Pittsfield History

Ironically, Col. Jacob Wendell, the man credited with initiating and guiding the original settlement of Pittsfield, never lived here and may have never even visited.  In 1738, the wealthy Bostonian bought 24,000 acres of lands known originally as Pontoosuck, a Mohican Indian word meaning “a field or haven for winter deer,” as a speculative investment, which he planned to subdivide and resell to others who would settle here.  He formed a partnership with Philip Livingston, a wealthy kinsman from Albany, and Col. John Stoddard of Northampton, who already had claim to 1,000 acres here.

A group of young men came and began to clear the land in 1743, but threats of Indian raids associated with the conflict of the French and Indian wars soon forced them to leave, and the land remained unoccupied by those of European descent for several more years. Finally in 1752, settlers, many from Westfield, Massachusetts, arrived and a village began to grow, which was incorporated as Pontoosuck Plantation in 1753.  By 1761 there were 200 residents and the plantation became the Township of Pittsfield, named in honor of British Prime Minister William Pitt, who later would champion the colonists’ cause before the revolution.

By the end of the Revolutionary War, Pittsfield had expanded to nearly 2,000 residents.  While primarily an agricultural area, because of the many brooks that flowed into the Housatonic River, the landscape was dotted with mills that produced lumber, grist, paper and textiles. With the introduction of Merino sheep from Spain in 1807, the area became the center of woolen manufacturing in the United States, an industry that would dominate the community’s employment opportunities for almost a century.

The town was a bustling metropolis by the late 1800’s.  In 1891, the City of Pittsfield was incorporated, and William Stanley, who had recently relocated his Electric Manufacturing Company to Pittsfield from Great Barrington, produced the first electric transformer.  Stanley’s enterprise was the forerunner of the internationally known corporate giant, General Electric.  Thanks to the success of GE, Pittsfield’s population in 1930 had grown to more than 50,000.  While GE Advanced Materials (Plastics) continues to be one of the City’s largest employers, a workforce that once topped 13,000 was reduced to less than 700 with the demise and/or relocation of the transformer and aerospace portions of the General Electric empire.   

Pittsfield can lay claim to a number of famous residents who have made significant contributions to our nation’s history, including Rev. Thomas Allen, the “Fighting Parson” from the Revolutionary War, Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick written at the Pittsfield home he called Arrowhead, William F. Bartlett, who at the age of 24 became the youngest major general during the Civil War, Lt. Colonel Charles W. Whittlesley, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor as commander of the “Lost Battalion” during World War I, and Samuel Harrison, a Pittsfield pastor, who, during the Civil War, led a successful fight for equal pay for black soldiers. Harrison was the chaplain for the famed 54th regiment depicted in the film “Glory.”

Like many of New England’s manufacturing centers that experienced an economic decline in the latter part of the 20th century, Pittsfield has been forced to redefine itself.  With the cleanup of the Housatonic River, the reconstruction of prime industrial property at the heart of the City, and an energized arts and entertainment scene in the downtown, Pittsfield establishes itself as a cultural center for the region with the prospect of renewed economic vitality.

For a more in-depth study of Pittsfield's history, the reader is invited to visit the Local History Department of The Berkshire Athenaeum, Pittsfield’s Public Library.