Note: The Porter-Phelps-Huntington Papers are now located at UMass Amherst.
Reference inquiries from alumni during Reunions can lead to some pretty deep dives in our archival collections. This spring I had an opportunity to dig into a narrow but significant slice of early American history represented in the Amherst College archives – Shays’ Rebellion, a local conflict which began 231 years ago this summer.
Shays’ Rebellion exemplifies the fierce reaction to the economic instability of rural America just after the American Revolution. As commerce grew after the end of the Revolutionary War, the informal system of exchange employed by farmers and merchants in Massachusetts was no longer viable. Merchants were in need of money in order to carry weight in foreign trade but farmers were unable to pay their debts. The Court of Common Pleas moved to allow creditors to call in debts.
This, coupled with higher taxes imposed by the state legislature, pushed the farmers to their limits. By the fall of 1786 Daniel Shays led a band of fellow farmers in protest. Calling themselves “regulators,” the Shaysites’ attempts to shut down the courts in Springfield and Northampton (and other cities across Massachusetts) put pressure on the government to provide relief. As citizens mobilized, Governor Bowdoin, the state legislature, and the Confederation Congress deliberated as to how to respond.
This story has been told time and again. Because it is so prominent in the archival record it is easy to overlook the local perspective – the experience of those who witnessed these events so close to home.
One such witness was Elizabeth Porter Phelps (1747-1817), who owned the “Forty Acres” farm in Hadley, Massachusetts, at the time. The farm survives today as the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum, documenting six generations of the same family who lived and worked at the farm from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century. Even more remarkable is the fact that ownership of the farm passed through the female line for the first three generations of its existence.
Elizabeth’s meticulously-kept diary is a glimpse into rural life in Colonial America and the Early Republic. She kept her diary from the 1760s through the 1810s. Her entries are brief but are in no way dull. She documented visitors, the comings and goings of family members, illness and death, farm work, and her religious views. She also recorded events touching her world that would have a greater impact on American history – including Shays’ Rebellion. Elizabeth’s diary shows a woman grappling with the larger consequences of civil unrest and military action while personally feeling the impact very close to home.
Elizabeth’s first entry concerning Shays’ Rebellion is from September 24, 1786. The entry reflects the confusion of the moment. Her observation shows the region heavily divided – divisions that lay along economic lines. More successful farmers and wealthier inhabitants of the region worried that the civil unrest could expand and put the new nation at risk.
“Monday my Husband set out for Springfield – publick affairs seem to be in a confused situation. many are gone to prevent the sitting of the Court and many are gone to uphold the Court. O Lord bring order out of Disorder – thou canst effect it – we trust in allmighty power.”
“Thursday [December 14] Thanksgiving day. Coll’l Porter read an Address from the General Court to all the People in this common Wealth. There has been a great deal of Disturbance of late among the people, how it will tirminate God only knows. I desire to make it my earnest prayer to be fitted for events and prepared for Duty.”
In her entry for January 14, 1787, Elizabeth describes her husband, Charles Phelps, Jr., helping those in support of the government.
“Jan 14. Thursday Morn my Husband set out with sleighs to help the men to Springfield which are raised in this town for the support of the Government … it Looks as Dark as Night, a very great Army is coming from toward Boston and some are Collecting upon the other side. It appears as if nothing but the imediate interposition of providence could prevent it …”
From September 1786 on, Governor Bowdoin increased the militia presence across the state. As the regulators increased activity, it became clear to the governor that even more military pressure was necessary. In January 1787, Bowdoin mobilized over 4,000 militiamen in the Boston area. Elizabeth mentions “some [troops] Collecting upon the other side” – referring to government forces gathering in Hampshire and Berkshire counties.
“Jan. 21. Sun. Mr. Hop. pr 1st Chron. 4 and 9. Spoke very well upon the present dark Day. … Last Thursday the mob attempted to march into Springfield the Government fired the cannon Killed four.”
Elizabeth often recorded church attendance and the Bible verses highlighted in the service. During this period she seems to connect the substance of the sermons to the events of the day. This entry marks clashes between between state militia and regulators around the Springfield Armory.
And in spite of the violence, there is excitement over an encampment being stationed so close to home in Hadley:
“Jan. 28. Sun. Mr. Hop. pr Proverbs 19, 21. There are many Devices in the Heart of man but the Counsel of the Lord that shall stand – This has been a confused day, the Mob in a large Body at Northampton – another party at Amherst – what will be the event none can tell – we hope in Gods mercy – Just as Dusk my Husband got home. Monday Gen. Lyncoln came into Hadley with about three Thousand men. Tuesday Mr. Phelps carried the children into town to see ‘em.”
This is the “very great Army” mentioned on January 14. “Gen. Lyncoln” refers to Benjamin Lincoln, one of George Washington’s commanding officers during the Revolutionary War. A Massachusetts native, Lincoln was commander of the Southern department during the war. Afterwards, Lincoln participated in Massachusetts civic life, including serving a term as the lieutenant governor of the Commonwealth. Military encampments were a fact of life in late 18th century America, bustling not only with soldiers but also civilians – who saw the encampment as entertainment and as an economic opportunity.
In one of Elizabeth’s last entries concerning the rebellion, she describes attending the funeral of “one Walker Killed by the Insurgents”. The Walker in question was Jacob Walker, killed near Petersham. The regulators had decamped for Petersham, and the government forces soon followed. Walker was shot in an attempt to capture Jason Parmenter, a regulator who had fled to Vermont in the final conflict.
“Feb. 18. … Wednesday went to Hatfield to the Funeral of one Walker Killed by the Insurgents. Mr. Williams of Northampton made the first prayer. Mr. Wells of Whately preached Matt. 24 and 44. By ye also ready for at such an hour as ye think not, the son of man cometh – he was buried with the Honours of War …”
That Walker was buried with the “Honours of War” indicates how precarious the situation was to those living it. All of America was paying attention, unsure if Shays’ Rebellion could lead to a larger conflict that would disrupt the future of the new nation.
Elizabeth’s diary is part of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers, on deposit at the Amherst College Archives from the Porter-Phelps-Huntington House Museum. The papers cover roughly 300 years of the family’s history, including correspondence, journals, and financial records.