Bidwell Lore – Joab Benney in Stockbridge

Welcome to Bidwell Lore number 134! We continue our Agrippa Hull series this week with a post about Joab Benney in Stockbridge.

Portrait of Agrippa Hull, unknown artist, unknown date. Acc# 47.002. Courtesy of the Stockbridge Library Museum & Archives.
Painted from an 1845 daguerreotype taken by Anson Clark in West Stockbridge, also in the collection of the Stockbridge Library Museum & Archives.

Joab Benney and Stockbridge
Rick Wilcox, 2022

In our last installment, we discussed Reverend Jonathan Edwards and a freed Black man named Joab Benney who married Rose, a formerly enslaved man in the household of Rev. Jonathan Edwards. The articles last week and this week are to provide some context about what life would have eventually been like for Agrippa Hull.

Turning to Stockbridge, where Joab Benney settled, we can learn a little bit more about what a free Black man had to contend with from his fellow townspeople. Barnabas Bidwell’s mother-in-law, Sarah Spring Gray (Click HERE to read more about the Gray Family in a Bidwell Lore from 2020) was married to James Gray, Jr., a first cousin of Ephraim Williams, Jr. This was because James Gray, Jr.’s father was married to Ephraim Williams, Sr.’s sister. Ephraim Williams, Jr., who later gave the money that led to the founding of Williams College, authored the following bill of sale: “For and in consideration of the sum of two hundred- and twenty-five-pounds old tenor, to me Ephraim Williams, Jr. well and truly paid by Israel Williams of Hatfield. I do hereby assign, sell and convey to him a certain negro boy named Prince aged about nine years, a servant for life, and do hold him and his heirs against the claims of any person whatsoever as witness my hand this 25th day of September anno Domini 1750. Ephraim Williams, Jr.” Ephraim Williams, Jr., died not too many years later in 1755 at a battle at Lake George, New York, during the French & Indian War. In Ephraim Williams, Jr.’s will, he said: ‘I give and bequeath to my beloved brothers my homestead at Stockbridge, with all the buildings and appurtenances thereupon belonging, with all the stock of Cattle and Negro servants now upon the place.’” [1]

The year before his 1755 death, Ephraim sold his home site to his younger step-brother, Elijah. Normally the deed [2] would have been found only at the Hampden County Registry of Deeds in Springfield, but because the land was involved in a complicated land swap between the English colonists and the Mohican proprietors, it was also recorded in Pittsfield. In 1765, the Indian Proprietors petitioned the colonial government asking that they be allowed to sell some of their property to pay off debt. While that land swap is a story for another day, it is sufficient to say that the colonists gained land and the Mohicans were further dispossessed of land in that 1765 exchange. Ephraim Williams, Jr., should not have been able to acquire the land in the first place.

Under that dark cloud of slavery, Joab Benny managed to thrive as a landowner and businessman in Stockbridge. The Hampden County Registry of Deeds in Springfield holds a deed where a Stockbridge Mohican John Skushawmh (Skushawmn) was the grantor of fifty acres to “Negroman Joab,” under Liber Y, Folio 26a.   

“To all People to whom these Presents Shall Come Greetings Whereas the Great & General Court or Assembly of this Province at their sessions in Boston in said Province on the 25th Day of January anno Dom 1754 by their orders of that Date (made in answer to the Petition of John Skushawmh of Stockbridge Indian man) Order me the Subscriber to Enquire into the Circumstances of the said Petitioner & if I Should think proper to make Sale of his lands in said Petition mention & cause the Produce thereof to be applyed to the Support & Maintenance of the said Petitioner & his Family and Whereas on Consideration of the Circumstances of the said Petitioner I did adjudge it absolutely Necessary for ye Comfort & Support of said Petitioner & his family that said Lands Should be Sold & the Produce thereof apply to the Same Purpose & Whereas I according agreed with & Sold the Same to one Joab a Negroman a Freeman of said Stockbridge Husbandman for the Sum of thirteen pounds Six Shillings & Eight pence money which he has accordingly paid for ye Same. Therefore, by Virtue of the power afores to me granted & in Consideration of the Said Sum of Thirteen pounds Six Shillings & Eight pence money already paid & Secured by said Joab I John Worthington of Springfield in the County of Hampshire & Province afore Esq. Do hereby bargain Sell Convey & Confirm unto him the said Joab a Certain Tract of Land lying in said Stockbridge being the Northerly part of a lott of Land that was laid out in said Township to said Indian man & Surveyed by Timothy Dwight Esq. Lying in the Southerly part of said Township & on the East Side of the Road leading from Stockbridge to Sheffield & is bounded as follows viz. Northerly on land of Stephen Nash Easterly on Koncopots Brook so Called,[1] Westerly on said Road & Extend so far Southerly as to make up the Contents of fifty acres & so bounding Southerly on the Residue of said lott, To Have and To Hold the before Granted premises with the appurtenances & privileges to the same Belonging to him the said Joab his Heirs & assigns forever to his & their own proper use benefit & behoofe forever as a good absolute Estate of Inheritance In fee Simple In Witness whereof I the said John Worthington have hereunto Set my hand & seal this 25th Day of September in the 29th Year of the Reign of George the Second King of England etc Annoq Dom 1755 Signed, Sealed & D (being first duly Stamp) In Presence of T. Dwight Junr. Joseph Hawley. John Worthington & Seal. Hampsh SS Sept 25th 1755 The John Worthington Esq. appeared & acknowledged the foregoing Instrument to be his act & Deed. Before Joseph Hawley Just Pac. Rec November 15th 1755 and Recorded from the Original By me Edw Pynchon Reg”

In 1755, the road from Stockbridge to Sheffield ran, in part, south on what is now Goodrich Street, turned left onto Clark Road, and then went along the ridge of Evergreen Hill, then running along current Monument Valley Road. South Street, Route 7 from Cherry Hill Road south to the Great Barrington town line, was constructed in 1803. Berkshire County was created in 1761, prior to that the current four western counties of Massachusetts were one county called Hampshire County. [4]

Next week we will recap the origins of Stockbridge to help put some of this story in context.

**Correction: Near the end of last week’s article we said the following “In 1760, Aaron Burr was placed under the guardianship of his Uncle Timothy Edwards (brother to Jonathan),…”. Timothy was actually the son of Jonathan Edwards. We apologize for any confusion!**

1. Williams College Library
2. Book 3, Page 288, Berkshire Middle Registry of Deeds, Pittsfield, Ma
3. Konkapot’s Brook. In my youth, it was referred to as Peggy’s Brook, after Peggy Hull
4. An email from Bernie Drew on June 27, 2022, explains further: “The route from Alcott Road split, part going to Monterey, part going west, over Lover’s Lane, up the (now fire lane) side of Monument Mountain (it’s still there — both the part widened as an auto road and, just uphill, the original Native American trail) and it curled down the hill to come out on Division Street’s eastern extension (opposite Taft Farms) and continued into town. The highway was several times changed… there’s more about that in my Monument Mountain book. It didn’t go by Fountain Pond until the 1950s.”