The Move to Westfield

Westfield, called Woronoco by the Native Americans, is situated in Massachusetts, nine miles due west of Springfield and about the same distance north of the Connecticut border. Its natural approach from the east is via the Westfield River valley, which is fed by streams in the Berkshires and runs into the Connecticut River a few miles below Northampton. The valley is an extensive plain about seven miles wide and is bounded on the west by the foothills of the Berkshires.

Game was abundant in the area and it was a prime source of pelts. Both the Massachusetts and the Connecticut colonies were eager to possess it and disputed their claims. Eventually, jurisdiction was given to Springfield and the Massachusetts Colony. On March 16, 1667, Major Holyoke and George Colton were appointed to go to Woronoco to meet with landholders there “over the Rivulet by the Indian Fort” to arrange for home lots and highways.

Six acre home lots were assigned to George Phelps nearest the Indian Fort, the first lot west of Little River (part of which has been washed away) and then next west to Major John Holyoke (later to become the minister’s lot) and then to Thomas Gunn, Isaac Phelps, Joseph Whiting, Hugh Dudley, John Ponder, Thomas Noble, David Ashley, John and Thomas Root and George Tyler. These lots were to lie butting on a highway to the north near the Little River (later to become Westfield’s Main Street), each lot to be 14.5 rods broad (239.25 feet) and 80 rods long (1320 feet). [1 rod = 16.5 feet] Another set of home lots was laid out lying at the rear (south) of the others and butting on a highway four rods wide “by or near the meadow.” They were the same size as the others and were assigned respectively from east to west to Israel Dewey, Jonathan Alvord, Thomas Bancroft, David Ashley, Joseph Dewey Jr., and Samuel Taylor.1 Three days later another assignment of home lots was made “upon the uplands without the meadow.” These lots were on the south side of the Windsor to Westfield highway. The first lot was John Ingersoll’s, then Thomas Dewey’s, Moses Cook’s, and James Cornish’s, each with 5 acres. Twelve acres next to James Cornish’s lot were assigned to “the ministry if he shall like it.” And finally there was Capt. Aaron Cook’s 6 acre home lot.2

On March 13, 1669, the proprietors of land at Woronoco met to agree to distribute the meadow and plowland held in common. “Nextly the plowland is to lye in two divisions and every man to have his portion of the plowland. And for the laying of mens land, that is the place where each mans portion of land shall lye, it is agreed that it be determined by casting lotts for it, every proprietor agreeing to acquiesce in that place where his lott shall fall. And for the beginning of the first division of plow land it shall be at the lowermost or southeasterly side there the first lot is to lye & from thence to goe upward or Westerly.”3

“The first lott came out to Thomas Gun who lyes next the river on the easterly side of all the other lotts where he hath seventeen acres length 160 rod (2640 feet), breadth 10 rods (165 feet) at the front and 24 rods (396 feet) at ye west and besides this there is 2 rods broad allowed more to this lott for a high way downe to the river all the length of it.”3 Three divisions of land were made, and lots were assigned in each. In size, only George Phelp’s lots were larger. Thomas was given 17 acres in the Meadow division, 6 acres in the middle of the first plowland, and 9 acres in the middle of the second plowland. Then there was the “Hundred Acres,” a tract of meadow land lying south of Little River. Of this land Thomas received 10 acres. So, in addition to his home lot, Thomas had 42 acres of meadow, of plow land, and of the Hundred Acres (possibly woodland).

Another old acquaintance of Thomas held land in the Woronoco. Capt. Roger Clapp had a grant of about two square miles, though he apparently did not reside there. But his son, Preserved Clapp would move to Northampton, and his grandson Ezra would live in Westfield and marry Margaret Ingersoll.

“Thomas Gunn was an old man to brave the hardships of a new settlement. His home lot was the first one west of Little River, opposite the meeting house. He came from Windsor and though nominated as one of the foundation men of the church (one of seven men chosen to found a new church) in 1679, he was then so broken by age, as Mr. Taylor says, that he was excused from that responsibility and from giving a “relation,” as the statement of personal religious experience was then called.”5 This note is appended to an account of church proceedings: “Brother Th. Gun being nominated for a foundation man desired to be omitted & was admitted ye 21 ye 7 m. without Relation in that he was so much decayed by age that it would be a hard thing to gather it & he was a man of approved piety & was recommended to us by Windsor church.”6

George Phelps would die in 1687, but his son Isaac would be prominent in Westfield affairs for many years, serving as deacon of the church, Selectman and Town Clerk. Aaron Cook had become one of the notables of the colony, a leader in both military and civil affairs. Tragically, his son Moses would be the only citizen of Westfield who was killed during King Philip’s War, on March 9, 1676, when “a scout was sent out on ‘ye last snowy day’ of winter. Ten or twelve men rode upon the enemy and Moses Cook, an inhabitant, and Clemence Bates, a soldier, lost their lives.” 7 Aaron Cook would die in Northampton on September 5, 1690.8

The final records we have of Thomas’s activities in Westfield is the taking of an oath of allegiance to his Majesty the King, probably in late 1678, probably October, and he was involved in organizing the church: “August 9th, 1678. These doe signifie that we approve ye christian people in ye colony of Massachusetts to enter into a church state according to ye rules of Christ and ye laws of ye country in that case provided and in particular the persons hereunder names vez. Mr. Edward Taylor minister, John Maudelsy, Samuel Loomis, Isaak Phelps, Thomas Gunn, Josiah Dewey and John Root, who have made application to us, who together with such others living in that place whom God hath fitted as living stones for that spiritual building (having testimony of their professed subjection unto ye gospell of Christ) we do allow to enter church state and commend them to ye Lord’s gracious blessing. Signed ye day and year above written. John Leverett, Govr.”9

At a meeting of Woronoco proprietors on January 21, 1668 it was voted to build a meeting house “on the fort side.” Thus it came about that the building was erected very near to the old Indian fort, probably in 1673, at the confluence of Great River and Little River, near the present iron bridge. The spot is marked by a stone monument, though the land there has been considerably altered from the early days by the changed courses of the rivers, the channel of the Great River being farther south than it used to be, and that of the Little River being farther west. Part of the tongue of land which defined them has been washed away. This meeting house was set opposite Thomas’s home lot on the north side of the highway, the present Main Street. In 1669 the place was given the name Westfield, and by the early 1670s there were about 150 people living there.

The church played an important, pervasive and often intrusive role in the lives of these people. It would discipline wrongdoers and obtain confessions, often without due process of trial, for various offenses, some serious and others minor. On page 196 of Westfield and its Historic Influences the following church record of confessions is quoted: “Dec. 31 Daniel Gunn [a son of John] made public acknowledgement that he had treated his wife both with words & actions plainly contrary to ye rules of ye Gospel & promised to watch over his passions better & to resist temptation, & having profest at ye same time Repentance grief & shame for his sin, folly & imprudence in them. … One of the same family name made public acknowledgement of his ‘making too free with strong drink some time last winter at the Tavern.’”

Westfield during King Philip’s War 1675-1676
King Philip’s War erupted in New England between European colonists and Native Americans as a result of tensions over the colonists’ expansionist activities. The bloody war raged up and down the Connecticut River Valley in Massachusetts and in the Plymouth and Rhode Island colonies, eventually resulting in 600 English colonials and 3,000 Native Americans being killed, including women and children on both sides. King Philip (the colonist’s nickname for Metacom, chief of the Wampanoags) is finally hunted down and killed on August 12, 1676, in a swamp in Rhode Island, ending the war in southern New England and ending the independent power of Native Americans there. In New Hampshire and Maine, the Saco Indians continue to raid settlements for another year and a half.

In 1662 Metacom became sachem (chief) of the Wampanoag, the major Native group in southeastern New England. There had been increasing tension between the Natives and the English for a number of years, but by the 1670s the relationship had become unsupportable as far as the Natives were concerned. Metacom adopted a policy of increasing but subtle resistance towards the English. But after a number of angry confrontations, he was forced to sign a humiliating treaty which required him to fully subject his people to the English government. This put an end to any hope of peaceful coexistence between two equal but sovereign peoples.

War broke out in June, 1675, when a colonist shot and killed a Pokanoket who had been seen running out of his house. A revenge raid followed in which several English were killed, and the war was on. Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay and the Connecticut Colonies mustered their forces and moved against Metacom. However, the Pokanokets got away and began to raid many colonial towns. The Pokanokets, joined somewhat reluctantly by their Pocasset and Sakonnet relatives, retreated into the interior of Massachusetts where they were joined by some of the Nipmucks and others.

The war spread to the Connecticut Valley and the Pokanokets went as far as the Hudson River to recruit allies amongst the Mohicans, Abenakis, and others. The colonies, insisting that the Narragansetts were acting in bad faith by harboring fugitives, prepared an army of 1,000 men to attack that neutral nation. In December 1675 the colonials attacked the unsuspecting Narragansetts, burned their fort, and killed many of the inhabitants, thus driving the Narragansetts into the war on the side of Metacom.

From Thomas Gunn on Three Frontiers by Harold Henderson: “A series of Indian attacks left the Connecticut River frontier in a shambles. Westfield had a house and a barn burned and lost a man in a skirmish. The townspeople faced a choice. They could each plant their own fields, risking death by tomahawk, or they could spend the growing season in forted-up buildings and risk death by starvation when they ran out of food the next winter. On March 26 ten men signed an agreement to establish a kind of emergency war communism:

The town considering that the hand of God is upon us in
having or letting loose the heathen upon us so that now
wee cannot carry on our occasion for lively hood as
formerly & considering that it is not a time now to advans
our estates but to deny ourselves of our former advantages
that so wee may carry on something together for the good
of the whole . . . .
We agree to carry on as followeth — We agree to fence
only the northeast field and . . . to plow and sow and carry
on the improvement of this land in general, that is such as
shall agree thereunto . . . it shall be ordered by some men
we shall appoint, who shall go out to work and who shall
tarry at home from day to day, and . . . each man shall
receive an equal proporsion according to his family.

They appointed ‘[David] Ashly Senr & goodman Gun’ to organize the affair.
Meanwhile the Massachusetts legislature ordered Westfield residents to move to Springfield so they could be better protected. When they refused, they were left largely to fend for themselves, and lucked out. As the war progressed, Westfield was never overrun, and fared better than many settlements that far west.”

At first the colonial armies were largely unsuccessful in locating and fighting Native forces, which moved easily over the country and attacked outlying farms and towns. However, driven from their settlements and their cornfields, the Native forces suffered much privation. The winter of 1675-76 proved a harsh one for them, and they resorted to raiding English farming communities, as they did at Westfield, for food and supplies. Many of the Christian Native People, especially those of Natick, Ponkapoag, and Mattakeeset were forced into internment camps on Deer Island in Boston Harbor and Clark’s Island in Plymouth Harbor, supposedly to prevent them from aiding and abetting the enemy.

The eventual use of Native soldiers proved to be the turning point for the English. Their Native allies showed them effective methods for locating enemies, traveling lightly through the country, and fighting in guerrilla fashion. Small parties of Native and English rangers, supporting the larger English armies, wore down Metacom’s allies’ resistance and also caused many bands to turn to the English side.

By the late summer of 1676 most Native resistance was crushed. Metacom himself was located and killed in an ambush. Groups of Wampanoags, Narragansetts, Nipmucks, and others were captured or surrendered to the colonists. Native resistors who were not captured removed themselves north or westward and joined with French-allied Native Peoples in Maine and Canada or took refuge in New York colony on the Hudson River. Many Native People were sold out of the country as slaves while others, mostly young children, were put into involuntary servitude for the English until they were twenty-four years old. Any suspected of killing English people were tried and executed.

King Philip’s War caused severe economic hardship for the colonies and was, proportionately, the most costly war in terms of human life in American history. The only Native communities left in southern New England were those sachemships which had either stayed neutral and avoided conflict or assisted the colonists, or surviving Christian communities, many of which were on Cape Cod. The survivors were eventually put under the total jurisdiction of the colonies.10

By the end of September of 1675 in the Connecticut Valley, Northfield, Deerfield, and Brookfield and many isolated homesteads had been abandoned and there were horrifying accounts and rumors of slaughter and mayhem. Fortunately, Westfield, though exposed and at significant risk, was never attacked in force. It did, however, suffer some minor raids. James Cornish’s house and John Sackett’s barn were burned on the 27th of October, 1675, and George Granger was wounded in the leg; then ”Five bushels of meal were stolen … also in winter some sculking Rascals upon a Lord’s day in ye time of our afternoon worship fired Ambrose Fowler’s house and in ye week after Walter Lee’s barn, but in ye latter end & giving up of Winter on ye last snowy day thereof, discovery of the same designing only three or four to go out with orders that they should not assault them, but to our woe and smart, there going 10 or 12 not as scouts but as assalants, rid furiously upon ye Enemie from whom they received a furious charge where by Moses Cook an inhabitant & Clemence Bates a soldier lost their lives, Clemence in ye place & Moses at night; besides which, we lost no other of the town, only at ye Falls fight at Deerfield, there going from our town 9 men, three garrison soldiers fell, thus though we lay in ye very rode of the Enemie were wee preserved, only the war had so impoverished [us] as that many times some were ready to leave the place & many did, yea many of those that were in full Communion went to other places.”11

The nearby communities of Springfield and Northampton were not so lucky. The people of Springfield had remained confident of the loyalty of the Natives living in a fort and adjacent area about a mile from the town. But they had received about 300 of Philip’s warriors and were plotting to take the town. Word got out and Major Treat, in command of the dragoons at Westfield, was alerted. On the morning of the 5th of October Springfield was attacked and Treat rushed across the River and arrived just in time to prevent a massacre and the complete destruction of the town. More than thirty homes and many out buildings were burnt to the ground and the town was sacked and in ruins.

Then Northampton was attacked by a large force of 800 Natives from three directions at once on March 13. Normally, the garrison there (as at Westfield) might not have been strong enough to repel such an attack, but Major Treat was there with his men and they had been unexpectedly reinforced by nearly a hundred men from Hartford. The assault from the south was partially successful and the enemy broke through the palisades and swarmed upon the village, but they were soon overpowered and many were killed. It was a close call for the settlers. [Thistlethwaite describes an attack on Hatfield, but not on Northampton]

These attacks on neighboring settlements must have greatly disturbed the residents of Westfield and kept them in a state of perpetual alarm. And many of the younger men of the town must have been in the local trainband (militia), and some of them surely took part in the defense of Springfield and Northampton. Thomas’s son would have been 28 years old in July of 1675 and as he is referred to in the records as Quartermaster John Gunn, he would have been in charge of provisioning the garrisons in the area.

The winter of 1675-76 was mild, and since the immediate threat of attack was lessened by the Natives’ failure to take Springfield and Northampton, a garrison of only 30 men were left at Westfield and the rest of the troops departed for the eastern part of the colony. In the spring the General Court ordered all settlers to concentrate at Springfield for better protection, but the Westfield people protested and decided to remain where they were.

In May of 1676 Captain William Turner, in command of the English troops at Hadley, and Capt. Samuel Holyoke of Springfield assembled a force of 180 men after hearing that many of King Philip’s warriors were congregated near Deerfield and fishing in the Connecticut River at the falls. The force set out on the evening of 17 May, marched all night, and surprised the Natives at daybreak. Many Natives were slain at the first assault, but another 140 or so were killed while trying to escape across the river or were swept over the falls. As many as 300 Natives may have been destroyed. So complete was the surprise that the English troops only lost one man.

However, there were many other Natives in the area, so Capt. Turner immediately had his men march for Hatfield. The English were attacked several times but were able to repulse their assailants. However, upon reaching Smead’s Island, opposite where the city of Montague now stands, a sudden full scale attack sent the English into a panic and they fled in disorder. At that point the tables turned and it became a slaughter of English by Natives. Many English were shot or taken captive. At Green River Capt. Turner was killed and Capt. Holyoke assumed command and rallied the troops; they then managed to fight their way back to the safety of Hatfield, with 38 men missing. Nine men from Westfield, including John Lee and John Munn, were in the fight at what became known as Turner’s Falls, and three of the soldiers garrisoned at Westfield were killed.12

After the death of King Philip (12 August, 1676) and the routing of the remnants of the enemy at Great Barrington, comparative quiet followed until the autumn of 1677 when a party of 50 Natives from Canada made an attack on Deerfield. The Natives had destroyed Hatfield and carried off 17 prisoners in a daylight assault while most of the men were away. That evening the Natives struck Deerfield, which had been destroyed two years before and was inhabited only by some men and boys who were rebuilding the town; the Natives took another 24 captives. They were probably remnants of Philip’s forces who had taken refuge in Canada.13 This attack caused the order for “Compact Dwelling” to be issued on the 19th of November. Westfield people were to concentrate between Main, present Cross street and East Silver streets, making the “town plot” about two miles in circumference. Thomas Dewey on Little River road and Ambrose Fowler on Union street were allowed to remain in their homes provided they kept five or six men as a garrison.14

For a few years life became somewhat more calm and secure. In November 1678 John Gunn’s mother died, and a few months later, on 22 January 1679, John and Mary Williams were married. With his mother gone, John (and his father, too) must have felt the need of a woman in the house. Mary had a twin sister, Elizabeth, and they were the daughters of John Williams and Mary Bulkeley of Windsor. Though John Williams was one of the early settlers of Windsor, having bought property there in 1644, several of the Williams’s seven children moved up the river and ended up living in Westfield or Springfield.

John Gunn and Mary have their first child, Thomas, on 14 December, 1680. It must have pleased Thomas Senior, now in his late seventies, to have a grandson named after him. However, only two months after the birth, on the 26th of February, 1681, Thomas died and was buried alongside his wife in The Old Burying Ground (which is now the Mechanic Street Cemetery in Westfield). It had been a long and adventurous life, with many hardships and the painful loss of two infant daughters, but in the end it had been a fruitful life. Thomas and his wife began a new American family line that today numbers in the many thousands and extends across the breadth of the United States.

John and Mary have five more children: John Jr., who becomes a Captain in the militia, is born on 5 May 1682, Mary is born on the 9th of January, 1685, Daniel on the 21st of March, 1887, Mercy on the 14th of March 1691, and Aaron on the 29th of August, 1694. Life on the American frontier is always hard and sometimes dangerous, but it’s a healthy life and all of these children will survive, marry and produce children of their own.

Continue to “Life on the New England Frontier in the 1600s“.

  1. corrected from Lockwood, John H. Westfield and Its Historic Influences 1669-1919: The Life of an Early Town. Printed and sold by the author, 1922, pp 58-59, and map on p 96.
  2. Lockwood, p. 59.
  3. Lockwood, p. 85.
  4. Lockwood, p. 85.
  5. Lockwood, p. 91.
  6. Lockwood, p. 118.
  7. Dewey, Louis M. Chronological History of Westfield, Copyrighted, 1905, 1910, 1919.
  8. Lockwood, pp. 94-95.
  9. Lockwood, pp. 108-09.
  10. Plymouth Plantation web site: http://plimoth.org/.
  11. Lockwood, pp. 229-30.
  12. Extracted from History of the Connecticut Valley in Massachusetts, Volume II by Louis H. Everts, 1879. These pages are © Laurel O’Donnell, 2005, all rights reserved and cannot be reproduced in any format without permission This page was last updated on 10 Jul 2005.
  13. Vaughn, Alden T. and Edward Clark. Puritans Among the Indians, John Harvard Library, Kelknap Press, 1981, p 79.
  14. Dewey.

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