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The Old French Fort


Among the Berkshire Hills, in western Massachusetts, a wild and picturesque region, which, for beauty of scenery, has been justly styled the "Piedmont of America," were many quaint buildings and other historic landmarks, a halfcentury ago, which have one by one faded from the landscape, until but few traces of them remain.

One of these, about which clustered many tender memories and tragic incidents of colonial life, was a massive brown structure, standing a little to the northward of the village of MahaiweGreat Barrington-in southern Berkshire.

It was square built, loophooled for musketry, with heavy, barred entrance, and a tower from which the country for miles around could be surveyed; and was long known as the "Block House"; but more recently, from the date of its erection, which was during the French and Indian War, as the "Old French Fort"; and with its history were connected more tragic and stirring events, probably, than with any other of the historic landmarks of the country; with, as we shall see, also, a touch of romance to brighten its grim and powder-stained walls.

The early settlers who blazed their way through the dense forests and over the hills from Westfield and more eastern towns in the Province of Massachusetts Bay, in 1726, and made their homes on these alluvial meadows and smiling uplands, dwelt in comparative safety for a quarter of a century.

They made friends of the Indians, from whom they purchased land for nominal sums, it would seem; for the whole of the Housatonic Township was bought of the Muh-he-kun-muc tribe for "460 Pounds, a barrels of Cider, and 60 Quarts of Rum." To this weighty document was affixed the signet of the Sachem Houkapot and his braves, Po-no-yote, Pe-te-wake-out, Nau-nau-squam, We-no-no-gow, Con-go-nau-peet, and others to the number of twenty-one, making the holdings of the settlers of this rich region indisputable forever; and they settled, as they best could, in some instances after wearisome and expensive litigation with their Dutch neighbors on the New York border, who claimed a large portion of this territory under an earlier patent called "Westennook," granted under the seal of the Province of New York by "our Right Trusty and well-beloved Cousin Edward, Viscount Cornbury, Captain Gen'll and Governor-in-Chief in and over our said Province of New York and Territoryes, depending thereon in America, and Vice Admirall of the same, etc."[1] Here they built their lowly log dwellings and schoolhouses, and erected churches, for which, in the settlement, lots had been "Sequestred to the Ministry"; and the youthful apostle, Sergeant, established an Indian mission school; and gradually they gained a sense of security and happiness in their new surroundings, as families and friends multiplied about them, and barns and storehouses increased under their busy and prosperous hands.

The river, which came down through the valley, was called by the Indians On-we-ton-nuc, or Hoo-es-tonnuc; Hoo-es in Indian dialect meaning over, and tonnuc, mountain; by the Dutch it was called Westenhook ; or, as it is variously written, Westenook and Westennuc, and is known in Connecticut, through which it flows, on its way to the sound, as Wyanock, until near its mouth, where it bears the English name of Stratford. This river was then, as now, the beneficent genius of the valley and wrought like a Titan, supplying power for saw and grist mills upon its banks, and fertilizing the broad acres.

But a change came to the unwary settlers dwelling in the beautiful Housatonic Valley. The occasional outbursts among the few remaining Indian tribes, or disturbance from wandering savages flying over the border from some fierce Pequot or Narragansett foe, had been but as the mutterings of distant thunder and hardly arrested their labors or caused them a pang of fear.

But France and the mother country declared war, and what affected England's honor it was still the duty of the colonists to maintain. The brave pioneers in the little hamlets among the Berkshire Hills were as loyal then, and as true to the principles of liberty as they proved later, when they struck their first telling blow against the English monarch; or as where, at the news of the battle of Lexington, they donned their uniforms and with hurried good-byes to mothers and sweethearts disappeared among the shadowy trees on the trail across the State."[2]

The respite from these exciting experiences, brought by the peace of 1746, was followed by the second French War, in which the Housatonic settlers loyally bore their share; suffering terror for families and firesides. A terrifying incident in the autumn of 1754 brought in a new era of calamities.

The little company of settlers, who had gathered, as was their wont, in the meeting-house on the Lord's Day and were listening to one of the hour-long discourses of their pastor, Dr. Samuel Hopkins, were disturbed by a flying messenger: "The Indians to the north were in revolt! Stockbridge was burning! The hapless people were fleeing and seeking hiding places in every direction; some were scalped; women were being massacred; children tomahawked or carried away captive!" Such was the frightful tale which brought terror and consternation to the little assembly, which broke up in an instant; and which was speedily confirmed by the crowd of fugitive women and children which straggled in upon them.[3] This outbreak on Stockbridge Plain was but the precursor of many scenes of terror among this people, whose scattered settlements, being at a great distance from the parent colony, were subjected to unusual danger, and whose very existence thereafter was often threatened.

With the greater needs of the times houses were speedily fortified and palisades bristled about them; and as a more secure place of resort, the Block House, or Fort, was constructed, for which the government, mindful of the dangers threatening these loyal citizens, made an appropriation.

It stood, as we have seen, where the valley of the Housatonic widens out north of Mahaime Village, upon the "home lot" of one hundred acres, whose title one of the' forty-five original pioneers and founders of the town, Israel Dewey, received from the Colonial Legislature. It was near to the highway over which ponderous wagons, loaded with ammunition, were drawn on the highway from Boston to Albany and the forts on Lakes George and Champlain. Its site was long marked by an ancient pear tree and a well, with a mighty sweep, whose pure depths afforded refreshment to the fevered and travel-wearied troops marching by.

It was not large, but squarely built of hewn timbers, with a cellar which was always kept well stocked with provisions and arms. A lofty tower surmounted the second story, from which not even the stealthy savage, defiling through Indian Pass from Beartown, or Mas-we-so-he-Monument Mountain-on the north, or through the fordway by the "Castle" or "Great Wigwam" from Skatekook (Sheffield) on the south, could approach the settlement unobserved.

When the patriotic fathers and brothers were absent on forced marches, or in Canada, fighting heroically against odds for their country, the wives and mothers proved themselves also great in heroism; and labored tirelessly at the loom and spinning-wheel, and even in the fields, by day; but before the shadows lengthened on Monument Mountain's rugged sides, or the sunshine faded from the hoary head of "Old Tom Ball," precautions for safety were begun; carders were set aside with sweffs and reels; flocks and fowls were tethered and housed; children gathered together, and the scattered families, by roadside and lace, wended their lonely way to the Old French Fort. There, after the great doors were firmly barricaded, touchwood and tinder-box laid ready to hand, and guns carefully primed at the port-holes, the nights were passed in comparative safety. Sometimes the scream of a wildcat, or a marauding panther would be mistaken for an Indian whoop; after the first terrifying thought they would huddle themselves closer together, breathlessly murmuring the prayer which was constantly in the settler's heart, "Save us, O God, from the terrible savage!"

But the Berkshire colonists trusted much to the Indians who still resided near them, at Indian Town (Stockbridge), or scattered over the level Hoplands (Lee), or Province Lands (Egremont), which were secured to them by government. Messengers, with signs of warning, came from Um-pa-chene, the friendly Sachem from Skatekook down the river, or from Captain Kon-ka-pot, chief of the Skat-e-kook tribe, at the base of Maus-sa-we-ki, to the northward. With this knowledge, and the thought of their "tower of defense," the Block-House or Fort, near at hand, a greater sense of security came to the little band of colonists, who proved the strength of the fort at many a trying juncture during those perilous times. The battered door, and dented, blackened sides bore silent witness to the attacks of companies of hostile French warriors and savages who sometimes made incursions over the Connecticut border.

But these invasions, which harassed the settlers during those troublous years, from 1755 to 1760, ceased with the cessation of hostilities between England and France.

Thenceforward the Old Fort, as such, fell into disuse and became, at various times, an arsenal where previous stores of ammunition were housed against a possible outbreak or call to arms of the Provincial Government; and from which the minute-men might be promptly equipped.

Later, it assumed the air of a hospital, where worn and wearied soldiers were cared for; and, as frequently chanced, if they were victims of the prevailing army scourge, inoculation was practiced; but such was the prejudice of the people against that treatment, they always refused to sanction it.

At another period the fort became, from the dug-out in the cellar to the loft of the great square tower, a public storehouse, where grain and provisions were cached for man and beast against the uncertainty of the rigorous claimate and a possible time of famine or shortage.

The passing years brought still greater changes. With scant buildings, and small means among the settlers to supply others, when even the meeting-house, as the rude church was styled, served as a town hall on week days, and was considered no less sacred for that by those thrifty Puritans, who carefully compounded their religion with business, and their business with religion. For pleasure they had small need to provide, in those grim days. Their stronghold, the Old French Fort, about which clustered both tragic and tender memories, was demeaned to become a blacksmith shop; and the mighty Vulcan who presided at the forge in butternut-dyed jerkin and small-clothes, with hair cropped after the pattern of a Roundhead, was the autocrat of the valley, since he was sole artificer in his special craft. But this desecration was not long endured. One day the spirit of improvement entered the blackened portals and the debris which accompanied a forge was swept away, and all things were made new. The floors were relaid with hewn oaken planks well spiked down; chimney and hearth were repaired; time-eaten defenses were replaced by grates and bearded spikes; doors secured with giant bars and huge padlocks; and the glorious vistas of hill and valley, meadow and upland, let in by the unused port-holes, were barred out by inexorable law, as the old fort became metamorphosed into a prison or gaol.

No fraudulent transgressor, or time-serving Tory committed for evil deeds or utterances, might look for freedom until his fault was expiated, if he had once entered that grim dungeon. As it sometimes chanced, poor debtors were incarcerated whose only fault was helpless inability to discharge their obligations, incurred, perhaps, through reverses occasioned by war and a depreciated currency, for whom a heartless creditor would sometimes pay board, rather than permit their release. An incident of this nature occurred in 1762.

The summer, always brief but enchanting in the high latitude of the Berkshire Hills, crested the hilltops with foliage and clothed the valleys with flowers; soft winds and sweet scents soughed temptingly about the barred openings of the old fort, whose unfortunate inmates could not go beyond the "jail limits"; which included hardly a hand's breadth of the wide, grassy meadow upon which it stood. For one of these unfortunates, a certain poor but worthy debtor, who was the victim of his hard-hearted creditor's persecutions, the hearts of the beautiful young daughters of the sheriff were moved to compassion, and they determined to free him at the first opportunity. The temporary absence of their father soon afforded them the opportunity they sought. The prisoner, having given bonds not to pass beyond the "limits," which in this instance were defined by a timber at the roadside, they conceived the plan of freeing him by proxy. Tying a rope to the timber, they allowed the prisoner to draw it, which he accomplished after many herculean efforts, to the jail; and being no longer restrained by a barrier, which did not exist, rejoicingly wended his way to liberty!

Of the indignation and wrath which the sheriff exhibited when he returned to his home and found that one of the prisoners with whose safe keeping he had been charged had burst his bonds and was missing; and of his incredulity and amazement when he ascertained the facts concerning his release, it is not needful to dilate.

No worthy father of "ye oldene tyme" could fail to gravely admonish the culprits, or refuse to screen them from the law which the keeper well knew had penalties for all offenders, even if they were, as in this instance, the well beloved of his own household.

But we may well believe that the keen sense of justice of Sheriff Dewey, who always "vigorously maintained his own views of right and wrong, in Church and State," was secretly enlisted in behalf of the trembling maidens.

When the bondsmen of the absconding debtor brought the matter into court, the young women were obliged to appear as witnesses. Two youthful lawyers appeared upon the scene and offered to defend them, which was so ably and eloquently done that the magistrate was disposed to leniency and they were triumphantly released. The episode, albeit contrary to legal enactment, won the fair defenders many encomiums, and as appeared shortly after, much more. Chivalry deepened into a tender sentiment on the part of those who had maintained the cause of beauty against oppression, and the elder shortly became the proud bride of the popular and promising lawyer, Ensign de Bruer,[4] whose sword, worn bravely on many a tented field, was never sheathed at injustice, and who would have defended the fair Eleanor against a legion of avaricious bondsmen. The hand of the gentler, but equally courageous, Lydia was not less proudly claimed by one of a long line of distinguished expositors and expounders of constitutional law,[5] whose descendants to this day recount with great glee the interference with the majesty of law of great-grandmother Lydia.

With the additions which the years brought to the numbers of the settlers, a new prison or jail was provided, upon the petition of Sheriff Dewey, for the Berkshire colonists; and again the old fort was dismantled, and it passed into the hands of Adjutant Benedict Dewey, son of the former owner, who then came into possession of the broad acres upon which it stood.

The new proprietor, who was a zealous member of the Committee of Safety, and prosecutor of the "Test Bill," and an intrepid soldier in many battles during the Revolutionary War, was one of the officers who was detailed to escort the captive general and his army of English and Hessian soldiery across the State to Boston.[6] Their route was through southern Berkshire, and they were encamped in Mahaime (now Great Barrington), part of the army resting to the northward of the hamlet, on the level, sheltered lands near the old fort. And so, once again, it served as a hospital for sick soldiers, a number of whom never resumed their places in the army; but, remaining in the town, became, in later years, good citizens of the Republic, and were wont on "General Training Day," and other public occasions, to shout the orders for military drill.

With the close of the great Revolutionary struggle the white-winged dove of peace came to brood over the land, and the Old French Fort, with other historical landmarks of Berkshire, lost its air of rigor under the benign influence.

Locks, bars and bolts disappeared; vines clambered about the blackened sides. Within the time-stained walls, which once gave moaningly bade the savage war whoop and shrieks of terrified children, were heard sweet voices of children in pastime and the busy hum of industry.

But "Time's effacing fingers" at last conquered even these evidences of peaceful rural life; and silently, year by year, all vestiges of the old fort faded from the beautiful landscape, until this grim reminder of colonial life and trials became only a treasured memory in the minds of venerable inhabitants, to be rehearsed in quavering tones to awe-struck children, or dimly recalled on the pages of history, when the hearts of their children's children linger gratefully over these records of the past and pay loving tribute to the virtues of their colonial ancestors.

The following quaint bill, a copy of one of several remaining among ancient records, shows the occupancy of the old fort at the time of which I write:

"Great Barrington, Sept. 9, 1762.

"To the Honourable his Majesties justices of the Court Now Holden att Great Barrington for the County of Berkshire:

"Humbly moves Israel Dewey that this Honor'd Court would allow your petitioner the sums this Honoured Court shall think proper for the following articles, Namely:

£ s. d.
For the use of my house a year for a Goal, 4. 0. 0.
For spikes and mending the Goal 0. 5. 0
For boarding Abraham Waunaumpas Nine Weeks while in Goal @ 3.6
By taking S'd Abraham by a warrant Directed to me and carrying him into York Government and Delivering him to the Sheriff of the County of Albany 0. 9. 0
Turning ye key for Abraham 0. 3. 0
Assistance in carrying S'd Abraham Away Landlord Root with Two Horses and Drink 0. 12. 6
0. 7. 10

"And I also pray this Honoured Court to provide a Goal for the County for the future.

"This from your Honour's most obedient servant,