In my last post I discussed projecting slavery in the Northeast onto “undesirable” or “loser” groups by way of containing it. Or, if you will, in the service of sanitizing the overarching narrative of American history. During my Masters program at Brandeis I did a lot of research into how slavery in Cambridge (and the overall Boston area) is projected onto loyalists. Lately I’ve been trying to examine how slavery is contained and where it is projected when we discover that (gasp) patriots either enslaved Africans or were complicit in their enslavement.
It is very easy for me to wax poetic about the beauty of Western Massachusetts. Nestled in the Berkshire Hills the region I like to call home (even though my ability to do so is controversial) is a picturesque blend of sylvan countryside, mountains, college towns, old factories, and creative economies. Before I start sounding too much like a Frommers guide I will say that, culturally, Western Mass is rather different from Boston and the east. For instance in cities and towns such as North Adams, Lanesborough, and Cheshire one is just as likely to see a NY Yankees pennant in front of a house than a Red Sox one (an act that would be considered heresy in Boston). Part of this is, of course, due to proximity to New York State. As I type this I am sitting almost exactly a six minute drive from the NY Border.
Part of this also has to do with the fact that Western Massachusetts was, at around the time of the American Revolution, the frontier. Westward expansion was not solely the domain of Manifest Destiny and the American west. Starting in the 18th century Western MA was settled by a mix of pioneers and prospectors who were either soldiers stationed at Fort Massachusetts, those attempting to contain Dutch colonial expansion, or those who perhaps genuinely wanted to embrace the notion of settlement and the frontier.
The town of Cheshire, which lies in the Berkshire Hills about a 20 minute drive south from my parents’ place in Williamstown, was settled by families from Rhode Island. The original name of the settlement was New Providence, a monument to which stands on top of Stafford Hill. Please enjoy this link until I can manage to get the photos from the phone to my computer. One of the drawbacks of being out here is that on a good day I get a single bar on my cellphone.
ETA: Here’s the sign for it. Hopefully pictures of the actual monument will be coming soon.
I am trying to figure out more about the families who emigrated from Rhode Island to Western MA, as many of them had last names such as Jenks, Wells, and Brown. Some of you may remember I have done research into prominent Rhode Island families and I would like to know if these particular Browns are connected. It would be particularly fortuitous if so since one Capt. Daniel Brown, who fought with Gen. John Stark at the Battle of Bennington, operated a rum distillery in present-day Cheshire which distilled rum from sugar grown on Caribbean plantations. The Reynolds General Store and the Town Hall stand there today, both of which I will hopefully have pictures of soon. Until then, enjoy this tasty link.
Virtually nobody I have spoken to during the course of my research seems to be aware of the distillery, the monument or the origins of Cheshire. Upon hearing of my research interests their interest as been piqued, so I owe a great deal to the staff at Cheshire Town Hall and the Berkshire Atheneum, to start with. More shout-outs as my research progresses.
The little bit I have heard about slavery in this neck of the woods has a common thread; the projection of the cruelties of slavery onto New Yorkers. The south Berkshire town of Sheffield, MA has a historic house known as the Col. John Ashley House. Ashley, a soldier in the American Revolution, had as part of his household an enslaved woman who would take the name Elizabeth Freeman after winning her freedom in a court case. When I toured the Ashley House, the docent took pains to point out that “slaves were treated more harshly in neighboring New York” (personal interview, 15 July 2012). Meanwhile, Robert RR Brooks (2005) writes in his history of the area about a formerly enslaved man who (coincidentally enough) lives on the same hill as my parents. Again, I hope to post a picture of the general area soon but until now I will let Brooks speak for himself: “Prince Jackson celebrated the first anniversary of his freedom today . For many years a slave in New York State, he was set free . . . and came to work in Williamstown . . . With New England rum at twenty-five cents a callon, he can afford to have a dance and treat his friends from Broad Brook who are not so fortunate. No one can say that Prince does not enjoy his freedom.” Here, New York seems to represent the harshness of slavery while New England represents the joys of freedom.
Thoughts on this? I would particularly appreciate feedback and musings on the frontier mentality.