Black History and Archaeology in the Berkshires: The Fitch-Hoose House and the Gulf Freepersons
The National Register of Historic Places recognizes the Fitch-Hoose House, an 1846 structure that was almost seized by the Town of Dalton for taxes in 2004. Standing as the last of an historic free African-American enclave known as The Gulf, the place also known as the Charles Hoose house is an important embodiment of Black History in Western Massachusetts. The Gulf refers to a local term for a low area between hills elsewhere often called a hollow, or ‘holler.’ The Crane family had earlier purchased the land that Hoos in turn purchased. In 2015, Dalton Historical Commission began renovation of the Hoose house.
Notably, as in other cases, this free African-American community was situated at the north margins of town, at some distance from the main population. Present address is 6 Gulf Road, where the site was home to generations of the Fitch and Hoose families. Dozens of African-American families lived here before and after the Civil War. Up to the 1940s, local residents say there were many African-American families living at the Gulf.
The home was humble for its time at about 158 square feet of floor space and an 8’ x 8’ bedroom, with two low-ceiling rooms upstairs, a total of five spaces, no insulation and one wood stove. The Hoose home appears as a variation on the African-American style recognized as the 12-foot house, at bit extended with added features. What might that express in the thoughts of the Hoose parents?
Available documents give only partial information on Hoose descendants. In general, the voices of Gulf community descendants is lacking in avialable narratives and reports. It appears from our search that a number of descendants could be identified and their narratives sought.
Black enclaves historically received little infrastructure support or other support from the towns to which they ostensibly belong. Structured poverty and social segregation, as well as physical, are common features of such communities. The lack of census and other records, but the collection of taxes, both speak to the dilemma facing African-American communities. Recent records do show that two grandchildren of Charles A. Hoose, Charlyne and Jean, lived in the house in 1988. Ellen Hamilton raised at least a dozen children with Charles in that house, such as Charles, junior (1896 - 1970). There are, however, few records of the other children or their descendants. Information about women in the family is also thin.
Charles Hoose was the grandson of Philip Hoos, and Charles was farming in Hancock when he bought the new lot at the age of 20. 1830 census records show Charles as a farmer. Hoos and Philip are both names that connect to early Dutch Colonial presence in the Taconic and Berkshires region, which predates English presence, suggesting perhaps this family has longstanding status as freepersons.
Articles in the Berkshire Monthly from 1903 and 1905 describe residents of the Gulf in unforgivably stereotyped, fictional, general and demeaning terms. Reflecting fictions of those times that are sometimes echoed by political factions still, the Berkshire Monthly named fictional residents using typical racist trope names from the book of Jim Crow South and pinned on the residents and the Gulf literal whitewashed tropes of an idyll in willing submissiveness and happy ignorance for African-Americans.
Though slavery was abolished in Massachusetts in 1783, residents claim that the Gulf was located along the Underground Railroad and was home to both freepersons and those who had escaped slavery. In 1868, Charles A. Hoose bought the property for $150 and remained there until after WWII, reaching his 90s. The Hoose family occupied the home for more than 120 years. Henry Fitch, listed as a farmer in the 1850 U.S. Census, lived in the house.
In 2008 the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail supported the significance of this home, joining local and regional volunteers to push for its preservation. After much effort, the home was recognized in 2010 in National Register of Historic Places.
A 1926 essay mentioned the "Negro cabins" that had popped up in a place called the Lanesborough Gulf, referring to the next town west over Gulf Road – now in the woods. The restoration project's application to the Massachusetts Historical Commission reads, "the settlements of these African Americans had been restricted to this and other marginalized areas by the white community rather than them choosing these mountainous waste areas as hiding places."
Longtime residents remember the Gulf community. James Schilling-Cachat, of Native and European descent, whose family has resided in Dalton for more than ten generations, recalled some of the later residents of the Gulf. "The Caesars were part of what people saw as 'the Black part of town.' The Caesars owned a landscaping and tree care company. They lived up by Gulf Road. Some of my family worked with them. They were friends of ours. " There were also dark moments: "Back in the '60s, someone burned a cross on the Caesar's lawn. I think it was the KKK. But the Caesars didn't go anywhere. Pretty much the whole town came to give them support when that happened. They had a mansion there, a huge house, close on the road."
Samuel L. Caesar has conflicting biographies, one which attributes his origin to Quebec about 1848, and claims he was "full-blooded" Native, the other which says he was born in Dalton and does not assert a single racial origin. Caesar married Hannah Hoose, connecting these legacies. Caesar is also said to have lied about his age to fight in the Civil War, and that his father was "a runner in the war of 1812." Caesar claimed to have been one of the first Union sodiers to enter Richmond, Virginia upon its recovery. He and Hannah operated an ice business together. Descendant Samuel L. Caesar, tree care professional, passed in 2007 in Pittsfield and was a Korean War veteran.
Further work can be done documenting the personal histories of the residents and former residents, as well as further archaeology.
Because of such preservation projects, we are able to see and experience marginalized history and archaeology that allows us to see past the curtains of racism and erasure into the great expanse of American experience not contained in the mainstream narrative.
Article on the 2015 Renovation of the Hoose house by Dalton Historical Commission:
nohham r. cachat-schilling