- Historic Sites
Feudal Lords On Yankee Soil
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
Stephen Van Rensselaer in was a respected, gentle, and apparently benevolent landlord. His numerous good works and amiable nature won Van Rensselaer the name the Good Patroon. But his most appealing quality to his tenants was his laxity in collecting rents.
When Stephen III died, Rensselaerwyck was divided between his two eldest sons. The portion west of the Hudson, the West Manor, went to Stephen IV . The East Manor, east of the Hudson, went to William. The old man also left approximately four hundred thousand dollars in debts. By chance his uncollected back rents also totalled about four hundred thousand dollars. The Good Patroon’s will stated that his debts were to be paid by collection of the back rents.
Word of the patroon’s will sent a shiver through the manor farms. Some back rents on farms in the rockbound Helderberg Mountains, near Albany, had been accumulating for twenty years. Farmers in the hill towns knew that Van Rensselaer’s will, if carried out, would destroy them.
Stephen Van Rensselaer IV , now lord of the West Manor, was not even a sliver off the old block. As a youth he was shipped off to Princeton to cure him of “volatility and arrogance.” Apparently the Princeton cure did not take. The overbearing youth grew to overbearing manhood. In the spring of 1839, as farmers forced their plows through the stony Helderberg fields, Stephen IV issued his first order as lord of the manor. Back rents were to be paid at once in full.
The landlord’s agents dutifully trooped off to the Albany County towns of Berne, Westerlo, Rensselaerville, and Knox, but for the most part they returned to the manor house empty-handed. Instead of paying the rents Stephen IV ’s tenants offered a deal. They asked for the right to buy their farms outright. Stephen IV answered that he would sell some farms—but only in four of the least productive townships and for double the price offered by the tenants. As for the back rents, they must be paid.
Farm leaders called their neighbors to a mass meeting on July 4, 1839, in the town of Berne. In their own declaration of independence the tenants branded Stephen IV the “pretended proprietor” of their lands. “We will take up the ball of the Revolution where our fathers stopped it,” they declared. They would not pay the rent.
Van Rensselaer had the sheriff draw up writs of ejectment against the tenant leaders. The first deputy to serve these papers had his wagon wrecked. The next agent was forced by the farmers to burn the writs. A five-hundred-man posse, led personally by the sheriff, ran into a wall of nearly twenty-four hundred tenants armed with pitchforks and clubs. Finally Governor William Seward dispatched the state militia against the farmers.
Governor Seward was no partisan of the landed aristocracy. But the rent strikers had thrust him into the ageold choice between justice and the law. The Van Rensselaers had the law. Seward told the farmers that if they would cease their resistance, he would recommend that the legislature grant relief from their “odious” condition.
The state legislature appointed a committee to investigate the patroon system. The committee found that Stephen III , “the Good Patroon, had induced poor and illiterate men to enter upon and cultivate the lands by promises which have not been fulfilled and by misrepresentations as to the nature of the leases.” The committee condemned the quarter sale and said the state could use its power of eminent domain to force landlords to sell to tenants at a just price. Strong language, but the legislature’s action fell short of the committee’s fervor. The lawmakers created a two-man commission to negotiate voluntary settlements between the landlord and the tenants, a function in which the commission compiled an unspotted record of nonachievement.
In March of 1840 Stephen IV again dispatched the sheriff to auction off a farmer’s livestock to satisfy unpaid rent. The blast of a tin dinner horn heralded a new form of tenant resistance. Farmers dressed in ludicrous Indian disguises suddenly appeared, their faces concealed by war paint and sheepskin masks. Loose-fitting pantaloons and tunics cut from vivid calico completed their disguises. The “calico Indians” blocked the sheriff’s sale by driving off prospective buyers.
Songs, slogans, and poetry soon became part of the strikers’ arsenal, too. Calico Indians beat up Bill Snyder, a hard-drinking deputy sheriff who enjoyed bullying the farmers, thus inspiring a ballad of many verses to the tune of “Old Dan Tucker,” which ended