Settlement of Connecticut River Valley

Following the “Great Migration”  population grew and demand for land pushed settlers west and south., the  settlers and their offspring spread out – first to the Connecticut Coast (see Native American Life in Massachusetts After European Contact – Pequot War ) and then up the Connecticut River Valley. The settlement of the Connecticut River Valley is interesting background for the settling of Lenox – both for what the two have in common and what they don’t.

Connecticut River Valley Was the Bread Basket of New England

The Connecticut River Valley was the bread basket of New England and unlike many other areas of Massachusetts (including Lenox) could support raising single crops for export.

The Fertile Connecticut River Valley

As with many other towns (see The Unique Nature of New England Towns) Springfield and the other Massachusetts towns along the Connecticut River were established by wealthy individuals who planned to make profit based on later increased land values.

Springfield Settlement Driven by William Pynchon

The settlement of the area from Springfield to Northampton was distinguished by the outsize role of a single man – William Pynchon.

William Pynchon
William Pynchon

Pynchon, who had been a relatively wealthy man in England,  had explored the Connecticut River and established a lucrative fur business.  With the agreement of the Massachusetts Bay Company, he purchased major acerage in the valley.  What would become Springfield, was purchased from the Indians in 1635, and  was initially part of Connecticut,  but William Pynchon, decided to affiliate with  the Massachusetts Bay colony.  The inhabitants were also somewhat unique in that more of them were renters than in other towns where families tended to own land.   A majority were actually employees of the Pynchon family.  In 1640 the name was changed from the Indian name, Agawam,  to Springfield in honor of Pynchon’s home town in England.

Settlements Up the River More Typical

By 1682, towns all the way up to Deerfield were settled with a similar pattern (some elements would survive to the later settlement  of Berkshire County):

  • Purchase of land from Indians (for modest exchange of trade goods and wampum) and, in many cases, a change from the Indian place name
  • Original investment by “town fathers” (disproportionately the Pynchon family in the Connecticut River Valley) who would make decisions much like a modern board of directors
  • Authorization to settle (and sell unsold lands) if certain conditions met (typically a survey, plot plans with lots of acceptable size lots, set asides for support of a minister and school, settlement by 40-60 households, (including clearing and fencing the land) establishment of a meeting house a safe house or fort, etc.)
  • Lay led Church services until a town had accumulated the 50 or so families needed to support a minister.

These “plantations” would also be expected to organize a militia, elect town officials and make arrangements for schooling – often involving clergy.

Hampden County (Which Included the Berkshires) 1662

These frontier towns also needed to quickly establish court systems and the largest towns would have magistrates and law offices.  Hampshire County ( which included the Berkshires in those early days) was established in 1662 with court sessions rotating between Northampton and Springfield)

Pynchon reportedly explored the far western part of the state but development stalled for almost 200 years at the western edge of the Connecticut River due to

  • Fear of hostile Indians (Springfield and Deerfield were raided)
  • Border disputes with first the Dutch and then the royal English colony of New York
  • A slowdown in population growth with an end to the “Great Migration” (in about 1640)
  • Better alternatives for farming still available in the colony
  • Dense, hilly woodlands with limited (Housatonic) water access.


 History of Western Massachusetts. The Counties of Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin and Berkshire,  Josiah Gilbert Holland, Published by Samuel Bowles and Company,  Springfield, MA 1855 (Internet Archive Project)

Wikipedia “History of Pioneer Valley, ” 2014

Profits in the Wilderness, Entrpreneurship and the Founding of New England Towns in the Seventeenth Century, by John Frederic Martin, The Omohundro Instituute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia by the University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London, 1991

American History 1690-1740 Provincial America, by Evarts Boutelle Greene

New England’s Generation, The Great Migration and the Formation of Culture and Society in the Seventeenth Century, Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Cambridge University Press, 1991

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