The Anti-Rent War

Anti-Renters posterThis week we've been reading a bit about a wild episode of local history that we hadn't know much about: The Anti-Rent War, also known as the Helderberg War. Here's a clip that gives a broad outline of the story from The Anti-rent Era in New York Law and Politics, 1839-1865 by Charles W. McCurdy:

On July 4, 1839, angry tenant farmers on New York's oldest estate assembled in the Albany County village of Berne to adopt a declaration of independence from their landlord. Nobody counted heads that afternoon. But 3,063 families leased farms on the 726,000-acre Manor of Rensselaerwyck, and all of them had cause to complain. Manor contracts required an annual rent for every 100 acres ranging from ten to fourteen bushels of wheat, delivered to the landlord and ready for milling. All mill sites and mines were reserved, together with all rights necessary and proper to make them available to the Van Rensselaer family or its agents. Mills might be built, cropland or pasture flooded, and roads laid out on the tenant's premises without payment of compensation. There were also feudal dues. Every year farmstead heads owed a day's labor with horse and wagon and were bound to deliver "four fat fowl" on rent day ... Every indenture enumerated remedies for breach of this or any other covenant. Among them was the landlord's right to reenter the premises and repossess not only the land but also any improvements -- houses barns, fences, growing crops -- annexed to the land. Taken together, proclaimed the Independence Day mass meeting at Berne, these contractual provisions amounted to "voluntary slavery." The time had come to avow "that we can no longer endure the infamy of tamely entailing upon future generations such wretchedness and unhallowed bondage as inevitably awaits them if we any longer submit ourselves to be thus unjustly, unrighteously, inhumanly oppressed and imposed upon." So began the longest rent strike in United States history.

The whole situation was something like a super intense version of an American Downtown Abbey that mashes together the remnants of Dutch influence, economics, agriculture, and politics.

The death of Stephen van Rensselaer III -- probably the richest person in the United States at the time -- prompts a breakup of the patroon of Rensselaerswyck, what was essentially a feudal estate that included much of what's now the Capital Region. Authorities try to collect back rents. Farmers revolt, taking up arms against law enforcement. A posse that included a former governor of New York is turned back. There's a revolt leader named "Big Thunder." William Seward plays a role as governor of New York. People are tarred and feathered. Again, it was intense.

A portion of McCurdy's book is on Google Books, and it looks like a good way of reading up on the topic. There's also a Wikipedia entry related to the episode. And here's an Encyclopedia of New York State page about it.

Old Songs: We started reading about this topic this week because Old Songs is hosting a "Down with the Rent! The Anti-Rent Rebellion of New York" music event this Friday and Saturday featuring songs and stories related to the Anti-Rent Revolt. Tickets are $20.

image via Wikipedia


The anti-rent war appears in a Vincent Price movie (I think it was his first starring role) called "Dragonwyck." The film was made in 1946 based on a 1944 novel of the same name.

In it, Price plays an "evil" patroon. Gene Tierney is the female lead. I have it on VHS but haven't been able to watch it for a while. There's a great scene when Price responds to his agitated tenant farmers with some surprisingly compelling logic about the power of collectively bargaining and the shared use of his grist mill . Even though I don't agree with the whole faux feudalistic patroon system, Price's speech (as Patroon) was prescient as many of the descendants of those farmers would eventually lose their farms to new economics.

Here's the wiki entry:

Movie is based on novel by Anya Seton "Dragonwyck".. national best seller -1944 And a great read. - Jane Austen meets Edgar Allen Poe, with a hint of Ethan Frome and Psycho.. against a backdrop of really well written and reseacthed history.

I learned about the Anti-Rent war a few years ago, and wonder why it isn't highlighted more as part of this Region's history. I think that a regional "Anti-Rent" holiday should be created, in a similar theme to May Day or Guy Fawkes Day.

I guess having it on July 4th wouldn't be a great option, but are their any other dates associated with the movement?

I recall from "Tin Horns and Calico" that 1300 men and boys came down Cass Hill to Clarksville. They tarred and feathered the sheriff, hung him on a pole like a pig, and carried him to the jail in Schoharie, where the sheriff was sympathetic to their cause.

"Tin Horns and Calico" was a good read. Most people seem unaware of this part of American history. Target earned my eternal enmity by tearing down the DeFreest/Church house in East Greenbush.
The house would have outlasted the Target, and could have been a museum or something. It looks as if the Vedder cemetery will outlast Rotterdam Square Mall, now in its own death spiral.

This is one of those legends that are endlessly regurgitated from "Tin Horns and Calico," a biased account perpetrated by the descendants of the anti-renters. How long do you have to rent an apartment before the landlord has no rights to it? The answer is, obviously, he always owns it no matter how long you live there. The same with renting a farm. Why is that so hard to understand?

The remark that all the tenants had cause to complain is flat-out not tru4. There were no anti-renters in the towns along the Hudson River where the soil was rich. The complainers were the latecomers who settled in the hills where the soil was thin and the land uneven and rocky. Many of them were New Englanders who could not afford a farm back home and who at first liked the low rents and high ground which they considered healthier living. But nobody forced them to stay there if they eventually thought it was such a bad deal. They wanted the farms but they didn't want to pay rent to the owner or perform services which had been spelled out in the original contract they had signed.

I have no idea what the writer means by the mills offering no compensation. The operator of the mills received the profits, except for the agreed upon cut for the landlord specified in their contract, so many board feet of lumber from a saw mill, so many bushels of grain for a grist mill.

A renter generally received a farm with house and outbuildings and livestock. If not so equipped, he was spared the first ten years' rent. The day's labor was dedicated to either helping in clearing land and building structures for future tenants, or repairing the road which passed your house, as was required by town and county governments generally in the days before salaried highway departments.

One or two fat fowl rent was more typical than the four the writer cites, which was the dues for a really large plantation. And ten to fourteen bushels of wheat per 100 acres sounds like a lot more than I ever remember seeing in a lease.

The writer mentions none of the pluses. A lifetime lease granted the lessor the right to pass it on to his children in his will, or sell it, or sell half and give the other half to his sons, so long as the patroon received a quarter price of the sale. In the early days of the Republic only property owners had the right to vote, but holders of lifetime leases were included among those considered eligible to vote. Most farmers not on Rensselaerswyck could not afford to own sufficient property to qualify.

The comment that Stephen van Rensselaer was probably the richest man in America (?) overlooks the fact that he had other interests, banking and such, which provided him with sufficient income that he never bothered the tenants when they didn't pay their rents, which with some went on for years. But after his death, the State of New York socked his sons with huge inheritance taxes, and the only way they could pay them was to start collecting back rents. And then the howl went up, that people were now required to pay up what they owed.

Calling it a feudal estate is just name-calling. It was a perfectly legal operation under the State Constitution, as determined by the state Court of Appeals. But by then the heirs were sick and tired of the whole business and that is when the breakup of the estate began and not at Stephen's death -- offering to sell the farms to the persons living on them, and if they chose not to buy, then the property was sold to someone else.

The scoundrels in this epic were not named van Rensselaer. If a day is set aside to celebrate that era in history, let it be the generous and accommodating van Rensselaers who at least were honest and law-abiding citizens, and who did so much to help poor but honest people who were willing to work to attain status in the community.

@ Peter Christoph,

"Calling it a feudal estate is just name-calling. It was a perfectly legal operation under the State Constitution, as determined by the state Court of Appeals."

Medieval feudalism was also a perfectly legal operation.

Though you certainly present a thoughtful counter argument to the anti-rent side.

One thing... in my comment above, I misremembered where that speech by the fictional patroon in "Dragonwyck" actually appears. It is only lightly touched upon in the movie. It appears in full in Anya Seton's novel. I'll see if I can dig it up, as it compliments your sentiments above.

My sympathies are with the anti-renters in the end. But nothing in human affairs is ever "black and white" and the Van Rensselaers certainly contributed greatly to the region by founding three schools (two of which I attended) and the Erie Canal and many other valuable amenities in our region.

P.S. The reference to William Seward's involvement. If I remember the story correctly, he was on his way down to Hudson to try to free "Big Thunder" from jail when he flipped his carriage over.

Seward was a reckless driver and often flipped his carriage. In the end that saved his life, though. Because later, while in DC serving Lincoln, he flipped his carriage. And was wearing a neck brace at the time an assassin broke into his house to stab him. The knife cut his throat but Seward was largely saved because of the neck brace.

The bloody sheets from that incident are on display at the Seward house in Auburn. That knife was once in display at Union college as part of an exhibit about Seward, Union College class of 1820.

The rent is too damn high!

Stephen van Rensselaer, the 'Good Patroon' let rents go unpaid during his lifetime. His heirs were not so kind and demanded back payments. This brought out the pitch forks and the torches, and began the unraveling of this quasi-feudal system. Unrest spread to other regions which then led to land reform legislation, which marks a significant step towards universal suffrage. Land ownership for many is a major milestone in spreading Democracy in our early U.S. history. Once again, important history was made in our neck of the woods.
(Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy, pp. 591-593.)

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