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Westfield: Four Generations in the 1700s

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

Thomas, the eldest son of John and Mary remains in Westfield and marries Hannah Randall. They have three sons: Gideon (who dies at 1½ years of age), Moses, and Reuben. The second son of John and Mary, Captain John Gunn, appears to have been quite a personage. He marries Elizabeth Moseley in December 1709 and they may have had a son, Reuben, though the Westfield vital records say they had no children. According to Westfield baptismal records, Capt. John held slaves. On May 26, 1728 Coffee Primey is baptised. This is “a child of negro servants of Ensign John Gunn.” There are two other similar entries: Geney, described simply as “negro” on March 25, 1733, and Prince, a “servant of Capt. Jno Gunn,” on November 23, 1735. [1]. Capt. John Gunn’s gravestone in the Old Cemetery of Mechanic Street reads:

Here lies Interr’d The Body of Capt John Gun who departed this life April the 26, 1748 in the 66th year of his age.[2]

John and Mary’s daughter Mary will have seven children by Samuel Root, a cousin of Captain John Ashley who (along with his son Colonel John Ashley) will play a leading role in the political and military events that will unfold in the 1700s. The complex intertwining of family lines that characterizes the relationships of the first generations of New England inhabitants must have created a special sense of cohesion and loyalty among extended family groups. One of Samuel Root’s nieces, for example, will marry Aaron, the fourth son of John and Mary and the brother of Samuel Root’s wife.

John and Mary’s third son, Daniel, marries Hester Griswold on the 14th of October, 1712. Hester is the daughter of Thomas Griswold and Hester Drake, two of the founding families of Windsor. Edward Griswold in his work “The Griswold Family” says that the [Gunn] family was substantial. John Sr., father of Daniel, and Capt. John, Daniel’s brother, were especially well-considered, serving in many offices of trust. Daniel, however, is not mentioned in any important records and disappears from the records after the birth of his last child in 1730, evidently having moved away from Westfield. In the will of his brother John, dated January 19, 1747, Daniel is named as legatee of a Great Bible. That is the last we hear of him (or the Bible). The date of death of Danield is unknown, but he and his wife probably both died in Sheffield.[3]. Griswold, 72] Daniel and Hester have five children: Hester, Azubah, Mary, Alexander and Daniel Jr.

Daniel Gunn and Hester Griswold Children: Hester, 1713 Azubah, 1716 Mary, 1719 Alexander, 1726 Daniel, 1730

Aaron, the fourth son of John and Mary, will marry Esther Dewey. She is a niece of Samuel Root and a second cousin of Captain John Ashley who will be a member of the original settling committee for Sheffield and the father of Colonel John Ashley, under whom several members of the Gunn family will serve during the Revolution. It is, in fact, Captain John Ashley who performs the marriage ceremony for Aaron and Esther in Westfield on the 4th of February, 1719. Aaron and Esther have five children: Aaron, Ann, John, Stephen, and Rhoda.

We know little about Aaron and Esther’s children. Stephen will become a Captain in the militia, will marry Eleanor Ingersoll in Great Barrington in 1751 and have six children, and the family will settle in Sheffield. Daughter Ann dies young, at the age of 13 in the winter of 1735. Her gravestone in Westfield’s Mechanic Street Cemetery reads

Here lieth ye Body of Ann Gunn Ye daughter of Aaron Gunn who died Janawary Ye 2d 1734-5 in Ye 13th year of her age.

In 1733 the town of Sheffield, directly west in the Housatonic River valley, was incorporated and two years later a road was laid out linking the two towns. This will be a critical event for the grandchildren of John and Mary, some of whom will pick up and move to this new settlement. Perhaps this migration, again, was precipitated by the perception of overcrowding. By mid-century Westfield would have over 150 families, a population of about 1100. To put this in perspective, in 1750 the entire state of Massachusetts had 188,000 inhabitants, an increase of over 1100% in just a century.[4]

Frontier hostilities again broke out in the 1740s during King George’s War, and in 1745 the Massachusetts colonials enthusiastically mounted a four-thousand-man attack on the French stronghold of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, which guarded the Gulf of St. Lawrence. After a fifty-day cannonade that dropped nine thousand cannonballs on the fort, the French surrendered.

The French and Indian War - 1754 The French and Indian War erupts as a result of disputes over land in the Ohio River Valley. In May, George Washington leads a small group of American colonists to victory over the French, then builds Fort Necessity in the Ohio territory. In July, after being attacked by numerically superior French forces, Washington surrenders the fort and retreats.

What in Europe was called the Seven Years War was fought largely in North America specifically to determine the dominance there of England or France. Westfield supplied soldiers for the English during this war, and on the 8th of September 1755, three Westfield men, Capt. Jonathan Ingersol, Major Noah Ashley, and Richard Campbell of the Crown Point expedition were killed at the Battle of Lake George, New York.

Some Westfield men may have been members of Roger’s Rangers, made up of colonial troops raised in 1755 to support the British army. Their headquarters was at Fort William Henry on Lake George, and Roger’s Rangers did, indeed, make a reconnaissance patrol to the French Fort at Crown Point. In 1755 Major Robert Rogers and a few men departed by night, paddled up the lake to a convenient place, hid the canoe, and pushed on overland through the forest, penetrating the sentry lines of the enemy. At Crown Point his men, under cover of night, concealed themselves in the willows only three hundred yards from the French fort. They were soon discovered and managed to escape.

The battle in which the Westfield men died happened this way. The British General Braddock had chosen William Johnson to lead an expedition against the French at Crown Point. He was one of the most important men in the colonies because of his close relationship with the Mohawks of the Five Nations. Johnson raised an army of about three thousand volunteers from New York and New England, plus about five hundred Mohawks. Except for a few experienced officers, his army was made up of farmers and craftsmen who had never been in combat.

Johnson gathered his army at Albany, New York, and then moved up the Hudson River, both in boats and along the shore, to the point about 50 miles north of Albany, where he began construction of Fort Edward. He left five hundred men to staff the fort and moved the rest of his 1500 man army to a campsite near the southern shore of Lake George. At the same time a large French force was crossing Lake Champlain for Crown Point. Baron Ludwig August Dieskau, a German in French service was the commander. Dieskau’s army of 3200 men, consisted of French regulars, Caughnawaga and Abenaki.

Johnson was moving northward in stages, guarding well his lines of supply and retreat. Soon, Johnson’s Mohawk scouts discovered enemy tracks in the woods around Fort Edward. Thinking the enemy force small he ordered Colonel Ephraim Williams to lead a detachment, locate the French camp, and destroy it. Old Hendrick, the Mohawk Chief, attempted to dissuade Johnson because his warriors said there were many more in the enemy force than Johnson realized. But Johnson persisted, and Old Hendrick finally agreed. So it was that at dawn on September 8, 1755, the detachment left camp. Within an hour a scout had informed Dieskau of the advance, and with this news he set an ambush on the road north of Fort Edward, and waited.

Near mid morning, Colonel Williams and Old Hendricks, leading the column, rounded a bend in the road. Suddenly, a volley of musket balls tore into the column from both sides of the road. Many were killed, including Williams and Old Hendrick. The rest soon fell back in panic and retreated toward the main encampment. Fortunately, Dieskau was unable to follow up on the ambush, due to fighting among his Indian allies, almost an hour was lost before his army could move on the English.

The French and Indians attacked from the woods on either side of the English camp. French regulars were in front, facing the barricade in three long lines, one behind the other. They began to fire by the column, the first line firing and then kneeling to reload so the second line could fire, then the second line kneeling to allow the third to fire. In this way, they could keep up a continuous fire. But this was a standard European formation which was not well suited to the circumstances of the New World, and the Americans were good with their muskets, as the British infantry would learn twenty years later.

Dieskau was shot in the knee and fell, and before he could rise he was hit twice again. With Dieskau down, and the Indians out of the fight, the French regulars began to falter. Johnson’s officers took advantage of this with a charge. The colonials leaped the barricade and ran forward. Now the fighting was hand to hand, men went at each other with tomahawks, knives, and bayonets. The French regulars soon broke and ran.

Two years later in the first week of July 1757, French troops from St. Jean departed for an assault on Fort William Henry, which Johnson had just recently built. In addition to the regulars, the army consisted of nearly one thousand men of La Marine, a three hundred man unit known as Villiers’ Volunteers, twenty-five hundred Canadians and eighteen hundred Indians. Also there were two companies of artillery, one company of workmen, and the artillery train. The body of Indians were made up of warriors from some of the western nations of Ottawa, Menomonee, Sauk (Winnabagos and Wichitas ), Potawatomies and Fox. This army was under the command of the Marquis de Montcalm.

Colonel Parker, of The Jersey Blues, left Fort William Henry July 23rd with a force made up of 350 men, 5 captains, 4 lieutenants, and an ensign in 22 barges, two of which were under sail. He was to meet and block the French assault. But the venture was a disaster and nearly everyone was either captured or killed.

By the morning of August 4th, French forces numbering 2500 surrounded Fort William Henry. The main thrust of the siege was directed on the north side of the fort, with two artillery batteries. In response, the English worked on building a second defense inside the first, getting water in and removing the shingle roofs from their barracks and storehouses, and throwing combustible items into the lake. By August 9th the French trench works had progressed to such a point as to make defense of Fort William Henry no longer viable, so the garrison surrendered.

However, the night of the surrender, the Native warriors butchered the sick and wounded in the hospital tents. By morning the English were fearful of being massacred and were in a rush to leave, even before the French escort was ready. The troops marched out of the works on the morning of the 10th, and were immediately attacked by a large party of Natives. Unarmed men, women and children were murdered in cold blood. Though the French officers endeavored in vain to stop the terrible attack, they only managed to regain about 400 of the English and the massacre continued until the English had proceeded half way to Fort Edward where they were met by an escort of 500 men sent out for their protection.

In July 1758 another devastating defeat occurred for English forces at Lake George, New York, as nearly two thousand men are lost during a frontal attack against well entrenched French forces at Fort Ticonderoga. French losses are 377. But in November the French abandon Fort Duquesne in the Ohio territory and English settlers rush in to establish homes.

Were any of the grandsons of Thomas involved directly in these terrible events? We may never know the answer, but clearly these were precarious and dangerous times, especially for those living on the exposed frontier facing desperate and brutal enemies. Though loyal to the English during the French and Indian War, as time went by the general sentiment of these New England colonials was turning against the English.

In 1763 the French and Indian War ends with the Treaty of Paris. Under the treaty, France gives England all French territory east of the Mississippi River, except New Orleans. The Spanish give up east and west Florida to the English in return for Cuba. In 1760 the population of colonists in America reaches 1,500,000. Population pressure and the opening of territory west of the Hudson River all the way to the Mississippi will have an enormous impact on the pattern of settlement during the next 100 years.

Westward to the Housatonic River Valley The movement to the west had already begun before the middle of the 1700s. The next attractive river valley west of the Connecticut River was the Housatonic, a smaller river that runs south from Vermont through Massachusetts and Connecticut, just east of the New York border, and empties into Long Island Sound at Stratford.

Major Talcot's fight with the Indians is one the earliest historical events to occur in this part of the country. In August 1676, at the end of King Philip's war, Maj. John Talcot, who had been stationed at Westfield with a body of troops, pursued a party of fugitive Indians to the banks of the Housatonic where they overtook them and inflicted a severe defeat upon them. Twenty-five of the 200 or so Natives were killed and 20 were taken prisoner. This event apparently happened just north of Sheffield. It’s not known if any of the residents of Westfield participated in the pursuit.[5].

In 1722 Massachusetts authorized the establishment of two townships, the Upper and Lower Housatonic Townships, each seven miles square, running north through the Housatonic River Valley from the Connecticut border. Captain John Ashlely of Westfield was named a member of the committee authorized to admit settlers and to grant lots in this new frontier. The committee was to choose one hundred and twenty petitioners who they considered to be the most likely to found a permanent settlement. Those selected would have no more than three years to build and occupy a home and to cultivate at least 12 acres of land. For each hundred acres assigned, the grantee would pay thirty shillings, which in part would be used to pay the Natives for their land.[6]

In 1724, Konkapot, the sachem of the Mahicans, and twenty other Natives deeded to the settling committee a tract of land extending from four miles east of the Housatonic River westward to the colony of New York. The agreed price was £460, three barrels of cider, and thirty quarts of rum.[7]

Matthew Noble of Westfield was the first to cross the Berkshire mountains to explore this new territory. He was about fifty-seven years old when he came to the Lower Housatonic in the fall of 1725. Finding the Natives friendly, he spent the winter with them and returned to Westfield in the spring to make a report. He went back to the Housatonic again in June, accompanied by his daughter, Hannah (carrying her featherbed with her on horseback). Later, Matthew was joined by his six sons and two remaining daughters (including Hester, whose daughter would marry Daniel Gunn Jr).

By May of 1727 many people were said to be settled upon land along the Housatonic where Sheffield, Great Barrington and Pittsfield are located. At this point, the Dutch filed a complaint claiming prior rights to the land. This conflict between the Dutch of the New York colony and the English of Massachusetts would continue for some years. As a consequence, a half dozen years passed before encouragement was again given for more settlers to move in. In 1733 the House of Representatives ordered John Ashley, Ebenezer Pomeroy and Thomas Ingersoll to form a committee and “bring forward a settlement of ye uper Township att Housatunnock.”[8]

It’s not certain when the brothers Alexander and Daniel, and their cousin Capt. Stephen Gunn left Westfield to settle in a new township in the Lower Housatonic called Sheffield, but it was sometime shortly after 1734. In fact it appears certain that Daniel Sr, his wife Hester, and their three youngest children-—Mary, Daniel Jr, and Alexander-—are among the first to arrive in the new settlement. Records show that Mary Gunn weds Capt. David Whitney in Sheffield in September of 1739.

Sheffield in 1741 extended from the northern boundary of Connecticut 10 miles up to a line crossing the Housatonic River at a place that became Great Barrington.[9] Sheffield was what had been referred to in records as the Lower Township. The Upper Township contained Great Barrington and Pittsfield.

Alexander and Daniel Jr, the sons of Daniel Gunn, along with their cousin, Stephen, a son of Aaron Gunn, and Reuben, son of Thomas II, soon marry the daughters of other settlers of the Housatonic. Alexander marries Elizabeth Owen in Sheffield in 1751 and Stephen marries Eleanor Ingersoll in Great Barrington in the same year. Daniel marries Esther King in Great Barrington about 1753, and in 1756 Reuben marries Mercy Stiles in Pittsfield. Moreover, we know of another Gunn in the area. He is also named Reuben and was possibly a son of Captain John Gunn, which would make him a 2nd cousin of these four men; he dies in Pittsfield sometime after 1765. Alexander has six children born in Sheffield, Daniel five, and Stephen six. So, there is a sizable clan of Gunns living in Sheffield for at least three decades, until after the Revolutionary War.

John Ashley, the son of Captain John Ashley, became a prominent citizen of Sheffield. He graduated from Yale in 1730 and held a number of important posts in the community, including justice of the peace. He was later to become a Colonel in the South Hampshire Regiment of the state militia. His “Justice Docket 1772” shows the sort of problems brought before him by the people of Sheffield. There were complaints of physical violence and quarreling, of theft and cattle rustling, and the case of a young lady who on 20 May 1784 appeared before him with her family: "Then many Gunns appeared and made solemn oath that she was pregnant with a bastard child begotten on her body by Theoffilus Jhide begotten in the month of August last ….” [This document is preserved in the Sheffield library, and a copy is held in the Sheffield Genealogical Society.] It’s not known how that case was decided, but the young lady in question was Mary Gunn, the daughter of Alexander. It may be that it was this same Mary and Reuben Callender who filed marriage intentions in Sheffield on 3 March 1790.

Rumors of an impending attack by Natives, referred to as the “Great Alarm,” spread panic along the Housatonic valley in September 1754. Ashley, then a Captain, led his troops to the defense of Stockbridge and Pontoosick (Pittsfield). But only two Natives were ever sighted and the valley would never again be invaded. Later, during the time of the French and Indian Wars, Sheffield contributed men to the militia. A number of citizens built fortified homes, but there is no evidence the village was ever in danger.

The first town meeting at Pittsfield was held in 1761, at which 3 selectmen were elected and men were named to various other posts: a constable, 2 wardens, 2 fence-viewers, and 2 deer-reeves. One of the two deer-reeves was Reuben Gunn, almost certainly the son of Thomas Gunn II of Westfield.[10]. History of Pittsfield, Pittsfield website:] He married Mercy Stiles, his 2nd wife, in Pittsfield on 6 May 1756 and died there sometime after 1765. The births and baptism of his 5 children by Mercy are all recorded in Westfield records. Actually, it’s not clear if the family actually lived in Pittsfield or not. Settlers did not begin living there until 1752.[11]

Small numbers of Europeans from the Hudson River Valley had moved into the Sheffield area late in the final quarter of the 17th century. Black settlers were not uncommon, many freed or escaped slaves from the Dutch but probably also some from the English colonies. By far the largest group, though, were 3rd and 4th generation English settlers from Westfield beginning in the 1720s. “Sheffield” was a name given by this last group to the entire area in the southwest corner of Massachusetts, parts of which were later separated into other towns, including Stockbridge and Great Barrington.[12]

The agricultural land available in the narrow Housatonic Valley limited the size of the farms. They tended to be relatively small and not usually productive enough for growing cash crops. In 1771, the largest of these farms had only 50 cultivated acres.[13] It was a property of John Ashley, who employed three teams each of oxen and horses in its operation, animals in numbers no other farmer in town could claim to own. But Ashley’s 50 cultivated acres were an extraordinarily high exception and some families tilled as few as one or two, their remaining acreage typically divided among woods lots, orchards, hay fields, pastures and kitchen gardens. Daniel and Esther Gunn’s farm of 88 acres exemplified this division of land usage with 20 of them in grains and the remainder given over to the other uses just mentioned.[14]

The first settlers found some open meadow lands along the Housatonic River, but most of the tillable soil was created out of the surrounding forest. They often started out with small, cultivated patches interspersed with girdled trees, later they would be chopped down and burned to clear more land for agriculture. The men spent their days chopping, burning and dragging stone in order to clear land. But by 1765 the best land was taken and the farms of Sheffield supported 172 families, 125 houses, and a total population of 1,073.[15]

The animals they kept served multiple purposes. The chickens, turkey, ducks and geese ate the destructive grasshopper and other harmful insects in addition to supplying eggs, feathers, and meat. Pigs ate farm and family refuse, and also supplied hides and meat. Cows and goats supplied milk, butter, cheese, hides, and meat; and in addition to meat and hides the sheep supplied fiber to make cloth. Goats and sheep were the most common animals (in 1771 there were 1,701 in Sheffield). Pigs were the next most numerous (528), then cows (500), horses (320) and oxen (304). The free-roaming pigs were particularly important, and every family had at least two or three.[16]

Apple trees were planted everywhere and by the 1770s they stretched along the river on both sides for 40 miles between Sheffield and Kent.[17] No family was without its supply of apples, which stored well through the winter, could be dried and preserved, and made into the ever-present cider. The town produced 423 barrels of cider in 1771.

Hay was produced on every farm and its harvest was done manually and was very labor intensive. Once the hay harvest was done, farmers turned to harvesting oats, rye, wheat, corn and potatoes (the latter came to America late, but was produced in Sheffield by the 1760s). It was rumored to have aphrodisiac qualities and was not mentioned in the Bible, so it was regarded with suspicion and somewhat shunned by many of these descendants of puritans (as was the tomato).[18]

Plowing was usually done by oxen. It was hard and slow work, so only about an acre could be plowed in a day. Those who did not have draft animals, might arrange the use of a neighbor’s in exchange for labor or some product. Most farming implements were made of wood, and even plows did not always have an iron tip.[19]

The organization of the farm family continued as it had always been. The responsibilities of the wife and female children extended from the hearth, kitchen and house to the garden and farmyard. This was their domain, and it included care of the smaller farm animals. They attended to all household chores—-cooking, cleaning (including making soap), sewing, spinning fibers and weaving, washing and repairing clothing, making butter and cheese, gardening, and caring for the fowl and pigs in the farmyard (including their slaughter). The men of the family were responsible for the larger animals, and they labored mostly in the orchards, fields and woods beyond the farmyard. They planted and harvested crops, cared for fruit trees, built and maintained tools and fences, and prepared the winter’s wood supply (a family might require 20 cords, cut by axe alone). If the farm itself did not supply adequate meat for the family diet, the men also hunted. The one activity which was often the responsibility of both sexes was milking the cows and goats.[20]

Very few cooking utensils were available for cooking, sometimes only a “dinner pot, a dish kettle, a tea kettle, a frying pan, and a bake kettle,” but often not even all of these.[21] In some households the most expensive objects were the pots and kettles.[22] The only items for cooking owned by Esther Gunn in 1763 were an iron skillet and two iron pots.[23]

Up until the Westfield migrants started coming, the main trail to the outside world from Sheffield went west to Kinderhook, New York. The main route into Sheffield following its incorporation in 1733 was from Westfield. It came into use in 1735, but it was clearly more of a path through the woods than a road.[24] The “proprietors” of the new road were quite proud that “whereas, before it was very difficult for anybody, and to strangers almost impossible … to find the way, now by our having marked a sufficient number of trees … an entire stranger cannot easily miss it.” In other words, this was simply a footpath, with no bridges, drainage, grading or improvements of any kind. Walking was, in fact, the mode of transportation used by most people, so a footpath was apparently adequate. Few people could afford the luxury of a horse. We know that as late as 1771 there were only 320 horses in Sheffield for a population of about 1500.[25]


1. Westfield Genealogical Records Series, Baptisms, 1679-1836, Vol. 2, Part 1.

2. Westfield Genealogical Records Series, Vol 7: A List of Gravestone in the Mechanic Street Cemetery Westfield Ma, 1939. Westfield Athenaeum, Westfield, MA, 1939.

3. Griswold, 72

4. See Estimated Population of American Colonies at

5. The History of Great Barrington, 1880.

6. Preiss, 11-12.

7. Preiss, 12.

8. Preiss, 15.

9. Preiss, 17.

10. History of Pittsfield, Pittsfield website:

11. See History of Pittsfield, Vol I - in Google Books.

12. Miller, James R. Early Life in Sheffield, Berkshire County, Massachusetts (Sheffield Historical Society, 2002) p 11.

13. Miller, 15.

14. Miller, 15 from Gunn family file, estate inventory of Daniel Gunn. Pruitt, Bettye Hobbs, editor, The Massachusetts Tax Valuation List of 1771, pp. 472-479.

15. Miller, 19-20.

16. Miller, 17.

17. Miller, 18.

18. Miller, 18-19.

19. Miller, 19.

20. Miller, 19.

21. Beers, 62.

22. Earle, Home Life in Colonial Days, p 56.

23. Berkshire County Probate Records, Daniel Gunn Jr., inventory, p. 772.

24. Earle, 51.

25. Earle, 52.

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