Chapter VIII
The Anti-Rent Wars

From "John Burroughs - Boy And Man" (1920)
By Clara Barrus

There is a picturesque and little known episode in our history - the Anti-Rent War - of sufficient importance to warrant introduction here. Occurring somewhat earlier in John's boyhood than the period we are now considering, it was waging around Roxbury and the surrounding country when John was seven and eight years of age, causing serious commotion, particularly through the counties of Delaware and Schoharie. Compared to the Great War of our day the Anti-Rent War was but a tempest in a teapot, and a very small pot at that, yet was a bitter, heartburning period for the elders, while the small boys of Roxbury were tremendously concerned about it, there being spectacular features at times highly entertaining.

The troubles arose over the leased land held by the settlers, for which they had long paid rent unprotestingly, till, coming to regard the rental as an injustice, rebellion arose. According to grants under King George III, great tracts of land in certain sections of New York State had long been held by patroons under various patents, such as the Hardenburgh, the Bradt, the Franklin patents. The Hardenburgh patent, granted in 1708, and the one about which centred the anti-rent trouble in Delaware County, had given to one man and his heirs forever nearly two million acres. Long before the Revolutionary War disputes had arisen as to the boundaries of this patent, owing largely to a clause in the grant, "the main branch of the Delaware," the two branches being so nearly equal as to make it difficult to decide which was the main one. The Indians had long occupied the tract between the two branches, but in 1751 the holders of the patent had purchased the disputed tract. Thus it had come about that a portion of land on the farm where John Burroughs was born (as well as many other farms roundabout) had been yielded to the Hardenburgh heirs by certain Red Men before the War of the Revolution. Some of the Indians who put their marks to the contract bore the following names: Sandervatheverander, Anough, Hendrickhokeau, Swathekeen, Suppau, and Monau.

After the War of the Revolution, the poverty of the settlers, and the hard times generally, prevented them from redeeming the land upon which they had settled, and which in most cases they had vastly improved; and as abuses on the part of the patroons crept in, the settlers chafed more and more under their bondage. There were durable leases, redemption leases, three-year leases, and yearly leases in the various contracts. A durable lease was for " as long as grass grows and water flows," the settler and his heirs to retain possession forever, to use and improve, on the payment of the stipulated annual rental. The terms were usually seven years' rent free; or a yearly rent of a shilling an acre; or one or more fat fowls; or a certain number of bushels of corn or of wheat to the acre, or its equivalent in money. Some leases also required of the tenant one day's attendance and service at the landlord's manor house -- a curious survival of the feudal system in a country but just emerged from a successful war for liberty. Although many of those old leases were worn to tatters, yet they were strong enough to hold the broad acres to which they related, according to their terms. They were uniformly sustained by the courts. One decision went so far as to hold that non-payment of rent for sixty-three years afforded no sufficient presumption of release from the contract as against the old lease, produced and read at trial. Chafing under conditions which they regarded as un just, and which they were powerless to alter, the farmers grew to hate the landlords, and to hate their agents who exacted the hereditary tribute, a feeling which descended from fathers to children, unto the third and fourth gener ations. "How we used to hate the sight of old Kiested who came around to collect the rent," I have heard Mr. Burroughs say. In 1844 the worm began to turn. As most of the tenants were law-abiding citizens, they at first held mass meetings to discuss the injustices from which they suffered, and to devise means for drafting new laws. They formed an Equal Rights Association, and published a paper, The Voice of the People. The upshot of it all was, they pronounced the long-held claims of the lords of the manor fictitious; held that they were therefore justified in defying them; and that the intolerable state of affairs must cease. Those tenants with heavy loads of back rent were the most bitter, but more prosperous farmers also sympa thized with the rebellious attitude. Landlords and ten ants clashed more and more, and thus arose the anti-rent war. Soon, what had started as a righteous indignation degenerated into a lawless, ill-advised attempt at reformation.

Certain members of the Association banded together, masked and disguised as Indians. They formed tribes, appointed chiefs, and held secret meetings, whence they filed out, a motley band, with pranks and war-whoops and a lot of tomfoolery, at the same time seriously bent on creating sufficient public sentiment to overthrow existing authority. The sensational methods adopted by "the Indians" naturally attracted the young and adventurous, and the malcontents-those most likely to carry their pranks to illegitimate lengths.

With painted sheepskins stretched over their heads for masks, and holes cut in for eyes, nose and mouth; with cows' tails tied on behind; sometimes with horns of animals fastened on their foreheads, and feathers In their headgear, the "Indians" looked diabolical enough. Some wore blouses of striped cloth, with fantastic calico trousers; some were encased in meal bags; some decked out in red flannel pantaloons. They met in barns and out-of-the-way places to scheme how to gain their ends. They tormented the up-renters who approved of the rentals, stirred up revolt in the lukewarm, and attempted to intimidate the sheriff, or his deputy, whenever he tried to eject a tenant, or to sell his stock to collect the rent.

The up-renters, as a rule, lived on land not covered by the patents, and had scant sympathy for the down-renters. The father of John Burroughs was a down-renter, a certain strip of the farm, as has been said, being leased land from the Hardenburgh patent. Jay Gould's father was an up-renter.

This burning question divided the school as well as the neighbourhood. There was many a skirmish, and some pitched battles were fought over this grievous question at the little West Settlement school. The up-renter boys going down the road ranged themselves against the downrenter boys going up the road, stoning them as they went by. The down-renters taunted the up-renters with being Tories. The up-renters scorned and spurned their accusers. Even in their snow forts and snowball battles the two factions were pitted against each other.

John remembers once sneaking around a barn where a meeting of the "Indians" was in progress, curious to know what went on at those mysterious gatherings. He had watched the "Indians" steal into the barn from various directions, and, creeping up cautiously, was just about to peep through a crack, when an "Indian" punched him in the face with a straw, which caused him to scamper home.

After one of their indignation meetings the anti-renters sent forth a decree that henceforth the blowing of a farmer's dinner horn should be the signal for the "Indians" to gather at said farm. In this way the farmer could notify the others when the sheriff was about to sell his cows, or otherwise extort the rent. They warned everybody not to blow their horns unless they wished their houses straightway filled with "Indians." John Gould, sturdy and independent, had no notion of letting the anti-renters thus infringe on his rights. He declared he would blow his horn when he wanted to, and, defying the decree, sent forth a rousing blast at mid-day, as usual. In short order, from all directions, hurrying across the fields, came the " Indians." They filled the house and yard. They swarmed about John Gould. They danced and yelled. They smeared him with tar, and, then ripping open a pillow, plastered him with feathers; then, after a few more pranks, giving their war-whoops, disappeared.

The down-renter boys did some crowing over the uprenter boys at school the day after this escapade. Other so-called Tory families were similarly served, and the feeling waxed stronger and stronger.

Many farmers who did not actually join the ranks of the anti-renters sympathized with, and abetted them. The father of John Burroughs was one of these. One day, on hearing that the posse was coming over the hill, and having a somewhat guilty conscience, Farmer Burroughs grew frightened, and, running across the fields to an uncle's, hid under the bed, but left his feet sticking out; and there they found him! Years after he would tell this joke on himself, enjoying it as much as any one.

How excited John used to get on seeing the deputysheriff and his posse of thirty or forty horsemen come cantering along, two by two, on their way to some recalcitrant farmer's house! Sometimes they rushed through the country at breakneck speed, the deputy-sheriff flourishing his sword, the men armed with muskets and horsepistols.

One eventful day John went with his father and mother to an anti-rent meeting over in Red Kill, where an attempt was made to elect Members of Assembly who would presumably frame laws to relieve the oppression. There was much blowing of horns, and a great pow-wow among the grotesque "Indians" who came across the fields in single file, and in small bands, from all directions, thus contributing to the success of a meeting that would otherwise have been a very stupid one, John being the judge. They sang a song composed by a woman over in "Batahvy "-a rousing appeal, to the tune of "Bannockburn":

    Raise the gate and standard high,
    Let the feudal chart pass by,
    Meet them and their power defy
      On our native soil!

From time to time incautious anti-renters were captured and put in jail, mostly for trying to prevent the sheriff from serving papers on the farmers. John remembers a thrilling time when, after such an event, a blustering farmer, Birch Hammond from Red Kill, came over the hills to their house carrying a horse-pistol, and declaring that he was going over to Delhi to get his half-brother, Zeke Kelly, out of jail. He would show them what was what! He wasn't to be trifled with! They would deliver Zeke to him or he would know the reason why! Flourishing his pistol, he stalked about the kitchen making his threats. Little John, watching him in admiration, believed implicitly that he would get Zeke out of jail, believed also that a great hero was in their midst. How mighty he looked looming large in the candle-light!

John looked on, awestruck, as the man laid his horsepistol on the mantelpiece at bedtime with final declarations of what he was going to do.

The lad's dreams that night were of the fierce encounter of the morrow, but as a day and a night, and part of another day, went by, and Hammond showed no signs of terminating his visit, and said no more about going to the relief of Zeke, and the rusty pistol lay undisturbed on the mantelpiece, the boy's illusions about the doughty farmer gradually dwindled away.

Still, these were stirring times, and nearly every day tales were rehearsed of the activities of the "Indians" in first one quarter, then another. Early in 1845 the legislature passed an act making it a misdemeanor for anyone to disguise himself as an "Indian," and proclaimed it a duty for the officials to arrest all such. This caused more caution, but also more hard feeling.

In consequence, the first man in Roxbury to feel the hand of the law was one 'Ras Squires, who as a Chief was known as Big Thunder, charges being preferred against him for tarring and feathering an up-renter, and for purloining the sheriff's papers. The posse and deputy-sheriff visited his house at midnight to arrest him. They found him hidden between the ticks of a bed on which his wife and mother were (supposedly) sleeping. Big Thunder's voice resounded in the little cell of the jail at Delhi after that for a season, and the "Indians" became more circumspect, only to break out some weeks later in some new defiance.

The anti-rent trouble culminated in that locality in the town of Andes: Deputy-sheriff Steele had advertised the stock of Moses Earle for sale, in payment for sixty-four dollars back rent. Indignation rose high among the antirenters, and the "Indians" collected to the number of two hundred in the nearby woods, where they made a hideous racket with horns and drums and war-whoops.

As the sheriff and the agent of the landlord, who had gone there to bid on the property, began to round up the cattle, the "Indians" gathered from the woods to thwart them. Threatening talk and gestures passed back and forth. Trying to reason with the rioters, the agent told them he was there in accordance with existing laws, while they were outlaws; he declared his intention of bidding on the stock, whereupon they told him if he did, he would go home in a wagon, feet foremost. As he persisted in trying to drive the stock near the bars, the "Indians" massed themselves close to the cattle and swore to prevent the sale.

Just then, Steele, and Edgerton the constable, and his posse, appearing on the scene, rode up to the bars. More altercations. It is said that Steele, to arm himself for the fray, had indulged too freely in liquor, and became uncommonly insolent; but it is also said that a pail of whiskey passed along the line of the " Indians." When Steele, with great bravado, charged over the fence in their midst, waving his sword, and the constable called to all citizens to unite in preserving peace, a cry of " Shoot the horses! " arose from the infuriated " Indians," and the volley fell! The horses of both Steele and Edgerton were shot. Steele fell bleeding to the ground. Consternation reigned. Evidently no one had actually intended shooting any man, and at sight of what they had done, the "Indians" fled in a panic. Steele, suffering horribly, was carried into the house, and died in a few hours.

The whole country was roused. Who had fired that fatal shot? As several had fired, it was difficult to fix the crime. Suspicion centred most strongly upon one of the chiefs (Warren Scudder) and alarmed, he fled the country, the infuriated posse on his track. He outwitted them by concealing himself in a peddler's cart where he lay curled up amongst the dry goods and Yankee notions. The peddler stopped from house to house with his wares, while the pursuing posse flew by miles in advance, scouring the country for their prey. The fugitive went down the Mississippi, working on plantations there for several years, after which he returned and took up his old life undisturbed.

Before the excitement died down, however, many a head that had worn its crown of feathers lay uneasy, for the aroused citizens demanded protection for their officials, and punishment of the guilty. Crops were left unharvested, many " Indians" fleeing the country, and many who remained behind were in terror of being apprehended and imprisoned. The Governor (Silas Wright) declared the county in a state of insurrection. His proclamation denounced the lawless methods to which the " Indians" had resorted, but urged law-abiding citizens to set about to right the injustice in a legal way. Following this proclamation, light infantry came from Unadilla and other towns, and soon several hundred men were under arms. Arrests became frequent; the jail was soon filled, and two log-jails were erected to accommodate the overflow. Although two men were convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged, and some were sentenced to prison for varying terms, in the course of a few months these sentences were commuted by the Governor with the approval, it is said, of the community.

In time the excitement died down -- a sort of peace without victory; the farmers ceased their rebellion, and the legislature modified the law to some slight extent; and though rancor and heart-burning continued long in the opposed factions, the tomahawk and the hatchet were buried.

About two years after the shooting of deputy-sheriff Steele, when John Burroughs and his brothers were digging stone in a field one day, they came upon a buried relic of the anti-renters who, it seems, had buried more than the hatchet. There was a hideous mask of stained leather, with horns on the forehead, and with the coarse hair of animals glued on for scalp locks and a beard. They recognized it as having belonged to a left-handed neighbour, Keator, who had been to their house with the band of "Indians," when on their scouting parties. On such escapades the "Indians" would solemnly file into a farmer's kitchen and demand food and drink -- "Me want cider," "Indian want apple," and the like. On being served, this left-handed man had been easily "spotted" by the boys, for he peeled his apples and took his glass of cider in his left hand. Afraid to be found with the " Indian" toggery in his possession after the fatal shooting at Andes, the Benjamite had doubtless hid his mask in that field under the stones.

Even to-day some of the farmers in Delaware County continue to pay rent to the holders of the patents. Certain strips of the Burroughs farm are still levied on to the amount of twenty-five dollars a year, this rent being paid by the man who, as a boy, was so often thrilled by the doings of the belligerent anti-renters.

To learn more about the Anti-Rent War, read:
A Free Soil--a Free People : The Anti-Rent War in Delaware County, New York By Dorothy Kubik 176 pp. Publisher: Purple Mountain Press

Buy it from Amazon.com

  1. For this and several other facts in this chapter I am indebted to Jay Gould's History of Delaware County - (Return)


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