Bidwell Lore – The Mythology of Indiantown

Welcome to week 36 of Bidwell Lore where we discuss the Mythology of Indiantown (now Stockbridge).  We will be off next week and back with a new post on January 5th. 

“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” [1]

“A plat of 23,040 acres of land lying on both sides of the Housatonnuck river being A Grant made by the Great. Gen’l Court or Assembly of the Province of Massachusetts Bay March 20th 1736 to the Housatonnuck Tribe of Indians and ordered to be laid out by the Hon. John Stoddard & Eben’r Pomeroy & Thomas Ingersole Esqr. E begin at a monument of stones laid up east three degrees and fifteen minutes North four hundred fifty perch from Joakhim Vanvalkumburghs House and from hence we ran as describes in the Plat. He said House is N. 30 deg. five miles fifty rods from a monument of stones about sixty rods northerly from Peter Moses House reputed to be the divisional line between the two Housatonnuck Townships. Surveyed by the needle of the Instrument, April 1736 P. Timothy Dwight, Surveyor” [2]

View Near Stockbridge, Painting, Frederic Church
Frederic Church, View Near Stockbridge, 1847

Over time what has become the enduring myth of the Stockbridge Indian Mission is a story of Christian Missionary John Sergeant, struggling through the howling wilderness to preach and convert members of the Tribe, saving their souls and providing for them a safe haven in a fast-changing world at what was first called Indian Town and in 1737 by Royal Charter referred to as the Town of Stockbridge.

But that myth, as myths tend to be, was carved out of a greater story, involving almost as many dimensions as there were people involved. First let me share with you that I believe both missionaries, the Rev. John Sergeant and the Rev. Jonathan Edwards, were pure of heart, doing what they believed to be in the best interests of the Tribe. They, however, acted through the lens of their ethnocentric world where a good Christian and a good Englishman were mirror images of each other. It was also a worldview filtered by the political necessities of their position as community leaders. 

Christianity in Stockbridge then journeyed down that well-paved road of good intentions. Through their ethnocentric lens, the English encouraged members of the Tribe to build English style houses and fence in their property, while telling them that failing to do so would risk eternal damnation. The last step in the undermining of their culture was to insist that they no longer live a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle and disrupt the division of labor by trying to force the men of the Tribe to give up hunting and become good English farmers, when the job of raising crops was traditionally performed by women of the Tribe. Of course, the English were quite happy that over 100 Stockbridge Indians were willing to fight alongside them, volunteering during both the French & Indian War and the Revolutionary War. 

The Stockbridge Indians, who acquired that name during their time in Stockbridge, were actually a surviving band of the much larger Mohican Nation, which itself was part of an Algonquin language group that encompassed much of the northeast. It has been suggested that they approached Christianity as a means of survival through assimilation in a last-ditch effort to save their fast shrinking world that once encompassed all of the Hudson River Valley from Manhattan to Lake Champlain, and east as far as the Westfield River. It was a shrinking world, but despite outward claims to the contrary, it was the English settlers’ worship of land and not Christianity that became the driving force of change.

Today’s story continues to be a story of land. The English Massachusetts Bay colony, driven by political, territorial, and security concerns, wanted to create a buffer between itself and the Canadian French Catholics, whose Pope was considered by the Puritans to be the Anti-Christ, and their allied Indian Tribes in Canada, as well as to firmly establish its borders with New York and Connecticut. First line of defense was to develop relations with the Mohican Tribe to use them as a buffer, some might say as cannon fodder. Second, there was a squatter-like attitude in creating boundaries, especially with New York, which could be accomplished by buying land from the Tribe for settlement.

Ostensibly Stockbridge was created by the Great and General Court to bring all the Mohicans together in one place under the shelter of a Christian Mission and away from the corrupting influence of some less than Christian English and Dutch settlers. Rev. John Sergeant and the schoolmaster, Timothy Woodbridge (a great-grandson of the eastern Massachusetts Praying Towns founder, Rev. John Eliot), were chosen to live among the Tribe, along with four other English families, who were chosen to set a good Christian example for the Indians. History suggests they provided a somewhat different example. The reality, of course, was the need to greatly reduce the Tribal footprint on the land in Western Mass so that that major force of change land speculation could surge ahead.

Stockbridge, six miles square or 36 square miles or 23,040 acres, was butted up against the New York border. Shortly after the death of the Rev. John Sergeant in 1749 members of the Tribe began to complain about some of the English settlers being involved in unauthorized land takings. In 1750, the Great and General Court setup an Indian Proprietorship, so that, at least in theory, the Indians could control the distribution of land, protecting them from white land speculators. However, the undermining of cultural practices and beliefs, coupled with the unscrupulous behavior of some of the English settlers, meant that they soon fell into debt. The English style proprietorship allowed for individual ownership of land and that land ended up being the only commodity available to individual property owning members of the tribe to meet their debt obligations.

By 1765 the Great and General Court gave them permission to sell land to pay their debts. By 1785 the great majority of their land was sold and some 280 souls accepted an offer from the Oneida Indians to settle on their land, 160 miles to the west, on what became New Stockbridge, New York.

Land speculation was moving west into New York State as well and in violation of Federal law, New Stockbridge land was slowly being sold. In 1815 an attempt was made to create a settlement on the White River in Indiana among the Miami and the Delaware, but by 1821 the United States paid the Tribe $2,000 to relinquish their rights there. By 1824 members of the Tribe began moving to the Green Bay area in Wisconsin bordering Lake Winnebago and named a town Stockbridge, WI. Before also losing that land and then settling since a 185 Treaty on the land today west of Green Bay.

Today the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of the Mohicans is a thriving Tribal Nation with 1500 enrolled members living on a reservation at Bowler, Wisconsin. [3]  From macro to micro: it is important to examine the land issues in more detail. It was the creation of the Indian Proprietorship, meant to protect Tribal land from English speculators, that ended up hastening the loss of land. It also ended up creating a detailed legal history of the dispossession of Stockbridge Mohican land that is being pieced back together today.

[1] The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes, 2011.
[2] Chapter 272 of 1735-6, also Chapter 53 of 1737-8 and Vol. II, Page 28, Mass Archives.
[3] A more detailed history and information on the Mohican community today can be found at