In This Place: August 6, 2014
Who Shot the Sheriff? We did.
by Trish Adams
Here in upstate New York, 170 years ago, we had our very own version of the “Wild West meets Freedom Fighters.” At issue were centuries-old “durable” leases that held generations of farmers in thrall to absentee landlords; they and their children were doomed to pay rent, year after year, on land they had tilled and toiled but could never own.
In the summers of 1844 and 1845, the Anti-Rent movement changed all that forever. It is hard to believe, in a land where personal property rights are prized with such fervor, that 70 years after the Declaration of Independence there were no such rights here in New York to “A Free Soil.” If you leave this column hungry for the full story, I recommend Dorothy Kubik’s definitive book on this period of the same name.
Like the lost villages, this episode of our history holds me in thrall; you can pretty much bet on an Anti-Rent column from me every year in early August, when the arrogant Under Sheriff Osman Steele was murdered by “Calico Indians” on Moses Earle’s farm, where they were trying to prevent the sale of Earle’s stock to pay withheld rent.
I was gratified to find that our archives hold plenty of Anti-Rent fodder. In January 1914, the News started serializing the entire Jay Gould history of Delaware County. His account of the Anti-Rent War is highly biased towards the law-and-order “Up Renters”; his father’s farm was the scene of frightening confrontations with the “Indians.”
There were so many great bits that I limited myself to a few selections, this first from an Allaben of Roxbury, clearly an “up renter” who despised the rebels. Here he shows a very poor sense of prognostication as well as a “tin ear” to his down-rent neighbors. In March 1845? There was nothing but trouble ahead . . .
Also note that Allaben calls the Tavern in Andes and its owners, “Huntington.” The name of both was Hunting.
September 7, 1945 — Letter Writer Describes Life and Anti-Rent War in 1845
[Editor’s note] Mrs. Dora R. Sutherland of Forestville, Conn., a former resident, sends The News an interesting letter of the days of the Anti-Rent war. It was written to her great-grandmother, Salina Stratton Allaben, in March, 1845 and gives a real description of the days of 100 years ago.
Roxbury, March 29, 1845
I should have written immediately on arriving home but I wished to see the termination of our anti-rent troubles first which, thank Heaven, I think now are closed.
The times have been very troublesome but I think that we for the future shall live in quietness and peace. After Deputy Sheriff Steel had taken Erastus Squires, the Indians of this town were determined to take vengeance of him, they went so far as to say that if he ever came in this town again he would not go out alive. Two weeks ago last Monday Steel [sic] went to Andes to serve some civil processes accompanied by Charles Parker, Constable of Delhi. On their way home they were surrounded by men dressed in disguise and compelled to go back. On reaching the village of Andes they were put ahead of the mob and ordered to a stone blacksmith shop where they intended to confine Steel until they could send word to this place and deliver him to the tribe of Indians in this town. Instead of obeying the Indians they put spurs to their horses and rode to Huntington hotel, called for a room and prepared to defend it which they were well able to do being provided with three six-barreled pistols. The Indians, on arriving were warned not to enter the room, if they did they would do it at the peril of their lives. Mrs. Huntington seized a butcher knife, mounted the stairs and prepared to defend the door that entered their room and on the Chief approaching (who was a very large man) she grasped him by the collar and told him he passed not through that door but over her remains. Such heroic conduct kept these lawless beings at bay until morning. Steel and Parker then on promise of protection from the chief came forth from their stronghold. But notwithstanding the chief used all his influence, they were insulted by those without and their persons were only protected by their determination to shoot down the first man who layed hands on them.
This insult offered to Steel roused him from his lethargy and from that time to this, accompanied by his posse he has been in active discharge of his official duties. On their way home they took a prisoner in Bovina. The following Friday Steel came to this town accompanied by 80 men, on their way here they took G. Preston who was indicted last fall for tarring and feathering Hiram More.
Early Saturday morning the posse in two divisions started to serve more bunch warrants, one about half an hour in advance of the other, They both were to pass by Fullers where the Indians had been gathered the night before. The first division passed by without seeing any Indians but when the other came there they discovered in the opposite road a body of nearly a hundred, by their moves they supposed they were going to rescue the prisoner who was left at Burhans protected by the militia. L M. Follet was sent back to inform the militia of their supposed intentions. On seeing this movement the Indians started to intercept him, finding they were not likely to accomplish this one of them when within 40 rods of him fell on one knee, deliberately aimed and fired at him, the ball passed, Follet says, between him and his horse’s head. The other division having been sent for and arriving they gave chase to the Indians who after firing one or two shots made for the woods as fast as their legs could conveniently carry them but notwithstanding their haste five were taken disguised and two chased into a log house and had removed their disguise before taken. Those taken in disguise were Ezekel Kelly, Lewis Knapp, Ansen K. Burrell, Silas Tompkins (constable and collector of Middletown) and a boy by the name of Vermilia. Those in the log house were Austin of Middletown and Lockwood of Shandaken. Although as I have said several shots were fired by the Indians no one was hurt. The posse the same day conveyed the prisoners to Delhi. The Indians assembled at Bloomville, seven miles from Delhi, for the purpose of attacking the place, destroying the jail and setting the prisoners at liberty but finding the inhabitants of Delhi prepared to receive them and anxious for an attack they finally gave it up and returned to their homes. On Monday last Officer Steel came here and made a number of arrests, the names are Moses Elmore, James Hammond, James Burrell, Oakly Peckham, Ames Oldes, Alvah Inman, Warren Scudder, Alvah Crosby, Henry Wickham and Peter Tiffany. In Batavia Kill and the lower part of this town they could find no one at home, all engaged in the down rent cause, having, upon hearing the posse was in town, left and fled to the woods where, as near as we can judge, they have been ever since only leaving long enough to get a few mouthfuls to eat. All is consternation among them and I believe that every man engaged in it would give the whole that he is worth if he were only out of it. They all, or nearly so, signify their willingness to pay their rent and acknowledge that they were wrong. So I apprehend no more trouble from the Anti-renters. My paper is filled and I must close. I remain. Your son, E. W. Allaben
Talk about getting it wrong! A mere five months later all heck broke out in our area, and the incidents of March as well as Steele’s relentless posse and his arbitrary arrests had done nothing but further fuel the flames of the Down-Renters’ rage. My best discovery in the archives was Mary Bogardus, clearly one of the first to really see the Anti-Renters as a fulcrum of important social change. The Anti-Rent War claimed one man — Osman Steele — but in its legislative and judicial reforms, it brought the power of property ownership to thousands of tenants and made upstate New York’s agricultural economy and way of life viable for a century more. Note that the “lawless beings” have become “stouthearted, freedom-loving” heroes.
February 23, 1945 — The Significance of the Anti-Rent War of 1844-45
By Mary Bogardus
It has ever been true that peoples living midst the turbulent and tumultuous days of history-making, have seldom grasped the underlying significance of their struggle. This has been particularly true of the Anti-Rent War of 1844-45. In the end, it was the stouthearted, freedom-loving men of Delaware County who took up the challenge to the rights of free men and met the adverse consequences of their decision with a daring and courage that makes us proud of our heritage.
The ensuing bitterness between factions has been two full generations a-dying. The very name “Tin-Horn Rebellion”—so called by the fact that horns were used as the only means of summoning neighbors—has abetted the careless historian in the belief that this period was one of contemptible and common quarreling. For too long we have been content to rely on old tales and the prejudice of local historians [read: Gould] in our approach to this important epoch.
The ultimate answer to that challenge exists today, one of the basic creeds of our democratic way of life—the right of free men to call their land their own; to buy or sell or pass on to posterity such land, unencumbered by the demands and privileges of some feudal lord. The signing of a constitution, dedicating a country, did not remove this one tremendous restriction of free enterprise, and it was not until some seventy years later that the issue was brought to a head; not until insurrection and bloodshed had torn apart a section of New York’s peaceful and prosperous agricultural area and hatreds were incurred which were to last yet another hundred years. In the beginning, lands lying along the Hudson River and extending inland for thousands of acres, were granted as “Patents” to wealthy aristocrats who would promise to colonize them. Lured by the promise of a new world of opportunity and the chance of becoming land-owners, stout hearted farmers and tradesmen eagerly accepted the alluring offers of the landlords’ agents.
Either the zeal of those first settlers betrayed them or else their simple untutored minds were grievously hoaxed by the smooth-sounding contracts. Certain it is, that many hundreds of them signed for “lands leased in perpetual fief of inheritance,” little understanding that they were forever relinquishing any right of ownership to the land. Those “durable leases” sounded splendid, often granting a term of years of rent-free land.
It took less than a generation to prove that those feudal leases were abusive and unjust. Long before New England colonies were fomenting rebellion against English authority, the descendants of those first tenants in New York were growing restless in their chains. The very eagerness of New York’s sons to shoulder their muskets and march away to fight for that “promising Democracy about which the man Washington talked so much” was evidence that those sturdy farmers believed, once the war was won and the peoples’ government established, the large estates would be confiscated and divided among those tenants who had paid twice or thrice the value of the land upon which they lived. [But] The Schuylers, the Livingstons, the Hardenburghs and the VanRensselaers who had—shrewdly or luckily—thrown in their fortunes with the colonists, were not called upon to relinquish one iota of their property or privilege.
In New York State alone, agriculture remained chained by feudal laws. With its Executive powers curtailed and its Judiciary appointive and subject to bribery, New York became a seat of corruption and graft as the state rapidly grew in wealth and population.
In 1844 the temper of the persecuted tenants reached the point of open rebellion. Denied a hearing in the courts, their plight discountenanced by the Legislature and ignored by the Governor, they took the law into their own hands. The story of the tribulations of these intrepid men, of their banding together to form a Society—which had, as its original intent, the purpose of welding anti-renters into a strong political party, but which was later branded as a mob of unlawful rioters—of their sufferings at the hands of unscrupulous land-agents and indifferent landlords; of the degradation and misery of persecuted innocent men during the last days of the revolt—that story is far too long for telling in this brief summary.
In 1845, under the whiplash of unfavorable publicity attending a murder trial [of Steele] in Delaware County, the State Legislature was forced to give attention to the injustices perpetuated by feudal privileges. It is interesting to note that the one newspaper of the day which dared defend the “Downrenter’s” rebellion was the New York Tribune, edited by Horace Greely. There is no doubt his championship contributed immensely to the public's better understanding of the tenant’s grievances. Of even greater importance than the abolishment of feudal privilege, were the Constitutional reforms which came about at a Convention. Foreward thinking men sat at that Convention and wrote a new and far more liberal charter. Sweeping reforms in elective franchise, powers of the Governor and, most important of all— reorganization of the Judiciary were promulgated. Charles O’Connor of Delaware County, who became one of the foremost jurists of the world, was a guiding light in those reforms which made Judges elective rather than appointive — an important step in checking bribery and graft in the law courts —and created a Court of Appeals. Thus the Anti-Rent War served in pointing a way to a more liberal state government.
The Governor of the day designated the whole affair a “disgraceful and untimely insurrection.” Inasmuch as an insurrec- tion becomes a war when the re- bellious party assumes a political form, it seems to me that the Anti-Renters (known idiomatically as “Downrenters”) DID wage a war. They dominated a State Constitutional Convention where fifty of the delegates of the one hundred and twenty-eight were farmers. Considering the scope of the social reforms that the struggle evolved, I believe that the era—so long neglected —should be studied in a new and brighter light. It becomes increasingly clear that democracy is never free of the insidious tentacles of autocracy.
June 2, 1961 — Roxbury Prominent In Anti-Rent War
The first meeting of the anti-renters in 1844-45 was held in the public house of Thomas Keator of Roxbury, said Dr. Albert E. Fitzelle of Oneonta at a recent meeting of the Delaware County Historical society at Andes.
Last spring a good novel, “Crisis in the Catskills,” by Mary Bogardus came out. The authoress was present at the Andes meeting and explained that she had taken poetic license with her book in order to make it more readable. But that all the facts were true. There is a fine line between fact and fiction.
In the early summer of 1844, the first meeting of the Anti-renters was held at the public house of Thomas Keator in Roxbury. The meeting was well attended and the leaders were in Indian attire. The first open act of hostility took place at the farm of John B. Gould of Roxbury, father of Jay Gould. The shooting of Undersheriff Osman W. Steele on Aug. 6 [sic], 1845, at the Moses Earl farm on Dingle Hill, near Andes, was comparable to the Battle of Gettysburg. In 1945, a celebration was held on Dingle Hill and a large crowd witnessed the erection of a marker at the foot of the hill to commemorate the event. Today there is nothing left of the Moses Earl farm except the remains of a fireplace covered by brush.
And now, I’m going to see if I can hunt up a copy of “Crisis in the Catskills” — I’ll get back to you on the “fact vs. fiction”!