Feudal Lords On Yankee Soil

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Anti-rentism was a key issue along the Hudson in the election for governor in 1844. But it was an issue that produced more artful dodging than articulation. Both Whigs and Democrats were split on the question. To politicians and the press the rent strike was either a holy cause or a holy terror in direct ratio to anti-rent strength in an area.

The Whig candidate for governor, an ambitious Buffalo lawyer named Millard Fiilmore, managed a masterful silence on anti-rentism. The Democrats nominated Silas Wright as their standard-bearer, highly esteemed as the Cato of the United States Senate, a man of liberal bent but stern will. Wright had no more to say directly about the incendiary issue than Fillmore. But Wright’s agents talked “down-rent” in tenant country and “up-rent” where that worked.

Though Wright’s election left the strikers with an uncertain quantity in the state capitol, they had reason to celebrate on election night. Horns blared and bonfires burned in the hill country when they learned that the four legislative candidates they supported had won.

On December 18, 1844, anti-renters began arriving in Smoky Hollow in Columbia County to hear Boughton speak. Thousands gathered around Barn’s Tavern while the Indians, including Big Thunder, switched into calico disguises inside. The Indians began filing out, shouting, shooting, and weaving about with cow horns thrusting from their fiercely painted masks and animal tails bobbing on their backs. Amidst the war whoops and wild posturing a young spectator slipped to the ground almost unnoticed. Blood bubbled from a wound in the boy’s chest, the result, probably, of a stray shot. Big Thunder appeared on the second-floor balcony of the tavern. But in place of the searing denunciations of the landlords that the crowd had come to hear he had to dismiss his audience out of respect for the dead youth.

Sheriff Henry Miller heard of the killing and dashed to Barn’s Tavern. He arrested Boughton, who had earlier shed his Indian disguise, and a lesser calico Indian called Little Thunder. Boughton was thrown into a carriage and hauled off to jail in the nearby city of Hudson and initially charged with manslaughter, the theft of legal papers, assault, riot, and conspiracy.

From the surrounding hills came the incessant wail of tin horns. Torches lit up the night sky across the Hudson River as anti-rent forces mobilized. The strikers sent an ultimatum: free the prisoners or a thousand calico Indians would march on Hudson and burn the place down. Five hundred volunteers were called to duty and strengthened later by the arrival of troops from Albany and New York City. The mayor of Hudson spoke at a public meeting and fuelled everyone’s anxiety by warning, “Remember, citizens, no pplicy of Insurance will cover losses by Fire when caused by Invasion or Insurrection or Civil Commotion.”

As time passed, fear of an attack faded, and the troops were sent home shortly after New Year’s Day, 1845. Fear of Boughton’s incendiary oratory, however, remained high. Antirent lawyers went to Hudson with pledges of two hundred thousand dollars, but bail was denied him.

 

Soon after the Boughton arrest Governor Wright delivered his first message to the legislature. It was a stern warning to the strikers that they could expect no relief as long as they followed the lead of dangerous men of violent methods. To combat those methods Wright asked for and the legislature approved a law making it a crime to appear disguised and armed.

Back in Hudson the Boughton trial ended that March, when not enough witnesses could be produced to identify the defendant as Big Thunder. Boughton was finally released on bail in July, after more than six months in jail, pending a second trial.

The Independence Day celebrations of 1845 revealed the swelling strength of the anti-rent movement. Five thousand farmers gathered in Delaware County to hear Erastus Root, an old militia general and bitter landlord foe, declare: “Franklin and Washington were great men. They broke the sceptre of a great tyrant. Let us little folk try to break the sceptres of little tyrants.”

Schoharie County roads were clogged that Fourth of July with farmers who came to watch fifteen hundred calico Indians drill and to hear a new ballad that went

 

Hardy tillers of the soil, Men of sweat, and dust, and toil, Awake! No longer be the spoil Of Patroonery!

The sensation of the Albany County celebration was a mammoth platform said to cover almost an entire acre and drawn by eleven yoke of oxen, carrying a hundred strikers from Clarksville.

The spring and summer of 1845 were the hottest and driest in memory. In Delaware County, amid the Catskill Mountains, tenant farmers like old Moses Earle watched the grass wither and pastures turn brown. Earle, who had spent fifty years tilling the soil his father had originally leased, fell two years behind in his rent to Charlotte Verplanck. She was a descendant of Gulian Verplanck, who had acquired 280,000 acres of the Hardenbergh patent about a hundred years before.