Great Barrington Main Street in 2011. Photo: David Scribner

CONNECTIONS: What’s in a name?

It didn’t remain North Parish for long, though no one is certain who named the town or when.

“To His Excellency Francis Bernard, General and Chief over His Majesty’s Province of Massachusetts, The Body of the inhabitants of the North Parish of Sheffield are remotely settled from the South Parish in Sheffield, for this and diverse other inconveniences attending, [we request] North Parish be made into a town.”

The request was granted June 30, 1761. North Parish was declared a town with all the attendant privileges — except two: First, the new town was not allowed to send its own representative to the General Court but had a joint representative with Sheffield; secondly, North Parish was not given a name. Even after separating from Sheffield, it was still known as the North Parish of Sheffield. It was an accurate description. From 1733-61 it was part of Sheffield, which had two parishes. Each had a church and minister. The location of the other Congregational church was north of the first at an inconvenient distance.

Because it was settled for so long, unlike other Berkshire towns that started with populations under 20 people, there were 500 at the first town meeting. They elected three selectmen, a treasurer and a constable. Additionally, they appointed officials to positions unheard of today. The sealer of leather was an inspector who certified weights and measures; the hog reeve was an appraiser of damage done by stray pigs; the deer reeve apprehended and charged those who killed deer out-of-season; the fence viewer inspected and certified property lines; the tithing men collected money due the church; and the Sabbath wardens reported those who did not attend church on Sunday (attendance was mandatory).

At the first town meeting, there was a vote to build a schoolhouse, provided “there be one and but one schoolhouse at the charge and for the use of the town.” The school would be 20 square feet, two stories, and have three glass windows. Money was voted to support obligations required by the General Court in Boston: 25 pounds for the school building; 35 pounds for the minister with 10 pounds for his upkeep and that of the church; and 15 pounds for use by the town for roads. (20 pounds then is equal to approximately $1,400 today; therefore, 25 = $1,750; 35 = $2,450; 10 = $700, and 15 = $1,050.)

In 1884. Image courtesy Wikipedia

It seemed these were the same steps followed by other Berkshire towns, but there were problems. Although they had voted to build a school and did so, at the 1763 town meeting, they refused to pay the builders. It was the year of refusals. The people also refused to “defray the necessary charges of the town” and refused to “reckon with the town treasurer.”

A year later, in 1764, North Parish was cited by the General Court for “not providing a schoolmaster according to law.” In 1766, the General Court fined the town for not keeping its roads in good repair. In letters home, travelers complained bitterly about the condition of the roads and the “surliness” of the people. It was a rough beginning.

Townspeople may have had good reason to be surly. Way back when it was still a part of Sheffield, as early as 1726, there was the first division of land. However, the General Court required that within six years — no later than 1732 — they meet their obligations to certify the division of land. The strict deadline was not met. In 1743, someone in Boston noticed and demanded a new division of land.

David Ingersoll, the clerk duly appointed to divide the land for the second time, made careful note of all property lines, owners and titles. Unfortunately, some original owners were not re-granted “their” land. They complained. Ingersoll hid the book in which the information was recorded and would not give it up. It took the General Court six more years to appoint a new clerk. In 1749, Timothy Woodbridge was instructed to annul and set aside all previous land divisions and start anew. He was also instructed to “wait upon Ingersoll” and get hold of the records “by law or otherwise.”

Woodbridge wrested the books from Ingersoll and discovered Ingersoll had granted himself major landholdings. Ingersoll’s work was set aside, and Woodbridge began the third division of land. A solution was found to satisfy previous landowners: They did not end up with the same plots but were granted the same overall land value – the new grants were called “equivalents.”

And so, one problem was solved. The other would not be solved until the next century. The battle would be in lawsuits, words, fists and guns. At issue was geography.

Berkshire County is 19 miles west to east by 50 miles north to south. It touches New York on its long western border, Connecticut on the south and Vermont on the north. On the east it is isolated from the rest of Massachusetts by distance and by mountains. In Boston they were unsure where Berkshire was and possibly did not care.

In 1724, in exchange for 460 pounds, three barrels of cider and 30 quarts of rum, the Indians sold Berkshire to Massachusetts. Apparently, and unfortunately, in 1705, in payment of debt, the Indians sold Berkshire to New York in a document called the “Westenhook Patent.” Therefore, New York asserted a prior claim to the land. Those trying to settle in the North and South Parishes of Sheffield were “much impeded, molested, and hindered” by lawsuits, arrests for trespass and physical attacks by New Yorkers claiming prior ownership. The position of the New York-Massachusetts border was an unresolved issue until 1786.

Here’s what happened: There was calm and order in 1761, or so everyone thought. The landowners of North Parish knew what they owned, and the General Court granted North Parish a township. But then, in 1783, again the General Court was petitioned, “defects have but recently been discovered, and difficulties might arise … We beg the court to provide a remedy.”

The dispute over the New York border reared its head. It was resolved in 1786, but not for long. Challenged again, it was the 19th century before one could assert with certainty that he was standing in Massachusetts or New York.

That is the story of the beginnings of the North Parish and the end of Sheffield as a very large community. It didn’t remain North Parish for long, though no one is certain who named the town or when. It is commonly assumed that the town was named after a Lord whose brother, Samuel Shute, served as governor of Massachusetts from 1716 to 1723. It seems plausible and a good choice, as many towns in the New World sought support from the Old World by selecting names of wealthy and sympathetic members of the peerage.

The name? Great Barrington, Massachusetts: Barrington after Lord Barrington, and “great” to differential it from Barrington, New Hampshire, and Barrington, Rhode Island.