Settlement of Great Barrington

Modern Main Street Great Barrington
Modern Main Street Great Barrington

Settlement Expands to Upper Housatonic Township – Great Barrington

Voted the “Best Small Town in America,”* by Smithsonian Magazine in 2012, Great Barrington has clearly overcome early bumps in the road. However, in its early formation and settlement, Great Barrington illustrated the challenges in the systematic process  of town formation the Puritans and then the Massachusetts Royal Government had practiced for more than 100 years. Like all systems, the town formation approach required good and consistent leadership, and some luck.  It is also possible that by the mid 18th century the old ways were loosening up.

The Great Wigwam and the Patent of Wesbenhook

Unlike Lenox (for which we find no record of activity before the first settler in 1751), Great Barrington was active well before European settlement.

There is record of a “Great Wigwam” Indian settlement (thought to be near the current site of the Congregational Church)at a ford over the Housatonic but most of the Indians were gone by 1694 – said to have fled west in 1676 as a result of King Phillip’s War.

As with Sheffield and much of the rest of Berkshire County, the area had been part of a parcel (called the Patent of Westenhook which included modern day Sheffield, Great Barrington, Stockbridge, West Stockbridge, Mount Washington, Egremont and Alfrod) claimed by major landholders in New York (1685) and was open to Dutch settlers in 1705*.*  However, there was very little settlement.

It was was also on the trail (road would be an overstatement) that went from Springfield to Westfield to Kinderhook to Albany and was used by soldiers from King Phillip’s War (1676) on.

In 1722 the General Court granted the opportunity to settle lower and Upper Housatonic townships. and in 1724 property was purchased from the Mahicans.  The request made in 1733 to incorporate much of the lower parcel as Sheffield in 1733 was accepted in 1741.

Town Status and Settlement Delayed by New York Claims, Stockbridge Mission

The conflicting property claims (New York – Wesbenhook Patent vs. Massachusetts purchase from Chief Konkapot) came to a head about 1726-27.  At least one Massachusetts settler was arrested for trespassing and transported to Albany and further land sale and settlement was stalled.

Then, in 1733, the General Court passed an order appointing John Ashley, Ebeneezer Pomeroy, Esq.’s, and Mr. Thomas Ingersoll to”bring forward” settlement of the Upper Township within two years. As late as 1742, Ephraim Williams was still bringing complaints about New Yorkers surveying properties in the Upper Housatonic.

In 1736 the portion of the upper township above Monument Mountain was set aside for the Stockbridge Indian Mission and further property distribution was again halted.

One author described the Upper Township remaining as “wild as ever, a plague to the decent people in the northern part of Sheffield.”** Perhaps some of this “wildness” could be attributed to stop/start nature of the town’s status – the challenges from the Dutch claims in 1727, partition to Stockbridge in 1736, complaints about how land was being distributed and dismissal of David Ingersoll as clerk in 1749 (and annulment of all prior land distributions) – or perhaps just loosening of standards from an earlier time.

By 1742 this “plague to decent people” had 200 residents and won the right to be the North Parish of Sheffield and obtain their own minister.  They succeeded in attracting young Rev. Samuel Hopkins in 1743. However, due to delays in organizing the parish, he was not installed until 1745.

Town Status Finally Achieved in 1761- the County Seat Until After the Revolutionary War.

A further impediment to settlement, which the future Great Barrington shared with the rest of the future Berkshire County, was the French and Indian Wars  Citizens were enlisted for the 1746-1747 march on Canada under Capt. Williams.  Alarms and militia enlistment continued from 1753 to 1760.  General Amherst marched through the town in 1758 on his way to attack Ticonderoga.

Finally, in 1761 the General Court allowed the North Parish to become the town of Great Barrington. Great Barrington was the site of the County Courts in 1774 and was a scene of early defiance of the Royal government.  The town would go on to play an important role in the Revolution as well as in the aftermath – Shay’s Rebellion.


*”The 20 Best Small Towns in America of 2012,” by Susan Spano and Aviva Shen,  Smithsonian Magazine, May 1, 2012

**History of Great Barrington, Charles James Taylor, Clark W. Bryan Publ., 1882

***Housatonic, Puritan River, by Chard Powers Smith, Rinehart and Company, 1946, p. 59

Also see:  A History of the County of Berkshire, Massachusetts, David Dudley Field, Printed by Samuel Bush, Pittsfield, 1829 “Great Barrington.”,  History of Great Barrington, 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.