On a planet increasingly dominated by people—even the deep oceans today are being altered by humans—it probably makes sense to think about wilderness, too, as a human creation.

Elizabeth Kolbert, in “Recall of the Wild”

When I read Bill McKibben’s book The End of Nature, back in 1989 (it first appeared in The New Yorker), it had the same impact on me that Silent Spring had when that first came out, in 1962. In that earlier instance, bluebirds made an environmentalist out of me, when Rachel Carson explained why my favorite birds were gradually disappearing. Later, when I read McKibben’s essay, I came to the realization that there is no longer such a thing as wilderness, at least if it is envisioned as an unspoiled place such as existed before the arrival of humans.

This is a theme that has been taken up by other authors, such as Bill Cronon, in his 1995 essay The Trouble With Wilderness, in which he describes wilderness as a state of mind.

To think ourselves capable of causing “the end of nature” is an act of great hubris, for it means forgetting the wildness that dwells everywhere within and around us.

In Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2012 essay on rewilding, she gives much detail about a particular project in the Netherlands, named Oostvaardersplassen. It is a large park, on land reclaimed from the sea (and below sea level), which is being used to house large populations of animals thought to resemble those of ancient times, prior to the age of human agriculture. Similar efforts are underway elsewhere. She mentions Rewilding Europe as an example, and I’m aware of similar projects in North America, where lands in the West are being restored to their “original” (i.e. prior to the arrival of Europeans) grassland species of both flora and fauna.

None of these efforts can truly recreate habitats that are identical to ancient landscapes. The world has gone through phases of climate change, including the Little Ice Age and our current period of global warming. Species have been lost because of over-hunting, habitat loss, and other human-induced changes. Despite their limitations, I applaud these efforts. They do represent an increased awareness that we humans are destroying much that has value, and at the very least they are an attempt to attenuate that process.

An Evening of Abenaki Stories, Music, Language

Thanks to a heads-up from BEAT, I was able to enjoy a session of Abenaki culture, with well over 100 people in attendance. Jesse Bruchac put on quite a show, and I learned many things. I also came away with 4 books and 4 CDs, so I expect to learn even more as I have time to study them, as part of my preparation for my next OLLI course, to be offered in the Spring of 2020, on indigenous culture.

Some of the things I learned are:

  • The “3-2-1” rule of pronunciation, which says that the 3rd syllable from the end of a word receives the emphasis. A good example is the very word Abenaki, which in English is generally pronounced “Ah-ben-AH-key” but in the original is pronounced “Ah-BEN-ah-key”
  • I asked Jesse if this applies to all Algonkian languages, and he said yes. Not having any training in linguistics, I’m not sure if these tongues (such as Mohican, Munsee, and so on) are considered languages (part of the Algonkian group) or dialects.
  • He told a story about the origin of the traditional design of the hat he was wearing, with large turkey feathers in the front, and smaller (split) feathers in the back.
  • He told many other stories, including creation stories and trickster stories. These stories reminded me of the Uncle Remus stories, which I think had African origins. They seem to me to be attempts to understand the world, and also to impart social values to young listeners. Many of them are quite fantastical, and obviously (to me) not to be taken literally. The English colonists, however, often derided the indigenous stories as evidence that the people were “primitive” and needed to be “saved” by the Christian religion. Of course, they also believed that Eve was created out of Adam’s rib, but that was the Word of the Lord.
  • “OLLI” in the Abenaki language means “good” (although I think the pronunciation is more like “oo-lee”).
  • People’s names were fluid, and could change over time. If they did something valiant (or foolish), they could be renamed for their deeds.
  • “Abenaki” means a person (human being) from the East. Literally, from the land (aki) of the dawn (wôban).

I have much more to learn, and I’m very excited to be off to such a good start!

Here is the write-up that attracted my attention, as linked to at the beginning of this post:

For over 10,000 years, Native Americans tribes maintained an ecologically vibrant settlement on the banks of the Connecticut River in Greenfield near the Great Falls. As our present-day culture faces climate catastrophe, we ask: “How did they manage that?”
The Pollinator Protection Program of The Nolumbeka Project is bringing Native storytellers, the traditional Native American “teachers,” to Franklin County schools. The Bruchac family of storytellers are among the best, and the public is invited to hear Jesse Bruchac share Abenaki stories and music on Wed, Nov. 6 from 6:30 to 8:00 pm at an event sponsored by The Nolumbeka Project and The Great Falls Discovery Center. A Nulhegan Abenaki Citizen, Jesse’s performance art weaves the telling of traditional stories with flute music, drums, and playful language games to share a glimpse of Northeastern Native American culture with audiences of all ages. The event is free; family friendly; and books, CD’s and crafts will be offered for sale.
According to Jesse, “Native languages offer speakers a window into an indigenous worldview.” He is one of the last fluent speakers of Western Abenaki and works vigorously to revitalize the language. His efforts have led to the creation of a website for Western Abenaki language study, a YouTube channel, a Facebook group, and a number of bilingual publications.
Following in the footsteps of his father, Joseph Bruchac, Jesse has been visiting schools and universities to share Northeastern Native American traditional stories, music, language, history and culture for over two decades.
As a musician, Jesse has produced several albums of Abenaki music. These include collections of traditional songs of drum and rattle and Native American flute music. He has opened for such notable acts as The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, and at Woodstock ’94.
He won the Best Storyteller Competition at Indian Summer in Milwaukee in 1995. In 1996 he toured Europe as a member of the Abenaki Drum from the Odanak reservation in Quebec. Jesse has also acted as consultant, translator, composer, and language coach for programs on AMC, National Geographic, and PBS.
For more information: see or call 413-475-3605

They also have a Facebook page:

Tribute to Scott Davis 1945-2017

Two and a half years have passed since I lost one of my best ever friends, Scott Edward Davis, to heart failure. I have finally been able to pull myself together enough to collect some photos and to relate some memories.

I’ll start with a copy of his obituary and some photos I came across. I’ll add to this post as I find more things I want to share.

Scott in California, on a trip we took to the Reno area in the summer of 1992.
A page from my photo album, showing the days before GPS and cellphones. Remember phone booths? That’s Geoff, trying to find our destination, which was about an hour east of Sacramento. Once we were finished there, we traveled on to Reno, where he and Scott and I did enough gambling to be comped for room and food at Harrah’s. It was one of my more successful trips to the craps table, where I won over $2,000.
The duck on my t-shirt is the Drake in the Drake Hill River Run, a 10K race that went by Scott’s house in Simsbury Connecticut. At the time of this picture, Brooke and Scott both worked (as did I) at Connecticut General Life Insurance Company in Bloomfield, and we shared our love of sports, drinking, and gambling.

Gun Violence: Blaming the Victims

I post here the statement issued by ASAN opposing the legislation introduced into the US Senate to blame gun violence on “mental illness” when the problem, it is plain to see, is too many guns. People with mental health disabilities are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. 

ASAN Opposes the RESPONSE Act

October 23, 2019

ASAN condemns the introduction of the RESPONSE Act in the Senate. While this bill frames itself as an attempt to prevent gun violence, in reality, this legislation does not address gun violence at all. Instead, it yet again scapegoats people with mental health disabilities. It is impossible to address the issue of gun violence when these conversations come at the cost of the civil rights of the 1 in 5 Americans with mental health disabilities. 

The RESPONSE Act, in fact, is not a meaningful response to gun violence at all. It focuses almost solely on expanding and funding coercive mental health programs, while failing to address virtually any factors that actually contribute to gun violence. The legislation instead focuses on making it easier to surveil and institutionalize people with mental health disabilities who are deemed a “threat” to others. The bill proposes funding for forced treatment of people with mental health disabilities, and sets the groundwork for expanded “threat assessments” in schools. “Threat assessments” are inherently discriminatory attempts to identify students seen as at “potential risk” of committing gun violence and use “behavioral intervention teams” to continually discipline and surveil these students. These practices have already been shown to marginalize students of color and students with disabilities, forcing students out of school and further contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. None of these proposals will impact gun violence; they will only cost people with disabilities our civil rights.

The evidence is clear: there is no relationship between mental health disability and gun violence. By conflating these issues, the Senate is distracting from efforts to create real change on gun safety. ASAN calls on our allies in Congress to hold the line, educate their colleagues about how this legislation harms people with mental health disabilities, and ensure this bill never moves forward. The time has come for our elected officials to stop scapegoating the disability community and work towards real change to end gun violence.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization run by and for autistic people. ASAN was created to serve as a national grassroots disability rights organization for the autistic community run by and for autistic Americans, advocating for systems change and ensuring that the voices of autistic people are heard in policy debates and the halls of power. Our staff work to educate communities, support self-advocacy in all its forms, and improve public perceptions of autism. ASAN’s members and supporters include autistic adults and youth, cross-disability advocates, and non-autistic family members, professionals, educators, and friends.


I moved from Hartford to New York, to take a job with Bankers Trust. 

I found an apartment I liked within walking distance of 280 Park Avenue, but it was new construction, and would not be ready for a few weeks. The bank put me up in an apartment in the 60s, just off Madison Avenue. A tiny studio apartment, but in a swanky neighborhood, and a brisk 20-block walk from the office.

These four photos are all dated “JUL 80” on the back. The first two are views from my East 39th Street apartment; the one on the right looking southeast over the East River, where seaplanes often landed, and the Macy fireworks barges were anchored on the 4th of July each year; the other looking southwest, framed by the ConEdison building and Two Park Avenue South.

The second two photos are looking south from a location I can’t identify, both having Saint Bartholomew’s church on Park Avenue in the foreground, and the Twin Towers in the distance.


I came across this yellowed and torn newsprint, probably ripped from the Berkshire Eagle by my mother and stashed away amidst the scrapbooks and mementos she kept about me.

I don’t have any specific memory of this event, or how it came to be that I was lying in a sand trap. My guess is that my mother and I were out for a walk in town, and were approached by an enterprising photographer, looking to pose an eye-catching shot for the newspaper (back in the days when each town had a reporter assigned to it, and a gossip column written daily).

When I came upon this picture, I wondered how old I was at the time. I turned the paper over to see if there was a date on it, and (lo and behold), there was a reference to another kind of trap! but no date.

Thanks to the miracle of the internet, I was able to locate a reference (on to an old playbill, and that gave me the approximate date (August 1955).

OLLI University Day: Civic Engagement Panel

I gladly accepted an invitation to participate in a panel discussion on Civic Engagement for the OLLI University Day program on August 15, 2019.

Here is a link to the Panel Presentation Outline I prepared for the program.

I was allotted five minutes to share my thoughts before entering into the panel discussion. This post is an expanded version of some of the things that might be covered in the ongoing conversation, or just as more examples of things I’ve done, the stimulate ideas among my readers. 

My Life in Civic Engagement; What I have Done; What I have Learned

What is Civic Engagement? The word “civic” implies “local” community, but, in my mind, I have always extended its interpretation to include our wider society. As the saying goes, “Think Globally, Act Locally!”

Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.

Lessons learned in a long life:

  • The popular phrase “inside/outside” describes two different ways to effect change: outsiders demand change and make suggestions by way of public demonstrations, rallies, marches, letter-writing, and the like. Insiders are people in power who have the ability to influence change directly. Both are needed, and I’ve practiced both. In my elder years, I have focused my energies more on passive approaches to effecting change. This means being on the inside, on boards and other positions of responsibility, but it also means trying to influence those in power with persuasion, not demands.
  • Any organization or group is made stronger by the presence of a diverse set of participants. We learn and prosper from our differences. Do not hesitate to join in on a good cause, just because you don’t have relevant credentials or training. Traditional cultures around the world recognize that wisdom comes with age. You can learn facts and rules, but only experience will bring you wisdom, that mysterious ability to see patterns and predict outcomes. Diversity of perspective and opinion is highly valuable.

My life has been all about bringing people together.

We can minimize the psychoanalysis for now, although I am eternally curious about why I am the way I am. My guess is that my desire for an inclusive world results from my innate wiring, and is connected in some way with my autism (feeling separate and left out, yearning to be included), but this is not the place to delve too deeply into that.

All my life I have known that I am different. Some of my earliest memories involve feeling isolated by my difference, and I remember my intense longing to be included. Perhaps that is why I have always wanted to create a more inclusive world, and strongly empathize with those who are excluded in any way.

Whatever its cause, my desire to smooth over differences has led me into a life of diplomacy, reconciliation, pacifism, and organizing. I’ve learned that people must be treated as the individuals they are; each person has a unique set of skills and interests — the challenge for a good manager or organizer is the find ways to break up tasks into small jobs that can be parsed out to people who enjoy them and are good at them.

I have inserted my management talents into all that I do, often unknowingly, and my skills have been recognized and rewarded by a society seemingly bent on conflict. In the business world, I found that giving subordinates the ability to succeed made them into fiercely loyal employees, and their productivity made me look good. Similarly, in political or civic organizing, helping people to shine and giving them public credit makes the hard work enjoyable for everyone.


I don’t remember when I began to demand special treatment. But for as long as I can remember, I refused to eat white bread or fish. The seafood thing was clearly an olfactory accommodation; I just couldn’t stomach the smell of the stuff. In the days of Wonder Bread, the aversion to the gooey substance may have been, at least in part, a tactile aversion.

In one of my earliest childhood pictures (before school age), I stand glowering at a toy on a table. I’m all dressed up in new overalls, and the photographer had tried to make me smile by playing with stuffed animals, but I was having none of it.

My isolation and differences made kindergarten a challenge for me. Things that seemed easy for others were not simple for me. I remember two of my classmates making fun of the way I was playing with blocks. I didn’t know there was anything particular one was supposed to do with them. One of them pointed at me and said to the other, “Look! He doesn’t know how to play with blocks!” Many years later, I was able to laugh with Suzie and Izzie about this, but at the time it puzzled and hurt me.

One of the requirements for successfully completing the kindergarten year was to be able to tie your own shoes. Despite numerous attempts on my part to learn, I just could not get it. I was terrified that I would not be allowed to ever leave kindergarten. One day, by accident, I discovered a way to tie my shoes a different way. When the final exam came, I was careful to use my method when the teacher wasn’t looking, since I thought it was cheating. I passed!

Years later, I told this story to an autism conference, as an example of the learning differences inherent in autism. I described my method in detail. Later, I was told by teachers and other professionals who had been in attendance that they had conveyed my method to some of their autistic students who were having the same difficulty, and who were relieved and excited to be able, at long last, to tie their own shoes. Nearly 70 years ago, I thought I was the only one; now I know I wasn’t stupid or broken, just different.

Part of my early practice as an organizer came from being the eldest of five siblings. Although I always tried to arrive at consensus, it fell to me to be the final arbiter of what game we would play that day. If it was to be cowboys and Indians, I got to decide who was which, and who got the cap guns. If it was building roads in the driveway (not favored by the girls), I got to choose who was in charge of the dump truck.


  • Boy Scouts (Eagle Scout at age 14)
  • Church youth group
    • Locally: prepared Christmas cards to send to Indian reservations
    • Statewide: I was once elected at a conference to deliver the closing prayer (quite an honor, I was told)
  • Civil Rights movement
  • National President, Student World Federalists (Vietnam era, anti-war, pro-UN)



  • Started Berkshires for Dean
  • Which became Berkshires for Progressive Change
  • Merged with Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts (PDM) and I became a member of the governing committee
  • Accepted invitation to join the Steering Committee of the Berkshire Brigades
  • co-founded Berkshire Win Without War (BWWW) to protest the 2003 invasion of Iraq
  • Chair, Alford Democratic Town Committee
  • Elected (on Presidential Primary Ballot) State Democratic Committee
  • Patrick, Obama, Warren campaigns (among others)
  • Served on Governor Patrick’s Transition Team, for Economic Development


  • VP Board AANE
  • Board President, Autism Connections
  • Massachusetts Special Commission Relative to Autism
  • Executive Committee, Advocates for Autism in Massachusetts (AFAM)
  • Other task forces (e.g. data project at Shriver Center of UMass Medical)
  • Speaker/Panelist at many conferences
  • Facilitated support groups (for couples and for individuals) for many years
  • Cross-Disability Advocacy Committee (CDAC) of the Massachusetts Disability Law Center (DLC)


  • Conservation Commission (wrote Berkshire Scenic Mountain Act regulations)
  • Town Moderator (2004 to present)
  • Chair of Fact-Finding Committee
  • Board of Massachusetts Moderators Association (6 years)

EDUCATION (teaching, speaking)

  • OLLI
  • Boston Security Analyst Society (BSAS) (taught CFA prep courses on asset allocation, portfolio theory, and foreign exchange)
  • Commencement Addresses at BU + UMass Medical
  • Bay State (gave several classes on legislative advocacy)
  • Elms College (taught graduate courses in the autism program)
  • Columbia University Business School (guest speaker)


  • Berkshire Natural Resources Council (BNRC) — trail work, historical research, trail-side talks
  • Mass Audubon
  • many others

Alford: A Land Acknowledgment

A Land Acknowledgment

As Alford’s Town Moderator, I took the occasion of our 2019 Annual Town Meeting on May 14 to introduce a new tradition. The idea did not originate with me; such land acknowledgments are becoming more widely used. I felt it would be an appropriate tribute to the indigenous people who cared for our land long before our Town took on its current configuration.

Here are the words I used at the beginning of our Meeting:

I invite you to join with me in acknowledging our gratitude, and giving our thanks, to the people who tended this land, that is now our Town, for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived.

Today, we call these people the Mohicans, and they now live in Wisconsin. Their own name for themselves is Muh-he-con-neok, which means “The People of the Waters that are Never Still” – a reference to the river they called the Muheconnituck, which we know as the Hudson River. They occupied the land on both sides of that river, from the upper reaches of Manhattan up to the shores of Lake Champlain, including all of what is now Berkshire County.

The place we now call Alford, an English name, was originally known as Podunk. Place names in the Algonquin languages are descriptive, and there are many places in the Northeast that were called Podunk, which means something like “the place where you sink in” – in other words, a marshy area. If you’re familiar with the center of our valley, you can see why it was called that. The stream we now call the Alford Brook was once called the Seekonk River. Seekonk is an Algonquin word probably meaning “black goose” or perhaps “wild geese.” There is a town in eastern Massachusetts called Seekonk, and the town has a goose in flight on its seal.

The land that now comprises Alford was conveyed in 1756 from the Mohicans to the English colonists in two tracts; the southern and central parts of the town were transferred in the Shawenon Purchase, and the northern part in the Greenland Grant.

Our town now probably looks much like it did in those days, with the center of the valley being used for agriculture, and the wooded mountains used for hunting.

Please join with me in acknowledging and thanking the Muh-he-con-neok, who retain an active interest in and a fondness for their ancestral homeland. On our behalf, I say to them “anushiik” which is the Mohican* word for thank-you.

*CORRECTION: I have been informed that

“Anushiik” is a Munsee word for thank you. In Mohican it is “Oneewe” pronounced “On-EH-wah”

The Munsee and Mohican languages (and peoples) are very closely related. For more information, see the Mohican Nation website and several of my posts, such as this one.

Property One: The Mahican-Mohawk Trail

This post is a conglomeration of lecture notes, slides, and other information. I compiled all of this as part of my preparation for my OLLI course on Berkshire History, in which I talked about six different preserved properties that all have walking/hiking trails on them.

An overview of the course can be found here.

From my syllabus:

The Mahican-Mohawk Trail is an imagined re-creation of the original “Indian Trail” (as the English called it) that was a trading route between the Connecticut River (near Deerfield) and the Albany area.

  • When I was a kid, we all knew that “Indian file” referred to walking through the woods in single file. Based on my hiking experience in general, and after seeing the section of this trail that is known to have been in existence since before the English arrived, I’d say that was the easiest way to walk through difficult places.
  • I have long wondered why the auto route that goes from Greenfield to North Adams is called the “Mohawk Trail.” I knew from the stories my grandmother told me that the Mohawks did not live around here, but were over on the other side (to the west) of Albany.

To be Discussed:

  • Where is the Mahican-Mohawk Trail?
  • What was its original purpose?
  • Who are the Mahicans?
  • Who are the Mohawks?
  • Are there other, similar, trails, and if so, where?
  • What was Berkshire County like before it was Berkshire County?
  • How and when did Berkshire County come into existence?
  • Why do I have so many questions?

We can only touch briefly on most of these questions, and we will have an opportunity to learn more about these topics in later sessions, especially when we discuss the origins of Stockbridge and The Bidwell House. I will try to address all of these questions, though not as neatly nor necessarily in the order shown here. My brain doesn’t work that way. If you want linear thinking, you’re in the wrong course. But you’ve probably already figured that out…

Where is the Mahican-Mohawk Trail? and what was its purpose?

I have long wondered why the auto route that goes from Greenfield to North Adams is called the “Mohawk Trail.” I knew from the stories my grandmother told me that the Mohawks did not live around here, but were over on the other side (to the west) of Albany.

Each one of you will receive (if you so desire — no obligation to take one) a map of the Mahican-Mohawk Trail. As is pointed out on the front of the map, this Trail is intended to recreate the route of “the original American Indian trail” that was used as a trading route by the indigenous people. The re-creation of a footpath on or near the original can only be an approximation, because some sections were paved over in the 20th-Century as automobile roads, as you know if you read Lauren Steven’s article on the subject.

Notice that he mentions the Hoosac Tunnel

A few comments on Stevens’s article:

  • “In Colonial days, almost all European arrivals in Berkshire County came from the south…”
    • I would say that’s an overstatement — although many people came from Connecticut (if you consider that “the south”) most of those folks could trace their origins back to the Boston area.
  • “… a Mohawk raid on the Pocumtucks … in timely fashion for the arrival of settlers of European extraction.”
    • In class, I told the story of the 1664 Mohawk war party that wiped out the Pocumtucks, which may have been in response to an English rumor, since they had their eyes on the desirable farmland to the north of Deerfield, occupied by that tribe (already greatly reduced in number by disease).
  • “… the closing of the American frontier. ‘Wyoming Bill’s Wild West Show’ …”
    • I’m sure he meant to say “Buffalo Bill” (who was from Wyoming). Again, I told the story in class — John L.E. Pell, a friend of my grandmother’s, send me a photo of Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, and on the back he wrote “to Michael Wilcox, age 8, from John L.E. Pell who saw Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull when he was 8 years old”

Speaking of wilderness, here is a passage from the essay I shared, The Trouble with Wilderness, by Bill Cronon.

Indeed, one could almost measure wilderness by the extent to which our recognition of its otherness requires a conscious, willed act on our part. The romantic legacy means that wilderness is more a state of mind than a fact of nature, and the state of mind that today most defines wilderness is wonder.

Now since it is but foode and rayment that men that live needeth (though not all alike,) why should not the Natives of New England be sayd to live richly, having no want of either?”

Thomas Morton 1632

The practice of land management by controlled burning of undergrowth and detritus (there were no earthworms in North America before the Europeans arrived) was widespread, not at all confined to the forests of the Northeast.

I have walked a goodly portion of sections 4 and 5. A couple of resources to help you find your way, as well as some background information, are at

When I was a kid, we all knew that “Indian file” referred to walking through the woods in single file. Based on my hiking experience in general, and after seeing the section of this trail that is known to have been in existence since before the English arrived, I’d say that was the easiest way to walk through difficult places.

A group of 8 (I’m taking the photo) tackled most of Section 4 last December. It was an extremely difficult hike (not recommended for casual walkers).

One of the many views from the outlooks along the BNRC’s Hoosac Range Reserve (part of Section 5), this one looking west. That’s me in the red cap.

There are a few instances on this otherwise wonderful map where the wording needs to be improved. That will happen. The most glaring error occurs here, in locating the Mohawks in this area, which they were not. This is perhaps a common misconception, not at all helped by the naming of the Mohawk Trail auto route — as Lauren’s article points out — for marketing purposes, it would seem, and perhaps based on a flimsy bit of historical lore.

But before we get further into indigenous names and languages, allow me to share a couple of more graphics to put this Trail in perspective. Here is a present-day map to show that the general route of the M-M Trail, from Deerfield to the Albany area, goes nearly directly west, ending only slightly to the north of where it begins.

I forget, sitting in Alford (blue dot) that when I head over to Albany, I am heading more north than I am west.
The Hoosic River ends up flowing into the Hudson about halfway to Saratoga from Albany.
A continuation of route 2 goes almost due west toward the Hudson at Troy, which is the northern end of the tidal nature of the River. The closest waterway is the Poesten Kill. Route 43 takes a more southerly route to Albany, and doesn’t seem to have any associated waterway. NY Route 67 to Mechanicville is the road that most closely follows the Hoosic River.
Error, to be fixed.

As mentioned, the text says, in part, “… to honor the Mohawk Nation that inhabited Western Massachusetts and New York State.” Wrong! This is as good a place as any to discuss the various names of indigenous peoples, and some of the other language that goes with that. While I’m at it, let me warn you about another source that seems to have some trouble with this very topic. If you have (or see) this book, be very careful of ascribing accuracy to its descriptions. The author makes a big deal, for example, about the difference between Mahican and Mohican, ignoring the advice of experts, and coming to his own unsubstantiated conclusion that these were two different peoples. He also talks about the casinos in eastern Connecticut as though there are somehow connected with the Berkshires. He seems to be confusing the Mohicans with the Mohegans.

Has some difficulty with identifying Indian groupings
From The Mohicans of Stockbridge by Patrick Frazier

The similarity between their names is due to coincidence and European mispronunciation–“Mahican” comes from the word Muheconneok, “from the waters that are never still” (the Hudson River), and “Mohegan” comes from the word Mahiingan, “wolf.” Today there are about 3000 Mahican Indians in Wisconsin, where they were forced to emigrate, and many Mahican descendants scattered throughout New England.

Well, not quite…

In addition, the French called the Mohicans “Les Loups” or “Wolves” because that was their totem animal. The Pequods split apart over a dispute about whom to form an alliance with (the French or the English), and one group, under Uncas, took the name Mohegan. This group may have come, in part, from New York State. It’s hard for me to sort out all the disruptions caused by the colonists among the natives in places of origin and in affiliations.

A few words of caution when dealing with Native words and spellings. All of this can be very confusing and controversial. Even what to call the people who originally occupied these lands brings out fierce debates. Many of their descendants prefer the term “Native American” to “Indian” but, for others, it is the other way around. And some use “First Nations” or “Indigenous People” or any number of other variations. Language is our primary form of communication, and, as such, clarity is important, so context will often determine which is the best terminology to use. At the same time, language can also convey and even shape our values. As with the rest of life, there are always tradeoffs.

To add to the confusion, the Europeans seem to have attached names to groups of Indians that were actually the Indian names of places that were in their territory. I have, for example, seen the Munsee Indians referred to as the Minisink Indians, but that is the name of one of their council fire places, at the end of the estuary on the Susquehanna River, which is more or less where Trenton New Jersey is located.

So, back to the Mahican-Mohawk Trail (Deerfield to Albany over northern Berkshire County), as an example of the evolution of transportation modes from pre-contact footpaths to the automobile/train passages of today. Many of the auto routes we now use closely follow ancient footpaths, which were developed over hundreds or even thousands of years as the easiest/fastest/safest routes to travel.

The original footpath ran for about 100 miles between the Connecticut River (near Deerfield) and the Albany area, mostly along the Deerfield and Hoosic Rivers. The original inhabitants of this area did not have wheeled vehicles or beasts of burden (such as oxen, mules, or horses). For transportation, they relied on foot-power and water-borne transport.

Specifically, on the water, they used canoes, a craft not known to the Europeans when they first arrived. (Europa was a consort of Zeus and the mother of Minos, King of Crete. The concept of Europe, as we know it today, is fairly recent, having developed in the 17th Century. In the early days of colonization of the Americas, people identified only with their country of origin.) Canoes were long and narrow, and, as a result, fast. In the northern and inland parts of what is now New England, birch bark canoes were common. They were lightweight and sturdy, made waterproof by being sealed with pine pitch. The English happily copied their design, although they often used alternative materials to construct them. The standard length of a colonial canoe was one English rod (also known as a perch or pole — 5½ yards, or 16½ feet). By coincidence, an English rod was approximately the length of most Indian birch bark canoes. The original rod, from which the standard measure took its name, was one that was used by farmers to prod their oxen while plowing, so it had to be long enough to reach over the plow. But I’m getting ahead of the story here. We’ll talk more about the English measurement system when we discuss the colonists’ agricultural practices. Rods, chains, furlongs, and acres are all related, and we’ll need to understand them in order to make sense of old deeds and other documents. But don’t worry, these terms will not be on the final exam.

Since we’re talking about canoes, here’s a bit of related trivia. The term “nautical” comes from the Greek nautikos/nautes (sailor) which in turn comes from naus (ship). A nautical mile is one minute of latitude (1.1508 statute miles). One knot (a similar sounding word having a totally different derivation) is one nautical mile per hour. In colonial times, ship speed was measured by dropping a knotted line into the water and letting it reel out freely for 30 seconds, then reeling it back in while counting the knots.

In the southern part of New England, along the major rivers and the seacoast, dugout canoes were more common. They were made from chestnut or tulip (magnolia) trees, because of their resistance to rot and saltwater. These canoes were not as easy to maneuver as the birch-bark canoes, and the largest ones required several people to propel them, but they were more useful for carrying large loads and for fishing. Ocean fishing was often done at night, using torches to lure the fish to the surface, where they would be speared and brought onto the boats.

The Taino people, who inhabited much of the Caribbean, were known as whalers. It appears that some of them followed the whales to the waters just off the coast of Lange Eylandt (as the Dutch called it), and some of them settled and intermarried with the Algonquins. The Canarsie Indians, who occupied what is now Brooklyn, evidently spoke a language that was not entirely a dialect of Algonquian, but was perhaps mixed with Taino. And their culture may have mixed with or influenced the Wappingers, who occupied the eastern bank of the river above Brooklyn. All of this, like so much else about this period, is partly speculation, since contemporary accounts are sparse, though it is based on the study of the languages and on archaeological finds.

In any case, ocean fishing in the large dugout canoes was a thing, and could be dangerous as well. The boats would go out as much as a mile or more from shore. To help guide them back home, council fires were kept burning at strategic promontories. One such fire was located at Navesink (sometimes spelled Navasink on old maps) in what is now Highlands, New Jersey, where in later years the Twin Lights Lighthouse was built. This promontory is near the mouth of what is now called the Navesink River, although the name seems to have meant something like “the place of the high cliffs” — the “ink” ending was similar to the “ic” ending that we find around here, and meant “the place of” — such as Taconic, meaning the place of the forest, or Housatonic, meaning the place of the bend in the river (although if you know that river, there are about 400 places that could claim that name!). The Navesink River seems to have defined (more or less) the southern border of Munsee territory, and below (to the south of) that is Unami. I’ll show you some maps that will make all of this crystal clear, but I realize I’m getting a bit far afield. Let me just mention that the Navesink council fire may have been the first sign of habitation that Henry Hudson saw as he sailed up the coast on his way to “discover” the Muhecannituck, which now goes by another name — that river now bears Hudson’s name.

Most of the peoples I have named so far were closely related, and were members of the larger Algonquin (sometimes pronouned Algonkin), or Algonquian language group. There is a science (some would say a pseudoscience) called glottochronology. It is a study of how related languages have diverged, in order to estimate how long ago they became separated. Based on this study, the Mohican language became a distinct dialect about 3,000 years ago. The Algonquian language group as a whole dates back at least 6,000 years, and archaeological evidence suggests there may have been human habitation in the Berkshires as much as 7,000 years ago. The glaciers of the Ice Age retreated from this area about 10 or 12 thousand years ago, and it would have taken some time for plant life to become re-established.

As people spread out and populations became more dense, dialects developed, although most of the Algonquian peoples could understand each other. There is no sign of word borrowing that would suggest that any other language was resident before the Algonquins arrived. There are some instances of later mixing, such as was mentioned in dialects of Canarsie and Wappinger, which appear to be Mohican combined with some Taino influences, happening perhaps a couple of hundred years before the Europeans arrived.

The Algonquian Language Family

Eastern Algonquian

Iroquoian Languages

Things to note about this map:

  • Fort Orange is the original (Dutch) colonial name of Albany
  • The Dutch had originally tried to establish a fur-trading fort on Schodack Island, named Fort Nassau. They abandoned this in favor of Fort Orange after a year or two of dealing with frequent flooding. There is still a NY town named Nassau that is nearby.
  • The Pequots are the center of many stories. They were the dominant nation in the southern parts of this map, and had been extracting tribute from the Podunks. (Another example of a people being named by the colonists after a location — “podunk” means something like “the place where you sink in” or a marshy area.) My town, Alford, used to be named Podunk, which I can understand, because there are many very wet areas (and were probably more when there were more beavers) in the center of the valley, where the Alford Brook — formerly called the Seekonk (“wild geese”) River — flows, at one time supporting several mills.
  • The Mohegans (not to be confused with the Mohicans) split off from the Pequots over a dispute as to which colonial group — Dutch or English — to support.
  • The Dutch had been the first colonists to establish a trading fort on the Connecticut River, near what is now Hartford. They eventually had to cede their claim to the River to the English, who outnumbered and outgunned them. For a time, the English claimed sovereignty over the land from the Atlantic coast west to the Hudson River, and the Dutch from that river east to the Connecticut River. They both seem to have been able to conveniently ignore the fact that there were already people living there.
  • The Podunks were feeling squeezed by the encroaching Dutch, and were not pleased about having o pay tribute to the Pequots, so they appealed to the English in the Boston area to send colonists to their area. Thus began the invasion later to result in Connecticut Colony. One of my ancestors was the first Governor of that colony, and I can trace both of my father’s parents’ lineages back to Founders of Hartford, John Bidwell and John Wilcox. And there is the Bidwell House connection. Stay tuned.

These next two maps show examples of the vast networks of trails that existed prior to the arrival of the European colonists. Many of our present-day roads and highways follow (more or less) these trading routes, since the Native People had figured out the best routes through hundreds or even thousands of years of experience.

Agawam Public Library

Some Factoids About the Origins of Berkshire County

Many of these facts come from Indian Deeds of Hampden County, by Harry Andrew Wright, 1905, provided to me by Rob Hoogs.

  • Hampshire County was created March 7, 1662 O.S., It included all of what are now the western four counties, as well as part of what would become Worcester County. For a time, Massachusetts claimed all the land west to the Hudson River, and the Dutch claimed all the territory east to the Connecticut River. What is now Berkshire County was in the middle of this disputed area, and had very few European colonists.
  • Worcester County was organized July 10, 1731, leaving Hampshire County with the present boundaries of the western four counties.
  • Berkshire County was created on June 30, 1761, although its eastern boundary would be adjusted several times as new towns became incorporated.
  • 50 years later, Franklin and Hampden Counties were split off from Hampshire (which had originally included only two towns; Hadley and Springfield); Franklin on June 24, 1811, and Hampden on February 20, 1812.

The map below is from 1796, after Berkshire County was created, but before Hampshire County was split into the three counties that now exist.
Berkshire Natural Resources Council

The Turnpike Era and the Hoosac Tunnel

One aspect of the Trial we did not discuss yet was the development of the Mohawk Trail as a colonial transportation route in the interim between the original Indian Trail (prior to 1600) and the paved auto route (1914).

The English colonists established Fort Massachusetts in 1745 in East Hoosac (now North Adams) to help fend off encroachment by the French from the north. Prior to that, in the 1720s, the area had served as the staging area for a series of attacks by a band of Abenaki Indians on the English settlements along the Connecticut River, from Northfield and Rutland in Vermont, down to Deerfield, Northampton, and Westfield. These raids were organized and led by a guerrilla leader of Waranoak/Woronoco birth. He was known to the English as Gray Lock, and he eluded capture for over two decades, conducting raids even after people treaties had been signed by the Abenaki. He died around 1750 without ever having been captured, hiding out on or near the mountain that now bears his name (or so it is said, though there seems to be no documentary evidence of the origin of the name Mount Greylock). Gray Lock was legendary among the Indians, and was known as Wawanolet (or Wawanolewat, or Wawanotewat), which means roughly “he who fools the others, or puts someone off the track.”

In any case, a road was needed to provision Fort Massachusetts, and, later, for commerce with the new towns of East and West Hoosac. In addition, this road opened up a route to northern New York state and Canada for trading, and military expeditions. After the Fort was closed, around 1754, some of the soldiers were given, in lieu of back pay, large plots of farming land in the township of West Hoosac, which would later come to be known as Williamstown.

What had been a footpath, suitable for the single-file travel of the Indians, became a road for the English wheeled vehicles. The English military also required wide roads, since their style of warfare involved, among other things, a marching formation of four soldiers abreast. Fortunately for our enjoyment, some of the most beautiful segments of the original trail could not be adapted for these requirements, so the English instead followed the river beds, which were not as direct but were less steep.

Eventually, the Turnpike Era, as it is known, came to western Massachusetts. In the early 1800s, dozens of privately-financed turnpikes were built in the state (which then included Maine). As mentioned in this article, some 50 years or so later, a railroad tunnel was begun, to bypass the need to go over the high peaks of the Hoosac range. That tunnel has a storied history, which will not be recounted here, and took 25 years to complete. Although it certainly was an eventual success by many standards, it did not have nearly the impact on Berkshire County that was effected by the completion of the Railway to the Moon (on which, more to come).

A Coda to Our Discussion(s): My Perceptions of Injustices Done to the Native People

I wish to avoid moralizing and hand-wringing. In preparing my lectures, and in thinking about readings to recommend, I have encountered many causes for sadness. I do not expect my sorrows to be your sorrows, or my family pride to be shared by you.

As I said earlier, this is my story. I am trying to share with you information that I have found useful in trying to understand and picture the people who came before us. Some of these people I feel a direct connection with; others, I have only read or heard about. I want to understand how my ancestors fit in (or didn’t) with the dominant culture, and how they perceived the landscapes, both literal and figurative, which they encountered. As we go farther back in time, details and individual actors become fuzzier, and we begin to make generalizations about groups of people.

With perfect hindsight, it seems to me that during the process of melding two very different cultures, many mistakes were made and opportunities were missed. The devastation of European diseases was perhaps beyond anyone’s control, but other things were not. The Native Peoples were unceremoniously escorted off the land that had been their home for thousands of years. The colonists, as a whole, failed to appreciate and learn the land management system that the Indians had successfully used to preserve an ecological equilibrium in their sustainable and renewable cycles of forest burning and succession agriculture.

In my present state of awareness, it is easy for me to become maudlin over what I perceive to be past tragedies, but I don’t want to stop there. I am not responsible for the actions of my ancestors, and I cannot undo the damage they did. My job, and yours, too, if we choose to take it on, is to do good here and now. We can reach out to our Mohican brothers and sisters, and tell them they are not forgotten. We can invite them to help us appreciate the sacredness of their homeland, and we can work to preserve it in ways that meet their approval. We can learn much from them if we have the patience to listen.

The evil deeds of the past will not live on if we counter them with proper actions. Indians were enslaved by the colonists before the native population plummeted from disease and other causes. The colonists then turned to Africa for a larger supply of slave labor. Eventually, slowly, painfully, slavery was ended in this country. In an essay in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik, talking about the failure of Reconstruction to bestow full citizenship on former black slaves, says

When the right side loses, it does not always mean that the truth has not been heard.

In another example, we have to remember that it was only about one hundred years ago that war was outlawed, by the Treaty of Paris. The cynics among you, if there are any, are probably looking around the world and thinking, “Yeah, and look what that has done for us.” But it has, in fact, changed the conversation. We now talk about War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity. These concepts didn’t exist in the period we are discussing in this survey of early history. In most, if not all of the world, might made right. To the victor go the spoils, and all that.

My ancestor, the Reverend Adonijah Bidwell, about whom you will be hearing much more when we get to our session on The Bidwell House, served as chaplain in the English colonial expedition that captured the French fortress at Louisbourg in 1745. Part of his compensation was £39 of “prize money” which he called “plunder.” Yes, wars still happen, but our view of their morality has shifted enormously since those days.

The point of all of this is that speaking up for justice, and taking loving actions, all of the ways we can think to do good — none of that is a waste of time and energy. The truth may not set us free, but it will be heard, and it will last.

But, as I say, I don’t mean to moralize. I’m just sharing my thoughts, and telling you how I feel.

OLLI Nomination for Least Qualified Speaker

OLLI Spring 2019 Course TH104: A Walk Through Berkshire History

Michael Forbes Wilcox is a Berkshire native, having been born in the House of Mercy in Pittsfield.

His parents lived in Stockbridge, where he spent the first 17 years of his life. He currently resides in Alford, where he is the Town Moderator.

Wilcox is a 1963 graduate of Williams High School, and has never lived more than a few hours’ drive from Stockbridge. He did, however, travel the world on business and for pleasure, during his career in Finance and Investments. Never did he encounter a place more beautiful than the Berkshires.

Mr. Wilcox has a long history of teaching subjects about which he has little or no knowledge. He has, for example, lectured at the Columbia Business School, and given commencement talks for programs at Boston University and UMass Medical School. He has also taught graduate-level courses, as adjunct faculty, in the Autism Program at The Elms College in Chicopee. Last year, Michael brought his lack of expertise to OLLI and conducted a course on autism, despite having no training in the field.

Today, Mr. Wilcox continues the tradition of orchestrating a course on a topic in which he has no credentials. His academic training was in Economics, Philosophy, and Political Science, none of which has any bearing on the study of history. To his credit, however, or so he claims, he has history in his genes. He says he inherited a love of history from his younger brother.

We will leave it to the students to judge whether OLLI has made a colossal mistake in giving this knight errant a windmill to tilt.

Refunds will be available at the end of the 7th class.