Although it’s home to only about 3,000 people at last count, Sheffield, Massachusetts has the distinction of being the first incorporated town in Berkshire County. And area historians are boasting about a whole lot more.
Catherine Miller is one of a number of Sheffield Historical Society members who have worked to compile the town’s history into an exhibit in the Old Stone Store on Main Street.
“We wanted to put it on the map and show people that this is an important part of our history for the county in general, not just Sheffield,” Miller said. “It started here, but it’s emanated from here.”
“It starts in the fourth quarter of the 17th century because that’s when the Mahican Indians were here and took up permanent residence here,” Miller explained. “It was Chief Konkapot who sold the land to white settlers, the major one being Matthew Noble.”
One of the prime documents on display was signed in 1733.
“An act by The Great and General Court and Assembly in Massachusetts Bay New England,” Miller detailed. “It establishes this area Sheffield as its own place. Originally it was a very large tract of land that incorporated not only what we know as Sheffield today, but a good portion of Great Barrington, Stockbridge and Egremont.”
Nearly three decades later, the western part of Hampshire County was portioned off under the name “Berkshire.”
“At that time there was a gentleman by the name of Sir Francis Bernard who was the royal governor appointed by the King,” Miller said. “He came from area in England called Berkshire and he wanted to have something named after his native area.”
Miller, who was born in upstate New York and oddly enough found out she has ancestors from Sheffield, says many people came to the southwestern corner on Massachusetts to farm, a tradition that continues.
“The speculation is that people came here because they were trying to get away from other places,” Miller said. “For example people came over the mountains from the west to escape the Dutch, who were not necessarily the kindest of landowners. People came from the east to find space. They were looking for a place they could live to be independent, free and to feel unrestricted in their lives.”
In 1773 about a dozen area men expounded upon that idea of independence by drafting the Sheffield Resolves.
“Resolved that all mankind in a state of nature are equal, free, and independent of each other, and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty and property,” read Miller.
The Resolves was printed in The Massachusetts Spy. Although Miller says there is no definite known connection, the ideas are very similar to those in the Declaration of Independence. Less than a decade later, a slave of Colonel John Ashley named Mum Bett would seek independence of her own.
“While she didn’t read or write, she heard them talking about freedom, independence and how all men are created equal,” Miller said. “So she walked the four miles from where they lived to the house across the street from the Old Stone Store where Theodore Sedgwick lived and she asked him to defend her for her freedom.”
Sedgwick, who was a friend of Ashley’s and worked on the Resolves, won the case. Mum Bett’s experience was the first highly publicized story of a black slave winning freedom in Massachusetts. She took the name Elizabeth Freeman.
Aside from the delicate historical documents and maps, the exhibit’s largest item is an 18th century wooden canoe.
“Very, very hard and very, very heavy,” Miller described. “We assume it was used in the Housatonic because the Native Americans lived along the Housatonic.”
Former First Lady Laura Bush even stopped by to see the canoe during a June visit to the Berkshires. The last encounter of Shays’ Rebellion happened in Sheffield and it’s also the birthplace of George Frederick Root, who composed numerous Civil War songs.
The weekend exhibit runs until September 4.