Nathan Jones purchased the township of East Hoosac at auction in 1762 from the state for £3,200. In 1778, the town was officially incorporated as Adams, named in honor of Samuel Adams, a revolutionary leader and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Much of the land had been subdivided into and lots. These were mostly farms with frontage on the Hoosic River, which over time would provide water power for woolen, cotton, lumber, and plastic mills.
First settled in 1737, North Adams was originally part of Adams until the town split in 1878. Although there has never been a town of South Adams, the name was used prior to 1878 to specify the southern part of the town that had long had two primary centers, and survives in the name of the South Adams Savings Bank, which was incorporated in 1869.
Early settlers in the 1760s included a group of Quakers, many of whom came together from Smithfield, Rhode Island. The Quaker civil rights leader, abolitionist, and suffragist Susan B. Anthony was born in Adams, and her childhood home is today a museum.
The town's population declined from 1810 to 1820 as farmers moved west for better soil. But the War of 1812 allowed the textile industry to gain a foothold in the United States because British textiles were no longer available. In 1814, the Adams South Village Cotton Manufacture Company opened. With the establishment of a number of mills on the Hoosic River, Adams' population more than doubled to 4,000 between 1820 and 1835. Growth in both halves of Adams was further propelled by the opening of the Hoosac Tunnel in 1875. In the late 1800s, during the expansion of the cotton mills, the downtown was further urbanised by the construction of four large brick buildings on Park Street - P. J. Barrett Block, Jones Block, Armory Block, and the Mausert Block, opposite the Town Hall.
President William McKinley made two visits to the town, the second in 1897 to lay the cornerstone of the Adams Free Library. He was a friend of the Plunkett brothers (founders in 1889 of the Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company), and of the textile industry generally. In 1903, the assassinated president was honored with a larger-than-life statue beside the library. Berkshire Cotton later became a major part of Berkshire Hathaway, whose large factory in Adams was closed in 1958 (the 1,000 lost jobs were not the fault of Warren Buffett, who did not take over the firm until 1965). The mill town's only major remaining mill, Specialty Minerals, mines and processes limestone for calcium carbonate, used in antacids and food supplements, as well as paper whiteners and other industrial purposes.
The town's more recent move toward tourism, part of a broader trend in the Berkshires, is primarily centered on its natural beauty and outdoor activities, and on its proximity to the galleries, museums and colleges of North Adams.