Tag Archives: Berkshire County

The Establishment of Berkshire County

Berkshire County was established in 1761 — almost a hundred years after Hamshire (later Hamden, Hampshire and Franklin) County to the East.  Why establish a new Massachusetts county at all?  Why so much later than the rest of the state?

Objectives of Settlement Included Defense ad Revenue

By 1761, the last of the French and Indian wars were winding down, but the English administration had no way of knowing they were going to end up controlling the northeast of what would become the United States.  So, settlement created an obstacle for potential continued raids by the French and their Indian allies.  It also led to road building and increased trade  On the flip side, the winding down of potential raids with the English capture of Quebec September 13, 1759, made settlement along the Hudson and the Housatonic more attractive.

At the time the county was founded, “official” towns were limited to upper and lower Housatonic, and Poontusuck. Although Poontusuck had been temporarily abandoned drinking the French and Indian War.

As we discussed in the history of Sheffield,  New York landholders claimed southwestern Massachusetts based on purchases 1685-1704 from the Indians called the Westenhook patent.  At one time, New York claimed their boundary ran to the Connecticut River.  As indicated by the map below, there was still, as of 1761,  controversy about the border remained.

Early Berkshire County Potential Townships
Early Berkshire County Potential Townships

Settlement, the royal Massachusetts government reasoned, would help establish the border.  In fact, the Massachusetts-New York border was not finally settled until a 1787 survey done by David Rittenhouse and Thomas Hutchins.

Many of the grants made prior to the formation of Berkshire County were in what would become Lenox.
Many of the grants made prior to the formation of Berkshire County were in what would become Lenox.

Detail of the early county map shows the land grants that had been given out prior to the establishment of Berkshire County.  Many of them fell into what would become Lenox.

Finally, settlement meant revenue for the commonwealth from land sales and income from settlers.  The Stamp Act was coming and the English were scrambling to pay for the French and Indian War.

The Wild West

Because of the fear of raids, the border disputes–and of course– the mountains Berkshire County remained largely unsettled. What would become Lenox had only a handful of families at the time.  In Beer’s History of Berkshire County (page 66)* a 1744 Berkshire County population of 500 is estimated.  We have not yet found a source for an estimate as of 1761 but 1,000 would be a reasonable guess based on the 1744 population. As shown below, settlement was still limited primarily to Sheffield and Stockbridge.  Poontoosuc (later Pittsfield) had been settled then temporarily abandoned during the last French and Indian War.

The other demarcations show grants made to individuals.  Many of them would be incorporated into what would later become Lenox.

Trails had only begun to be improved to be anything like roads.  Anything that wasn’t swamp or rock was dense original growth forest with only a few meadows along the rivers.*  The hearty initial settlers would have to have been good with an ax if they intended to farm.

The Governor Makes it Official

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Sir Francis Bernard (1712-1777

Francis Bernard (Sir Francis Bernard, the title granted after his return to England) was the royal governor of Massachusetts from 1760-1768.

He had an interesting history including being awarded Mount Dessert Island (Maine was then part of Massachusetts at the time) for his service.  HIs service was an illustration of the close circle of patronage of Colonial posts in North America.  His neighbor in England, Thomas Pownall had been an earlier governor of Massachusetts and his wife was a cousin of Lord Barrington who became Privy Councilor in 1755.  Sir Francis had been governor of New Jersey 1758-1760.

The merit of his appointment can be questioned in retrospect.  His strict and harsh enforcement of the Navigation Acts, the Sugar Act and other revenue acts contributed to the Revolution.  He sought to have British troops stationed in Boston and was finally recalled in 1769 after publication of letters in which he criticized the Colonies.

One can imagine him being petitioned by the General Assembly and whatever the lobbyists of the time were to encourage settlement of the western part of the state.  Landowners and speculators, among others, would have been interested in improving the value of their holdings.

Berkshire County UKVirginiaWater_AerialView
Berkshire County, UK; Great Windsor Park

He named the new county for the county of his birth in England.  In 1974 the town of his birth,  Brightwell-cum- Sotwell became part of Oxfordshire.  In southeastern England, Berkshire is one of the oldest counties in England (thought to date from the 840’s) and is the home of Windsor Castle.


*History of Berkshire County, Massachusetts, with Biographical Sketches of its Prominent Men, Vol. I,  edited by Mr. J.E.A. Smith, J.B. Beers & Co. New York, 1885


Settlement of Berkshire County Begins With Sheffield

Settlement of Berkshire County Begins with Sheffield

As early as 1662, John Pynchon, son of the founder of Springfield, attempted to establish a trading post on the Housatonic between what would become Sheffield and Ashley Falls.  The area was too wild to sustain the post but it does indicate the area was known to the English settlers of the Connecticut River Valley.

What an Early Woodland Path Might Have Looked Like
What an Early Woodland Path Might Have Looked Like

In 1725, with authorization from the Massachusetts General Assembly a committee bought from Sachem Konkapot the southwestern corner of what would become Berkshire County.  The tract was about 12 miles wide and 18 miles long and included much of modern-day Sheffield, Great Barrington Egremont and Mount Washington as well as parts of what would become Alford, Stockbridge, West Stockbridge and Lee.

Purchased from Chief Konkapot

Originally called Outhotonnook (later corrupted as Housatonic), meaning “over the mountain”, the land was purchased by a committee approved by the General Court on April 25, 1724, from Chief Konkapot and 20 other Mahican Indians. Its price was 460 pounds, 3 barrels of cider and 30 quarts of rum. The committee was to manage apportionment of land and supervise settlement (see New England Town Formation).

First Settler Mathew Noble from Westfield

The lower township of Housatonic (as Outhotonnook would be corrupted) was first settled by Matthew Noble of Westfield, who arrived in 1725. Many of the earliest English settlers came from Westfield.  These would, like many other early settlers of the Berkshires, have been ambitious, hearty frontier people whose parents or grandparents would have been initial settlers of the Connecticut River Valley or lower Housatonic Valley.  The New World economy was still driven by land and rapid population growth meant buying low and selling  high was the entrepreneurship of the day.  It would have been hard work.  Mathew Noble spent the first winter, entirely alone except for a few Mahicans, clearing and putting up rudimentary shelter.  His 16 year old daughter (one of nine Noble children) would follow in June wending her way through the dense woods riding on horseback with her mattress.

Importance for Lenox History

Sheffield was not only the first settlement but one to which Lenox had many direct ties.  Theodore Sedgwick first practiced here and defended the famous Mumbet who was owned by Sheffield resident Colonel Ashley.  The final “battle” of Shay’s rebellion was fought here.

The family names of the initial Sheffield settlers would find their way into Lenox and the rest of the Berkshires….including Ingersoll, Dewey, Judd, and Egleston.

Beginnings of Berkshire County Late in Colonial Period

What would become Berkshire County (1761) was settled relatively late in the colonial period because:

the 85 years of wars with New France and their Indians allies discouraged settlement in wilderness areas

-there were border disputes between the Dutch and the English; and later,  the royal provinces of New York and Massachusetts

Sheffield Landscape DSCN9314
Sheffield, at least according to its historians, had some of the most farmable land in the county

-better farmland was, at least until the 18th century, elsewhere (Connecticut and Hudson River Valleys)

-hills, thick woods and, other than a few Indians trails(one roughly along modern route 23) and the Housatonic River, the area was impenetrable.

At the time of the earliest European settlement in the Berkshires, the hilly and heavily wooded area was sparsely populated by Native Americans – primarily Mahicans.

The earliest known European inhabitants of the Berkshires probably would have been Dutch. In the 1680’s Dutchmen from New York started buying up parcels from the Indians, consolidated by the colony of New York into the patent of Westenhook granted to a syndicate of New York investors.  The patent included much of modern day Litchfield and Berkshire County.  The New York colony made the grant based on the prior claim of New Netherland to all land west of the Connecticut River. However, there is no evidence to suggest that there were more than a handful who actually settled in Berkshire County.

Be sure to check out the Sheffield Historical Society which has research materials, exhibits and many interesting events.

Also see josfamily history website, (Sheffield Frontiertown, Lillian Priess, 1976 Sheffield Bicentennial Committee), The Housatonic, Puritan River, by Chard Powers Smith, Rinehart and Company, 1946, Early Life in Sheffield Berkshire County, Massachusetts, A Portrait of its Ordinary People from Settlement to 1860, James R. Miller, Sheffield Historical Society 2002