John Sinton © January 2015
“Rivers aren’t constrained by human desires and stories; they sing the beauty of their own randomness and drift.” — Jeremy Denk
Introduction to the 18th Century
The first sixty years of English settlement brought significant change to the Mill River. The Native Americans had accepted the river as it ran, counting on its waters to provide fish and fur for food and clothing, as well as drinking water and irrigation for their crops, while the wet meadows provided basket-making materials. During the next two and a half generations, the permanent settlement of colonial Americans grew from about 200 people to more than 1,200 by 1700.[i] They had built one failed mill dam near the center of town and a permanent one at Paradise Pond, along with smaller dams at Bay State and Florence. Even more telling was the failed series of dikes along Fort Hill, built in about 1700, which led to a 1710-20 diversion of the river mouth away from the Manhan Meadows and Hulburt’s pond directly out to the Connecticut River.
The next sixty years, from 1720-1780, would be a time of social and cultural change that would build the foundation for major economic development with the beginning of the industrial revolution and the end of the American Revolution. While the population of Northampton in 1700 was almost exactly the same 80 years later – about 1,220 people – the town became the center of commerce and culture in Western Massachusetts with a courthouse and one of the most important churches in America, the Congregational Church in which Jonathan Edwards spent his most productive years as minister of the church from 1727-49.[ii] An extraordinary scholar and theologian, he was in the maelstrom of the Great Awakening, an enormous religious revival throughout the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s.
Edwards, a deeply conservative man, had problems with the people of Northampton. Here was his take on them in the 1730s: “The people of Northampton are not the most happy in their natural temper. They have, ever since I can remember, been famed for a high-spirited people, and close, and of a difficult, turbulent temper.”[iii] By 1745, Edwards’ parishioners had had enough of him and threw him out. In 1750, he took a position in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to minister to the Native Americans. In February 1758 he became president of Princeton University, where he hoped to encourage the widespread use of smallpox vaccine. He inoculated himself and was dead in March of that same year at the age of 54.[*]
This was a period in which the Native Americans were slowly pushed out of most of western Massachusetts, a time of intense European wars with a North American theater in New England in which many Northampton men participated.[iv] These bloody wars, while they involved a changing array of Native American allies and enemies, were chiefly between France and England for suzerainty over North American colonies. Presiding over a strictly stratified society of rich and poor were the River Gods – men of considerable wealth, such as the Williamses, Stoddards, Stebbinses, and Worthingtons. “Social hierarchy was based on “natural” distinctions among those with much dignity and those with little… Those of high status were addressed as “Mister,” while others were called “Goodman” or “Goodwoman,” and military people were addressed by their rank.”[v] Such concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few families, however created a rising level of conflict between the county elite and the common people.[vi] Northampton was often torn between the Court Party and the Country Party – between the wealthy establishment and those whom Jonathan Edwards described as people who are “jealous of them, apt to envy ’em, and afraid of their having too much power and influence in town and church.”[vii]
The people of Northampton, like others in New England were facing the greatest tension in colonial life and thought. “On the one hand, [religious doctrine] directed them to immerse themselves in the things of this world without, on the other hand lavishing their affections on earthy pursuits. The contradiction was palpable. How many men and women could avoid the sin of covetousness, could pursue profits without succumbing to the temptations of profit?”[viii] Commerce and industry had won out by the middle of the 19th century.
Despite the social and cultural upheaval in Northampton in the 18th century, there were only modest changes to the physical character of the Mill River watershed. The sons and daughters of Northamptonites who did not inherit land, moved upstream to Florence and Leeds and began the settlement of hilltowns, such as Williamsburg, which was, in fact, carved out of the town of Hatfield. Furthermore, there was little change in industrial technology – gristmills, sawmills, tanneries, fulling mills were the same in 1780 as those in 1700. The River Gods did, indeed, become wealthy, but they accumulated their capital from significant increases in the demand for agricultural products and commerce rather than through increases in efficiency and technology.[ix] Meanwhile, the mercantile system, under which British colonies were prevented from developing their own manufactured goods, such as textiles, cutlery or china, meant that no true manufacturing facility could be built in the region.
[*]His death is chronicled in Marsden’s book among many others.
[i] Neuburg, N.O. 1955. “Land Use in Northampton: A Study in Various Ecological Aspects in a Specific Urban Community.” Smith College honors thesis.
[ii] While we are accustomed to imagining Springfield as the most important town in Western Massachusetts, Northampton, in fact, was Hampshire County’s shire town, or county seat, with a larger population than Springfield’s until the turn of the 19th century. (see note on population). Springfield only became a shire town when Hampden County was created in 1812, and, due chiefly to its location on major roads and rail lines between Boston, New Haven, and Albany, its population exploded during the industrialization of America.
[iii] Marsden, George M. 2003 Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale Univ. p. 143.
[iv] Wars from 1670-1783: King Phillip’s (Metacom’s) War 1675-78; King William’s War 1689-1697; Queen Anne’s War 1702-13; King George’s War 1744-48; French & Indian War 1754-63; American Revolution 1775-83
[v] Sweeney, Kevin M. 1986. River Gods and Related Minor Deities: The Williams Family and the Connecticut River Valley, 1637-1790. Ph.D. dissertation. Yale Univ.: History Dept. “A man’s attire denoted his standing: the 1651 Massachusetts sumptuary law prevented the wearing of “excesse in apparel [by] men or weomen of meane condition.” The following could weare the “garbe of gentlemen.” 1. Wealth (an estate rated at more than 200 pounds). 2. So to did “any magistrate or publicke officer of the jurisdiction, their wives and children” regardless of wealth. 3. Military officers could attire themselves as gentlemen. 4. Former public officials or those who had once had considerable estate.” p. 5-6.
[vi] For an excellent discussion of this, see Nobles, Gregory. 1983. Divisions Throughout the Whole.: Politics and Society in Hampshire County, Massachusetts, 1740-1775. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press
[vii] Marsden, p. 143
[viii] Henretta, James. 1991. The Origins of American Capitalism: Collected Essays. Boston: Northeastern Univ. p. 38
[ix] For a thorough analysis of New England’s early economic development, see Henretta, James. 1991. The Origins of American Capitalism: Collected Essays. Boston: Northeastern Univ.