The UUSA meetinghouse resides on approximately 0.3 acres of land that was part of the ancestral homelands of the Nonotuck peoples. The story of the purchase and construction of the meetinghouse is described in wonderful detail in a sermon given by Janis Gray in 2018. Construction of the meetinghouse at this location began in 1892 and the meetinghouse was dedicated on October 12, 1893.

The appearance of the meetinghouse has changed over the years. For more photos of the building from 1893 to the present day, please see: Our Meetinghouse Over the Years. Here is an early photo.

Prior to 1900

The meetinghouse resides at the corner of what is now Kellogg Avenue and North Pleasant St. in Amherst, MA. North Pleasant St. was one of the early roads established by the survey team from Hadley when the land was first mapped. Kellogg Avenue was opened in 1895 on land owned by William Kellogg, shortly after the construction of the meetinghouse. The Kellogg family house (below) was located on the north side of the new street, across from the meetinghouse on the site of the current U.S. Post Office.

In the mid-19th century, the land immediately south of the UUSA meetinghouse had been the site of the “Bee Hive,” a tenement house for lower income families and African Americans. The Bee Hive was constructed from a wing of the defunct Mount Pleasant Classical Institute (below), a boarding school for boys from 1827 to 1836. The Bee Hive was demolished in 1865.

In the early days of the 19th century, Noah Webster owned 12 acres north and east of the corner of North Pleasant and Main Streets, including extensive apple orchards and gardens. The Sepia sketch (below) by Mortimer Blake (AC 1835) depicts the Noah Webster house (red arrow), the locations of his apple trees, and approximate future location of the UUSA meetinghouse (blue arrow) and the Mount Pleasant Classical Institute (yellow arrow). Webster lived in Amherst from 1812-1822. His home was on the site of what is now the Lincoln Building at 46 Main St. and his gardens included land currently occupied by Boltwood Walk and the parking lot/garage.

While Amherst and Northampton developed into commercial centers of the region, much of the land outside of the village center remained devoted to farming. The major land owners were active participants in civil society and leaders in their church-centered community.

Prior to 1800

The history of the land currently occupied by the meetinghouse becomes a bit more murky as we dig farther back into the past. Edward Carpenter’s book, The History of the Town of Amherst (1896), includes a map of families occupying the land in 1772.

While it is difficult to read the names, it appears that the land north of the corner of Main St. and North Pleasant is relatively open and most likely farm land during the late 18th century. According to a record in Carpenter’s book, the Town of Hadley voted to lay out a tract of Common Land east of town (Hadley) and instructed town surveyors to create a map so that the land might be sold for one penny per acre.

Although attempts were made to occupy the land east of Hadley as early as 1703, the first permanent inhabitants are thought to have built homes around 1728-1730. The first mention of settlement is a statement in the Hadley town records dated January 5, 1730 appointing a committee to lay out a burying place for the “east inhabitants.” The first families to establish permanent households in Amherst (known as East Hadley) included familiar family names such as Kellogg, Dickinson, Ingram, and Cowls.

Most of the early English inhabitants of the area were farmers, growing “Indian” corn, wheat, rye, barley and peas. Much of the formerly forested land was partially open in 1730, due the native people’s practice of burning in November of each year to make the land more suitable for hunting. Records show that Nathaniel Kellogg and his son Ephraim cleared land north of what is now the downtown area in 1731, establishing a homestead that would remain in active farming for the next 220 years. Their house is shown in the photo below as an attachment to the main house, which is still occupied at 858 East Pleasant St. This small house was subsequently separated from the main house and moved about 100 yards north. 

Prior to 1700

Before settlement by colonial families from Hadley and Hatfield, the area that is now called Amherst was occupied by native peoples for thousands of years. In the minds of the early English settlers, however, the land had been legally transferred to the colonists by the deed signed by John Pynchon, and native sachems Umpanchala, Quonquont, and Chickwalopp. According to Carpenter, these native Norwottuck leaders claimed to be the “owners” of most of the lands on both sides of the Connecticut River around the current site of Northampton, Hadley, and Hatfield.

Kerry Buckley stated in “A Place Called Paradise – Culture and Community in Northampton, MA, 1654-2004”, that “steady pressure from English settlements reduced the traditional homelands of Native Americans and destroyed the populations of game and fur-bearing animals.” Despite the original agreement with John Pynchon which gave the Native peoples the right to hunt and fish on the lands included in the agreement, establishment of homesteads, farming, fencing, and free grazing of livestock in wooded areas pushed the original occupants of the region to the fringes of colonial settlement.

Prior to the Arrival of European Settlers

The first humans to visit the region now known as Amherst were Paleolithic hunters who roamed Southern New England as early as 9,000 BCE and continued to do so for roughly 6,000 years. By 3,000 BCE, Native peoples were quarrying for soapstone and making domestic implements and, between 800 BCE and 1,000 CE, were creating ceramics. Artifacts and other evidence indicating their presence have been discovered in various parts of town. As reported by Hetty Startup in the Amherst Indy, before “…colonization [and much more intensive agricultural practices and industrialization,] the forested hills surrounding Puffer’s Pond were also hunting grounds and used as a place to gather plant resources for many Native American tribes for centuries.”

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, they lived in movable villages with gardens on the river bottom soils along the Connecticut River and temporary winter quarters in the forests farther up on the hillsides, near present day Amherst where there was plenty of wood for winter fires. An extensive history of the region may be found in the Indigenous Voices document developed by the Nolumbeka Project.

Prior to the Arrival of Native Peoples

Twenty thousand years ago, if you stood roughly where the meetinghouse is today and looked straight up, you would see an ice sheet two miles high. Two miles of crushing weight which had moved inch by inch from the north, dragging rocks and boulders and scaring the earth along the way. The weight of that frozen mass, under which nothing could live, created a tabula rasa upon which a new story of the land would be written. And then the ice melted. When the glacier had receded, the rift valley that would become the Connecticut River Valley remained and an east-west series of hills south of Hartford created a natural dam, backing up the flow of water running from the north and creating a long lake, later to be named Lake Hitchcock after the Amherst College professor who so loved this region.

When the glacier first receded, the area that is now Amherst would have been nothing more than bare bedrock devoid of any life. Cracks in the rock caused by freezing and thawing trapped wind-blown soil and seeds, probably grasses at first, which drove their tiny roots down into the crevice of the rock. Water trapped in the crevice would freeze and expand the crack even more, allowing the widening crack to catch yet more soil. Lichens grabbed the rock and acids released by the lichen began to eat away at the hard rock surface. Over time, soil and debris and dead lichen materials began to accumulate and slowly, ever so slowly, soil began to accumulate in the cracks and along with the lichen, low-growing mosses began to appear. But it was cold, and little else grew on this island for a long time.

Then about 12,000 years ago, the pressure of all that water trapped by the hills in central Connecticut broke the dam that created the lake. The water rushed south to the Long Island Sound, opening the valley and giving other animals access to the former island which was now connected to the Pelham Hills. Birds bringing seeds of larger plants, shrubs and trees would continue the process of ecosystem succession as spruce and fir trees grew in the still cold climate. Larger animals such as squirrels, beavers, foxes, deer, caribou, bears and snakes and chipmunks arrived to feed on the young shrubs and trees. As the climate warmed, a rich ecosystem of grasses, shrubs and hardwood trees including hemlock, maple, beech and oak trees developed into a new forested landscape where there had only been bare rock. 

It was this region that had been occupied by native peoples for thousands of years before encroachment by European settlers created the opportunity for religious progressives in the late 19th century to purchase land and construct the UUSA meetinghouse. We chronicle the history of the land on which our meetinghouse sits, lest we forget the sacrifices of those who inhabited this land before us.