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  M & S Library Number: 20120
 

    Early Petition for Compensation for Lands in New England

     

    (INDIAN LAND CLAIM). (MASSACHUSETTS). WOODBRIDGE, TIMOTHY (et al). "We the subscribers certifye and declare that the Land lying between farmingtown River and west-field's first boundaries and north of the So. Westfield Township to the river commonly called Westfield river belongs to the family of Peter Pophqun aupeet? and Isaac Waunaumpee that is to Say from the Colony line between Connecticut and this Province Extending north to the north part or head of the afore Sd. Farmington River...we acknowledge that by the general consent of the Indians two miles has been given up to the government one mile South and one Mile North of the Road from Westfield to Sheffield but for the rest no recompence has been made." Stockbridge, Aug. ye 28 1749/ Timothy Woodbridge [and seven Indians, with marks and names]. 4to original holograph document on laid paper with four reinforcement strips on verso. Fine. With lib. stamp at top (& old bill of sale). (Stockbridge, Mass: 1749). $16,000.00

     

    This extraordinary survival, a petition for compensation, concerns the disposition of land on the Massachusetts frontier in 1749. Its author, Timothy Woodbridge, was a missionary sent with John Sergeant to settle the "Indian town" of Stockbridge in 1739. While Woodbridge's charge was to bring Christianity to the Mahican Indians, in this document he brings the grievances of his charges to his Christian bretthern in Boston. Jonathan Edwards, who arrived in Stockbridge in 1751, described Woodbridge as "a man of very good abilities, of a manly, honest, and generous disposition, and as having, by his upright conduct and agreeable manners, secured the affections and confidence of the Indians."

    Woodbridge's assistance in preparing this claim probably caused consternation among the settlers, as it asserts Indian ownership of a broad tract of western Massachusetts. Much of the colonization by Europeans in the Northeast, and especially in New England, was carried out under the presumption that the Indians resident there could not own land, inasmuch as they did not improve it in a manner recognizable to Europeans. Under this doctrine, called "vacuum domicilium," and with token payments to a few Indians, English settlers erected a familiar system of townships, plats, and deeds, with little regard to the claims of Indians, whose notions of the land were inexplicable by standards of English landscape and ownership. For this conflict see Cronon, Changes in Land, and Jennings, The Invasion of America. In such a context, a claim that asserts that "land...belongs to" a Native American, and endorsed by a white preacher, would pose a threat to the English system of landownership.

    Among the questions this document leaves unanswered, is the intended audience. It is presented in the form of a declaration, but does not specify to whom the declaration is made. It makes a reference to the "authority of this Province," but does not address the royal governor or any other particular authority. Of this declaration, it appears no notice was taken. To take heed of it would set a dangerous precedent for the recognition of land claims. It is particularly dangerous because it asserts ownership over a significant portion of the southwest corner of Massachusetts, including part of Berkshire County, and the western area of Hampden County. The Farmington River runs from Becket, Massachusetts, to Windsor, Connecticut, where it joins the Connecticut River. The Westfield River drains much of Hampshire and Hampden counties, and extends into Franklin County as well. The claim, dependent upon river boundaries, is probably highly ambiguous as well, as were one-time Massachusetts claims to much of southern new Hampshire.

    While we can discover no evidence that the claim was even considered, nonetheless it is an early artifact in the history of Native-American land claims. Its importance may lie, in fact, in being one of the very early extant written claims for an important area of New England territory.

 

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