Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Great Barrington Historical Documents Collection
Scope and Contents of the Collection
The Great Barrington Historical Documents Collection was compiled by Charles Taylor, author of the 1882 town history. In large measure, it represents an incomplete but fascinating collection of documentation for facets of the town's social history. Great Barrington, Massachusetts developed out of the Upper and Lower Housatonic townships which were settled in 1722. The Proprietors of what was to become Great Barrington actually began to lay out and distribute land in 1733-1734, a process their successors completed in 1793.
The collection, totaling about 600 items, provides important insights into aspects of the town's development, particularly concerning land. Folder 135 in Series 7, for instance, contains copies of the Proprietor's land distribution activities. Series 2 (Deeds) and Series 5 (Land Surveys) document the sale of property and efforts to obtain accurate boundaries from the time of the initial settlement. Moreover, Series 4 (Indentures) is concerned principally with the leasing of land to individuals for farming.
Several series show the impact on townspeople of larger social and political events. The documents in Series 1 offer insight into the rural problems that led to Shays' Rebellion. The Court of Common Pleas cases (the majority occurring between 1784 and 1787) reveal the credit and cash difficulties facing Massachusetts farmers following the Revolution. Series 6 (Sheriff's Writs), on the other hand, documents the continuing problem of rural indebtedness (particularly in the first American recession of 1817-1820), but also reveals a transitional era in the local economy. An increasing number of cases involve artisans and laborers, marking a shift to a market economy. The high number of court cases involving debt (22 in 1817 alone) also evinces a change in the social and economic consciousness of rural New Englanders.
Other series open avenues to broader questions. For instance, the documents in Series 8 cover the years of Samuel Rossiter's indebtedness and eventual insolvency prior to 1800. However, Rossiter is also a major actor in acquiring land (Series 2), pursuing debtors (Series 1 and 6), and establishing himself as a landlord. Rossiter's progression from a farmer to a yeoman to a gentleman is perhaps an interesting example of the transforming power of the market in the rural economy. Series 6 (Town History Documents) likewise offers glimpses of controversies over roads, riparian rights, militia service, early court cases, school expenses, and temperance. This series also contains a notice from the town's Committee of Correspondence (July 9, 1776) demanding that certain citizens surrender their weapons.
Great Barrington is also important as the birthplace of W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois' maternal ancestors, the Burghardts, were long-time residents of the town. Although a number of Burghardts appear in these documents, it does not seem that any were close relatives of Du Bois. One of the sheriff's writs in 1821 (folder 108), however, does involve a James Freeman who was perhaps Du Bois' uncle.
This collection is organized into nine series: