In Search of Nobletown

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.

Map 2
(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.

Map 3
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:

Map 4
(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:

Map 5
(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:

Figure 1

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.

 

 

Sources:

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

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19 Responses to In Search of Nobletown

  1. Christopher Conway says:

    What is the purpose of finding the border of Nobletown? I find these things enticing and would love to help.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Christopher: No purpose, we’re just interested. The town was completely destroyed in ‘The Great Rebellion of 1766,” during which the Van Rensselaers succeeded in convincing Albany to send 100 soldiers to arrest Robert Noble and other troublesome “squatters” on land they claimed as their own. Noble and his compatriots had gone into in hiding and, unable to roust them, the British troops marched through Nobletown tearing down homes, burning barns, stealing provisions and destroying livestock. Refugees flooded into North Egrement and appealed to Boston for aid, telling officials they had been “Driven as Sheep by Wolves” from their homes.Today no traces seem to remain of the squatter village, and we thought it would be interesting to find out where it had been, if possible.

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    • When Peter Cipkowski asked us to take on the role of Hillsdale Historians, he told us that there were no rules. Just make it up! So when we get curious about something, we go into Bird Dog mode. We’re not scholars, more like historical journalists. But the history of Hillsdale is rich with wonderful anecdotes and we are always on the hunt for a new topic. And not necessarily from the 18th century! If you are wondering about something — a person, a street name, a house, an event — let us know and we’ll partner with you to find out. We always loved “In Search of…” BTW, do you sound like Leonard Nimoy?

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      • Christopher Conway says:

        I have a love for searching for the answers to mysteries. There are a few legends in the Hudson valley that I would like to explore in the near future. One of which is the mines of austerlitz. Trying to locate the boundaries of Nobletown seems as though it will be fun. Landmarks may be long gone but there is still the possibility they are not. And I’m not sure if I sound like Leonard Nimoy.

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  2. Christopher Conway says:

    I have a love for searching for the answers to mysteries. There are a few legends in the Hudson valley that I would like to explore in the near future. One of which is the mines of austerlitz. Trying to locate the boundaries of Nobletown seems as though it will be fun. Landmarks may be long gone but there is still the possibility they are not. And I’m not sure if I sound like Leonard Nimoy.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You need to get to know Tom Moreland, historian of Austerlitz, who has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the town.

    Like

  4. George C says:

    This is a great article and a topic that I’m very interested in.
    The documents from the Nobletown Proprieters Meeting can be found in the Felt Collection, Volume 6, pages 405-413, on microfilm at the Massachusetts State Archives (they used to be online as well, linked from Susan Mulvey’s article, but they are no longer available at that link)
    I recommend The Law Practice of Alexander Hamilton, Vol 3 (Julius Goebel 1980), pages 308-470 about Claverack and the arbitration in Hillsdale.
    I also recommend The Documentary History of New York, Vol 3, (Ocallaghan 1850), which contains the best first hand accounts of the violence at Nobletown.

    From my research, I think there was an original settlement that was a bit west and south of where your boundary is drawn. Also, I think there was a broader Nobletown region that is depicted in the Pope map. This region consisted of tenant farms (in addition to the original settlement) that were separate from each other with no real “town center”. Nobletown was referred to frequently by 18th century travelers, as was Spencertown (for good examples of first hand accounts, see Henry Knox by Bernard Drew, 2012).

    As far as the roads go, that’s another rabbit hole! If route 71 was the 18th century Kinderhook Road, you would have to assume that Dugway was already…dug (cut through the mountain). The Cakeout seems more likely to me, although I believe the original route cut north at Dawson Rd and then went through a natural break in the mountains at Gingras Rd (which is shown to go all the way through to Punsit Rd on maps prior to 1900). Punsit Rd to Spencertown to Kinderhook. It is the straightest route with the least elevation gain, and lines up with how the road is depicted on the Pope map. I also believe that this would be the best route for dragging cannons to Boston…

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    • The best thing about the Hillsdale Historian blog is the comments section! Thank you, George, for such an informative reply. We will check out these sources. What do you make of Map 7, showing the Spoor house with Noble’s house nearby? (Leveille, p. 79) There is no key (of course), so we can’t estimate the distance, but Leveille’s caption is telling: “This drawing is one of the earliest known maps of the North Egremont area…” Spoor’s house was presumed to be just south of Boice Rd. and east of Rt. 71 in North Egremont, and Leveille believes the house standing there today is built on a portion of Spoor’s old Dutch structure (ibid, p. 77). We wonder if Nobletown extended much further east than has been presumed, into North Egremont? That would explain this map and support the idea that modern Rt. 71 was at least a portion of the old Kinderhook Rd. Pope also says that the original Van Rensselaer patent extended 24 miles east and west of the Hudson, which would account for the Patroon’s objection to squatters in that area. Another (more dubious assertion) that the original Van Rensselaer patent extended 42 miles east and west of the Hudson can be found in “The Manors of Historic Homes of The Hudson Valley” by Harold Donaldson Eberlein.

      Lauren

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    • I completely agree with you, especially about Rt. 21. It’s frustrating when presented with so much seemingly conflicting information. I also agree that over time, Nobletown may have been used colloquially to refer to something larger than original five mile plot. That would certainly explain some conflicting info, but I don’t suppose we’ll ever know for sure.

      Chris

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  5. George C says:

    Map 7 is really interesting, I’ve never seen it before and I wonder where the original is- I would like to see the whole thing.
    This will be a tough sell, but I think map 7 shows Spoors house as you suggested, in North Egremont on 71, then the Kinderhook Rd, which I think followed today’s Shun Toll, Whites Hill, Mitchell, to North Hillsdale (where 22 and 21 meet), and up Cakeout. The black line running north/south is too far west (assuming it’s the MA/NY border) but that was a disputed line and a lot depends on when the map was made and who made it. The Van Rennsalears were always claiming as much as they could and trying hard to control the eastern edges. This line looks too far west to me, so it was probably drawn by someone in Massachusetts who wanted to claim more.

    In my opinion, Nobles house as marked on Map 7 is just up Cakeout Rd on the right, very close to where Col Charles McKinstry, Hillsdale town supervisor 1791-99, may have lived. According to Collins, McKinstry lived “at the easterly foot of the Cakeout Hills, his home was near the center of the town, while it was composed of the Nobletown and Spencertown sections” (at page 25). The McKinstry family cemetery is near this location. The dotted line going south on Map 7 follows the valley south along 22, then east to Great Barrington.
    Speaking of cemeteries, Lietenant Thomas Whitney is listed as one of the Nobletown proprietors (Felt collection), and was shot and killed in June 1766 outside of Nobles house (Doc Hist Vol 3 at page 831). He is buried in the North Hillsdale Methodist cemetery and his headstone is still there.
    Another proprietor, Benjamin Lovejoy, is buried in Schoolhouse cemetery and his headstone is still present. He was an inn keeper on the Kinderhook Road and was frequently mentioned by travelers during the time period of the original settlement (prior to 1766). (See Drew at page 78, 81,82,106,109,114,119).
    I think the original proprietors of Nobletown knew they were taking a very large risk to push into the manor lands, and Massachusetts (endorsing this settlement) wanted them to push as far west into the hills as possible. When I stand at the Collins cemetery on Hunt Road and look out over the terrain, I get a feeling that the orginal settlement is close by. The hills in that area are uniquely fitting for both farming and hiding.
    Anyway, the story of the original settlement and of the Nobletown region are significant to early American history and in need of more research. Finding direct evidence of the original settlement would be truly exciting. Keep digging!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That map appears in Gary Leveille’s book, “Eye of Shawenon.” Mr. Leveille is very diligent about sourcing, but unfortunately gave no additional information about map 7. I believe I also saw it at the Pittsfield Athenaeum but there was no additional source information. It may be in the Mass Archives.

      Chris

      Like

  6. Bart Ziegler says:

    Fascinating sleuthing. Keep it up!

    Like

  7. valerieck1 says:

    How did Cakeout get its name?

    Like

    • According to “Eye of the Shawenon,” (Gary Leveille, 2011), “The North Hillsdale locale known as Kakeout, aka Cakeout and Keikout, was located along the old Indian Fur Trail. According to tradition, the name evolved from the Dutch word “Kijk-Uit” meaning “lookout.”

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  8. Kathy M Doddridge says:

    Wonderful to learn that the town has hired historians to research this puzzling question. I have been trying to locate evidence of when Robert Meeker arrived in Nobletown. I know he sold his land in Fairfield CT by 1752 and that he was in Nobletown by 1761. But when did actually arrive?? Any thoughts on how to locate a land record from 1752 until 1766. Thanks for any advice!

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  9. VAT says:

    Interesting article. In 1802, my ancestor, William Palmer, kept a journal of his trip between central New York and Rhode Island. I do not have the original journal, but do have a transcription. On his return, his trip took him from Granville, MA, to Sandersfield, MA, to New Marlborough, MA, to Great Barrington, MA, to Nobletown, where he stayed with his uncle John Hunt, then on to Spencertown, NY and to his father’s house in Chatham, NY.

    Like

  10. Chris Atkins says:

    Unless it is a really huge file, I’d like tro read the whole thing. If it is too large to send, then just the Nobletown part. hillsdalehistorians@gmail.com
    Thanks.

    Like

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