Bidwell Lore – The Dispossession of Mohican Land by the Ball Family, Part II

This week we continue a new series titled “Dispossession of Stockbridge Mohican Land by the Ball Family, 1772-1781” written by Rick Wilcox. Over the next several weeks, Rick will share the story of Isaac Ball and his role in the Mohicans losing their land in and around Stockbridge.

Dispossession of Stockbridge Mohican Land by the Ball Family 1772-1781
Isaac Ball (1744-1784)
Rick Wilcox 2022

Now that we have given you some background on Isaac Bell (you can read Part I HERE), let’s move on to the topic of Stockbridge. In June of 1750, the colonial government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony created an Indian (Mohican) Proprietorship for the distribution of land in Stockbridge, then made up of both the towns of Stockbridge and West Stockbridge. The proprietorship was created as the result of illegal land taking by English colonists, largely the efforts of Ephraim Williams, Sr., his family, and friends. At least in theory the proprietorship would have allowed the Mohicans to control the distribution of land. It was within the legal bounds of this proprietorship system that Isaac Ball and his brother Jonathan Ball acquired several parcels of land for both personal and commercial use.

For the reader to understand how the proprietorship functions, I have included the following from an op-ed I wrote in 2021 for the Berkshire Eagle in order to help Stockbridge residents make an informed decision when voting to approve or disapprove an article transferring three Mohican documents back to the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of the Mohicans. We also included this op-ed in a Bidwell Lore from May 2021, but with so many new subscribers, it made sense to share it again.

At the May 17th [2021] Annual Town Meeting Stockbridge residents will be asked to vote on the final resting place for three Stockbridge Mohican Proprietorship documents two of which were recently rescued from the “Old Town Hall” by Chris Marsden. Although the Town Clerk’s Office and the Stockbridge Library Museum & Archives both harbor a number of primary source documents relating to the Stockbridge Mohican mission, the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of the Mohicans in Wisconsin do not possess a single document from their time in Stockbridge during the years 1737 to 1790. The following narrative will help to provide a historical context for the documents. 

             On May 7, 1737, Jonathan Belcher, the colonial governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay in New England, issued a Charter for Indian Town on behalf of King George the Second, which was not to exceed six miles square, (36 square miles or 23,040 acres) encompassing land that is now the towns of Stockbridge and West Stockbridge. 1/60 of Indian Town or 384 acres was to be given to the Missionary the Rev. John Sergeant, 1/60 to Timothy Woodbridge, the schoolmaster, and 1/60 to each of the four English families allowed to settle there, who were chosen to provide a Christian example for the Mohican families.

             During the 18th century in Massachusetts, proprietorships were a common method for creating townships in the Berkshires. Those townships were created when members of the Stockbridge Mohican Tribe would sell a tract of land to English colonists, who were frequently land speculators. Those English colonizers, in turn, after becoming proprietors of that plantation (unimproved land), would sell smaller tracts of land to individuals who wanted to live on the land, or in some cases, on a smaller scale, buyers became speculators as well. Indian Town was unique in that the Tribe was granted their plantation by Royal Charter and as such a proprietorship was not needed.   

             However, not long after Indian Town was incorporated into the Town of Stockbridge in 1739, English colonists began to obtain land through illegal, questionably legal transactions, or outright theft, causing the Sachems of the tribe to petition the Great and General Court of the Province for help. By June of 1750, the Provincial government created an Indian Proprietorship with the hope of protecting the Stockbridge Mohicans from further dispossession of their land. Although proprietorships were subject to Provincial and later Massachusetts State law, they were distinct entities and not a part of Town government.

            From shortly after the Indian Proprietorship was formed in 1750 until just weeks before his death on May 10th, 1774, Timothy Woodbridge, the schoolmaster to the Indian Town Mission, acted, at the request of the Stockbridge Mohicans, as the clerk of the Indian Proprietorship.

            On April 25th, 1774, just weeks prior to his death, Timothy Woodbridge presided over his last Mohican Proprietorship meeting at William Goodrich’s inn. By a vote of the Tribal Sachems, Timothy Woodbridge’s son Enoch Woodbridge was chosen as clerk of the Indian Proprietorship. William Goodrich and Samuel Brown, Jr., were chosen to take care of the Tribal “out lands,” that is, land not yet distributed by the Proprietorship. That turned out to be only the first step in a move to control the land transfers from Mohican to English ownership. The meeting was adjourned to Wednesday the 4 Day of May at Two of the Clock in the afternoon at the Dwelling house of Capt. Solomon Uhhaunnauwaunmut. 

              The Stockbridge Mohicans trusted Timothy Woodbridge enough that they referred to him by the honorific Father in one of their petitions to the colonial government. The Sachems’ relationship with Timothy Woodbridge may have caused them to believe that his son Enoch would be cut from the same cloth. Unfortunately, that was not the case, as by May 30th Enoch Woodbridge and Samuel Brown, Jr., were able to convince the proprietors to cede control of the daily business of the proprietorship and accept by vote the following language taken from the Indian Proprietor’s Records: “The Proprietors met according to adjournment and voted, chose, Constituted and appointed Samuel Brown Junr. Esq. Mr. Enoch Woodbridge Agents & Attorneys for said Proprietors.”  The next two pages were filled with legalese, but the essence of the language enabled Enoch and Samuel to gain complete control of the distribution of land.

           Likely the Sachems quickly learned that Enoch Woodbridge and Samuel Brown, Jr., were only concerned about acquiring land for themselves and other English colonists, and yet it took six long years to undo their agreement. Following the legal requirements of the newly minted Commonwealth of Massachusetts, they posted the following notice: a “Proprietors Meeting was called on Monday the 20th Day of March 1780 at the house of Hendrick Ampaumut for the following Purposes (viz.) First To Chuse a Moderator for said Meeting 2ly To see if the Proprietors will chuse a New Clerk and Proceeded to pass the following Votes (viz.) First Voted and chose Jahleel Woodbridge Moderator. 6ly Voted and Chose Jahleel Woodbridge Esq. Clerk and he was sworn according to law.”

             That six years passed before the Indian Proprietors were able to untangle themselves from their arrangement with Enoch Woodbridge and Samuel Brown probably speaks to their inability to find someone they could trust and who would be willing to help undo that agreement. Enoch’s cousin Jahleel Woodbridge seemed to fit that need. Probably not long after the Tribal Sachems chose Jahleel as clerk in 1780, following legal protocol, they requested a meeting of the proprietors, by writing a letter to the clerk. That short letter, which follows, is one of the three documents that Stockbridge residents will vote on at the Annual Town Meeting:

  “To Jahleel Woodbridge Esqr.
  Sir. We the subscribers request you call a meeting of the Indian Proprietors to examine into the power given here to fore to certain persons as agents for said proprietors, to see how they exercise said power and whether it is expedient to continue or revoke the same, and to do any other business that may thus come under our consideration. Joseph Shauquethquat, Hendrick Aupaumut, Jehoiakim Naunuptonk, John Concopott (Konkapot), Jacob Concopott (Konkapot), Peter Pohqunnoppeet, Andrew Waumauhewhy, Joseph Quennukaut, Billy Notuaqssin, David Naunauneeknuk,”

The second document, likely penned by Jahleel Woodbridge, appears to be a rough draft for meeting minutes that would later be included in the Indian Proprietor Records. Those words either never made it into the Indian Proprietor Records, or they are among “missing” or later destroyed records that were part of the 8,600 acres unaccounted for in the final dispossession of the 23,040 acres making up Indian Town. The third document is the Indian Proprietor Record book containing all of the land grants issued to the members of the tribe by the Mohican proprietors of Stockbridge between 1750 and 1790.

           By 1780, the Mohicans were largely dispossessed of their land in Stockbridge and West Stockbridge and by 1783 they began their journey west into New York State to land given to them by the Oneida, walking some 160 miles to New Stockbridge, New York. Today the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of the Mohicans, in their ever-diplomatic way, represent their journey to a new home in Wisconsin using a “many trails” symbol. However, not unlike other Tribes, it was in reality a Trail of Tears. Today they are a thriving community with a deep interest in the history of their homeland, many of whom are direct descendants of the Sachems who signed the above letter. I would strongly urge Stockbridge voters to support the return of these documents to the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of the Mohicans.  

Next week we will dig a little more deeply into the Indiantown Charter.