New dig affirms Mohican homesites in the Southern Berkshires

People walked here. They cooked dinner at the hearth and sat by the fire and talked. They crossed the floor so often the signs still show in the earth more than 200 years later.

Bonney Hartley, historic preservation manager for the Stockbridge Munsee community of the Mohican Nation, and Nathan Allison, tribal preservation officer, are standing on the bank of the Housatonic River, on a flat stretch of earth cool in the shade, where their ancestors lived.

The Stockbridge Munsee live now in Wisconsin, and they hold a presence in the Berkshires, as they always have. Hartley and Allison speak from the tribal office in Williamstown, and the Stockbridge in their name comes from here. They lived on this land for centuries before European colonists forced them to move west.

This stretch of the river has a link to those hard days, Hartley said. From August 9 to 13, she and Allison and a team of volunteers conducted a dig at the site of a historic celebration, an ox roast George Washington gave in 1783 to thank Mohican veterans for their service in the Revolutionary War.

It is more than that, said Ann Morton, archaeologist with Morton Archaeological Research Services, a cultural resource survey firm in Macedon, New York — it is the site of Mohican homes over a much longer span of years.

The historic preservation office for the Stockbridge Munsee community of the Mohican Nation leads a dig along the Housatonic River at the site of the 1783 Ox Roast in Stockbridge. Press photo courtesy of the Mohican nation.
Photo by Natalie Montoya-Barnes

The historic preservation office for the Stockbridge Munsee community of the Mohican Nation leads a dig along the Housatonic River at the site of the 1783 Ox Roast in Stockbridge. Press photo courtesy of the Mohican nation.

The team has found two living floors, Morton explained, one above the other, in one of the sites where their ground-penetrating radar showed anomalies. Standing waist-deep in the excavation site, she showed the shift in the color of the soil in the earth wall of the trench. Charcoal darkens the earth, and she can still trace the layers of compact soil at the depths where people walked over it repeatedly over time.

In another site nearby, the team has found artifacts: a stone flake, food bone, a stone that shows signs of use, smooth on two sides, shaped by use before it was used in preparing or cooking food.

As they showed their finds, they were still gathering information, correcting and evaluating.

“This is happening in real time,” Morton said.

They are sending data for analysis, she said, including charcoal for carbon dating, to learn more about the timing of the two levels of human presence she has found.

Bonney Hartley, historic preservation manager for the Stockbridge Munsee community of the Mohican Nation, and a team of volunteers work at a dig at the site of the 1783 Ox Roast in Stockbridge. Press photo courtesy of the Mohican nation.
Photo by Rob Hoogs

Bonney Hartley, historic preservation manager for the Stockbridge Munsee community of the Mohican Nation, and a team of volunteers work at a dig at the site of the 1783 Ox Roast in Stockbridge. Press photo courtesy of the Mohican nation.

Bonney Hartley has seen the same evidence of her ancestors’ long presence here earlier this summer, at a dig in July at the site of the first meetinghouse in Stockbridge. Negotiations happened here, she said. Mohican leaders met with colonists. Agreements were drawn up and broken.

Here too the dig found two homesites dating back long before Europeans came here, again in two layers and two different times, one blow the other and earlier.

People will often talk about Mohican families living here in a way that minimizes their presence, Hartley said, as though they only came occasionally, or temporarily, as though a very few people came for a season and left no trace.

“(They make it sound) as though we lived in the Hudson Valley and came over here, like we were wandering around the Berkshires aimlessly,” she said, “when actually we knew what we were doing.”

These two digs underscore what her people have always known, she said. They lived here. Many people lived here, over many years. And they came back to familiar places, as they have always come back here.

This site was the home of Uhhaunauaunmut, a leader and captain, orator and ambassador. European Colonists called him King Solomon, Hartley explains in the newly opened exhibit at the Berkshire Museum.

As a diplomat, he traveled through the Northeast, from Pennsylvania to New York to Canada — and sailed to London in 1766 as an envoy on a mission to speak with British authorities about colonial encroachment on Mohican lands. Later, in the Revolutionary War, he led a company of Mohican soldiers at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

He was a leader among his people, alongside Konkapot and Umpachene, Hartley said. “He was known for his eloquence and statesmanship.”

In 1730, the Mohican government negotiated with the Commonwealth (Massachusetts was not yet a state) for a township 6 miles square on the land where they have always lived. Stockbridge began as a Mohican town within the colonial judicial system. The Mohican people held the land and seats in the town council.

Uhhaunauaunmut built a house here between 1750 and 1754, Morton said. She does not know whether he would have built it in a square European style or in a rounded wigwam form, but by 1756 he was serving in the army. He would have been one of the veterans honored at the feast, if he had lived to that day.

Within a few months after it, the Mohican community here were forced to remove from Stockbridge. By the early 1780s, European colonists had taken almost all of their land, illegally. Repeated protests to the commonwealth had no effect. You can see their final letter now, on display at the Stockbridge Library.

People have spoken slightingly of the ox roast too, Hartley said. They have called it local legend and denied it happened. But Rick Wilcox, local historian, longtime friend to the Stockbridge-munsee community and retired chief of police, has researched it and verified the details down to the weight of the ox.

Its importance goes beyond recognition from the president and a local celebration, she said. The community chose to hold their feast at a gathering place. This site has been a home farther back than the 1750s.

What they are finding here is deep, Morton said. The cultural layer, even the higher, more recent floor, lies three feet down under fill. They know from the artifacts they have found that these sites go back before the 1700s, she said.

She pointed out a plant with grain spikelets and flights, almost like a barley.

“Something like that could have resewn itself for hundreds of years,” she said.

A team of volunteers lend a hand at a dig along the Housatonic River at the site of the 1783 Ox Roast in Stockbridge. Press photo courtesy of the Mohican nation.
Photo by Nathan Allison

A team of volunteers lend a hand at a dig along the Housatonic River at the site of the 1783 Ox Roast in Stockbridge. Press photo courtesy of the Mohican nation.

Seasonal flooding along the river has covered the site with a deep layer of fill, Allison said. On this last day, he was taking a 15×15 centimeter square of earth down 15 centimeters, near where they had already found the stone flakes. And not finding anything in that square might only mean he was a few centimeters off. By its nature, a dig has to concentrate in very small areas.

He and Hartley and Morton agreed: with the time and resources for more archaeological projects, they will find more.

They coordinate projects for historical exploration and preservation through the Stockbridge Munsee office in Williamstown, which moved to Williamstown from Troy in October 2020. And their presence there feels timely, Hartley said. Ephraim Williams Sr. lived in Stockbridge in the late 1700s, and he was a major dispossessor taking land forcibly from the Mohican community here. His son founded and funded the college partly through that legacy, and she appreciates that the college is willing to acknowledge this history now.

“We are moving beyond that,” she said, “deepening our relationship.”

A team of volunteers lend a hand at a dig along the Housatonic River at the site of the 1783 Ox Roast in Stockbridge. Press photo courtesy of the Mohican nation.
Photo by Nathan Allison

A team of volunteers lend a hand at a dig along the Housatonic River at the site of the 1783 Ox Roast in Stockbridge. Press photo courtesy of the Mohican nation.

Within the last six months, she has felt results from moving closer to the Williamstown community and becoming visible on the main street Local people have contributed help and time, she said. Students, faculty and staff have volunteered on projects like the dig this week — they have had 10 volunteers here each day, in the sweltering heat, including their summer interns funded through the college.

The students are bringing energy and ideas, she said. They are leading efforts to weave this story into first-year orientation, the Williams alumni magazine and the student newspaper, Claiming Williams Day and other events. They are talking about forming a Native student group, in hopes of attracting more Native students to apply and funding scholarships.

She has found an active spirit in students of their generation, she said.

“We are finding positive ways to work together, and they are not staying away from Williams’ legacy (here) or trying to defend it, or making it an obstacle — they’re saying, that’s what happened, and let’s tell the truth and find something beneficial to do now.”

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