Bidwell Lore – The Division of Land Around Lake Agawam

Welcome to Bidwell Lore number 139! This week in our Agrippa Hull series we will talk about the division of land around Lake Agawam where many of the free Black families in Stockbridge lived.

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.

The Division of Land Around Lake Agawam

Rick Wilcox, 2022

This week we are going to start by talking about the division of lands in Stockbridge. On September 21, 1780, Hannah Mhuttawampe and her daughter Elizabeth Soutosquoth, upon the death of Hannah’s father, Great John, petitioned the Massachusetts General Court asking to be allowed to sell their land at what is now the Stockbridge Library at 46 Main Street and The Old Corner House at 48 Main Street. The court, granted by a resolve, allowed them to sell the land. The women retained a few acres in the Glendale section of town. John Mhuttawampe (Great John) had acquired the land in June of 1750 via an Indian Proprietor’s grant. The size and location of the grant indicate that Great John held an important place in the tribal hierarchy. A deed search of those properties revealed that Great John, at an earlier date, had petitioned the government and the government had sent back a resolve allowing the sale of his land. The same land was sold twice, a very small victory for a dispossessed people.

In August of 1780, the Mohican proprietors of all of the land in Stockbridge met and “voted to dispose of all the common or undivided land in Mudy Brook Swamp in the south part of town to pay the Publick debts. Voted and chose Joseph Shauquethquot, Jehoiakim Mtohksin, Hendrick Aupaumut and Jehoiakim Naunaumpetonk a committee to survey the aforesaid swamp and petition the General Court for liberty to sell the same, and also to look into the public debts of the proprietors and report a state of the same to the next meeting, with power to sell said land and give deeds of the same to such persons as shall purchase said land.” As you may remember from previous installments of Bidwell Lore in which we discussed the Indian Proprietorships, the English settlers, between 1740 and 1785, dispossessed the Mohicans of 23,040 acres of their land through a number of schemes, the use of credit to create debt being one of the most common.

Muddy Brook owes its genesis to Muddy Brook Swamp, which is fed by the waters of the Great Spring and the Monument Mountain watershed. This empties into Muddy Brook, which flows north to merge with Taupaugoh Brook, aka Konkapot Brook or Peggy’s Brook, where their combined waters enter the Housatonic River. In the 18th century, Muddy Brook Swamp acreage was most often purchased by wealthy English settlers primarily to be used as wood lots. Muddy Brook Swamp is now called Lake Agawam, one of several name changes it went through after being dispossessed from the Stockbridge Mohicans. In the 19th century, Lake Agawam was called Negro Swamp and in the 20th century, it had an incredibly offensive name that we will not print here.

In 1790, there were 64 free Blacks living in Stockbridge, 18 of them living in the homes where they were formerly enslaved. The remaining 46 free Blacks made up 11 families who owned or lived on land largely between Muddy Brook Swamp [1] and north to roughly Cherry Hill and Cherry Streets in Stockbridge.

1790 Census of Stockbridge, Enumerator H.W. Dwight, Showing Free Blacks

While doing my research for this story, I decided to check to see if burials were segregated in the 1750 “Old Section” of the Stockbridge Town Cemetery. The so-called Section One of the Cemetery was created in 1848. The map in the town records for Section One does not contain ethnic backgrounds. The document below is a list of graves marked by numbers in the 1750 “Old Section” which was “Copied from records taken by R.O. Deming [2] & Stephen Tucker [3] by a vote of Burying Ground Committee.” Mary Jane Goodrich was the town historian during the time of that search. The graves were marked by numbers probably because those buried in that manner could not afford a headstone. It appears that most Blacks were buried in the northeast section of the 1750 Old Section of the cemetery. That section borders the Potters Field, where markers were only a small stone with a number to mark their grave. At least two graves are Civil War markers for members of the 54th, one with the name Williams.

However, I did find the following in an article in 1835, “Our Burial Place,” by Catharine Sedgwick:

But there is a burial place toward which my heart yearneth, and its yellow sands seem to me as they did to a little fellow of my acquaintance, who was being transplanted to a new soil, and seeing there a coffin let into a wet grave, and thrust down amidst intersecting roots, cried out, ‘Oh take me home, and bury me in the nice warm sand at S______!’ In the warm sands of that burial place, in a deep valley enclosed by mountains, and overshadowed by a green hill that rises like a protecting wall above it, how many friends (friends dear as life) and familiar acquaintances are laid! In the centre of this hallowed ground there used to stand two tall old pines. Every silver whisper of their stems spoke to the soul. They have been cut down! Peace to him, for he was a harmless man, who did this sacrilege, because forsooth his view of a flaming red church was obstructed by these two mournful sentinels! It was most foul murder – murder and treason.
A little farther on, for here – shame to us! The colored people are laid apart, – we buried ‘old Jo.’ He would, if he dared, have protested against this location, for Jo was an ‘extra inclusive’ in life, and on his death-bed gave his apparel to my friend ___, whom he considered a first gentleman in the country.” [4]

We also have this, from the book One Minute a Free Woman: Elizabeth Freeman and the Struggle for Freedom:
“Because of the suffocating inequality of status and opportunity, few Blacks came to freedom with the money or credit needed to purchase enough land suitable for a farm that could support his family and produce a surplus for sale, or to build their own home. When they became free what they all had was their freedom – just that. As slaves they owned no land, owned little productive property such as a plow or horse, and had little cash. As free persons who had limited access to the money or credit that would buy these things, banks or mortgage companies and other money-lenders did not view them as good risks, often just because they were Black. Merchants did sell to some Blacks on credit and then took payment in produce or meat, wood, or labor. Paying with one’s labor put Black men in a no-win position of having to choose between paying one’s bills or making their own land as productive as possible.” [5]

Next week we will talk a bit more about land division and the Indian Proprietors.

1. Lake Agawam today, as mentioned in the preceding paragraph.
2. Ralph Deming lived next to the burying ground.
3. Stephen Tucker was a longtime grave digger, often paid for his services by the town.
4. Sedgwick, Catharine Maria, “Our Burial Place,” Knickerbocker, November 1835: 388-392.
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), page 141.