Greenfield — Early History

Extracted from "History of the Connecticut Valley in Massachusetts, Volume II," by Louis H. Everts, 1879.

      The history of Greenfield up to 1753 is identified with that of the mother-town of Deerfield, whose troublesome and wayward child she was. In 1673 a new grant of land was made to Deerfield by the General Court, so that the original 8000 acres should make a township seven miles square. In 1665, Maj. Pynchon, of Springfield, had been employed to survey the land and fix the boundaries, and in 1672 the present boundary-line was established between Deerfield and the Green River district, as it was then called. The condition of this additional grant then was, "provided that an able orthodox minister be settled among them within three years, and that a farm of 250 acres be laid out for the country's use." This grant includes the towns of Greenfield, Gill, and a part of Shelburne. The act of 1673 provides that William Allis and others be appointed "to lay out the farm, admit inhabitants, grant land, and order the prudential affairs till they shall be in a capacity of meet persons among themselves to manage their own affairs."
      The first record of any land granted to any person within the present limits of Greenfield is in 1686,—of a "tract of 20 acres to Mr. Nathaniel Brooks, at Green River." He was probably the first settler. Tradition fixes his dwelling on the west side of the road to Cheapeside, north of Turn Hall. The well now existing there is supposed to be the first one dug in this town. In the same year—1686—grants were made of 20 acres each to John and Edward Allyn, and to Joseph and Robert Goddard, on condition of their paying taxes. It is not known that these grants were ever taken.
      In 1687 the land on the west end of Main Street was taken up. Beginning on the south side, the first lot was taken by Ebenezer Wells. The house now standing on that lot, and known as the Coombs house, is the oldest dwelling-house in the village, and is still often called by the name of its builder and former owner,—the "Wells house." The lot remained for several generations in the family of the original proprietor. The second lot east was taken by David Hoyt, of Deerfield, who did not become a resident; the third and fourth lots by William Brooks, of whom I can learn nothing; the fifth by Edward Allyn. His lot came up to "Arms' Corner." His house probably stood where Mr. Hollister now lives. He died December, 1756, aged sixty-nine, and was buried in the old cemetery near Mr. Osterhout's house. The stone that marks his grave is the oldest I find in this, the oldest burial-place in town.
      On the north side of Main Street, the first lot—that on which Maj. Keith now lives—was taken by Samuel Smead. The next is called on the old records the "Mill lot." Why so called is not known. Then come Josiah and Robert Goddard's lots. They did not become residents. Then John Severance, whose descendants have held the place till quite recently. Then the lots of Jeremiah Hall and John Allen. The eastern boundary of these lots I do not know.
      In May, 1723, at a meeting of the proprietors in Deerfield, it was voted "to lay out to the proprietors a tract of land lying upon 'Green River,' bounded north upon the 'Country Farms,' west by the ridge of hills west of Green River, the first lot to begin at the north end of said plat." The proprietors drew lots for their land, and Judah Wright, of Deerfield, drew the first lot.
      It is a mystery what became of the farm of 250 acres that was set apart for the country's use. It was diverted from this purpose at an early period, and nothing but the name has been preserved.
      It would take too long to tell how the land on both sides of Green River was distributed, but it can all be found in the county register's office, copied from the proprietors' book by the hand of Dr. Charles Williams, lately deceased, of Deerfield.
      In 1743 a petition was presented, by those living in what was known as the "Green River district," to be set off as a separate town, and it was voted in town-meeting in Deerfield, November 15th, to grant the request. But for some reason nothing was done about it till ten years later, when a committee of three disinterested persons was appointed to determine where the dividing line should be, where the meeting-house should be placed, and various other matters. This committee reported April 18, 1753, and the following warrant was issued:


      "To Ens. Ebeneezer Smead, of the district of G'f'd, in the county of Hampshire, greeting: You are hereby required in his Majesty's name to warn all the freeholders and other inhabitants of said district qualified by law to vote the choice of district officers to meet together att the house of James Corse, in said district, on Tuesday, the 3d day of July next, att one of the clock in the afternoon, then and there, after a moderator is chosen, to choose all such officers as by law are to be chose for the managing the affair of said district, also to doo what shall be thoat necessary to be done in order to provide preaching in said district. Hereof fail not, and make return of this warrant att the time and place aforesaid.
      "Given under my hand and seal att D'f d, this 26th day of June, 1753. ELIJAH WILLIAMS, who am by law authorized to grant this warrant."

      Under this order the first town-meeting was held July 3, 1753. The business transacted reveals the men and public measures of that day. Benjamin Hastings was chosen moderator.

      "Voted that Benj. Hastings should be Town Clark; that Ebenezer Smead, Sam'l Hinsdale, and Daniel Nash be Selectmen and Assessors; that Ebenezeer Arms should be town treasurer; that Benjamin Hastings should be Constable; that Nathaniel Brooks and Shubael Atherton should be tithingmen; that James Corse, Johnathan Smead, and Eleazer Wells be fence-viewers; that Amos Allen and Ebenezer Wells be surveyors of the Highways; that Aaron Denio should be dear-reaf; that James Corse and Amos Allen should be hog-reafs; that Joshua Wells should be sealer of weights and measures; that Benjamin Hastings should be sealer of leather; that Thomas Nims and Gad Corse should be field-drivers; that Daniel Graves, Daniel Nash, and Aaron Denio be a committee to supply us with preaching for the present year."

      Happy town-meeting! Not a word about taxes, nor roads, nor schools, which so vex the spirit of the modern citizen; and offices enough, apparently, to go round, giving each citizen at least one. It is not easy to see the need of a treasurer; but if there was no treasury, there were no debts. The meeting was held, as were subsequent meetings, at the house of James Corse, which stood where the Leavitt House now stands, east of the Mansion House.
      The town records were kept for many years in the clear, strong handwriting of Benjamin Hastings, who may well be considered one of the fathers of the town. But the records are very meagre and formal. They tell us with great scrupulousness who were chosen hog-reeves, fence-viewers, and the like, but tell us very little of what we would like to know of the people and their way of life.
      The committee appointed to fix the conditions of separation were not citizens of either town, and doubtless they tried to be fair and impartial, but their report furnished an ever-fruitful source of controversy between the two towns for more than a century. Happily, to all appearance, the controversy is ended; and certainly we, who have inherited none of the bad blood created by either party, can speak dispassionately of the subject in dispute.
      The committee reported that the dividing line between the two towns should be what is known as the 8000-acre line, which is the line to this day between these towns, and that said district shall have the improvement of one-half of the sequestered lands of Deerfield lying north of Deerfield River.
      The report also fixed the place for the meeting-house at a place called Trap Plain, on a spot in the public highway opposite the house now occupied by Lemuel A. Long. This report, as I have said, gave rise to great controversy, especially that portion of it relating to the sequestered land,—i.e., some land set apart for the use of the ministry, and lying just west of Green River and south of the lowest Green River bridge, in Cheapside.
      This report was accepted by the town of Deerfield in December, 1753, and in that year the town of Greenfield was incorporated, but the wording of the act of incorporation was evidently not so carefully watched by the Greenfield people as by those of Deerfield. It does not appear on the town records till ten years later, and then it appears that the act of incorporation does not agree with the conditions recommended in the report of the committee. The committee had reported that Greenfield should have the improvement of one-half of the sequestered lands. In the act of incorporation it reads, that "Greenfield shall have the improvement of one-half of the sequestered lands until there shall be another district or parish made out of the town of Deerfield." The Greenfield people—innocent souls!—thought that if a third district or parish were to be made out of Deerfield, each one would have a third part of the income of the sequestered land.
      In 1767, Conway was set off, and then, instead of dividing the income of this land into three parts, Deerfield claimed the whole. What must have been the astonishment of our wise and virtuous fathers when they saw their good mother, whom they were expected to revere, appropriating what they honestly thought was a part of their patrimony! Who should have the crop from that 30 acres of meadow-land? became the occasion of heated and prolonged controversy.
      Greenfield sued for it in the courts, but was always defeated at the trial. The war was not always with words only; but tradition relates that when one party had mowed the grass, the other party attempted to carry it off, and rakes and pitchforks were freely used by zealous combatants on both sides. The crop, when secured, was to go to support the minister.
      This controversy continued till 1771, when a final settlement was made of all the suits then pending, by the town of Greenfield paying to Deerfield £40 for all trespasses committed on the town land by any of the inhabitants of Greenfield, from the beginning of the year 1768 till the 4th day of December, 1770; but this not to affect the title to said land.
      The controversy did not end with the lawsuit of 1770. We find frequent notices in the town records of committees chosen to examine and prosecute the claims of Greenfield to that land. In 1782 it was voted "to make a trial for a certain piece of land the town of Deerfield has taken, in manner as followeth: that David Smead, Esq., is chosen to act discretionally for the town, to bring on a trial before the General Court, and make a report of his proceedings, and likewise to keep an account of his expenses." But nothing came of it. The old quarrel went on. People now living recall the fact that they received it almost as a dying legacy from their fathers not to give up that claim. Fortunately, the rivalries and animosities of those days have passed away. The people of these towns are pretty good friends now, though if a Greenfield man should speak the fatal word "Cheapside" in old Deerfield Street, he would possibly find that the old fires only smouldered, and had not gone entirely out. As for that land, the water has opened a gully in the bank near by, and the clay has washed down and covered the soil, so that the land is not worth much. The Deerfield people can have it. The grapes the fox couldn't get he pronounced sour.
      In 1836 an effort was made in the Legislature by persons in the interest of Greenfield to have all that part of Deerfield north of Deerfield River, called Cheapside, annexed to Greenfield. The effort was pushed with energy and resisted with equal power. The attempt failed, with no result but to renew the old bitterness of feeling between the two towns. It was renewed in 1850 with like vigor, and with the same result. The old 8000-acre line still remains the boundary between the mother-town and her restless and rebellious child.
      Our town had its birth and childhood in a period of colonial darkness and danger. It was at the time of the long, bloody French-and-Indian war. England and France were engaged in a death-struggle to secure supremacy on this continent. It was just at the time that the name of Washington begins to figure in history.
      Braddock's defeat occurred in July, 1755, and two years earlier, in 1753,* the year in which our town was incorporated, at the suggestion of Franklin, a Provincial Congress was held at Albany,—a remarkable gathering of the leading men of that day,—and the first steps were taken for a confederation of the colonies.
      Our fathers lived and had their being in scenes of war and bloodshed. They endured all the hardships of frontier-life, knowing that a savage foe, inspired by a rival nation, hostile in race, language, and religion, was lurking in the forests about them.

* This convention was held at Albany, in July, 1754 (see History of Pennsylvania, by Wm. H. Egle, page 79). The resolutions were adopted on the 4th of the month.—Ed.

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