The Historians of Hillsdale love a good mystery and we’ve been trying to solve a big one: where were the boundaries of Nobletown, the predecessor to modern-day Hillsdale?
If you are not familiar with Nobletown or the contentious role it played in colonial times, don’t feel bad. It was new to us too. Here’s some quick background.
Way back in 1664, the British conquered the Dutch province of New Netherland, which included the lands from present-day New York City to Albany. This is why we all speak English instead of Dutch.
From 1624 to 1664, grants from the Dutch West India Company incentivized enterprising Dutchmen like Killian Van Rensselaer to buy vast parcels of land on either side of the Hudson River from local Mahican Indians. The Van Rensselaers and those who followed administered their holdings like feudal kingdoms, where tenant farmers paid rent on, but did not own, the land they farmed.
Still with us? Good, we’re almost done. When the British took over they settled a border dispute with Connecticut by agreeing that the southeast corner of NY/northeast corner of CT would be 20 miles east of Hudson River. (Source: Brook)
The King’s commissioners seem to have thought this principle would also apply to the boundary with Massachusetts. Not so fast, said the Van Rensselaers, who pointed out that their land extended well into the Housatonic Valley – more than 20 miles from the Hudson River.
Fast forward to 1751. The border was still contested. And that year, an unscrupulous Sheffield land speculator named David Ingersoll, smelling gold, discovered that the Mahican Indians who had originally sold land to the Van Rensselaers and Livingstons had in fact never parted with title to certain lands on Taconic Mountain, in the northeast corner of the manor of Livingston and in extensive tracts comprising most of the present towns of Hillsdale, Austerlitz and Canaan. He further ascertained that the Indians cherished a deep-seated resentment against the Van Rensselaers and the Livingstons, who had appropriated these land tracts without paying for them. (Source: Pope, p. 21)
The tenant farmers chafed under the thumb of their landlords and were allured by Ingersoll’s promises that that if they joined in the movement to establish Massachusetts authority over the disputed territory they need pay no more rent to their feudal landlords and could buy their land outright from the Mahicans, who claimed they’d never sold it to the landlords in the first place. (Ibid.)
As we said, we’re trying to figure out the bounderies of Nobletown. Here’s what we are reasonably sure is true:
• Robert Noble emigrated from Sheffield, MA in 1748 or ’49 and settled in the vicinity of eastern Hillsdale. He purchased a five-mile-square parcel of land from the Stockbridge Mahican tribe, which he modestly called Nobletown. He soon became the acknowledged leader of a group whose common purpose was to resist the claims of Livingston and Van Rensselaer. Some of these pioneers (or “squatters”) had located on the upper Green River, others in the present village of Spencertown, and others in the eastern part of Hillsdale (Source: Pope, p. 27)
• Noble built a homestead on or just to the north of the Kinderhook Road, near the Spoor Homestead. Portions of the original Spoor house are believed to be part of a house located just south of Boice Rd. and east of Rt. 71 in North Egremont (see Map 7, below). Nevertheless, conflicting data suggest that the Kinderhook Road was either today’s Rt. 21 (Cakeout Turnpike) or today’s Rt. 71. (Source: Leveille, P. 79)
• From 1755 to July 1766, the Van Rensselaers organized many attempts to arrest Noble and chase the Nobletown settlers back into Massachusetts. Guns were fired, lives were lost and in the end, the Columbia County Sheriff and 100 men (and some British soldiers) ransacked Nobletown and drove its residents back to Massachusetts.
• The long-disputed boundary between New York and Massachusetts wasn’t resolved until 1783, and not formally until 1787. Hillsdale was established in 1788.
• Captain John Francis Collin, who wrote the History of Hillsdale in 1888, was a serial plagiarist and often a highly unreliable source. Nothing personal.
We have spent many hours at the Columbia County Clerk’s Office; The Columbia County Historical Society; the New York State Library and Archives in Albany; the Pittsfield Athenaeum and (online) the Massachusetts Archives.
Through these resources as well as from numerous books and online sources (notated at the end of this post), we have accumulated an interesting collection of deeds, maps and property descriptions that have helped us narrow the search.
Here’s one of the problems we have faced in researching written descriptions of plots. This is a portion of a description of the boundary lines of Mt. Washington, MA (emphasis ours):
“…eastwardly, on a line of the town of Sheffield; beginning at three oak trees standing in the boundary line between this state and the state of Connecticut, and from said trees, north, twenty-seven degrees east, twenty-one chains and fifty lengths, to a pine tree; thence north, fifteen degrees east, one mile sixty-seven chains and fifty links, to a heap of stones; thence north, twenty-three degrees east, one mile and forty chains, to a tree; thence, north, fourteen degrees west, two miles and seventy-five chains, to a heap of stones…” (Source: Shearn, Pp. 30-31)
You get the picture.
The other problem with historical documents such as deeds and wills is that, unless someone has gone to the trouble of transcribing them, they are hand-written. In some cases, the scribe had magnificent handwriting verging on fine calligraphy; in other cases, the documents appear to have been written by someone who took a “Gentleman’s C” in penmanship, replete with cross outs and spelling errors.
Maps can be more enlightening…and confusing.
Here is a map that purports to show the location of Nobletown.
(Source: Pittsfield Atheneum)
As always, the problem with maps like this one is that they do not provide enough information and context to show where Nobletown would be on a modern map of Columbia and Berkshire Counties. In fact, Berkshire County did not even exist until 1761, when it was carved out of Hampshire County.
But at least one source claims that Nobletown “was attached to Hampshire County.” (Source: Converse) The problem is, where was the Hampshire County border with New York?
Here’s another map that illustrates the conundrum.
(Source: Pittsfield Athenaeum)
This map shows the final agreed-upon border between New York and Massachusetts as of 1787. It’s the line farthest on the left. The line to the right is the border in 1761, which is about ¾ of a mile inside today’s Berkshire County, which dovetails with multiple sources claiming that the Massachusetts line at that time was 20 miles from the Hudson River.
Using a modern map of Columbia County, a line drawn 20 miles from the Hudson indeed extends about ¾ of a mile into Berkshire County.
We can get a sense of the northern border of Nobletown from this online article excerpt (emphasis ours):
The “Shawenon Purchase” of 1756 was one of the last defining land transactions between the Stockbridge Indians and these early settlement families. In a deal that signed away the last of their remaining rightful stake in the region, the Stockbridge Indians sold a significant tract of land lying west of Sheffield to a consortium consisting of Ebenezer Baldwin, Aaron Loomis, Josiah Phelps, John and Joseph Van Gilder, Samuel Colver, and others, “for consideration of the sum of 20 pounds paid in hand.” The boundaries of this land in the County of Hampshire were defined as “west of Sheffield, butted and bounded as follows: East Sheffield on the land called the Indian land, on which John Van Gilder and Andrew Carner live, west on the land lately laid to Robert Noble, and others, called Nobletown, and to extend north as far as the said Nobletown to its northeast corner, to run east to Stockbridge west line.” (Source: Egremont Town Website)
Alford, MA was established on the land acquired in the Shawenon Purchase. This map of Alford suggests that a line extended from the northeast corner of Nobletown would indeed intersect with Stockbridge as it existed in the 1760s.
Near the top of the map, under the name Jackson, is a note that reads, “Called the North Line of Nobletown. (Source: Pittsfield Athenaeum)
In 1809, the Shawenon Purchase map could not be located and a replica was drafted. Look at how Nobletown is positioned next to Egremont and what became Alford:
(Source: Leveille P. 99)
The southern line of Stockbridge (at least as it was in colonial times) and its relationship to Nobletown is clear in this map:
(Source: Pope, P. 43)
Now we come to one of the “facts” that we believe we know: Nobletown was five miles square in area. We have identified two sources for this figure. One is Captain Collin’s History of Hillsdale, which we have noted is often an unreliable source. The other source is by Susan Stalker Mulvey, a genealogist who wrote a short chapter on the history of Nobletown in the Mindrum Family History. That’s not a lot to go on, but if we choose to accept the two claims at face value, the question becomes, “Where was the box?”
The right side of the box should be ¾ of a mile inside modern Berkshire County and be five miles long according the map’s scale. The top and bottom lines of the box extend westward for another five miles, and the left side of the box should connect the top and bottom lines, like this:
It’s more of a parallelogram than a square because the eastern (or right) line follows the state line, which runs in a SSW direction.
But again, where does the box go? If we accept that maps 3, 4, and 5 (above) show the supposed northern line of Nobletown, and that, if extended, would become the southern border of Stockbridge, we know how far north the northern line should be. The northeast corner of Nobletown should have been on that line, ¾ of a mile inside today’s Berkshire County.
Using our box, that would put the northwestern corner of Nobletown on Rt. 7D, ¾ of a mile NW from where it intersects Rt. 22. The southwestern corner would be just east of the intersection of Hunt Rd. and Orchard Rd. The southeastern corner has no particular landmark (maybe a heap of stones?) but by connecting the dots, we can complete the box. And it looks something like this (the box that says “Nobletown…Maybe”):
Map 6: Modern map of Columbia and Berkshire Counties (Source: Jimapco, Claverack XtraMart)
Was this Nobletown? This hypothesis has some things going for it. It supports the widely held opinion that Nobletown was where North Hillsdale is today. It also may give a clue as to the location of the Old Kinderhook Road and Captain Robert Noble’s house. Here’s a map that shows the Noble house just north of the road:
Map 7: Captain Noble’s House in relation to the Spoor Homestead (Source: Leveille, P. 79)
The Historians of Hillsdale need your help! Do you have any documents, maps or other evidence that would support or refute our hypothesis? We’d love to know more. Leave us a comment.
Brook, John L., Columbia Rising: Civil Life on the Upper Hudson From the Revolution to the Age of Jackson (2010, University of North Carolina Press)
Collin, John Francis, A History of Hillsdale, (1888, Self Published, Philmont, NY)
Converse, Charles Allen, Some of the Descendants of … Capt. John Bixby, Sr. (1905, Eben Putnam, Boston)
Ellis, Franklin, History of Columbia County, New York, (1883, Everts and Ensign, Philadelphia)
Humphrey, Thomas J., Land and Liberty: Hudson Valley Riots in the Age of Revolution (2004, Northern Illinois University Press)
Kim, Sung Bok, Landlord and Tenant in Colonial New York: Manorial Society 1664-1775 (1978, The University of North Carolina Press)
Leveille, Gary, Eye of Shawenon (2011, Self Published)
Pope, Franklin Leonard, The Western Boundary of Massachusetts: A Study of Indian and Colonial History (1886, Privately Printed; Reprinted 2004, Berkshire Family History Assn.)
Rising, Gerry, Buffalo Sunday News column published on March 15, 2009
Shearn, Evelyn Blum, “A History of Mt. Washington, MA” (1976, Self Published) esp. Pp. 30-31
Stein, Mark, How the States Got Their Shapes (2008, MJF Books, New York)
Town of Egremont, MA website page, “Our History” re: Shawenon Purchase