WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels With the WPA State Guides: Shays’ Rebellion

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

When the Revolutionary war ended in 1783, many Massachusetts soldiers returned to find themselves in debt. In addition to debts incurred by their families while they were at war, the state was proposing to increase taxes to cover its own war debts. Facing bankruptcy and at risk of losing their farms, western Massachusetts farmers, led by Daniel Shays, took up arms against state and local authorities. Shays, a farmhand from the tiny town of Pelham, had fought at the battles of Lexington, Bunker Hill, and Saratoga. He and his fellow farmers blockaded courthouses in Worcester and Great Barrington, and attempted unsuccessfully to seize the federal armory in Springfield. Massachusetts unsuccessfully asked the federal government to send troops, but no troops were sent since the Articles of Confederation did not to permit taxation to pay for an army. Instead, Massachusetts opposed the rebels with a combination of state militiamen and privately paid soldiers.        

The Massachusetts Guide has much to say about Shays’ Rebellion, most of it negative. In the history section, we hear from Arthur Schlesinger, Professor of American history at Harvard, who tells the story from his characteristically conservative point of view:

“[After the Revolutionary War] a new aristocracy arose which drew its wealth […] from the sea. [The] financial resources of the Commonwealth concentrated along the coast, leaving dissatisfied farmers of the interior struggling vainly against the stubborn soil. [O]n the hilly country around Worcester and in the Berkshires, the farmers began to demand legislative relief in the form of […] laws which would prevent mortgage foreclosures. These discontented elements united under the leadership of Daniel Shays, a revolutionary veteran. In 1786, he and his disheveled followers closed the courts in Worcester […] until an army hastily formed and financed by Boston merchants, quelled the uprising.”

Massachusetts Guide p. 43-44

The regional WPA guide, The Berkshire Hills (1939), presents a contrasting view. Out of the clutches of Schlesinger we get a more balanced picture of both the causes and the participants in the rebellion:

“Hard on the heels of the American Revolution came Shays’ Rebellion. The Berkshire farmers, oppressed by heavy taxes, hard times and the almost worthless post-Revolutionary currency, understood better than the “city folk” in Boston the real purpose of Daniel Shays’ uprising.”

The Guide’s treatment of a skirmish in Lee is noticeably more empathetic:

“In the winter of 1787, [the town of Lee] was in particularly hard straits. A battle […] took place between the Shaysites and the government troops. General Patterson, drew up on a hill in East Lee. Opposite […] were lined up the ragged and hungry rebels. They had only a few old-fashioned muskets, little ammunition and no cannon.”

The rebels avoided defeat by an ingenious trick:

“Someone had an inspiration: ‘Bring out Mother Perry’s [loom] and we’ll make it look like a cannon to scare the sheep across the way.” Quickly the ponderous piece of weaving machinery, looking remarkably like a cannon, was mounted on a pair of ox-cart wheels. A ramrod and other military gadgets were flourished for the benefit of the enemy. Peter Wilcox roared the order, “Fire!” and a blazing tarred rope was brandished like a fuse. Before the flames could damage Mother Perry’s property, General Patterson’s troops were in flight. In a twinkling, the hill they had occupied was bare.”

Wilcox was captured a few days later, tried for treason and sentenced to death. While imprisoned in the county jail awaiting hanging, his cause was widely supported by the townspeople of Lee:

“[The jailer permitted Wilcox’s wife] to bring him food and comforts. [One day,] seemingly bent with sorrow, she left the jail [and] the guard discovered that his prisoner was a woman in man’s clothing. Wilcox in disguise had gotten safely out of the way.”              

The Berkshire Hills, p. 137-8

With apparent cooperation from all concerned, Wilcox hid out in the town for a full year without being re-captured and was subsequently pardoned.   

Shays’ Rebellion ended in Sheffield in February, 1787. During the rebellion, dozens of rebels and state militiamen lost their lives and scores more were injured. While the rebels ceased armed resistance, their goals were in large part achieved. Four thousand rank and file farmers were granted a general amnesty. Although eighteen of their leaders were tried and sentenced to death, all but two (including Shays himself) were pardoned. Governor Bowdoin, who led the effort to put down the rebellion, was defeated in the next election by John Hancock who had supported it. In its next session, the Massachusetts legislature granted the farmers both debt relief and a tax cut.

Shays’ Rebellion had important consequences for the nation as well. It underscored the defects in the Articles of Confederation and served as a direct catalyst for the Constitutional Convention in May, 1787. The draft of the new Constitution strengthened the federal government considerably, permitting it to raise taxes and an army. But, there too, the rights of the people were not ignored. Ratification of the new document was understood to be unlikely unless the Constitution guaranteed the right of the people to be free from the arbitrary unfairness of a powerful central government. The Bill of Rights was the result. Shays Rebellion may be almost forgotten today, but it was key to the structure of our Constitution and the fundamental nature of our Republic. 

July,  2021

Daniel Shays of Pelham Memorial

Petersham Memorial