Colrain, Massachusetts …where, in 1812, the American flag first was raised over a schoolhouse
A surveillance camera on land of the Hall Tavern Farm in Charlemont has recently documented the passage of a mountain lion on the southern side of Catamount Hill. Tradition credits this species–also known as “cat of the mountain”–as the origin of the name given to this area of rugged terrain straddling the towns of Charlemont, Heath, and Colrain. It was thought that this animal sheltered in caves located there. The scientific name for a mountain lion is Puma concolor, but it is also known as cougar and panther. It is unlikely these that mountain lions ever sheltered in the Catamount caves for long; they are not creatures that settle in, but roam constantly over a wide range. It is much more likely that the human settlers who came to Catamount Hill beginning around 1780 found instead the ancestors of today’s porcupines in residence there.
Some of the earliest humans to settle on the Hill were soldiers released from the Revolutionary War, men such as Cornelius Gilbert, John Love, Abraham Pennell, David Smith, and Benjamin Sprague. Soldiers who had served in the rebel army could be paid only in promissory notes, because the newly established government had no treasury. Many veterans were willing to sell these notes to speculators who bought them at a fraction of their face value with the expectation of cashing them in at full value on a future date. For veterans this was a way of getting at least some cash in their pockets immediately.
Prolonged closure of harbors during British occupation and the long struggle for independence had contributed to hard times. Families such as those of Nathan Barnes, Joseph Davenport, Zenas Cary, Elisha Owen, Amasa Shippee, Joseph Farnsworth from eastern Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont looked to the still undeveloped acres in western Massachusetts to start their lives anew in the hilly place where the mountain cats allegedly once roamed. Hardly fertile, but cheap, this land had been shunned by the settlers who had preceeded them in the colonial years, but it was possible to build a cabin, plant beans, potatoes, and apples for food to live on, and to raise some sheep for wool to sell.
A community developed there of nearly 50 households, bonded by similar values, experiences, and a shared physical remoteness from the rest of the world. However, the one newspaper which was passed from house to house kept them abreast of the progress of the young republic. They followed the news through the administrations of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison as well as the development of two factions, the Federalists, led by the Banking and shipping interests of the east coast, and the Jeffersonians, who felt that the agricultural interior should dominate.
Emotions over this political divide ran especially high in 1812 when during a war between Britain and Napoleonic France Britain stopped American ships in international waters and impressed sailors into its navy. Jefferson’s supporters on the Hill were outraged by the Federalist leniency towards this action. Officially, America was neutral, but Hill residents saw a danger of backsliding into dominance by Britain. To make their point to their Federalist neighbors, they erected a hastily-made American flag over their only community building, their one-room schoolhouse.
Hitherto, the flag had been little more than a military banner, unfamiliar to most Americans. Amasa Shippee, who had served in the militia, knew the flag’s design and drew it out on the ground before it was constructed from cloth donated from various households. Thus, in May, 1812 an American flag was raised above a schoolhouse for the first time, but was raised in protest and in a national cause. On June 18 President Madison declared war on Britain in the struggle history has named the War of 1812. This war changed the country from a loose collection of former colonies into unified nation and its flag had become its universally understood symbol.
In the years following 1812 developing industry and availability of land in the west gradually drew Hill residents away to new opportunities, but the strong bonds of shared history and family ties brought succeeding generations back for visits so frequently that in 1885 the Catamount Hill Association was created to formalize these visits into quinquennial events, that is, reunions held every five years in a tradition that still continues.
If you have antecedents with the names of Cary, Churchill, Davenport, Farley, Hale, Shippee, Smith, and Willis to name just a few, you may be a descendant of one of the flag-raisers of 1812.
It is unknown when another mountain lion might visit Catamount Hill, but the human descendants can be spotted regularly, hiking the old trails or gathering for picnics organized by the Catamount Hill Association.