Mohican history is the soul of Stockbridge
Bonney Hartley stands in front of the Mission House, where this summer the flag of the Stockbridge Munsee nation has come to fly.
Photos Jay Rhind
Bonney Hartley stands in the Stockbridge cemetery and gazes across the stones. “It is so much more real for me,” she says, “and for other people who have come out to stand in front of a place and say this is my direct ancestors’ land. When I stand there, for me that’s meaningful, because we are displaced. We don’t have our land.”
Her ancestor stood here in 1735. He was Naunauneekkanuck, and here he took the name David. The eastern half of this plot belonged to him—by the English system of land deeds. Before European colonists forced their way here with boundary lines and stone walls, these hills belonged to his people for hundreds of years. In 1783, the Mohicans here were forced to move West. But they have always kept in touch with the Berkshires. In the last three years, Berkshires organizations have made a united effort to reach back and help preserve her tribal heritage. Cory Hines, a program coordinator with the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area, is working with Hartley, The Trustees of Reservations, and the Bidwell House to tell the story of the Mohican nation in Stockbridge and in the Berkshires—through new exhibitions, tours, and interpretive trails.
Stockbridge began as a community of Mohican families and European colonists. The descendants of the Mohicans who founded this community now live in Wisconsin as part of the federally recognized Stockbridge Munsee Nation, with 1,500 members. But in the first years of Stockbridge, small wooden Colonial houses and domed Mohican dwellings stood side by side, with a meeting house,
a schoolhouse and cows grazing along the main street.
“It’s easy to picture what that time looked and felt like,” Hartley says. “You can look and connect over time, and connect to people.”
She is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Tribal Historic Preservation, and she came to the Berkshires four years ago as a representative for her nation, working from Troy, N.Y., to protect historic sites in the region. Working with Hines and local museums, she has found that many here don’t know the history of the Mohicans.
Going back 10,000 years and more, the Mohicans [Muh-he-con-neok] are “the people of the waters that are never still.” They lived along the tidal rivers and across the hills from the Muhheakantuck (Hudson River), through the Housatonic and east toward the Connecticut River Valley. In the 1730s, the Mohicans held together through more than a hundred years of epidemics and war. They had lost their land to English and Dutch incursions, and colonists kept coming. Illnesses had vastly reduced their population. They faced a stark choice: Learn English, accept the influence of a Christian missionary and settle within an English framework, or leave their land for a place beyond the colonists’ reach.
They petitioned the state legislature to grant them a township within the Commonwealth, though not all at the council agreed and some felt they were giving up too much, says Hartley. In the first years of the township, 125 Mohicans communally owned 2,300 acres in Stockbridge, about six square miles of good land. The first missionary, John Sargeant, spoke Mohican and held worship services in that language.
And the Mission ended within a generation. For 50 years, colonists and town officials systematically took back the land. They forced the Mohicans to divide their communal fields into lots and assign each lot to one man, making the land easier to take away. Colonists brought lawsuits, surveyed land they did not own, and held town elections without warning, forcing votes against Mohican landowners. One such lawsuit was brought by the Williams family, for whom Williamstown and Williams College are named.
In 1783 they set out west, eventually to Wisconsin. Many now live on 2,500 acres of reservation land, about the size of their township in Stockbridge. Many have kept friendships and other connections in the Berkshires. Retired Stockbridge police chief Rick Wilcox has worked with the people of the Stockbridge-Munsee in various ways, such as to create one of the most visible testaments to the Mohicans here, a stone monument on land they have honored for generations.
Wilcox’s research—combing through land deeds, transcribing them to make them available to tribal members, and tracing centuries-old boundaries and measurements to connect the names of the Mohican people to the land they once held here—has invigorated the new walking tour. Petrick-Huff imagines student exchanges, visits in both directions, and welcome to Stockbridge signs in Mohican and English.