Bidwell Lore – An Indian Town Recap

Welcome to Bidwell Lore number 135! We continue our Agrippa Hull series this week with a post recapping the creation of Indian Town (later Stockbridge) so readers can better understand how land was acquired in that town in the 18th century.

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.

Indian Town – A Recap
Rick Wilcox, 2022

In order the understand the land granted to Joab Benney mentioned at the end of last week’s email, we are going to recap the facts surrounding Indian Town (today’s Stockbridge), a topic much discussed during the course of Bidwell Lore. You can read past installments related to Indian Town HERE. On May 7, 1737, Jonathan Belcher, the colonial governor of the Province of the  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 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, 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 land, would sell smaller tracts 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 [1] 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 transactions, 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 10, 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 the above map, you can see Joab Benney’s name at the end of the list on the lower left where he is noted as the owner of lot 241.

On April 25, 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 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, and 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.

It is possible that the Sachems learned fairly quickly that Enoch Woodbridge and Samuel Brown, Jr., were only concerned about acquiring land for themselves and other English colonists. Even so, 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. 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 can be seen below:

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 colonial government in Boston set up an Indian Proprietorship so that the Mohican community could control the distribution of land in Stockbridge; however, it did not always work that way. As we know from the preceeding paragraphs, it was a system that at times could be manipulated. In theory, all the members of the tribe were proprietors, but in practice, the tribal sachems met on a regular basis and voted to grant land to members of the tribe. As a practice, the proprietors granted land to free Blacks at no cost. In Joab Benny’s case, the deed seems to suggest that John Skushawmh might have been in financial difficulty or poor health.  

Next week we will discuss a bit more about the land granted to Joab Benney.

1. A Plantation was unimproved land.