Thursday, October 19, 2017

How a piece of American history happened right on my road!

It isn't everybody who can say that a vital piece of American history took place in her front yard.

I'm not the sort of person who brags, but I will boast about this: General Henry Knox marched right past my driveway in North Egremont as he led troops and heavy artillery to Boston to help drive the British out of the city during the Revolutionary War.

This information comes via a wonderful history book about North Egremont by Great Barrington writer Gary Leveille. Eye of Shawenon presents a rich and well-researched history about how this area of the Berkshires came to be.

My fascination with Henry Knox started even before my husband and I moved into our new home last December. On one of my first strolls down to the village store, I noticed a large stone marker standing near a couple of picnic tables. (The store is on Route 71.) The marker read:                                   

“General Knox Highway - Through this place passed General Henry Knox in the winter of 1775 and 1776 to deliver to General George Washington at Cambridge the train of artillery from Fort Ticonderoga used to force the British Army to evacuate Boston.”

I’ll be honest; my knowledge of Revolutionary War history is pretty thin. But the marker sparked my curiosity. After all, I was living on General Knox Lane, a dirt road that is barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other.

Leveille’s book expanded on this piece of history.

Henry Knox was a Boston bookseller who had developed some expertise in artillery and military planning. Ambitious and charming, pleasant and portly, at age 25, he befriended George Washington, and sold him on a very risky plan: he could move tons and tons of heavy artillery and munitions through the winter snow some 300 miles, from Fort Ticonderoga in New York State to Boston, where the Brits were ensconced in the harbor.

“After some discussion,” Leveille writes, “Knox [who wasn’t a general then] convinced Washington that he had the skills necessary to move approximately 59 cannons, cohorns, mortars and howitzers…He convinced himself as well as Washington that he could accomplish this nearly impossible task.”

He had never moved anything more than boxes of books, but still, Knox informed Washington that he would travel to Fort Ticonderoga and transport the artillery on heavy-duty sleds led by oxen and horses. He expected to make the trip in a matter of weeks.

Writing in his book about the Revolutionary War, 1776, author David McCullough quotes from Knox’s diary:

“It is not easy to conceive the difficulties we have had.” And that was after only part of the trip, moving the artillery down Lake George on three giant rowboats, weighed down by a gargantuan cargo. One boat struck a rock and sank, but somehow the soldiers managed to resurrect it and row on. 

At the southern tip of Lake George, there were 42 sleds waiting to transport the artillery overland to Boston, but alas, Knox was delayed because there was no snow. Then a blizzard struck, leaving three feet of snow on the ground.

Crossing the Hudson River, a large cannon fell through the ice and sank, leaving a hole 14 feet in diameter. Once again, Knox and his crew pulled off the impossible, pulling the cannon out of the river. 

It was January 10, 1776, when Knox and his entourage passed through North Hillsdale, Alford, North Egremont and then past Great Barrington.

Further east in the Berkshires, Knox faced steep mountainsides and deep narrow valleys. Moving the sleds through this terrain was arduous work. McCullough writes: “To slow the descent of the laden sleds down slopes as steep as a roof, check lines were anchored to trees…when some of his teamsters, fearful of the risks, refused to go any further, Knox spent three hours arguing and pleading until they finally agreed to head on.”

On January 24th – nearly two months after leaving and some 242 years before I had the good fortune to move to North Egremont -- Knox finally arrived in Boston, where General Washington was in a stalemate with the British.

McCullough -- who calls Knox's voyage “mythic” -- writes:

“Knox’s ‘noble train’ had arrived intact. Not a gun had been lost. Hundreds of men had taken part and their labors and resilience had been exceptional. But it was the daring and determination of Knox himself that had counted above all. The twenty-five-year-old Boston bookseller had proven himself a leader of remarkable ability, a man not only of enterprising ideas, but with the staying power to carry them out. Immediately, Washington put him in charge of the artillery.”

In another gargantuan effort, the Patriots installed the artillery in the Dorchester Heights of Boston, where it threatened British ships in the harbor. Soon the Brits pulled out of the city.

Henry Knox went on to become a general, and a true hero of the Revolutionary War. He remained with George Washington through the remainder of the war.

A few weeks ago, I decided to pay a visit to Egremont’s town history museum, where I read a piece suggesting that Knox had left two cannons here in North Egremont, which at the time was called Little York. 

Supposedly, one of those cannons was for many years displayed at the village store – over 200 years old, the store has always been the hub of life in town. The other cannon was – again, supposedly -- left on Prospect Lake Road, a stone’s throw from my house. Some believe that the cannon at the village store eventually was hauled away (because kids were playing with it and firing it occasionally!) and then buried in a stone wall. The other cannon just disappeared.

But Leveille laughs at all of this, dismissing these stories as “rumor or legend.” Like North Egremont, he says, “Most every town on Knox’s route claims to have had a cannon left behind. It’s hilarious. If every town along the way had a cannon left behind, Knox would have had no cannons when he arrived in Boston.”  

For years, there has been lively debate about exactly which trail Knox and his crew followed when crossing from New York to Massachusetts. Leveille presents a detailed account of seven different scenarios!

But “there’s no doubt in my mind which one is right,” Leveille says. It is the scenario favored by former Postmaster and North Egremont village store owner (and informal “mayor”) Joe Elliott, a colorful man and self-taught historian who, before he died in 1972, knew all of the trails that Native Americans and early settlers used as thoroughfares in this area.

“No one on planet Earth conducted more research on the Knox Trail in the New York/Massachusetts border than Joe Elliott,” writes Leveille.

That route – which is the one that passes by my driveway -- was the “easiest, most level route to haul cannons.” And it partially followed an old Indian trail that, during the 1750s, was enlarged by General Jeffrey Amherst as he led thousands of troops through the south Berkshire region during the French and Indian War.

“Amherst wanted to avoid marching thousands of soldiers over the steep mountains into New York so he likely blazed a much more logical trail along the Green River,” which flows through North Egremont.

It turns out that trail also passes near the border of Austerlitz, New York, the town where I lived for 30 years before moving to Massachusetts.

One of the most interesting things about Gary Leveille’s book is how he came to write it. A native of southern Connecticut, Leveille first came to North Egremont when he was 12 years old. He and his family camped out at lovely Prospect Lake and the young boy was smitten.

“It was just heaven to me,” he recalls. “There was boating, swimming, water skiing and sailing. There was a waterslide and a juke box in the recreation center. There were cute girls and a beach.” And there was also that very friendly store owner Joe Elliott, who called Leveille by the knickname “Zeke.” Elliott sold two Indian arrow heads to “Zeke,” and Leveille has them to this day.

Leveille always wanted to write a book about the lake and the surrounding region, which was known to locals as Shawenon. Until Leveille came along, few knew why the North Egremont and Alford area had that name. After much digging, he discovered that Shawenon was named for a Mohican Indian who lived in what is now the Stockbridge area. Shawenon was a leader in the Mohican tribe, and his job was to set tribal boundaries and to decide which lands would be “sold” to the white settlers.

Originally, the Mohicans occupied much of the land that extended from the Hudson River in New York state to the Westfield River in Massachusetts.

Like so many white settlers, those moving into this region “treated the Indians poorly,” Leveille says. “The settlers would say, ‘here, you need all of this stuff, like tools, clothes and cooking utensils, and then say, ‘OK now it’s time to pay up, you have no money so you can give us land.”

In this way, the Native Americans were pushed out of Massachusetts and New York, eventually landing in Wisconsin.

Another contribution of Leveille’s to local history was finding the so-called proprietor’s records for North Egremont, the documents recording the minutes for all of the meetings the settlers had when forming the town. The records also show “who got what land,” Leveille says.

He was dead set on getting those records.

“I spent weeks going through the archives” in the second floor room of the library, where Egremont stores its historical collection. And then one day Leveille eyed a locked cabinet in the corner of the room. There was no key. He got permission to take the hinges off the door, and “lo and behold, there were the records! They were very very fragile.”

Hmmmm. Now Leveille has me wanting to go back to the Egremont archives to see those records too. Who knows where else my fascination with General Knox will take me!

This article appears in the October issue of  Berkshire HomeStyle Magazine.

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