Monday, May 18, 2015

"If redress cannot be had without, it is Virtue in them to disturb the government.": The Final Fight of Shay's Rebellion (Part I)

The last significant "battle" of Shay's Rebellion lasted just about six minutes and did not even involve Daniel Shays. It was a sharp skirmish, nonetheless, fought in the snow on a lonely road in Sheffield, Massachusetts on the afternoon of February 27th, 1787.

There is a monument in local marble erected in 1904  near the site of the engagement (right alongside the Appalachian Trail), but few in the region today understand the event it commemorates or its national significance in the months leading up to the federal Constitutional Convention.

This brief fight in Sheffield between local militia and their disaffected neighbors resulted in as many as five fatalities and a considerable number of wounded - nearly all of them rebels - with at least sixty men taken prisoner by the government forces.  Exactly how many casualties were sustained is difficult to determine, particularly the names of those who were wounded, though I have been able to confirm the identities of four of five men reportedly killed or mortally wounded, and have located the graves of the two men who died on the government side.  The identity of the fifth man, supposedly one of the insurgents, remains stubbornly elusive.

In researching this series of posts on the Sheffield fight I investigated primary source material available online, but also archival information that required a visit to the Pittsfield Athenaeum, and several hours spent exploring the oldest sections of Berkshire County cemeteries.  This first article discusses events leading up to armed conflict in the Berkshires and the backgrounds of the insurgents who fought against the government at Sheffield in 1787.

The Shayites were "regulators of government" in the tradition of other agrarian revolts that date back to the 1760s in the American Colonies.  More locally, the border region of western Massachusetts and Eastern New York was the intersection of rival land claims and overlapping patents that had erupted in violence between landlords and tenants on both sides of the Taconics prior to the Revolution.  In the early postwar years, a combination of ruinous debt, economic hardship and longstanding resentment of unresponsive political power centered in Boston brought things to a head in Berkshire County in early September, 1786.  

A local sympathizer of "regulation" who was himself from the governing class - Dr. William B. Whiting,  Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington - circulated an essay among his close confidants at this time entitled "Some brief Remarks on the present State of publick affairs".  Tellingly, Whiting wrote this unpublished piece under the pseudonym "Gracchus", a reference to plebeian Tribune Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus whose agrarian reforms sought to transfer wealth to the Roman poor.   Later judged to be seditious libel, Whiting opined;

"Therefore, whenever any incroachments (sic)  are making either upon the liberties or properties of the people, if redress cannot be had without, it is Virtue in them to disturb the government."

A few days later on September 12th, 1786, a large gathering of regulators stopped the court from sitting in Great Barrington.  Gideon Dunham, Jr. (1762-1841) was one of these men, and was conspicuous in ransacking some of the homes of the friends of government.  He had recently moved to Sheffield, Massachusetts from adjacent Canaan, Connecticut, and was a Revolutionary war veteran of both the 5th and 3rd Connecticut Regiments.   The town had seen its court shut down before by popular action prior to Independence, but what was deemed acceptable for American patriots under the Crown  in 1774 was now treason under the Commonwealth in 1786.

detail from 1779 map of the Province of New York
showing New Canaan, NY and southern Berkshires
During the winter of 1787, discontent had turned to armed rebellion, prompting a strong government response.  By mid-February, 1787, the Regulators had been defeated militarily in central Massachusetts.   Many insurgents crossed over into neighboring states where the Commonwealth forces had no authority.  At the same time, the terms of enlistment of the government troops who had been collected in the Berkshires to oppose them expired.  By February 21, 1787, all that remained were local militia, and not all of them were loyal supporters of the Commonwealth.

There had already been brief incursions from the New York side, including a force lead by John  Hubbard of Sheffield on January 27th, 1787.  In this encounter in West Stockbridge, Hubbard's force of between 150-200 was confronted by General John Patterson and 500 militia, supported by Theodore Sedgwick of Stockbridge who encouraged many of his neighbors and acquaintances on the insurgent side to lay down their arms.  The rebels suffered four wounded and 84 captured in this affair, most of whom were quickly paroled after taking an Oath of Allegiance to the Commonwealth. 

About two weeks later on February 15, 1787 another rebel foray was thwarted in Egremont by the Great Barrington and Sheffield militias under Colonel John Ashley, Jr. of Sheffield.  In this second encounter, sixteen prisoners were taken by the government forces and the insurgents withdrew back over the border.

On February 26th, 1787, the Selectmen of Richmond, Massachusetts wrote to militia General Lincoln  in Pittsfield to report that another cross border incursion was imminent:

"By intelligence this moment rec'd this moment from New Canaan, the insurgents collected in N. York State have paraded & marched in 3 Divisions.  120 was counted bet. 10 and 11 this evening in 1 Div. marching toward this County.  We are much alarmed at this Military appearance and think it our duty to give your Honor this, and every information that threatens so immediate a destruction..."

The Regulators now gathered on the New York side of the line were lead by Captain Perez Ham(b)lin (1748-1826), originally of Sharon, Connecticut.  Hamlin had served during the Revolution as a private in the 7th (Albany County, N.Y) militia regiment .  More recently, Hamlin operated a mill in Lenox, Massachusetts with his brother Asa.  One of Hamlin's lieutenants was the above referenced William or Elisha Manning "of the place called Eleven Thousand Acres" in Berkshire County, and his adjutant is said to have been a young man named Nathaniel Austin, Jr. of Sheffield, also a revolutionary war veteran.

With them were other men from nearby communities, many of whom had served during the Revolution.  Red- haired Shubael Woodruff of West Stockbridge had enlisted  in the Continental Line in 1781 at the age of 17 and was now in the ranks of the Regulators with two of his brothers.   Oziel Willcox (Wilcock) of Lee served six months during the Revolution in 1780 when he was 21, and was in Hamlin's force with his younger brother Peter Wilcox Jr., while a third brother Daniel Wilcox was with the forces of Government.  Another regulators with a military background was Joshua Adams, Jr of Sheffield and Egremont, who first enlisted in May, 1775 and ultimately served in Col. Wesson's 9th Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Line in the Saratoga campaign and on through 1780 with the rank of corporal.

Some of those under arms with Hamlin had deep roots in Berkshire communities, while others were recent arrivals or were merely what in a later age would be termed "border ruffians" motivated more by plunder than principle.  Sometimes it is possible to learn what became of these men afterward. More often a rebel's name appears in a court record and then fades back into obscurity.  Some who took the Oath of Allegiance in 1787 and surrendered their guns and voting privileges may have been involved in earlier regulator activity but not necessarily at Sheffield.  Making things even more complicated, contemporary accounts sometimes misidentified one man as a rebel, when in fact it was another person altogether (most significantly excluding two men from pardons - Elisha Manning and David Dunham - who turned out to be entirely different people - William Manning and Gideon Dunham, Jr.).

Very few of them were men with land or substantial property.  The vast majority of the men who were captured at Sheffield and arraigned the following month are listed as "labourers", with a scattering of farmers or "husbandmen" and just one Gentleman - Reuban Freeman of Egremont.  The majority came from just a few communities; West Stockbrige, Tyringham, Lee, Egremont and Sheffield.  Most were young men in their twenties.  Joshua Rathbun was one of the older men, born in Rhode Island in 1732 but moving to Tyringham, Massachusetts in the 1780s. 

These were the insurgents that Hamlin lead over the border on February 26th, 1787.  We will examine their movements and motivations and the local response in the next post in this series.

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