Collection of historical documents compiled by Charles Taylor, author of the 1882 town history of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Includes Court of Common Pleas cases, deeds, estate papers, indentures, land surveys, sheriff's writs, town history reference documents, Samuel Rossiter's financial papers, and genealogical research papers for over 40 families.
The collection is open for research.
The Great Barrington Historical Documents Collection was compiled by Charles Taylor, author of the 1882 town history. In large measure, it represents an incomplete but fascinating collection of documentation for facets of the town's social history. Great Barrington, Massachusetts developed out of the Upper and Lower Housatonic townships which were settled in 1722. The Proprietors of what was to become Great Barrington actually began to lay out and distribute land in 1733-1734, a process their successors completed in 1793.
The collection, totaling about 600 items, provides important insights into aspects of the town's development, particularly concerning land. Folder 135 in Series 7, for instance, contains copies of the Proprietor's land distribution activities. Series 2 (Deeds) and Series 5 (Land Surveys) document the sale of property and efforts to obtain accurate boundaries from the time of the initial settlement. Moreover, Series 4 (Indentures) is concerned principally with the leasing of land to individuals for farming.
Several series show the impact on townspeople of larger social and political events. The documents in Series 1 offer insight into the rural problems that led to Shays' Rebellion. The Court of Common Pleas cases (the majority occurring between 1784 and 1787) reveal the credit and cash difficulties facing Massachusetts farmers following the Revolution. Series 6 (Sheriff's Writs), on the other hand, documents the continuing problem of rural indebtedness (particularly in the first American recession of 1817-1820), but also reveals a transitional era in the local economy. An increasing number of cases involve artisans and laborers, marking a shift to a market economy. The high number of court cases involving debt (22 in 1817 alone) also evinces a change in the social and economic consciousness of rural New Englanders.
Other series open avenues to broader questions. For instance, the documents in Series 8 cover the years of Samuel Rossiter's indebtedness and eventual insolvency prior to 1800. However, Rossiter is also a major actor in acquiring land (Series 2), pursuing debtors (Series 1 and 6), and establishing himself as a landlord. Rossiter's progression from a farmer to a yeoman to a gentleman is perhaps an interesting example of the transforming power of the market in the rural economy. Series 6 (Town History Documents) likewise offers glimpses of controversies over roads, riparian rights, militia service, early court cases, school expenses, and temperance. This series also contains a notice from the town's Committee of Correspondence (July 9, 1776) demanding that certain citizens surrender their weapons.
Great Barrington is also important as the birthplace of W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois' maternal ancestors, the Burghardts, were long-time residents of the town. Although a number of Burghardts appear in these documents, it does not seem that any were close relatives of Du Bois. One of the sheriff's writs in 1821 (folder 108), however, does involve a James Freeman who was perhaps Du Bois' uncle.
This collection is organized into nine series:
This series contains the final award of 34 cases. Most involve the debt of farmers in Great Barrington and surrounding towns; thirteen occur in the years between 1784-1787 and provide some of the background for the events leading to Shays' Rebellion. Arranged chronologically.
Containing about 80 property transactions, this series reflects sales principally from 1790 to 1840. In particular, the documents here reflect the prodigious land acquisition of Samuel Rossiter (36 transactions), Thomas Ives (20), and George Pynchon (11), and the declining property holdings of some of the early families, including the Whitneys, Roots, and Hopkins. Arranged chronologically.
Shown here are scattered estate inventories, wills, and executor's expenses for seven estates. Of particular interest are the documents of 3 Ingersoll family estates, and the detailed will and inventory of Hewitt Root. Arranged alphabetically by name.
Most of the more than 50 indentures here reflect the farm leasing activities of Thomas Ives and are interesting for the detailed description of the terms of the lease. Several of the later indentures show the increased activity of Samuel Rossiter in this area. Of particular interest is the 1812 case of Kasson Freeman (folder 81), in which Thomas Ives had great difficulty in forcing Freeman to adhere to the terms of the indenture; and the beginnings, in 1808, of Ives' leasing of carding machines to Dudley Woodworth. Arranged chronologically.
Many of the surveys in this series were commissioned by George (between 1813-51) and Walter Pynchon (between 1792-1839) for their extensive holdings in the town. Arranged alphabetically by name.
Included in this series are a large number of writs addressed to sheriff Ezra Kellogg for failure to pay creditors, coinciding with the first major American economic depression (1817-21). Evident in these documents is the increasing propensity of town residents to pursue their neighbors for even small amounts of money. Also evident are the increasing numbers of actions against artisans, reflecting the changing nature of the town's economy. A list of names mentioned in this series is included in folder 102. Arranged chronologically.
Series 7 contains an array of documents covering events and institutions in the town's history, including correspondence (July 9, 1776) warning certain people to put down their arms and a 1754 court case involving a false alarm about an Indian raid. Among other subjects covered are the riparian rights of mill sites, roads, bridges, town buildings, militia duties, school expenses, Revolutionary War reimbursements, and some correspondence. Arranged alphabetically by subject.
Included here are a series of documents concerning the debt, assets, and eventual insolvency of Rossiter in 1799. Rossiter rebounded from this to amass considerable holdings in Great Barrington by 1815 (see, in particular, series 1, 2, 4, and 6). Arranged chronologically.
This series consists of correspondence, documents, and notes, compiled by Great Barrington historian Charles Taylor concerning local families. Arranged alphabetically by family name.
Acquired from: Robert Lucas
Processed by Ken Fones-Wolf, December 1985.
Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Cite as: Great Barrington Historical Documents Collection (MS 104). Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst.