THE LONG VIEW
NORTHAMPTON’S RIVER OF TIME
By BRIAN TURNER
In the mid-1980s, I walked under I-91 and came upon a body of water, a springtime flood that covered the Northampton meadows. As I stood on that temporary shore, I thought of the lake that had filled the valley back when the Holyoke range, a mass of lava, oozed up from volcanic faults and hardened to basalt. By the time the first people came to live here in 12,000 B.C., the mountains had worn away to hills, and the meandering river gave the land its name, “in the midst of the river,” or Norwottuck, in the Algonquin tongue.
In 1653, the Springfield fur trader John Pynchon was commissioned to represent 24 Connecticut planters in the “extinguishment” of indigenous claims to land west of the Connecticut River. In legal terms, Pynchon was an “adventurer,” not in the sense of an explorer, but in the sense of a “venture capitalist.” The chiefs of Nonotuck put their marks to a contract for 100 fathoms of wampum (shells on strings) and 10 coats, and other considerations, all worth perhaps 40 pounds sterling. Over the years, Pynchon would strike similar deals for fur trading rights as far upriver as Northfield.
Nonotuck was renamed Northampton after the city in England where one of the first settlers, John King, was said to have come. Many on-line genealogies leave King’s birthplace blank, and a few, curiously, claim that he was born in Boyle, Ireland. Early Northampton had little use for Catholics, and the several Irishmen who worked here as indentured servants were only reluctantly granted residency but not the vote. A prominent King family in Boyle was admitted into British nobility for service to the Crown in “reducing the Irish to obedience”; if John King’s people were among the British occupiers of Ireland, then he was free of Catholic taint.
Within a few years of Northampton’s purchase, John Pynchon had depleted the population of fur-bearing animals. He relinquished his trading claims, whereupon title to the land passed to the planters. The first planters who came here were granted a parcel of meadowland to till and a four acre homestead. The earliest homes were constructed from rough-hewn logs and stood on what we now call Pleasant Street.
From the beginning Northampton was a do-it-yourself, start-from-scratch society. Once the village began to grow, traditional civil institutions developed. In 1661 Eleazar Mather, one of the Boston Mathers, a family of Puritan divines, came to Northampton and formed the First Church. The Meeting House stood across from what is now Center Street where it served as church, court, and schoolhouse. There, Joseph Cornish, a teacher, supplemented his salary by charging his scholars a fee, as was the custom of the day. Made of “sawn” timber, the Meeting House was where the propertied townsmen gathered to craft municipal laws, to regulate fees and taxes, and to allocate land.
An Early Scandal
Early Northampton had its discontents: A Springfield man, Joseph Parsons, having arrived here with considerable wealth and status, excited his neighbors to gossip. In 1656, Parsons's wife, Mary, was accused of entertaining Satan. Witchcraft was as real as infant mortality, and Sarah Bridgman blamed her son’s death on Mary Parsons. Sarah, not Mary, was put on trial for slander and required to make a public apology. In 1674, almost two decades later, Sarah Bridgman again accused Mary Parsons of witchcraft, this time because of the death of her daughter. Lawyers were scarce in those days, so Mary defended herself before the court in Boston and won acquittal, but only after she had spent time in jail awaiting trial. Of the several witch trials staged in Northampton, none resulted in execution.
Mary Bliss Parsons
Upon Eleazar Mather’s death in 1669, Solomon Stoddard assumed the First Church pulpit and married Mather’s widow, Esther. Stoddard’s tenure of six decades was marked by a high degree of pragmatism. The Puritan Covenant had restricted church membership to those graced by a personal conversion experience, that is to say, “born again.” But the “born again” experience did not occur so often in those days, and church membership declined. In order to fill the pews, the “Half-Way” Covenant granted limited membership to those baptized in the church, assuming that in the fullness of time any God-fearing Puritan would undergo a conversion. Stoddard took the notion somewhat further and allowed “half-way” members to take communion, an innovation denounced by the Puritan establishment in Boston, led by Increase Mather, father of Cotton Mather and brother of Eleazar, Northampton’s first pastor. The liberality with which communion was dispensed in Northampton came to be called, scornfully, “Stoddardeanism.”
In 1729 Jonathan Edwards replaced his grandfather Stoddard as Northampton’s pastor. Edwards scaled back Stoddard’s excesses, as he saw them. Soon after assuming the pulpit, Edwards observed a “harvest” of souls, conversions marked by emotional outbursts during services. (Contemporary social theorists hold that such displays were expressions of economic anxiety: land was no longer abundant; the rising generation could no longer count on an inheritance sufficient to provide a livelihood; dislocation and hardship were certainties.) Given to crying out, trembling, and fainting, the newly converted were fortunate to be living in the 1730s, not the 1690s, when such behavior might have provoked accusations of witchcraft. The conversion experience turned out to be contagious, as young people went about in groups, singing and testifying. Edwards’s grandfather had witnessed such “soul harvests,” but the intellectually curious Edwards took it upon himself to analyze the phenomenon, and his writings on the subject were widely read.
Depression and Suicide
Some disapproved of the revivals, especially when one of Northampton’s first citizens, Joseph Hawley, committed suicide by cutting his throat. It was said that he had fallen into despair over not being saved, but it is more likely that he suffered from what we call depression. In Northampton’s better circles, the revivals were regarded as an unstable element in their otherwise placid days.
Nor did the wealthy families of Northampton care to be told that in the eyes of God all their possessions amounted to nothing. The clash between Edwards’s ideals and Northampton’s status-conscious elite is described in Allen Guelzo’s “The Northampton Eviction” (Christian History, 2003, Volume 22, Issue 1).
The Great Awakening of the 1740s spread revivals throughout New England. Itinerant evangelist George Whitfield preached in fields and reduced his listeners to convulsions and trances. By comparison, Edwards’s sermons, with the possible exception of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” seemed overly intellectual, even dry. Edwards, a logical man, criticized Whitfield for his emotionalism. But Edwards’s parishioners were caught up in the spectacle of preachers delivering the white hot word.
Edwards fell into disfavor. Every class, high and the low, found common ideological cause in a time of scarcity. Leading this exercise in social solidarity was the late Joseph Hawley’s son, Joseph, Jr., who joined a panel that was charged with judging Edwards’s fitness. The younger Hawley spoke for immediate “separation,” though later in life he expressed regret for having been too eager to see Edwards go. In 1750, Edwards was dismissed, and he went to Stockbridge, where he wrote the texts that secured his reputation as the leading thinker of his day.
King Philip’s War
Only once has Northampton defended her borders. In 1675, the Wampanoag chief Metacombe, known to settlers as King Philip, organized a native army of resistance. During King Philip’s War from 1675-1676, every eleventh New Englander died, dozens of towns were destroyed, and indigenous tribes were annihilated.
Such enmity was not always the norm. In the early 1620s, Metacombe’s father, Massasoit, had regarded the Plymouth Pilgrims as weak and his generosity toward the struggling newcomers inspired Thanksgiving. In the decades that followed, however, the English continued to usurp land and consume resources that New England tribes had regarded as held in common. One Connecticut tribe, the Pequots, resisted the English advance, and a band of colonists slaughtered them in 1637. Less well-organized tribes, having witnessed the fate of the Pequots, found themselves at a disadvantage, their way of life endangered. Resentment and fear became general, providing King Philip with the raw political material for organizing all-out war.
Once King Philip’s War began, the Nonotucks, who had lived outside Northampton since its founding and had freely mingled with villagers, more or less melted away. The Nonotucks may have joined the attacks upon settlements such as Deerfield to the north, or they may have been among the tribes that sporadically raided Northampton, costing five settlers their lives in 1675, but little evidence exists to clarify the matter. In time, the Nonotucks were absorbed into the tribes of eastern Canada.
As 1675 drew to a close, outlying settlers requested lots within a palisade built around the village center and garrisoned by troops from Connecticut. In 1676, a party of warriors breached the palisade: five settlers were killed, six wounded and 10 buildings burned. Perhaps as many as 20 natives died in the raid. Later the same year, King Philip was killed in a swamp in Rhode Island, the war came to an end, and settlement continued unabated. Northampton had emerged relatively unscathed from a period of unprecedented brutality.
Over the next century, Northampton’s soldiers would march off to the French & Indian Wars, but those battles did not touch upon Northampton’s borders, nor did the Revolutionary War that followed. For more reading on the military exploits of Northampton’s fighting men, James R. Trumbull’s History of Northampton, Mass. (1898), is an indispensable source. Allison Lockwood’s Finding Paradise (2004) provides a useful summary of Trumbull’s more exhaustive account.
(Next: The Impact of the American Revolution on Northampton)
Images of Caleb Strong and Daniel Shays, courtesy of Historic Northampton.
Brian Turner, who teaches composition at Smith College, is co-author of The Hurrah Game: Baseball in Northampton , 1823-1953 (2002) and co-author of a History of the United States Air Force (2004).
Downstreet.net editor Edward Shanahan prepared the series of articles for publication.
downstreet.net©2001. All rights reserved.