History markers in curious places: A quiz for Berkshire explorers
Local historians thrive on discovering stories of the past and sharing them. Consequently South Berkshire communities commemorate several landmark events, dynamic personalities and once-thriving industries with bronze or stone markers. Most are prominent; some are obscured. Accuracy isn’t always uppermost in placing signs or shaping words on the signs.
Consider this a quiz: How many of these markers have you seen?
Members of Great Barrington’s Thursday Morning Club in 1904 accepted town historian Charles J. Taylor’s belief that the Indian fordway at the Housatonic River in Great Barrington was at the foot of Bridge Street and put up a stone. The stone is often seen, never read anymore. That’s because the lettering wore off over the decades. So a replacement bronze plaque was put up.
You have to walk up to it to read it:
Twenty rods north of this stone was the old Indian Fordway on the middle trail from Westfield to the Hudson River. Nearby was the site of the Great Wigwam where Major John Talcott overtook and dispersed a party of Indians, August, 1676. Dedicated by the Thursday Morning Club August 1904. Rededicated 1989.
This is a curious marker in several respects. First, its placement is dubious. Documents from the 17thcentury are inconclusive; the Talcott confrontation could have taken place in Sheffield or Salisbury. Taylor wanted to have the story of Talcott and the Connecticut militia’s pursuit of fleeing remnants of King Philip’s outraged Indians part of the town’s history, so he pointed to this spot. Projectile points had been recovered from ground behind First Congregational Church, after all. But there’s no documentary or topographic evidence of a fordway having been located in this spot. In fact, early writings and the terrain suggest the Housatonic River crossing was at the Great Bridge. If the ancient roadway had gone to Bridge Street, an imprint would still be there in the soil. Surface compaction doesn’t disappear except beneath pavement. East Street originally went along Quarry Street and south to Sheffield. It didn’t connect to the bridge until a Bridge Street bridge was built in the 1870s.
Second, why commemorate this event? “Dispersed” is a quaint way of saying “overpowered and killed.” The at-times brutal King Philip’s War was over. The Connecticut militia was out for blood. These Indians were fleeing for their lives and of no particular threat — certainly not in Great Barrington, which had no white inhabitants. Why are we honoring a massacre? On the other hand, how many monuments are there to Native American maltreatment? It’s a rare admission of how fiercely we wrestled New England from its indigenous people.
A marker near Green River on Route 23 in Great Barrington has disappeared — perhaps stolen, perhaps sacrificed to a World War II scrap drive. It was a cast-iron sign, one of many dozens installed by the commonwealth in 1930 to mark its tercentenary. Although New York state has managed to keep most of its similar historical markers, ones in Massachusetts have largely vanished.
The sign noted without saying so the largest movement of troops through Great Barrington ever — in 1758, when Gen. Geoffrey Amherst led three battalions of British Regular and Scottish Highlander soldiers from Boston on their way to attack French and Indian forces in the Champlain Valley during the last of the Seven Years’ War. The sign proclaimed:
Green River. Where General Amherst and troops camped enroute to Ticonderoga 1758. Crossed by General Knox and his artillery train moving to Cambridge 1776. And by Hessian soldiers captured at Saratoga 1777. Immortalized by William Cullen Bryant.
The site is important to regional history, if not national and international. Amherst’s Pioneers — the equivalent to the Army Corps of Engineers — widened and improved the old east-west Indian pathway for security. It became a major route for future militiamen, military suppliers and emigrants to the Berkshire Valley. Amherst, while encamped here, met with Stockbridge Mohican leaders who wanted to re-enlist in the famed Rogers Rangers. Amherst didn’t object. But he was ambivalent about Indians, and later in the conflict — there’s no absolute documentary proof, but it seems certain — condoned smallpox-contaminated materials be circulated among Indians. Germ warfare.
Here’s a case of Amherst being good (for the British) and bad (for the Indians). But the Mohicans were good. So both deserve mention.
The sign actually included quite a bit of misinformation. Ticonderoga was called Fort Carillon at the time. Knox was slogging his cannon/mortar/cohorn-laden oxen sleds to Dorchester Heights in South Boston. It was Brunswicker, not Hessian, soldiers who passed through during the Revolutionary War. Bryant did write a poem about Green River, though it is disputed whether it was about the Green River in Great Barrington or Green River in Williamstown, where he attended college.
Stockbridge does well by its Native American forebears, having long honored the Indian Burial Ground on west Main Street. The inscribed monument isn’t obvious from the street. You have to climb the rise above Stockbridge Golf Course to the cemetery to read what it says:
The ancient burial ground of the Stockbridge Indians 1739 The friends of our fathers 1877.
Not everyone knows there’s a marker to the first site of the Indian mission in Stockbridge. It’s on what, since 1943, has been the Eden Hill property of the Marian Fathers. There, amid all the Stations of the Cross on Dudley’s Seat, the bluff where previous owner David Dudley Field Jr. (1805-1891) enjoyed the broad view, visitors are pointed to the original site of Mission House. There’s a newer and more expansive sign beside the driveway from Yale Hill. But the old monument says:
John Sergeant built the Mission House here in 1739. It was removed one Mile south to the Plain in 1927.
Stockbridgers preferred site over visibility in the placement of two rock inscriptions.
Field logically gets his due at Ice Gulch. If you are focused on reaching the ravine and its old-growth pine and hemlock, you could easily miss the words chiseled into ledge at the entrance:
Ice Glen the Gift to Stockbridge of David Dudley Field 1891.
Nearby on this hill, members of Laurel Hill Association lettered a protruding boulder along the old horse path to Laura’s Tower. The trail was re-aligned about 15 years ago and that leg of the route was abandoned. You can find the inscription by turning left slightly before you reach the fork in the trail that splits, Ice Glen right, Laura’s Tower (named for Field’s daughter-in-law) left. Locate hints of an old path, pass between twin fallen tree roots, cross the intermittent stream, and you will find the boulder and this inscription:
This mountain side is given in Memory of Alexander Sedgwick to the Laurel Hill Association 1932.
“Aleck” Sedgwick (1867-1929) attended Bishop’s College in Quebec and lived for many years in his great-grandfather Theodore Sedgwick’s home on Main Street. A Democrat, he served in the Massachusetts General Court. He was an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I. He was a president of Laurel Hill Association. His widow, Lydia C.R. Sedgwick, gave the land as a memorial to her late husband.
I won’t give directions to the Burgoyne Pass marker put up by the Lee DAR chapter. It is somewhere above Ice Glen Road, near a long-abandoned county road. It is likely on state forest land, but is most easily reached across private property. When I visited it with Richard Wilcox a few years ago, it was in the company of the neighboring landowner. Even then, it wasn’t obvious to find. The inscription:
Burgoyne Pass [Gen. John] Burgoyne’s captured army marched over this trail in 1777. Erected by Ausotunnoog Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution August 1939.
This wording is accurate, though you should know some of that captive army trod through Great Barrington.
But who, pray tell, has ever seen this tribute?
Bon vivant Cortlandt Field Bishop (1870-1935) was a one-man marker maniac, responsible for placing four bronzes in Lenox. One is obvious on the roadside in front of the Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Red Cottage replica above Lake Mahkennac. To be precise, the cottage and 1929 marker are across from Tanglewood’s Lion’s Gate in north Stockbridge, not Lenox.
The other three?
Having only a few years before built his Winter Palace, incorporating part of a small house that was once part of actress and author Fanny Kemble’s The Perch estate, Bishop put up a marker in 1929 in her memory. I found it after Nini Gilder told me where to look— across from Bellefontaine a k a Canyon Ranch on Kemble Street. The plaque on a boulder, you see, faces away from the street. The words are:
The highway laid out in 1850 was subsequently named Kemble Street in honor of Fanny Kemble a resident of Lenox for many summers after 1836. She purchased the knoll south of the oaks and thereon erected a residence which she called “The Perch.” It was demolished in 1905.
Bishop also placed a modest marker to Lenox’s first settler. It’s on a stone beside Old Stockbridge Road at the foot of Court House Hill, opposite Hawthorne Street, visible if the grass hasn’t grown high. It says:
Jonathan Hinsdale The first white man to settle in Lenox. Erected a house here in 1750. His grave is in the churchyard on the hill.
Bishop also put a marker on the edge of his own property on Old Stockbridge Road in 1931 near the site of a tavern — a building later incorporated into Bishop’s father’s now-gone Interlaken mansion. Thanks to Susan Frisch Leherer, I learned where it is: on private property across from Elm Court. You can see it through the wrought-iron fence:
In 1770 a tavern was erected on this site by Captain Charles Dibble who answered the call of April 19th1775. It was situated on the highway running north as laid out by royal authority in 1751. At a later period the tavern was used as a jail.
What Bishop omitted — and was fully aware of — was the story of Columbus the traveling menagerie elephant. Injured after falling through a bridge in Adams in October 1851, the beast from India was en route to an appearance in Stockbridge when he collapsed across from the Elm Court (not-yet-built) entrance. The elephant was wrestled into a barn and died on the Butler premises — and was buried on this very property.
How did you score? How many of these signs have you seen in your travels? Omit the Green River marker; no one has seen that for years. The others still exist. If you have viewed 1-3, you’re average; 4-6, you look at roadsides as you drive; 7-8, you wear hiking shoes; 9, you are a true explorer!