Husbands and More Adventures

Margaret Wed Raymond Baker at Holmwood in June 1918

Margaret barely made it into Holmwood in time to marry husband #3, Raymond T. Baker (1875-1935).  In another “you can’t make this stuff up,”  she had met Baker in Reno when she was getting a divorce from husband #1.  One of the social columns** reported, before she married Alfred, that “Mrs. McKim created quite a stir in San Francisco on one occasion when she departed for the orient, waving kisses to Ray Baker, the novelist and clubman, when the steamer left the dock.”  They had a daughter, Gloria (1920-1975).

Ever the Sportswoman, Margaret (Left) at Saratoga
Ever the Sportswoman, Margaret (Left) at Saratoga

They divorced in October 1928.  Not one to let the grass grow under her feet, Margaret married husband #4, Charles Minot Amory (he was from Boston – they had met in Palm Beach) in November 1928.  They divorced several years later.




*Houses of the Berkshires, 1870-1930, by Richard Jackson Jr. and Cornelia Brooke Gilder, Acanthus Press, New York, 2006

**San Francisco Call, Volume 112, Number 115, September 23, 1912, “New Vanderbilt Heir is Born, Stork Crowns Reno Divorce.”


Also Wikipedia on Alfred Vanderbilt








Stockbridge Indian Mission

The Stockbridge Indian lands included part of what would become Lenox.  Why the Stockbridge Indians were here and why they sold their land is an important part of the story of the settlement of the Berkshires. The story is complex and poignant.  Blog readers are particularly encouraged, on this topic, to follow up with the many fine books and other sources listed below.

Very briefly

  • The Mahicans*, in 1734, found themselves in a difficult situation.  Part of the Algonquin linguistic group of Native Americans that extended southward from Canada, the Mahicans had formerly occupied both sides of the Hudson River and their ancestors probably had been among those who watched with amazement in 1609 as Henry Hudson sailed by.   They had survived on a combination of limited agriculture and woodland hunting (see Life Berkshire Before Europeans.) By now they had been decimated by disease and changes wrought by the Europeans to their homeland. They were hemmed in by their Mohawk enemies to the west and explosive European expansion to the east. (Various spellings of the tribe’s name have been found — Mohican,   Mahican, etc.)
Mahican Etow Oh Koam, known as Nicholas (18th century depiction from New York Public Library Collections)
Mahican Chief Etow Oh Koam, known as Nicholas (18th century depiction from New York Public Library Collections)
  • Although sentiment about Indians, even the Mahicans who had been allies of the English for several generations, was mixed, there was a group of religious leaders who felt obliged to honor what had been part of the original Puritan mission (to bring Christianity to the Native Americans).  In addition, it was in the political interest of the English Colonial government to cement Indian allies in their continuing wars with the French and their Indian allies
  • Much of modern day Sheffield and Great Barrington had already been sold, by the Mahicans, for colonial  settlement
  • Consequently, the royal government of Massachusetts and a missionary group agreed to purchase a tract of  (est.) 9000 acres north of modern day Great Barrington to establish a mission for the Mahicans and other Native American allies. The agreement was that the Mission would include establishment of minister to teach the gospel to the Indians, a school, and settlement of four English families to lead the Mohicans in learning the ways of Christianity and English life.
  • The minister (John Sergeant) who agreed to launch this effort did establish a mission in 1738 and made every effort  to live up to the high ideals set for the mission.
Mission House Stockbridge
Mission House Stockbridge
  • However, despite the high ideals, this agreement with Native Americans, like so many before and after, would be overwhelmed by the Europeans’ lust for land and their sense of entitlement.
  • The Mohicans farmed (although the men still thought of it as women’s work), converted to Christianity, went to school, and fought (and died) side by side with their English (and later American) allies.  However, the also found themselves with less land or less desirable land than had originally been envisioned (because, among other things more than the four families settled).
  • With no source, other than the sale of their land, for exchange for rum (illegal but sold anyway) and trade goods, they sold to the colonials.  The land for goods/land for currency exchanges that resulted may have allowed the colonials to feel justified in what they were doing but were, in hindsight, one sided and unfair.
  • An example of this one sided trading is highly relevant to the history of Lenox.  In 1739, the Indians wanted some 280 acres of meadowland recently sold for 450 pounds.  To obtain the meadowlands, the Indians gave up 4,000 acres  to the northeast – most of present-day Lenox.  The new owners of this extensive woodland included the proprietors of the mission and were: Stephen Williams, Samuel Hopkins, Neimiah Bull, John Sergeant, , Timothy Woodbridge, Ephraim Williams, and John Stoddard’s nephew Jonathan Edwards.  Ephraim Williams acquired 900 acres plus a 130 acre pond, Bull 700 acres, and the remainder approximately 480 acres each.  (Some pretty sharp Yankee dealing for a bunch of missionaries.)
  • Eventually, the Stockbridge Indians found themselves with more and more mouths to feed on less and less land.  In 1780, many accepted the invitation of their Oneida cousins to resettle in upstate New York and stayed their long enough for their tales to influence James Fenimore Cooper to write The Last of the Mohicans.  The modern day Stockbridge Indians are to be found in Wisconsin where they remain one of only a few tribes that have retained their pre-colonial identity.


To Live Upon Hope, Mohicans and Missionaries in the Eighteenth Century Northeast by Rachel Wheeler

The Mohican World, 1680-1750 by Shirley W. Dunn

Lenox Massachusetts, Shiretown by David Wood


Oliver Osborne’s Journal – February 1862

We continue to follow Oliver Osborne’s journal – picking up from January 1861.

Here are some comments on the remainder of 1861

-it was a momentous year for the world with the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, the succession of the Confederate states and the first battles of the Civil War.  Oliver’s journal is silent on philosophy but he does mention drilling frequently – apparently the old New England militia tradition was still viable (the May 6, 1861 entry mentions a town meeting to organize the militia)

-It was still a close knit community and Oliver seems to have known of most if not all of the deaths that year and attended most of the funerals:

Continue reading Oliver Osborne’s Journal – February 1862

Diary of Oliver W. Osborn January 1861

Oliver Webster Osborn (1823-1895) is very fondly remembered by Lenox historians because he compiled “The East Street Book.”  Oliver hand wrote this wonderful description of East Street families as of the late 19th century.

We will learn more about Oliver’s family in subsequent entries.  But, to begin, here’s a snapshot of his situation in 1861 when he started the diary donated to the Lenox Library.

O.W. Osborn’s Situation in 1861

He owned a small farm at the corner of Housatonic and East St. (across from what is now Lenox Memorial High School).  According to the 1860 census, his real estate was valued at $1,000 and his personal estate at $300.  He had lost his infant son in 1858 and his wife (more on this in subsequent posts) in 1859 and lived with his two daughters Mary (age 12) and Thalia (age 11).  His father, mother and brother lived just down the road.

Continue reading Diary of Oliver W. Osborn January 1861

Native American Life in Massachusetts After European Contact

Native American Population

Before European settlement, the native population between the Appalachians and the Atlantic was estimated at over 1 million*.  By the time the Mahicans settled in Stockbridge in 1734, the Native American population in Massachusetts was all but gone.  What happened?  A losing battle against European pathogens and European land hunger.

Smallpox Epidemic

In 1617-1619 a smallpox epidemic had swept through the original inhabitants of Massachusetts wiping out – by some estimates – as much as 90% of the population.  The only thing that might have spared the Native Americans of the Berkshires would have been their limited contact with Europeans.

This now sparse native population plus a Puritan commitment to christianize the Indians, kept relations largely peaceful until 1638 and the Pequot wars.

Early Peace Followed by Unequal War

The Pequot Fort at Mystic
Pequot Fort at Mystic

By 1638 the English settlers (Puritan and otherwise) had found their way to what is now Boston, Provincetown, Long Island and New Haven. Despite the handsome fort pictured above, the Pequots were massacred by the combined English and Mahican forces,

Continue reading Native American Life in Massachusetts After European Contact

Life in the Berkshires Before Europeans


From their earliest explorations of North America, Europeans influenced (and generally not for the better) North American native life.  So, by the time early Berkshire settlers encountered Native Americans, Indian lifestyle had already been drastically altered.  Therefore, observations of even the earliest Europeans speculation to get any picture of life  in the Berkshires prior to the earliest (1400-1600 CE) European encounters in NorthAmerica requires some speculation.

Ancient Native American Civilizations

By 6,000 BCE post ice-age North American environment had changed – forests had replaced the barren tundra left by the glaciers and the massive early animals had been replaced by more of the smaller animals we see today.  Indications are that the inhabitants were adapting to these different food sources culminating in various forms of agriculture and a – still migratory – but more settled form of life.

With increased control of food sources, population on the continent is estimated to have approached a million by 2500 BC (roughly simultaneous with the earliest Egyptian civilizations).[i]

Continue reading Life in the Berkshires Before Europeans

When Did People First Come to the Berkshires?

How long have there been people in the Berkshires?  Hard to know but based on a recent lecture sponsored by Bidwell House  there is evidence we had tourists as long as 4,000 years ago.

Uncovering signs of life at Kampoosa Bog

By Jess Gamari, Berkshire Eagle Staff

Posted:   07/22/2013 05:05:04 PM EDT

Updated:   07/23/2013 11:15:39 AM EDT

Kampoosa Bog Dig


TYRINGHAM — Before Puritan settlers landed on Plymouth Rock, and before Columbus sailed, Berkshire Country residents were already hunting and maintaining gardens.

On Saturday, Eric Johnson, archaeology lecturer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, gave a talk at the Tyringham Union Church about 4,000-year-old findings from an expedition to the Kampoosa Bog.

The Kampoosa Bog in Stockbridge is a dark and swampy lake surrounded by an old growth forest of hemlock, beech and hickory trees. The bog came into existence in the wake of the melting glacial ice, Johnson said, which dates back to about 12,000 years ago. Continue reading When Did People First Come to the Berkshires?

Gilded Age Coaching

Beautiful Coach and Team at Elm Court (Sharon Hawkes, Lenox Library)

The Gilded Age returns to Elm Court in Lenox October 10, 2014

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Church on the Hill Burying Ground

169 Main St., Church on the Hill - 1805
169 Main St., Church on the Hill – 1805, Site of Church on the Hill Burying Ground

Church on the Hill Burying Ground

Lenox received three acres for a burying ground in 1770 and the first burial took place the following year.  The Church on the Hill Cemetery (at the intersection of Main and Greenwood Streets, adjoining the Church on the Hill), is a typical Colonial burying ground–close to the meetinghouse with single graves in rows.  According to several recorders of early history, children played in the graveyard area during breaks in the long, long services and sheep grazed to keep the grass down.

Traditionally, in colonial burials, the deceased were buried with their feet to the east so that as the day of judgement dawned they could sit up and face the rising sun. The earliest gravestones show evidence of the Puritan reminders that life was brief and grim with skulls or crossed bones.  As time went on, gravestone imagery shifted more toward mourning and loss with weeping willows,  cherubs or vases of flowers.

Continue reading Church on the Hill Burying Ground