The 14th Colony: A Brief History: Part One

Photo of Sharon, Connecticut by Mark Niedhammer

Photo of Sharon, Connecticut by Mark Niedhammer

Introduction: The Icon of Independence

We residents of the tri-cornered area where today the states of Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts converge, and through which the Housatonic River flows, share a marvelous heritage: We are the fortunate successors to the homeland that in the century between the 1740s and the 1840s was a strange, sparsely settled, wild yet attractive stretch of earth and water known as the 14th Colony. Encompassing parts of the Litchfield Hills, the southern Berkshires, and the ribbon of adjoining territory to the west then called the Oblong, the 14th Colony was so named and was regarded as somewhat of a separate entity from the other thirteen because it was remote, iconoclastic, and independent — beyond the effective reach of civil authorities.

Until the 1730s, the 1,000-square-mile wilderness had few permanent human residents, principally due to its spine, the twisting upper reaches of the river that the handfuls of natives who hunted near it called the Ousatunnuck. A beautiful landscape of heavy forests, misty foothills, rocky slopes, crystalline lakes, and frigid streams, it was useful to hunters for its deer and other game, but forbidding enough in winter so that they did not plant grains near its waters or otherwise attempt to settle in. Similarly, during the first century of European settlement of New England, whites were uninterested in the Housatonic Valley, having others closer to the coasts to conquer. Fairly late in the European settlement era white men finally arrived here, responding to two competing visions: of a virgin Paradise, waiting to be inhabited and farmed, and of beds of iron ore, waiting to be exploited.

Slowly settled by whites, only during the Revolutionary War did the 14th Colony reach the height of its worth to the other thirteen colonies, when its furnaces became the arsenal of the rebels, and its farms, their breadbasket.

Towards the end of its reign as the 14th Colony, the area was still very remote: Visitor Alexis de Tocqueville was amazed that he had to trek for a week to a rural backwater — Lenox — to meet one of America’s most famous artists, the Christian moralist/novelist, Catharine Sedgwick. A decade later, the telegraph and the railroads arrived in the area and put an end to isolation. But for a splendid century prior to that moment, the 14th Colony had been ungoverned and ungovernable; poor except in the quality of its people, natural resources, and faith; and self-reliant and prickly in its resistance to change: The icon of independence.

“A Hideous, Howling Wilderness”

Around 12,000 years ago, as the glaciers receded the first men and women appeared in the Valley; a granite quarry in Canaan has yielded evidence of them. But preferable as a more precise founding moment of the 14th Colony is the Battle of Big Wigwam, an event of which absolutely no traces have been found on site. Documents indicate that it took place in August of 1676, on the western bank of the Housatonic in what is now downtown Great Barrington.

It was the last battle of a faraway war. A renegade band of Narragansetts known as King Phillip’s men, after battles along the Connecticut shore of the Long Island Sound, retreated inland with the hope of losing their pursuers in the empty wilderness. In a reverse variation of the usual Indians-and-settlers story of the era, Major John Talcott’s militia tracked the renegades to the center of that wilderness, surprised them at Big Wigwam, and, in the words of an early history, “inflicted severe chastisement on them,” nearly wiping them out.

Other native peoples in the Ousatunnuck area being uninterested in combating the interlopers, the upper Valley was declared safe for colonization. But during the next fifty years, few whites rushed in. Surveying parties came and went, returning to their sponsors with negative reports: The area was too rocky and steep, with too little level land. Clearing acres for farms would require too much work. In 1694, a future president of Harvard, traveling from Boston to Albany to preach, slogged through what would later be Stockbridge and described the area as “a hideous, howling wilderness.”

Today, by trekking up to the Native American footpath on the ridgeline above the Housatonic, which we now call the Appalachian Trail, to a vantage point near the Great Falls of Falls Village, we can still see, virtually unchanged, what eventually attracted settlers: In all directions, soft, intensely-forested, low mountain slopes, garlanded with crystalline streams, awaiting exploration.

Next week, Part II: Tendrils of Settlement, extending into the Valley from all directions.

April 15 – 17, 2013: Lecturing at Georgia Tech on Eric Hoffer and the craft of writing

March 20, 2013, Noon: Lecture – Robert Boyle and the Exploration of the Country of ‘Frigor.’

Lecture for Huntington Library ‘brown bag’ series: Robert Boyle and the Exploration of the Country of ‘Frigor.’

Huntington Library, San Marino, California

American Iconoclast: The Life and Times of Eric Hoffer

American Iconoclast: The Life and Times of Eric Hoffer by Tom Shachtman“Excellent new biography …. [Hoffer’s] name has gradually faded from view. Yet, as his biographer points out, Hoffer continues to contribute insightful ideas and opinions to society, which is why we ought to look to his writings once again.” – The New Criterion, September 2012

Known as the longshoreman philosopher, Eric Hoffer was a beloved and controversial figure. Using Hoffer’s never-before-seen archives, this biography uncovers the steps by which an unschooled migrant field hand and dockworker created himself as an artist and thinker, relates how his background and occupations were reflected in his published works, and analyzes Hoffer’s books and articles and their impact on his times.

“As complete and masterful a biography as could be imagined, a great study of Hoffer, an American icon—provocative and stimulating. Shachtman also provides an interesting view of the period.” -Herbert S. Parmet, biographer of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon

”Eric Hoffer speaks with remarkable clarity to many of today’s most difficult questions. Tom Shachtman presents this visionary thinker and his ideas with page-turning style and thought-provoking insight. A long overdue rediscovery of the longshoreman philosopher by a fine writer.” -Walter W. Woodward, State Historian, Connecticut

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Rumspringa, To Be Or Not To Be Amish

Rumspringa by Tom Shachtman“Shachtman is like a maestro, masterfully conducting an orchestra of history, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and journalism together in a harmonious and evocative symphony of all things Amish.” – Christian Science Monitor. Now in paperback.                  

A favored title of book discussion groups, for dialogues on faith, morals, and the difficulty of raising teenagers.

Some additional excerpted reviews, below.

Publishers Weekly starred review: “Shachtman is a sensitive and nimble chronicler of Amish teens, devoting ample space to allowing them to tell their stories in their own words. Throughout, he uses the Amish rumspringa experience as a foil for understanding American adolescence and identity formation in general, and also contextualizes rumspringa throughout the rapidly growing and changing Amish world. This is not only one of the most absorbing books ever written about the Plain People, but a perceptive snapshot of the larger culture in which they live and move.”

“Writer, novelist, and documentarian Shachtman has created a fascinating and near-unprecedented glimpse into the inner lives of Amish society. High recommended.” Library Journal

“A riveting and instructive portrait,” Kirkus Reviews

“Mr. Shachtman’s wonderfully rich portrait and history of the Amish as a people and a faith helps to show why one of the strictest religious communities in America is better at holding a flock than some of the most liberal.” Wall Street Journal

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The Most Beautiful Villages of New England

The Most Beautiful Villages of New England by Tom Shachtman“This is one of the few ‘coffee table’ books I own. But it covers all the gems and must-see villages … and provides plenty of information on the history and architecture of each …. In the depth of a New England winter this is a book I take to bed with me and dream of spring.” — The New England Online Magazine.

Honored as the birthplace of the Revolution, the six states that comprise New England are home to some of this country’s most beautiful and cherished villages–places that preserve and reflect its architectural and cultural legacy. Here, in countless public squares and cemeteries, are monuments to the battles of the Revolution, and memorials to the heirs of the revolutionaries who themselves marched off to preserve the Union during the Civil War.

One of the most splendid repositories of American institutional architecture is found in New England’s public meeting halls and churches, and in the industrial mills and factories of the nineteenth century. The book also celebrates New England’s rich tradition of domestic architecture: seaside homes clad in weathered gray shingles, white clapboard houses surrounding village greens, and exuberant Victorian gingerbread homes. New England is justly famous for its succession of intensely realized seasons: its deep and snowy winter; its spring, which bursts forth in a cascade of melting snow and budding vegetation; its leafy, languid summer days; and, perhaps most famously, its autumn, when the landscape seems to be on fire with the vivid reds, oranges, and yellows of the foliage.

The Most Beautiful Villages of New England presents over twenty-five towns and villages, chosen for their beauty and history, and for their diverse geography. Here are the fishing villages and towns of New England’s rocky Atlantic Coast, from famous summer watering holes to isolated island hamlets. We explore farming villages and the highlands of New England’s mountain ranges–the Adirondacks, Berkshires, and Green Mountains. In the river valleys we find quiet, exquisitely preserved communities and renovated mill and factory towns.

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The Inarticulate Society

The Inarticulate Society: Eloquence and Culture in America by Tom Shachtman“A perceptive and disturbing book …. Our inability to use language articulately has consequences beyond aesthetics, says Shachtman. It threatens the survival of democracy ….. Loss of analytic capacity makes us easy prey for Big Brother and his Orwellian gang.” — Washington Post Book World

Originally published in 1995, THE INARTICULATE SOCIETY: ELOQUENCE AND CULTURE IN AMERICA has been reissued in paperback because of continued interest in the book and its subject — articulate behavior. As with RUMSPRINGA, it has become a favorite of book clubs seeking good topics for discussions. Here’s why, in a review from the American Library Association:

“People talk more and say less, and that summarizes Shachtman’s wide-ranging analysis of the verbal ineptitude that television so obviously fosters. But he doesn’t saddle the tube with sole responsibility for ineloquence. It more abets than causes the crisis, which emanates from deeper problems, such as the mass appetite for witless entertainment in talk shows, sitcoms, or action movies. Trenchant examples of disjointed, muddled speech overlay the scholarly linguistic theories that Shachtman explains, making this a rich warning about the ever-growing impoverishment of public rhetoric.”

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The Forty Years War

THE FORTY YEARS WAR, THE RISE AND FALL OF THE NEOCONS FROM NIXON TO OBAMA, by Len Colodny and Tom Shachtman. Now in paperback. “An eye-opening, provocative history of the neoconservative movement from its little-known role in Richard Nixon’s downfall through its ultimate expression in the preemptive war in Iraq.” — History Book Club News   

“Absorbing…a must read….illuminating and deeply provocative….The Forty Years War is a book that deserves to have a much higher public profile as Colodny and Shachtman are marshalling new evidence to challenge conventional interpretations of late Cold War political history and foreign policy. –

“[Colodny and Shachtman] tell the story from Nixon to now, and they do it in meticulous and interesting detail.” –Chicago Sun-Times

“A rigorous and critical examination of the neoconservative movement and the bureaucratic, ideological battles over American foreign policy from 1969 to 2009.…[A] captivating chronicle. Highly recommended.” – Library Journal

“A well-reported, fast-paced history lesson on the eternal conflict between ideologues and policymakers and the hubris that always accompanies success.” – Kirkus Reviews

Len Colodny and I were the featured guests at the Washington, D.C., World Affairs Council on January 7, 2010 in a ninety-minute discussion taped by C-Span. First shown on January 31, 2010,it is now available on their website. We are pleased that more than 3,000 people have since looked at excepts of the program on the C-Span Book TV website or downloaded the video.

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March 1, 2013: Speaking at a Huntington Library conference

Conference on Sacred and Secular Revolutions, regarding ‘Science of the Founding Fathers.’

Huntington Library, San Marino, California

December 3, 2012: Lecture at Rutgers Newark on ‘Dreaming Tall and Building Real.’

Co-sponsored by Rutgers Department of Economics and the Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies. More information to follow.