America On The Hudson

Where soldiers gather, camp followers appear, and by 1887 Hudson was called the most lawless city on the river.

“That’s very good. But it’s ‘The man is waiting for the bus.’”

The instructor was a state employee working with immigrants from Cambodia, Latin America, and Bangladesh. I have lived for 35 years in the county south of Hudson, and I can very well recall when foreign exotica in these parts meant a Chinese restaurant.

Hudson’s prosperity was interrupted by the early-nineteenth-century British-French disputes, when the navies of both countries were seizing American ships, and by President Jefferson’s Embargo Acts. After that, all went well, and there were so many vessels at the wharves that it was not unknown for the bowsprit of a wedged-in ship to come crashing through the window of a Proprietor’s waterfront mansion, below the 50-foot bluff crowned with the carefully laid-out Parade Walk on Promenade Hill, which had spectacular views up and down America’s Rhine. The riverside mansions are gone now, torn down long ago for replacement by warehouses and the needs of post-Civil War industrial shipping. Promenade Hill is unchanged from Quaker days, though, and lower Warren Street, once the city’s premier address, is dotted with brilliant Federal houses. One such, today the D.A.R. chapter house, was the home of a member of the wealthy Jenkins clan, a leader of which possessed a fortune that may have been in the $250,000 range. That George Washington’s half a million made him the young United States’ richest man suggests the Jenkinses’ situation. One family member, Gen. William Jenkins Worth, the first U.S. Army general to enter Mexico City during our country’s defeat of that land in the late 1840s, is buried under an obelisk on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Both Fort Worth, Texas, and Lake Worth, Florida, were named for him.

It was precisely when General Worth’s activities were making him Hudson’s most distinguished son that his hometown solidified the reputation that made it nationally famous for a century and more. I know that a portion of my readers, primarily gray-haired gents, have with knowing smiles been asking themselves, “Will he tell about the real Hudson?” He will. Here it comes.

With all the daily docking of ships carrying 30 or 50 paid-off men back from months at sea, enterprises catering to their needs prospered along Diamond Street, which today is Columbia Street. Hudson may have been a residence of sedate and worthy souls, of houses “beautifully embowered” and with verandas, cupolas, turrets, and corbels, a lovely New England town in the Dutch Hudson Valley, but the guidebooks didn’t mention Diamond Street. Even so, as early as 1843 the Common Council was decrying “the numerous houses of ill fame with which our city is disgraced.”

Then Diamond Street’s sole industry exploded, beginning when the tenants of the manor lords, still living as they had under the Dutch and English, asked if near-feudal servitude must remain their lot as freeborn Americans. In late 1844 hundreds of oddly attired men—they wore masks decorated with cow horns and calico dresses hung with animal tails—paraded around Columbia County, blowing on tin horns and bearing spears, tomahawks, clubs, and firearms.

“Down with the rent!” sounded their leader, Big Thunder, identified at his later trial as Smith Boughton. “Do not pay!” Tin horns sounded from those soon known as the Calico Indians.

“Do the palefaces agree?” Approving roars came from onlookers not in costume. Sheriffs sent with writs for repossession of farms found the papers seized and consigned to blazing tar barrels. Big Thunder was arrested and confined. Torchbearers surrounded Hudson, tin horns blasted, and the authorities were told that if Big Thunder was not released, the Calico Indians would burn the town to the ground.

It was an insurrection. The Hudson Light Guards were mobilized and civilians sworn into service to man four artillery pieces. The Albany Burgess came from the state capital, along with the Albany Republican Artillery and three more companies of militia, soon joined by Captain Krack’s Cavalry, formed exclusively of German-Americans who sailed the 115 miles from New York City. The masses of troops settled in to await Boughton’s trial. The jury couldn’t agree on a verdict in the first trial. The second trial, which resulted in a life sentence, was held in September 1845. (Within a year, however, he was pardoned, and a new state constitution ended Hudson Valley feudalism.)