Bidwell Lore – Life with Joab Benney

Welcome to Bidwell Lore number 137! We continue our series this week with a bit more about Joab Benney, with whom Agrippa Hull lived as a child, and what happened to his estate after he died. 

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.

Life with Joab Benney
Rick Wilcox, 2022

Last week we ended the post discussing Rose Benney’s admittance to the church. While researching this series, it seemed worth the time and effort to check all the Congregational Church Records to see how many people of color became members of the church between 1731 and 1853. According to the records, Peter Sharp joined in 1767; Cato, a servant to Major Gray [1] joined in 1773; Rose Benney, as we already know, became a member in 1771; Edward Mundy joined in 1785; Agrippa Hull’s second wife Margaret Timbrook joined in 1804; Tamar Binney (Benney) Kellis joined in 1809; Jane Bates in 1810; Penelope Fortune Humphrey joined in 1822; and Laminta Elkey Humphrey in 1827. Agrippa Hull became a member in 1827 and then Mary Hull Way in 1838. That is a total of eleven people in 122 years. [2] That does not mean that other people of color did not attend. It only means they did not become members of the church.

We have spent the last few installments of Bidwell Lore talking about Joab Benney. Agrippa Hull was sent to live with Benney in 1766, a few years after the death of his father. Below is the first part of the last Will and Testament of Joab Benney found at the Stockbridge Library. The will runs onto two pages, which are shared here with a transcription of each page below the image.

Joab Benney’s will begins above, page 311, on the right-hand side of the page

 311 The last Will & Testament of Joab Benney of Stockbridge made this 10th day of Nov AD 1783 – First I humbly resign my Soul into the hands of God & my body to the Dust, trusting in his Mercy, that the redeemer, that they will be gloriously united at the general resurrection. Concerning my real & personal property, my will is, That as much of land be Sold by my executors, herein named, as will pay all my just Debts: Also as much of the land or real Estate which I have herein given to my Daughter Tamar as my said Executor Shall Judge president –
That my said Daughter have one Cow and one third part of my real Estate which Shall remain after the payment of my Debts as above Possessed, & That my friend Timothy Edwards Esqr. be her Guardian – That I have all the Money Due or which Shall be due for my tanning which may not have been collected before my decease.

Joab Benney’s will continues above on pages 312 and 313

312 That She have one half of all my implements of Household – That my wife Rose have use of one Third of my Real Estate as above described, During her natural life – That she have one half of my implements of household, all my wearing apparel, firearms, all my Swine, one Cow, two Young Cattle all my hay & forage of every kind; my place & all the provisions of my house to be hers forever – What I have herein Given to my Wife is on condition that She relinquish her Right to Dower in my Estate – That my Daughter Clamira have all the remainder of Estate both Real & personal at the age of twenty one Years, but my said Wife Rose to have the use of it until that time, She keeping  & Returning it as Good repair as when she takes it, provided she Supports said Clamira while she may not be able to Support herself – That at the decease of my said Wife my daughter Tamara have that third part of my Real Estate which is herein given to my Wife during her Life. That my friend Honorable Jahleel Woodbridge Esqr. be executor of my last Will & Testament; That he together with my friend Deacon Stephen Nash appraise & divide my Estate Real & personal according to my Will as above Presented & make Return unto the
313 Probate Court of this County –
Signed Sealed Published pronounced Declared as the Last will & Testament by Joab Benney
Joab Benney & Seal

Berkshire SS At a Court of Probate holden at Stockbridge within the County of Berkshire on the first day June AD 1784 Before the Honorable Timothy Edwards Esqr. Judge of said Court – His Will is presented for Probate by the Honorable Jahleel Woodbridge [3] the Executor therein named & Ira Seymour Ruth Seymour & Wm. Nelson personally appeared & made Solemn Oath that they saw Joab Benney Sign & Seal this Will that they heard him publish pronounce & Declare the Same to be his last Will & Testament That he then appeared to them to be of A Sound disposing mind & Memory, that they Subscribed their Names in the presence of Each other the presence of the Testator, Therefore this Will is approved Ratified & Confirmed as the Last Will & Testament of the said Joab Benney the Testator. By Tim Edwards J: Probate [4]

After Joab died, his wife Rose remarried. “By 1793 Rose had remarried, to a man named Frank Salter, and Tamar married a Jamaican man, Thomas Kellis, from Pittsfield on November 14, 1797. Admitted to the Stockbridge church in 1809, Tamar and her husband lived in Stockbridge. They had a son, Charles, born 1800, but he died in 1819, and another son Joab, born in 1803. Tamar died on July 11, 1820. Joab Kellis, Tamar’s son, became the first Black physician in Stockbridge. Yet he spent his last years in poverty, boarding with Margaret Hull in the 1850s and 1860s, and the town picking up the costs for his medical care and funeral in 1866.” [5] The 1855 map of Stockbridge shows Thomas Kellis living in a house off Clark Road, likely on land formerly owned by his grandfather Joab Benney.

There is very little information about Agrippa’s early life, though it seems likely that his playmates would have been members of his adopted family. However, Joab Benney’s neighbors were Mohican families, including Honnis (Johannis) Mtocksin, [6] Poochoss, Aaron Wauwauwoos, Jacob Naunaumptaunk, John Skoshaump, and Ebenezer Poopoonuck. Poopoonuck served as an interpreter for the Rev. John Sergeant and as a neighbor might have provided opportunities for the Benny family to learn the Mohican language. It is likely that Agrippa had regular contact with members of the tribe, if for no other reason than that Joab Benney, as a tanner [7], might have provided tanning services to tribal members. That Joab was granted an additional 30 acres by the Indian Proprietors seems to suggest he might have provided services to them at little or no cost. Joab was located in the southeast corner of Stockbridge where his property bordered the Taupaugoh Brook, later called Konkapot Brook, and later still named after Agrippa’s second wife Margaret and called Peggy’s Brook. The brook, as a water source, was important to the tanning process as were the nearby hemlock trees.  

Next week we will share what happened to Agrippa’s mother, Bathsheba.

1. Major James Gray was the husband of Sarah Spring Gray and father of Mary Gray Bidwell, wife of Barnabas Bidwell.
2. Field, Rev. David Dudley, An Historical Sketch, Congregational, of the Church in Stockbridge, Mass. (New York: J. A. Gray, 1853)
3. Jahleel Woodbridge was married to Lucy Edwards, sister of Timothy Edwards. Jahleel sold half of Benny’s land to Oliver Partridge and the remaining 25 acres to Elizur Deming, Joab’s neighbor to the south.
4. Joab Benney Collection, Stockbridge Library Museum & Archives.
5. Piper, Emilie and Levinson, David. One Minute a Free Woman: Elizabeth Freeman and the Struggle for Freedom (Salisbury, CT: Upper Housatonic National Heritage, 2010), pp 96-97
6. Mtohksin later moved to Cherry Street where he had a working farm.
7. A tanneur, or tanner, prepared the skins of animals with tan or tannin (tree bark powder), in order to produce leather by hand. A tannery was where the tanner worked. Tanning was considered a noxious or “odoriferous trade” and relegated to the outskirts of town and near a river or stream, usually amongst the poor. jobs