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Stockbridge Indians and Rev. Stephen Williams

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

Stockbridge Indians and Rev. Stephen Williams

Stockbridge, Massachusetts is the quintessential New England town. Norman Rockwell, who lived and worked in Stockbridge, fostered this image with his idealized visions of everyday American life. As the pandemic subsides, Stockbridge will resume its role as a tourist destination, home to world-class museums and nearby art and music venues. But, how many people know that this beautiful town began as an experimental community to “civilize” and convert indigenous peoples to Christianity? The Mohican people (also known as Mahikan, Housatunnuck, Mohekanew, and/or Muh-he-ka-nuk) spent springs and summers in the Hudson River Valley and autumns and winters around the Housatonic River in western Massachusetts. As European settlers expanded holdings up the Hudson River in New York and westward in Massachusetts,

Mohicans not only lost the right to use their traditional lands but they were decimated by previously unknown diseases. Feeling that, perhaps, the God of the Europeans was more powerful than their traditional spirits, Mohican tribal leaders agreed to be missionized.

Rev. Stephen Williams, the pastor of First Church in Longmeadow, was instrumental in establishing the Stockbridge mission. Starting in May, 1734, he wrote about the mission in his diary over 80 times. Working with Rev. Samuel Hopkins (pastor of the West Springfield church) and Rev. Nehemiah Bull (pastor of the Westfield church), he negotiated with the tribe to set up the mission.

In July, 1734, Rev. Williams traveled to Westfield, where Rev. Bull joined him as they traveled to Wnahktukuk (the Mohican village) to meet with tribal leaders. The tribe gave the ministers a belt of wampum as a token of their assent. Rev. Williams wrote on July 9, “…as good a prospect of Success – as we could hope for…”

On Aug. 12, 1734, Rev. Williams traveled to Boston to report on the July trip. “This day – I began – my journey – to Boston in order to give an account to ye commissioners of what I met with at Housatunnick & the commissioners have voted to send a missionary to ye Indians & have left it with Mr. B[ull] and myself to provide a missionary.” The “commissioners” referenced were on the Commission of the Society for the Promotion of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Rev. Williams returned to Longmeadow on August. 22.

Empowered by the commission and not wasting any time, on September 9, 1734, Rev. Williams “went from home to go to New Haven to ye commencement of my special business was to procure – a missionary, to go to Housatunnick & according to ye Good hand of God, upon me, I was so far Succeeded as that I have procured ye ingenious learned & pious Mr. John Sergeant to undertake that service. I praise God for his Smiles on this affair hitherto & pray him, still to Smile upon it.

John Sergeant

John Sergeant visited Longmeadow in October on his way to his mission and Rev. Williams kept tabs on his progress for many years. From all accounts, John Sergeant was well suited to missionary work and he was respected by the Mohican people. Timothy Woodbridge from West Springfield soon joined the mission as a teacher at the school.

The Mission House (1910-1920 image) John Sergeant’s home is a National Historic Landmark which is now operated as a museum, The Mission House, which you can visit in season. For more information, click here. The English colony and the Mohican tribe agreed to settle four English families in their village, ostensibly to serve as role models on the ways of Christianity and English life. The four settlers, Joseph Woodbridge, Col. Ephraim Williams, Ephraim Brown, and Josiah Jones, were each to receive 400 acres of prime farmland. The English settlers named the town Stockbridge. In August, 1735, tribal leaders met with colonial Governor Jonathan Belcher in Deerfield to ratify the treaty. Rev. Stephen Williams was also at the gathering which he described as “a great Hurliburry indeed”. Over several days, speeches were made and gifts were exchanged, the treaty was signed, and, on the final day, John Sergeant was ordained as a minister. The Commissioners financially supported the Stockbridge mission and Rev. Williams often transferred funds from Boston to Stockbridge. The diary references several of these transactions and Historic Deerfield recently acquired a letter from the commissioners to Rev. Williams concerning this financial support. At several points between 1734 and 1740, Mohican boys came to Longmeadow, living in and being educated in Rev. Williams’s home. With eight Williams children, at least one enslaved woman (Phillis), and several Mohican boys, it must have been a crowded household!

  • The first two boys came in Dec. 1734 and another came in February, 1735. At least one returned home in March, 1735. Rev. Williams wrote “I desire they may do well – that they may get good, by coming to us - & be blessings to your nation & friend.” It is not clear when they returned to Stockbridge, but perhaps the boys returned home with Mr. Sergeant in July when he came to visit Longmeadow.

  • Two more boys, Isaac and John, came to Longmeadow in December, 1738 and they stayed until at least April, 1739. Rev. Williams wrote of the challenges that these students brought to the household, including illnesses and disgruntled attitudes. Perhaps they returned to Stockbridge with Rev. Williams when he traveled there in August, 1739.

  • In January, 1740, three boys arrived; two left in May and the third stayed through at least July.

In the early years of the Stockbridge settlement, Wappinger, Nipmuck, and Tunxis Indians joined the community and all of the indigenous peoples who lived there became known as the “Stockbridge Indians”. Stockbridge Indians were loyal to the English colonists, fighting on the side of the colonists in the French and Indian wars and the Revolutionary War.

As Massachusetts English families moved further west, new settlers flooded into Stockbridge, buying up land promised to the tribe, and excluding the Indians from town government. In 1739, land in a section of Stockbridge (which is now Lenox) was put up for sale and Rev. Williams joined others in buying a piece of property. His diary reflects that on October 23, 1739, “I set out for Stockbridge about our Farm – had a comfortable journey & success in our business – returned home.”

The Stockbridge Indians relocated many times. In 1783, many Stockbridge Indians moved to Oneida lands in central New York and founded New Stockbridge. In 1818, they moved to White River, Indiana, then to Wisconsin. In 1834, members of the Munsee tribe joined them and the tribe is now known as the Stockbridge-Munsee Band. The tribe was relocated several times within Wisconsin, but now has a reservation in Shawano County. You can learn more about them on the tribe's website.

Sources 1. Stephen Williams Diary 2. Stockbridge-Munsee Community website 3. Stockbridge, Past and Present: Or Recordes Of An Old Mission Station (1854) by Electa F. Jones 4.

Contributed by Elizabeth Hoff, LHS Board Member

Originally published April 29, 2021

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