Voice of the People: Life in the Antebellum Rural Delaware County New York Area
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Reform/Conflict: The Anti-Rent Movement: Brief Introduction
by Nancy S. Cannon
"The purpose of our society is not for the few of maximum strength and ambition to lead lives of Byzantine glory, but for men to make the most of their common humanity. We are pledged to a general diffusion of culture, of independence, and self-respect and the means to a good life." - Dr. Smith Boughton, Anti-Rent leader (alias "Big Thunder")
From about 1839 to 1852 farmers in parts of Delaware, Albany, Rensselaer, Schoharie, Columbia, Greene, Ulster, Sullivan, Otsego, Montgomery, and Washington Counties staged a massive revolt against what they considered an unjust system of land tenure. Modeling themselves after the patriots who instigated the Boston Tea Party, they disguised themselves as "Indians" and caused much grief to law enforcement officials and landlords. The Anti-Renters communicated by blowing tin dinner horns, relaying the sound from farm to farm over the hills and valleys: at the sound of the horn, the "Indians" dropped work and rushed to a predetermined meeting place. They disrupted sales of property, tarred and feathered their opponents, and in August 1845 shot Delaware County Undersheriff Osman Steele at a farm sale organized by the authorities to collect money to pay back rent. This is their story.
The origin of the conflict was the leasing of lands, a carryover from a feudal system in Europe. Land grants to politically well-connected individuals by the Dutch and English governments in the 17th and 18th centuries totaled tens of millions of acres in New York State. Some landowners leased their land to farmers via perpetual leases rather than selling the land outright. By the early 1800's, the leased lands comprised over 2,000,000 acres.
Fast forward to southeastern New York in the mid-nineteenth century. America had won its war for Independence from England. Aristocratic descendents of the original Dutch and English landowners still owned and leased the land. Times were hard and jobs were scarce. One large landowner, Stephen Van Rensselaer III ( the "Good Patroon") lured settlers to the stony hills by promising them homesteads without cost: they could occupy the land free for seven years at which point they would be given a "durable lease" with a moderate wheat rent. Unfortunately for the tenants, by the time seven years had passed a lease had been perfected that would permanently bind the settlers to the estate. By calling the contract an "incomplete sale", Van Rensselaer sidestepped the issue of feudalism which had been outlawed in New York in 1782. Van Rensselaer's tenants were expected to pay 10 to 14 bushels of winter wheat, four fat hens, and one day of service with a team and wagon each year. Although the types of leases and specific terms of the leases varied with each landlord, in most instances the tenants had to clear the forest from the land, construct their barns and houses at their own expense, and pay the taxes. The landowner retained all mineral, lumber, and water rights. If the tenant left the land, he received little or nothing for the improvements he had made. Landlords earned tenant loyalty by not pressing for full rent payments and contributing to civic causes.
The tenants had often been misled into believing the land could be turned into productive farms; unfortunately, the thin, stony soils of the mountain farms wore down after a few years so farmers had a difficult time growing sufficient produce to both provide for their families and pay the rent. The rents were so high and the value of the farms so low that the farmers sometimes paid the full value of the farm every 15 years. Robert Livingston, a Delaware, Greene, Ulster, and Sullivan County landowner who paid about four cents an acre for his half million acres of land in the original Hardenbergh Patent, set the value at three dollars an acre when he leased it to settlers (Christman, 77). Through the sweat of their tenants, the landlords lived in luxury far removed from the hill farms. To further complicate matters, the tenants were expected to travel up to 75 miles to pay their rent in person. Munsell's History of Delaware County (1880) relates the following: "One who remembers the old times tells us he never seriously rebelled against the system under which he lived until its seeming injustice suddenly broke upon him after he had called to pay his rent to the representative of the Hardenbergh estate, and found him living near New York in what appeared to him to be extravagant splendor, on the proceeds of his tenants' toil among the mountains of Delaware" (Munsell, p. 65) It was time for a change.
Although there had been a few skirmishes before, the first major Anti-Rent activity took place in the Helderbergs in Albany County in 1839 after Stephen Van Rensselaer III died leaving a large debt. His heirs decided to collect rents that hadn't been paid in years. Farmers were unwilling to pay what they felt were unjust rents to Stephen Van Rensselaer IV (who had lived off his father's wealth his entire life). The farmers attempted to reach a compromise with Van Rensselaer IV, but could not agree on terms. A Declaration of Independence written by a few farmers read in part, "We have counted the cost of such a contest, and we find nothing as dreadful as voluntary slavery...We will take up the ball of the Revolution where our fathers stopped it and roll it to the final consummation of freedom and independence of the masses." (Christman, 20). Farmers and their supporters throughout the region joined forces and began the campaign to free themselves from the chains of the feudal system. Many of the Anti-Renters were poor farmers; others were comparatively prosperous professionals. But they all shared a burning desire to change the system. The revolt began.
Position of the Anti-Renters (Down-Renters):
The farmers felt they had been deceived by the landowners when they originally settled the land; leases had different terms than were originally agreed upon. Although a few farmers were lucky to find good soil when they cleared the land, most hill farmers were stuck with thin, rocky soil. Farmers could be ejected from the land for failure to pay the rent even if they had enough personal property to pay said rent. Evidence could be found in some parts of the Anti-Rent areas that the landlords did not have legal title to the land they were renting. The farmer paid all taxes; the landowners paid nothing to support state and local government. The Anti-Renters considered their cause an extension of the American Revolution; they (or their ancestors) had fought for a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Feudalism had been declared illegal in New York State in 1782.
Position of the Up-Renters:
The law is the law. The farmers (or their ancestors) should have read the fine print before they signed the original leases. The landowner gave the tenants the land for no payment for a few years so they would be able to prosper; once the farms became productive, it was only fair they pay the back rents. A perpetual lease can never be changed. Feudalistic land contracts perhaps should be abolished; however, disrupting the law by intimidation while disguised as calico Indians was not the way to proceed. On a philosophical level, some members of the landed gentry felt that land ownership and the governing of the citizens should be in the hands of the few who by wealth, education, and superior upbringing would be best suited to determine what was best for the common folks. (James Fenimore Cooper wrote three novels, including The Redskins, published in 1846, that portrayed the Anti-Renters in a very unflattering light)
Members of the secret Anti-Rent associations paid dues which provided the funds for disguises and food at large gatherings. Their colorful hand-crafted calico "Indian" disguises, chosen as a symbol of the Boston Tea Party, were unique in embellishment and style. Sheepskin masks with painted decorations and outlandish additions such as tails and horns completed the "look". Their makeshift arms consisted of whatever they could scrounge: knives, pistols, muskets, spears, and hatchets, as well as recycled farm tools such as pieces of scythes. (See also photo enlargement: Disguises of the Anti-Renters). Anti-Renters organized into cells, independent of each other, which consisted of groups of ten to fifteen men. Only the Chief knew the identity of the men in his cell. When in disguise, the Anti-Renters used pseudonyms: Big Thunder, Big Lion, Black Hawk, Red Wing, Pompey, Thunderbolt. Women were sworn in "not indeed that they might be permitted to wear calico and bear arms against the foe, but that they might be honored dressmakers and ornamenters for their husbands, sons, or lovers--the brave heros" (Christman, 84, quoting the Albany Argus). The Anti-Rent disturbances usually involved resistance to a law enforcement officer serving papers on tenants delinquent in their rents or interference with forced sales of property staged to collect money for back rents.
The Anti-Rent conflict did more than pit landowners against tenants. Neighbors sometimes supported opposite sides of the issue. There were Anti-Rent taverns and Up-Rent taverns. In strong Anti-Rent districts, advertisers geared their ads to appeal to the Anti-Renter audience. Up-Renter Matthew Griffin (his diary is included on this website) lived in an Anti-Rent district and was threatened with being tarred and feathered by his Anti-Rent neighbors; the business in his store dropped off and he eventually moved out of the area (but not before he joined a posse to round up Anti-Rent neighbors who were implicated, justly or not, in the shooting of Undersheriff Steele). Two young boys, Jason (Jay) Gould and John Burroughs lived on farms in Roxbury and attended the same school. John Gould (Jay's father), an Up-Renter, defied an Anti-Rent war order and blew his tin dinner horn to call his workers to meals. A group of calico Indians threatened to tar and feather him. Jay Gould later wrote, "how bright a picture is still retained upon the memory, of the frightful appearance they presented as they surrounded that parent with fifteen guns poised within a few feet of his head, while the chief stood over him with fierce gesticulations, and sword drawn. 0, the agony of my youthful mind, as I expected every moment to behold him prostrated a lifeless corpse upon the ground" (Gould, p. 263). John Burroughs, whose father was an Anti-Renter, recalled, "I'd see the sheriff and his posse ride past--twenty or thirty or even fifty men galloping pell-mell--and I was scared. They'd go rushing along on their horses, flourishing swords and muskets. It was a terrible sight for a youngster. My fears were the greater because the posse represented the law, and my sympathies, of course, were with my own people. I was not so afraid of the down-rent Indians." (Johnson, 20-21).
In addition to their persistent fight for justice, tin horns, calico dresses and sheepskin masks, the Delaware County Anti-Renters were known for their songs and poetry, published in Anti-Rent newspapers such as the Voice of the People and the Albany Freeholder. The song below, from an Anti-Rent point of view, is a summary of the conflict in Delaware County from 1845-1846. (The broadside does not mention the tune it was sung to)
The Fall Campaign, Or the Reign of Terror
(ca. 1846. From a broadside. Courtesy of the Delaware County Historical Association Archives)
It was about a year ago,
|John (Jack) Allen was landowner Charlotte Verplanck's land agent, Charles Hathaway a Delhi land agent, and Peter Wright an agent for Charles Hathaway and a lawyer for landowner Charlotte Verplanck.|
||Delhi was an Up-Rent town. Silas Wright (Silas Wrong) was Governor of New York State|
|They told him if he would succeed,
To Andes town he must proceed --
There lived a Farmer, Earle, by name,
And him for Rent he must distrain.
|Moses Earle farmed on Dingle Hill in Andes. He had the money in his purse to pay the back rent but was convinced by his foster child, a strong willed young woman, to withhold it in support of the Anti-Rent movement. Distrain meant to take property (such as cattle) to be sold to pay the rent.|
|The Sheriff was to Andes sent,
The Farmer to distrain for Rent;
And with him three tory hounds --
In Delhi they do much abound.
|The "tory hounds" of Sheriff Green Moore were Constable Erastus Edgerton, Undersheriff Osman Steele, and Peter Wright.|
|"Rast Edgerton and Steele in Co.,
To Hunting's tavern they did go,
The more the Brandy passed around,
The more their courage did abound.
|Hunting Tavern, in Andes, was an Up-Rent tavern. Steele allegedly bragged that "Lead can't penetrate Steele".|
|The brandy to them courage gave --
The heros grew most wondr's brave!
Away they went to try their skill,
The Anti-Renters for to kill.
|The lawmen were not the only ones fortified with liquor: eyewitnesses stated that the Anti-Renters passed a pail of whiskey along their ranks. The odds: 200 armed disguised calico Indians vs. a couple of lawmen|
|They met Peet Wright, a tory lawyer,
He said the Natives dare not fire,
To make them shoot it was his aim,
Two hour or more but all in vain.
|Natives = Calico Indians = Anti-Renters
|They fired upon the Indian band,
To make them run they did intend;
But dearly Steele paid for his fun,
The Indians shot and down he came.
|There is some disagreement over who fired first, but most witnesses indicate it was Steele. The order given by the Indian chief was to "shoot the horses".|
|Peet Wright behind the crowd did flee --
And cried for God's sake don't shoot me!
The Natives they were far to civil,
They should have sent him to the devil.
|A minion of the law was dead,
Throughout the State the news spread;
The lawyers were all overjoyed,
They thought they'd get employed.
|Undersheriff Steele was taken to the Earle farmhouse where he died a few hours after being shot. Reporters from cities as far away as New York City came to cover the uprising.|
|The Delhi Clique, on mischief bent,
A Law and Order posse sent;
They sent the scum of every town,
To put the Anti-Renters down.
|Sheriff Moore went to Albany for aid. Governor Wright declared Delaware County in a state of insurrection. 300 well armed men formed a posse intent on capturing all Anti-Renters possibly connected with the murder of Steele (and some people they just plain didn't like)|
|Drunkards and loafers, mean and low,
To search the county they did go:
A tavern they could not pass by,
Until a score of them got high.
|Temperance (anti-drinking) societies also were prevalent at this time.|
|Their leader was from Middletown,
He was a tarred and feathered clown,
Well qualified to take command
Of such a lawless, brutal band.
|Timothy Corbin led a group of 100 armed men and rearrested Anti-Rent leader David Squires who had not even been at the Moses Earle sale.|
|A law was passed by this same clown,
Which took effect in Down Rent towns
If any one a horn should blow,
The Traitor should to Sing Sing go.
|They many a one to jail did haul,
Who never were disguised at all;
They said that all they took to jail,
Were guilty of the Earle sale.
|William Joscelyn of Delhi was arrested on the statement of a man he had opposed as a candidate of the legislature; Dr. Jonathan Allaben, in New York City at the time of the shooting, was arrested and jailed because he supported the cause.|
|But soon the fearful time arrived,
When the prisoners must be tried;
To Franklin they for Jurors sent,
For there the folks were all Up-Rent.
|Two men for murder they did try,
Judge Parker sentenced them to die;
To them the Boa Constrictor said--
"You shall be hung until you'r dead."
|Despite a lack of solid evidence, Edward O'Conner and John Van Steenbergh were convicted of murder.|
|The savage Howe expressed a hope,
To see them hanging in the rope!
But a reprieve to them was granted--
Lord Howe got sadly disappointed!
|James Howe was Steele's brother-in-law and verbally abused the Anti-Rent prisoners in jail. In the election of 1845, the farmers piled up enough Anti-Rent Whig votes to threaten the reelection of Silas Wright in 1846. Wright decided to commute the death sentences to life imprisonment.|
|It grieved the tories to the heart,
To see the Prisoners depart;
Waters with disappointment stung,
Declared Old Silas should be hung!
|Up-Renters were not pleased that Governor Silas Wright pardoned the prisoners. In January 1846, Wright decided feudal tenures should be examined.|
|The sins of this infernal crew,
The wrath of Heaven on them drew;
They to disease did fall a prey,
By fallen angels led astray!
|The Posse was dismissed at last,
But the disease had spread so fast,
In Delhi half of them did stay,
Unable for to go away.
|But now the Tory War has past,
And Equal Rights prevailing fast;
Law and Order is out of date,
With the People of this State.
|Governor Silas Wright was defeated for re-election in 1846 due to the large number of Anti-Renters who voted for his opponent, John Young. The farmers and their supporters presented Governor Young with a petition signed by 11,000 people asking for the release of all Anti-Renters from State Prison. The men were pardoned and returned home.|
News of the Delhi "Reign of Terror" eventually reached the outside world. The Albany Evening Journal reported, "Shall our fellow men continue to be hunted like wild beasts in the forest, by self-constituted avengers of the violated law...dragged upon mere suspicion before a tribunal exercising, it is said, the powers of the Spanish Inquisition?" (Christman, 190). Thanks to the ballot box, the Anti-Renters began to achieve some political clout. The landholders claims to the land began to come under scrutiny. New laws were passed, usually in favor of the tenants. The landlords became wary of the situation and were tired of meeting resistance when they went to collect the rents; therefore, they finally decided to sell the property to the tenants outright. A few entrepreneurs took advantage of the depressed value of the land and bought land from the original landowners at bargain rates.
Politically, the Anti-Renters were very progressive for their time. They believed in equal rights for all men regardless of race; furthermore, they asserted that there should be no qualifications for right, trust, or profession except merit, integrity, and ability. Some of the Anti-Renters left their stony New York hill farms and reestablished themselves on the fertile prairies of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois. In 1854, a small group of men, including two former Anti-Renters, met in Ripon, Wisconsin and organized the Republican Party.
October 2005. Autumn leaves covered Dingle Hill. SUV's sped up the steep hill past a small plaque commemorating the shooting of Undersheriff Steele and the beginnings of the end of the Anti-Rent conflict. Nothing but the remnants of some foundations overgrown with weeds mark the homestead of Moses Earle and his family. It is said that Earle spent much of the rest of his life building stone walls after his release from prison in 1847. This is Delaware County. The stones remain.
For primary sources, proceed to Letters/Diaries/Newspapers, etc.
For Further Reading
Johnson, Clifton. John Burroughs Talks. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, c1922.
Monroe, John D. The Anti-Rent War in Delaware County New York: The Revolt against the Rent System. Privately published. 1940.
The photo of Anti-Renters, originally labelled, "Disguises of the Anti-Renters, 1845" is adapted from: Delaware County New York: History of the Century, 1797 - 1897, p. 249 (Large image)
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