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When researching towns in the Northeast, one finds that tracking history is like following a river or creek back to its source. The farther one goes back, the more the history tracks to earlier settlements and towns. This is apropos regarding Whately, because it lies on the western bank of the Connecticut River.

In the case of Whately, it began as a part of Hatfield (1672) Massachusetts, and stayed a part thereof for one hundred years. Whately officially came into existence in 1771, according to some reports. It was named for Thomas Whately at the request of Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts. Whately was a member of Parliament and has been credited with authorship of Present State of the Nation and The Controversy between Great Britain and her Colonies.1

Whately was also an author of Observations on Modern Gardening, with illustrations that provided a comprehensive understanding of the theory and practice of English landscape gardening. And it is interesting to note that Thomas Jefferson has Whately’s book in his library at Monticello, and it was this book that provided Jefferson guidance in planning his gardens at Monticello because it was a precise guide to the English garden of the day.

Prior to settlement by the newly arrived Americans, the Norwottuck Indians, a branch of the Nipnett and Nipmuck tribes known as the River Indians or Fresh Water Indians by the settlers, exerted a relationship with the land and resources. No distinct ownership to a real tract of land existed because the area could be claimed by any of the three tribal leaders: Chief Chickwallop, Chief Umpanchala, or Chief Sagamore Quonquont.2

Although Whately seemed to be within Chief Quonquont’s ancestral lands, by 1675, the last fortified Native American villages and forts had ceased to exist as New England settlers moved in and began to farm the land along the Connecticut River.

The native Indians sold their land with the expectation that they were the gainers because they could still hunt, fish, and move into other areas not yet claimed by settlers. The tribes could move onto a piece of land, then sell it and move on; so it was a bargain for them because they viewed their hunting and fishing rights as the true value in the area, and that was still available to them. Migration to areas of greater abundance and away from potential enemies explained much of the behavior of the native tribes.

The local tribes also viewed the settlers as an ally against the Mohawks, whom they feared. The Mohawks were waging a war of extinction against these lesser tribes.

Due to this threat, the native Indians were willing to sell to Major John Pynchon of Springfield. Imagine a time when land could be purchased with wampum3 (seashells made into colored beads), goods, and in some cases, silver. In 1658 and through 1660, the surrounding lands for Hatfield, Hadley, and Whately, were added to the purchases in 1672 from the widow of Chief Quonquont, Sarah, his son, Pocunohouse, his daughter Majesset, and two others who signed the deeds. This deed still exists.

The price paid was fifty fathoms of wampumpeag. The native Indians reserved the right of hunting, fowling, and fishing on the land they had sold, so in their mind, they were not giving up anything of value because the value of land was in what it could naturally yield. They also had the right to take the walnut and white ash trees they needed to make baskets and brooms.

Many of the early settlers in this area came as a result of a split over church doctrine, where no agreement could be reached with regard to infant baptism. One group held that infants that died unbaptized “were lost forever” (It is hard to imagine this kind of religious fortitude today.).

The second group, the more liberal membership, believed if a child dies prior to reaching an age of moral accountability and was in an unbaptized state, it would still be saved. This argument was not unique to this area but was ubiquitous across New England. As such, it led to migrations of church-goers seeking to worship with similar-believing congregations. Hadley, Hatfield, and consequently, Whately, were opponents of the more liberal approach to baptism beliefs.


The effects religion and beliefs had on the development of the nation are attested to by the many documents stored within New England Town Hall Vital Records Vaults. In many communities, the record-keeping began with the local Congregational Church, who stored birth, death, marriage, and baptism records. Over the years, most of these records have moved to the Town Hall Vault for better preservation and protection.

In Whately; the remaining church is the Second Congregational Church, which was built in 1842—but the community’s first church was the First Congregational Church formed in 1771. A schism caused a split between the first and second churches but that separation no longer exists. As in the earliest days, the opposition was due to the liberal versus traditional tenants of the religion.

The early inhabitants were given 8 acres in many cases for families and 4 acres for young single men. Therefore, the early settlers were tied to this land and it was a premise that was the bedrock of America’s success.  

Ownership of land was permanently granted with absolute tenure of the estate, with the freedom to dispose of it as will (a freehold tenure) in perpetuity. Therefore, each new inhabitant was equal in stature and a vital part of the fabric of the community. The land itself granted independence to the early settlers. It is easy to see why this land ownership was so vital to the early founders. Ownership granted each member of society independence, a source of capital, and a say in how their community was governed. The land was, in fact, the grantor of equality to its settlers. This real property could not be separated from the owner unless it was his or her decision to do so.

This property provided the means to raise and educate a family and worship as they determined by their own beliefs. It is no wonder Americans loved their land, because all of their rights emanated from this property.

Consequently, the Town Hall and the Vital Records protection of these deeds and associated ownership were the most valuable of all governing programs in the earliest days.

Education was of vital importance to the settlers and a law was passed in 1642 to keep children from being neglected in “learning and labor,” so knowledge of the Scriptures would not be neglected and children would be taught useful skills vital to a growing community. Just five years later, in 1647, laws required towns of 50 or more families to provide a school where children could learn to read and write.

Consequently, it is not unusual to come across a New England Primer or Hornbook in a tour of a New England Town Vault.

Below is an example of a primer for “abecedarians” for memorizing the alphabet. In 1650, it is estimated that 60% of the population was literate. 


While the Primer was in fact a book, the Hornbook (below) was more rightly described as a wooden paddle on which was mounted a piece of vellum or paper upon which the lesson was inscribed. The name derives from the piece of translucent horn that covered the page to protect it from rough handling. 


The earliest desire of our founders was the ability to read, because freedom of the press is useless without a literate audience. Early Americans had a strong interest in the ability to read. This was also critical for signing legal documents, and this relates back to land ownership and proof of ownership in public records. As long as these land records existed, no man could be deprived of his rightful ownership of his land.

Trade at this time was in the form of barter or “in kind” trading. Taxes were paid in grain and the support of the church was primarily done in wheat. These 8-acre tracts were devoted to raising a few cows, a few sheep, and pigs. Record-keeping on such trade was vital. Proving your taxes were paid and that you supported the church was important to the settlers.

Communication outside of this community was limited, and letter writing was the primary means of communicating with friends and family—often it was the woman of the family that was the letter writer and scribe for the family, as is often true of agrarian families.

One can see from the distinct history of Whately how important the early documents were to the settlers. This respect for their documents, their written land deeds, and church records, attests to the unique history of America, where its settlers were given or sold land that was now theirs in perpetuity. Their wealth and their freedom emanated from this land.

The Town Hall has always stored and protected these records. While Whately now has the latest technology for protecting all types of written documents on paper and parchment, as well as the latest computer records, photographs, and history itself; the tradition is bedrock in Massachusetts beliefs.

The wealth and status of a landowner and citizen all track back to the earlier American Town Halls and their unique charge to protect the foundation of our liberty and happiness.


Prepared for the Town Clerk in Whately, MA, by FIRELOCK®