History 248 Reading Guide

Family, Community, and the Law on the Massachusetts Frontier in 1806

  • Irene Quenzler Brown and Richard D. Brown, The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler (1990).


  • What aspects of this account are familiar?  What is new?
  • What is the Irene and Richard Brown’s goal in this study?  What issues does their “story” address and weave together?
  • In what ways does their account of the experience of the Wheeler family, and of the community/state legal intervention, harken back to an early era (colonial Massachusetts and New England)?  In what ways, does it highlight some of the significant changes that were occurring during the early republic?  How did those changes affect ideas about the roles and responsibilities of family, community, and society, and about social order, economic status, race, and religion?   In what ways, does or might the study offer a portent of the nineteenth century future?
  • Where did Berkshire County fit into that process of transformation in 1805-06?  How do the Browns characterize the socio-economic communities that evolved in the lowland and upland areas of the county?  What kinds of economic opportunities were available, and to whom?
  • How did that era and that setting shape the context for the trial?  What does their account of the trial suggest about institutional structures, judicial procedures, and community values in early nineteenth century Berkshire County?