What is the Berkshires’ oldest unresolved crime?
Two hundred and sixty-one years ago, the first major crime occurred on the Berkshire frontier.
At dawn on April 15, 1755, Colonel John Van Ranslar led a party to a small settlement in present-day Mount Washington. They entered a home and, after a brief scuffle, shot mountain man William Race and burned six homes.
The hardy souls whose homes had been invaded were the first European residents of the county, but they were Dutch, not English. Race had Anglicized his name from Willem Rees. Disenfranchised natives of the Hudson Valley, the Dutch mountaineers moved east to settle near the English coming into Sheffield.
Massachusetts land laws were more favorable to “freeholders” who could own farms without the burdensome rents charged by lords of the sprawling manors of New York. But the boundary between the two states was not fixed, and therein lies the motive for the crimes.
Historians agree that the raiders were overseers of Robert Livingston, whose manor extended over a wide swath of present-day Columbia County. Livingston believed the mountaineers owed him rent but refused to pay, maintaining that they were freeholders.
Trouble continued to erupt along the frontier until Mount Washington was incorporated in 1779; the boundary was not agreed upon until 1787.
William Race is forever remembered by beautiful Mount Race, but his killer was never brought to justice.