The land on which the Renaissance Center sits was once hunting land of the Native American or River Indian group known as the Norwottucks. They set up their bark shelters near the Connecticut River in the warm months, fishing for shad, salmon, and trout, and raising corn, squash, and other crops on the fertile land. In fall they moved to woodlands - to what is now Amherst, for example, where they set up their community site in a more weather-protected area, out of the winter winds and where bark for shelter was plentiful. Here they could gather fruits and nuts, hunt or trap birds and animals, and trade with the tribes to the north and south.
Their life pattern was changed forever when many English settlers of the Great Migration in the 1630s followed John Winthrop's Puritan group from around the Boston area and sailed up the Connecticut River, settling along its banks. Among Springfield leaders were John Pynchon whose father, William, had come to this country with considerable capital, traded for furs with the Indians, and returned to England a wealthier man. On December 25, 1658, Pynchon the younger purchased the land that was to become Hadley (1659) and its later daughter town, Amherst (1759). He bought an area about nine miles square on the east side of the Connecticut from the Holyoke Range in the south up to Mount Toby in the north.
John Pynchon paid two hundred and twenty fathom (wampum), one large coat valued at eight fathom, and several small gifts to the three Indian sachems who were considered the overseers of this area: Chickwollop, Umpanchella, and Quonquont. The Indians bargained to keep ownership of their corn fields, to be allowed to set up their shelters on occasion, to hunt and fish, and to get wood for fires. They had no concept of English land ownership or farming practices. They did not foresee fenced farm lands and greater numbers of these English coming to compete for the natural resources. In 1633 Pynchon deeded his newly acquired land to conservative Puritan parishoners from Wethersfield and Windsor, Connecticut, who left their town to establish a new community to be called Hadley.
By the early 1700s the Natives had been forced out of the area, and the residents of Hadley spread out to the land that is now Amherst where they had pastured their cattle; had cut hay, firewood, and timber; and built one or two hunting cabins. In 1703 the people of Hadley, thinking there was little threat from angry Indians, began to divide systematically the land that would become Amherst into strips to be given out to the adult men and a few widows by lottery. They drew parcels nine different times between 1703 and 1745. The first houses, usually saltbox in style, were probably built by 1730; a sperate meeting house was built by 1742; and a seperate name, Amherst, was chosen by 1759.
Lot 55, the 150-acre strip of land the eastern edge of which is now the Renaissance Center, was drawn by John Cowls of the Hatfield section of Hadley in the 1703 first division of woodlots. In time, Cowls' strip of land was sold to another Hadley founding family and relative, Samuel Dickinson, who, by 1763, was living in a house on what is now North Pleasant Street. His son Nathaniel graduated from Harvard in 1771 and became a lawyer. Grandson Walter Dickinson built the 1844 house that still stands close to the School of Education on North Pleasant Street. In 1865, Marquis Dickinson, Sr. delivered the first load of granite from Pelham for what is now the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The farm was known as Mark's Meadow after Marquis Dickinson. Over time small lots were sold off from the strip of land.
The Dickinson family owned the strip between North and East Pleasant Streets until Charles, the last of that family, became incapacitated. Enos and Millicent Montague (another founding family of Hadley) purchased the fifty-nine acre farm known as Mark's Meadow in 1937.
In 1948 a young couple named Winthrop and Janet Wilder Dakin bought frontage on East Pleasant Street from the Montagues; the building housing the Center was built in 1948-1949. In 1954 they bought the rest of the Montague Farm, keeping the large meadow and selling the North Pleasant Street frontage to the University of Massachusetts for a School of Education. In 1994, twelve years after Winthrop "Toby" Dakin's death, Janet willed to the University of Massachusetts the 30-acre property on which now sits the Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies.
Written by Ruth Owen Jones