The World of the River Gods in Colonial New England

Story by Sam Dinnie

Eighteenth-century society in the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts was dominated by the River Gods. Regarded by contemporaries as “the old established gentry of Western Massachusetts, connected by blood and friendship,” the River God clan functioned as an aristocracy in which belonging was predicated upon birth or marriage into the seven River God bloodlines: Ashley, Dwight, Partridge, Porter, Pynchon, Stoddard, and Williams.1

Nathaniel Dwight, a provincial surveyor born in Northampton, Massachusetts, a rural but culturally refined town along the Connecticut River, counted himself among the prestigious gentry of the interior. His familial connections earned him numerous commissions from the Massachusetts House of Representatives to map lands in the Connecticut Valley and Berkshires. In return, Dwight’s surveys facilitated the River Gods’ various schemes for acquiring more land for themselves and their kin—from land speculation to defrauding Indigenous peoples out of lands they justly laid claim to—which had lasting consequences on the distribution of land and wealth in western Massachusetts. Dwight and the River Gods left a considerable legacy in the region they presided over, the colony and later state of Massachusetts, and, indeed, New England as a whole following their decline in the wake of the American Revolution.

Of the seven River God lines, Nathaniel Dwight was connected to five: Dwight, Partridge, Stoddard, Porter, and Williams. He could boast of descending from Samuel Partridge (1645–1740), a political giant in the Connecticut Valley who collaborated closely with the reigning patriarch of the region, John Pynchon (1626–1703), and the Reverend Solomon Stoddard (1643–1729), the most influential Puritan minister in the Valley in his lifetime. Through Stoddard, Dwight’s kinsmen also included John Stoddard (1681–1748), Solomon’s son and chief commander of the Valley’s affairs; Eleazer Porter (1728–1797), a prominent justice in Hampshire County courts; Israel Williams (1709–1788), who succeeded John Stoddard’s position and became known as “the Monarch of Hampshire;” Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), the famed Great Awakening New Light minister; and Joseph Hawley (1723–1788), one of the most influential leaders of Massachusetts patriot movement during the Revolution.2

Dwight and his River God kinsmen occupied the pulpits of almost every town and preached Calvinist doctrines; controlled the region’s defense and recruited officers based on shared elite interests; and governed the Hampshire County bench and bar, imposing their values through adjudication. As magistrates, the River Gods also had jurisdiction over appointments to local offices, which they exploited to install their kin into positions of power and secure political dominance. As one historian of the River Gods has remarked, the Valley elite “led the county magistracy by patronage and self-interest, if not blood.”3 That the River Gods monopolized religion, defense, law, and politics made them the obvious choice for elected offices, affording them more control over their constituents.

The River Gods’ influence was not confined to the Connecticut River Valley. Their power attracted the attention of royal officials in the provincial capital of Boston, far removed from the interior of Massachusetts. Officials required an effective means to enforce imperial policies in the distant counties and gather intelligence on the frontier. Recognizing the power the River Gods held in their region and the critical role they played in organizing for its defense, royal officials in Boston decided to make the River Gods their chief advisors in western matters and conduits of the imperial government. This arrangement was enacted through the formation of what one scholar has called a “patronage machine” in which royal governors awarded the River Gods judicial, political, and military appointments for their services.4 The colonial legislature also conferred land grants to the River Gods in the Valley and the Berkshires.5

Nathaniel Dwight was a beneficiary of this patronage machine. In 1755, Massachusetts Governor William Shirley was preparing forces for an expedition against Crown Point, a fort in the Champlain Valley in New York. Shirley was well versed in the art of patronage and commissioned multiple River Gods to be officers.6 He likewise gave select River Gods the authority to appoint officers and impress men in western regiments, sending them blank commissions officially issued by the colony of Massachusetts Bay. River Gods with this exclusive license handed out commissions to their kinsmen in exchange for meeting town quotas for recruitment. Dwight possessed such sway over his town of Cold Spring (renamed Belchertown in 1761) that his kinsman Joseph Hawley appointed him as captain. Writing to Colonels Israel Williams, Oliver Partridge, and Ephraim Williams—all of whom Dwight was related to and had the governor’s sanction to commission officers—as part of a stream of correspondence in the 1750s dedicated to organizing for the defense of Hampshire County, Hawley attested that “Nathll Dwight would Accept a Captaincy if he could have it Seasonably and It is thought there would be no difficulty in his raising a Company Speedily in his own parts.”7 As Hawley predicted, Dwight accepted and was henceforth referred to as “Captain Dwight,” a title that bestowed him with military prestige.

The more significant of Dwight’s appointments were those of land surveying. His first commission came from the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1732 and tasked him with surveying land near the present-day borders of western Massachusetts and New Hampshire along the Ashuelot and Miller Rivers, both join the mighty Connecticut. In 1761, Dwight traveled north of Pittsfield and near the border of Massachusetts and New York to map the Berkshire County township of New Framingham (now Lanesborough). Four years later, he completed a map of Roads Town (now Shutesbury) in the Connecticut Valley. Fellow River Gods saw all the territory Dwight traversed as ripe for settlement and land speculation to line their own pockets at the expense of Native Americans and poorer white settlers.

Dwight’s greatest contribution to the River God agenda came in 1762 when the Massachusetts House commissioned him to survey recently purchased “Townships and Tracts of Land,” as well as “the remaining unappropriated Lands of the Province, in the Counties of Hampshire and Berkshire.”8 From this survey Dwight produced his map of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay…, which, as the extended title makes clear, delineates nine townships, covers 10,000 acres, and includes all unappropriated land in Hampshire and Berkshire Counties. River Gods and their close business associates bought up the lands Dwight outlined, usually with no intention to settle but rather to accumulate more landed wealth. Dwight himself had an interest in these exploitative endeavors, as seen in his petition to the Massachusetts House “praying for a Grant of Land in the Western Part of the Province,” likely part of the territory he himself surveyed.9 Clearly, the River Gods strategically placed one of their own in the position of western lands surveyor to better serve their schemes, which received the largely unconditional support of the provincial government in Boston.

A section from Dwight's map of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay. Land is clearly divided into territories and labeled by ownership.

Section from Dwight’s map of Massachussets Bay, showing the division of townships and tracts of land in 1762

Upon examination of Dwight’s 1762 survey, the Massachusetts House of Representatives found that “some of the Towns interfere with former Grants of this Court” and appointed a committee to resolve the matter in 1763.10 Among the problems with Dwight’s survey was that he did not designate lands that Native Americans had sovereign rights to, and River Gods often knowingly purchased tracts with contested titles. Indigenous peoples of Massachusetts, including the Stockbridge Indians, continuously petitioned the legislature for redress, but due to their financial interest in white expansion, the Massachusetts House overwhelmingly sided with the River Gods. Retaining land claims likewise contributed to the land shortage, increased disadvantages for poorer whites into the nineteenth century, and created a fundamentally inequitable economic structure that shaped the rise of rural capitalism.11

Despite their importance to the Connecticut River Valley, Massachusetts, and New England, Dwight and the River Gods remain in the shadows of eastern Massachusetts—and Boston in particular—in the telling of the region’s history. Yet the very fabric and landscape of the region that the exaggerated historical legend of Boston presides over would not exist as it does today without the River Gods and their exploits.


Clark, Christopher F. The Roots of Rural Capitalism: Western Massachusetts, 1780–1860. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Dewey, Mary E., ed. Life and Letters of Catherine M. Sedgwick. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1871.

Israel Williams Papers. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA.

Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, 1762–1763. Vol. 39. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1969.

Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, 1771–1772. Vol. 48. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1979.

Newell, Margaret E. From Dependency to Independence: Economic Revolution in Colonial New England. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Schutz, John A. William Shirley: King’s Governor of Massachusetts. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.

Sweeney, Kevin M. “Mansion People: Kinship, Class, and Architecture in Western Massachusetts in the Mid Eighteenth Century.” Winterthur Portfolio 19, no. 4 (Winter 1984): 231–55.

____. “River Gods and Related Minor Deities: The Williams Family and the Connecticut River Valley, 1637–1790.” PhD diss., Yale University, 1986.

Taylor, Robert J. Western Massachusetts in the Revolution. Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1954.

Trumbull, James Russell. History of Northampton, Massachusetts. Vol. 2. Northampton, MA: Gazette Printing, 1902.


  1. Mary E. Dewey, ed., Life and Letters of Catherine M. Sedgwick (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1871), 49; Kevin M. Sweeney, “Mansion People: Kinship, Class, and Architecture in Western Massachusetts in the Mid Eighteenth Century,” Winterthur Portfolio 19, no. 4 (Winter 1984): 232.

  2. Kevin M. Sweeney, “River Gods and Related Minor Deities: The Williams Family and the Connecticut River Valley, 1637–1790” (PhD dissertation, Yale University, 1986), 661.

  3. Ibid., 576.

  4. Robert J. Taylor, Western Massachusetts in the Revolution (Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1954), 24.

  5. Margaret Ellen Newell, From Dependency to Independence: Economic Revolution in Colonial New England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 36–106.

  6. John A. Schutz, William Shirley: King’s Governor of Massachusetts (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961), 173–74.

  7. Joseph Hawley to Israel Williams, Oliver Partridge, and Ephraim Williams, April 9, 1755, Israel Williams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

  8. Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, 1762–1763 (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1969), 39: 61.

  9. Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, 1771–1772 (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1979), 48: 25.

  10. Ibid., 191.

  11. Christopher F. Clark, The Roots of Rural Capitalism: Western Massachusetts, 1780–1860 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 3–155.