1790: Lucretia Saves the Elm
“The woodsman’s ax sank into the tree. He loosened it from the trunk of the American Elm, raised his ax once more, and prepared to swing.
“But this time, his blow would not connect with the tree. He would not even swing the ax, its path now blocked by Lucretia Williams. Williams, hearing the ax sing, rushed from her nearby home into the center of town and thrust herself between the axeman and the tree, declaring, “You will have to cut through me first.”
“Startled, he stopped, much to the chagrin of the men who had hired him. The tree must fall, the town elders decreed, for this was to be the spot of the new Meeting House.
“Hearing the commotion outside, her husband, John Chandler Williams, a well-respected attorney and one of the most influential citizens of Pittsfield in 1790, rushed to the side of his wife. In the moments that followed, he would strike a deal with the fledgling community — he would trade a portion of his estate to preserve the tree.”
Quoted from a story by Jennifer Huberdeau in The Berkshire Eagle, Aug 30, 2021.
So the church was built on donated land and the Old Elm became the center of Meeting House Common, or “Park Square.”
Why am I–and maybe You–Interested?
As far as I know, I’ve never been in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and I doubt I have readers there, but a small souvenir plate connects me with that town, my great-grandmother, and American history I’ll bet few readers know, either.
However, I’d welcome any more dedicated historian to either correct or add to what I turned up—assuming the “Contact Me” form is working.
Where did the plate come from?
I know that both my great-grandmother and her sister were married in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, 1872 and 1874, and that the family moved to Pittsfield from Moravia, New York, in May, 1866. There’s no date or company mark on the plate so I don’t know which of three generations bought it. Regardless of that, it’s a good story-teller.
The Old Elm had a Ringside Seat on local, but nationally important, Revolutionary War history
When Captain Charles Goodrich plotted out the Pittsfield village center in 1764, he chose the highest point in the village, the old elm. He started South, East, North, and West Streets near its base, but would not allow the tree to be cut.
1777: Men gathered under the tree as they prepared to join the Green Mountain Boys at the Battle of Bennington, and there begin my history discoveries.
The Feisty Green Mountain Boys
If it wasn’t enough to fight the British, these up-and-coming Americans also fought each other over State boundaries and jurisdictions. The Green Mountain Boys’ militia was organized originally to protect settlers who believed they were in New Hampshire, but the British had decided they were subject to New York. To complicate matters, Vermont proclaimed itself an independent Nation in 1777. Some thought George Washington should squelch that, but Washington had enough on his hands with the British. In the end, Vermont joined the Union in 1791.
When the Green Mountain Boys mustered under the Old Elm in Massachusetts in 1775, they went after Fort Ticonderoga. They met in a tavern—near, if not in view of, the tree. At Ticonderoga they captured artillery and gave the Americans their first victory of the war and a needed burst of confidence.
The Battle of Bennington
In August, 1777, they took on Fort Bennington. This time they rallied at South Congregational Church. The troops from the Berkshires (Pittsfield area) were augmented by troops from Vermont and New Hampshire.
British General John Burgoyne wanted to divide New England from the other rebel colonies, but his march was slowed by trees and other debris strewn on the road by Americans. [As I write this, I have heard that Ukrainians are doing the same along the Russian attack routes.] Burgoyne knew there were horses and other supplies stored at Bennington. The battle ended with over 200 casualties and 700 captured or missing on the British side, and about 70 casualties for the Americans.
Two months later, Burgoyne’s troops were totally defeated at Saratoga.
The Green Mountain Boys live on!
That militia faded away temporarily after Vermont became a State, but they mustered again for the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and after World War I morphed into the Vermont National Guard.
A Hero Turned Traitor
Notice who served honorably at both Ticonderoga and Saratoga battles–Benedict Arnold! That sent me on another investigation: How did a hero end up a traitor?
Arnold, a pharmacist by trade, joined the rebellion in 1775 when he led volunteers, either including or augmented by the Green Mountain Boys, to Fort Ticonderoga. During a failed attack on Quebec he suffered a serious leg injury. In early 1777, he survived having two horses shot out from under him in Connecticut.
At Saratoga, where Arnold showed “bravery and exceptional leadership,” the decisive American victory turned the tide for Americans and persuaded France to enter the war on our side. There, Arnold was wounded again, in the same leg and Washington appointed him Military Governor of Philadelphia, a position which allowed him at least partial healing.
Arnold’s dissatisfaction was aroused by several congruent circumstances:
1. Other officers took credit for his success.
2. Congress promoted lower-ranked officers ahead of him.
3. His wife “spent lavishly” and put him deep in debt, which led to a rebuke for “misconduct and financial impropriety.”
4. His father’s alcoholism and his own hypersensitivity to criticism undoubtedly played a part. His second wife (the first had died) was the daughter of a Loyalist who was accustomed to both wealth and social status. Arnold was crippled by the combination of his old battle wounds and gout. He craved money, security, and the status he believed he deserved.
He was discovered with papers disclosing his traitorous behavior before his betrayal of West Point was carried out. He escaped to England, but the British didn’t trust him either, and he died in obscurity in 1801.
After the War: The French Hero
1825: If you can imagine such a crowd in a fairly obscure place, 3,500 people showed up for a speech by General Lafayette, Marquis de Lafayette, the Revolutionary War hero.
By that time, the population of Pittsfield was probably over 2000, but people would have come in from the countryside or nearby towns for a chance to see and hear this hero.
Lafayette’s full name was Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, reflecting his noble and military heritage. The deaths of his mother and grandfather when he was 13 left him with immense wealth. He joined the French Royal Army at 14, and at 20 he sailed to the United States to join the rebellion. He arrived with military training plus enough money to do what excited him and freedom to offer his services without pay. He showed his leadership ability and became major-general in the Continental Army. He was shot in the leg at his first major battle, Brandywine, but recovered to spend the winter at Valley Forge with Washington. Lafayette also had enough influence in France to procure needed resources for the Americans.
Marquis de Lafayette in Continental uniform, by Charles Willson Peale.
When he returned to France in 1781, he rejoined the French army. He also brokered trade agreements with Thomas Jefferson between the United States and France.
It was half a century after the Revolution when Lafayette, now age 67, returned to the U.S. and visited all 24 States during his year-long visit, August 1824 to September 1825. He was greeted with parades and fireworks, visited Washington’s tomb, spent a week with Thomas Jefferson, was a guest of President James Monroe, and addressed Congress. Before he sailed for France, he stayed at the White House with the new President, John Quincy Adams.
The opportunity to shake Lafayette’s hand was treasured by the veterans who lived to see him and those citizens who told their grandchildren years later, “I remember…”
NEXT: An American Tradition Begins under the Elm