Delaware County NY Genealogy and History Site

Centennial History of Delaware County, New York : 1797-1897
edited by David Murray, LL.D.

Transcribed by Tamara Sanford


AT a preceding page * will be found a list of tracts of land which had been obtained in Delaware county either by grant or purchase. (*See p. 47). The owners of these tracts endeavored to induce settlers to take up farms upon them. Perhaps both the patentees and the settlers were often deceived or mistaken concerning the character of the land which was thus transferred. Much of it was rough, rocky and difficult of cultivations. The farms which were cleared often proved unproductive and the settlers found they had a very serious task to provide for their families and make the payments on their land.

Some of the patentees had from the beginning adopted the plan of selling their lands to the farmers, and making the terms of payment such that they could be met. Others deemed it better policy to give the farmers leases of their farms, granting for the first five years the use of the land without rent, for the second five years requiring half the permanent rent, and then after this requiring a full rent of a certain number of bushels of wheat for each one hundred acres; or sometimes a certain sum of money for one hundred acres. The greater part of the county was originally in the Hardenbergh patent. Some of this great patent, which is said to have contained more than two millions of acres, was, sold in tracts to intermediate purchasers, but most of the remainder had continued to be owned by the heirs of the Hardenbergh associates.

In the report made in the Assembly in 1846 by the committee of which Mr. Samuel J. Tilden was chairman there is contained an account of the leasehold tracts. These may be summarized as follows:

1st, the Kortright tract of which about 20,000 acres were under lease at six pence an acre. 2nd, the Desbrosses tract of 60,000, acres which originally belonged to the Hardenbergh patent, the land had been leased for seven years rent free and subsequently at an annual rent of one shilling an acre. 3rd, the Morgan Lewis tract of 20,000 acres of which 15,000 acres were under perpetual lease, the first five years being rent free, the second five years on a rent of ten bushels of wheat for each one hundred acres, the third five years for fifteen bushels of wheat, and afterwards for twenty bushels of wheat. 4th, the G. and S. Verplanck tract of 20,000 acres under lease. 5th, the B. R. Livingston and Mrs. Montgomery tract of 20,000 acres under lease for twenty bushels of wheat for each one hundred acres. 6th, the General Armstrong tract of 8,000 acres, under three life leases for twenty bushels of wheat for one hundred acres. 7th, the Hunter and Overing tracts under leases for twelve and a half, fifteen and eighteen cents an acre.

In the History of Delaware County, New York, 1880, (p. 65), will be found a lease for a farm on the Coulter brook given by Janet Montgomery to James Thompson, jr., in 1827. This farm was a part of the Hardenbergh patent, and had been inherited by Mrs. Montgomery who was a sister of Robert R. and Edward Livingston. We give a few lines from this lease, which may serve as a sample of the ordinary leases under which the lands of Delaware county were held. "Together with all and singular the trees, woods and under woods to be made use of on the premises and nowhere else; saving and reserving to the party of the first part, her heirs and assigns, all water courses suitable for the erection of mills, with a right to erect mills or other works thereon with three acres of land adjacent, thereto; and also saving and reserving a right to erect dams and out ditches for the use of such water work. And also saving all mines or minerals found on the devised premises with the sole right to dig for and work the same, the said party of the first part compensating for any damage sustained thereby." * * * * "Yielding and paying therefore during the continuance of this present lease, yearly and every year the yearly rent of two fat hens and one day's labor, with a wagon, sled or plough with a yoke of oxen or pair of horses and a driver, at such time and place within ten miles as the party of the first part, her heirs and assigns shall require. * * * * And also it is further covenanted and agreed that upon every sale or assignment of the said premises * * the party of the second part shall pay to the party of the first part one tenth part of the consideration money."

It will be inferred from the statement above that at the time of the breaking out of the Anti-rent troubles in 1844 a very large part of the county was held under lease. No doubt the evils of the leasehold system bore heavily upon the farmers in these rough and unproductive regions. To spare from their little wheat crops enough to pay the landlord his rent was a pinching process, which compelled the families to live upon rye and buckwheat. Or if the rent was payable in money, much of the returns from their little dairies was swallowed up for this insatiable purpose. It followed therefore that when the farmers heard of movements in Albany and Rensselaer counties, in Columbia county, and even nearer at hand in Ulster and Schoharie counties, which promised to abate the evils under which they labored, they eagerly lent an ear to the suggestions of relief. Ambitious agents came amongst the simple minded farmers, suggesting a combination not for the purpose of electing to the legislature members who would secure for them changes in the laws, which would have been legitimate, but encouraging and planning to resist forcibly the processes of law.

The least excusable movement was the organization, in imitation of their friends in Albany, in Rensselaer, in Columbia and other counties of disguised and armed bands of so-called Indians. The avowed object of these bands was to prevent the service of legal papers pertaining to the collection of rent, and to interfere in case sales of property for payment of rent were undertaken by the officers of the law. Most of the persons engaged in these Indian bands were young and inexperienced, and were led into unlawful proceedings without due consideration. It was in this spirit that the outrages upon the Sheriff's officers in Roxbury were committed in 1844.

The legislature in 1845 passed a law making it unlawful for any person to appear in disguise, and if armed as well as disguised the person could be, punished with imprisonment, and fine. Several of those persons thus disguised and armed were captured and punished.

The fatal termination of these proceedings came in the summer of 1845. A farmer by the name of Moses Earl lived upon a farm in Andes about three miles from the village. It was a lease farm belonging to the Verplanck tract, and carried a rent of $32 a year. The rent had not been paid for two years, and the agent determined to collect it by Sheriff's sale. After one postponement the sale was fixed for August 7th, 1845. The Sheriff with a counsel, and with Under-sheriff O. N. Steele and Constable E. S. Edgerton, appeared to conduct the sale. A large body of disguised Indians at least 200 were present and ranged themselves around the cattle which were to be sold. An order was heard given by one of the disguised chiefs "Shoot the horses, shoot the horses". A volley followed which wounded the horses on which Steele and Edgerton rode. Instantly another order was given: "Shoot him, shoot him". Another volley followed and three balls struck Steele. One of these wounds was fatal, and he died after five or six hours.

Following this tragedy was an intense excitement. Meetings were held everywhere throughout the county to deplore and denounce the crime. Rewards were offered for the capture of persons supposed to have been concerned in it: The Governor declared the county in a state of insurrection, and troops were ordered to Delhi to maintain peace and guard the captured prisoners. A court was convened August 22, 1845, for the trial of those who were brought before it. Amasa S. Parker, who only a few years before had left the county to become a Judge, presided.

In all eighty-four persons were either convicted or confessed their guilt, and were sentenced. Two of the number, Van Steenburg and O'Connor, were found guilty of murder and sentenced to be hung. In neither case was it proved, however, that the prisoner had fired any of the shots. Under the circumstances Governor Wright commuted their sentences to imprisonment for life. All the prisoners were transported to the State prison, where they remained in confinement until the winter of 1847, when they were pardoned by Governor Young. There was much criticism of this act of clemency; but the lesson of obedience to law had been thoroughly learned, and not a breath of unlawful excitement has ever been uttered since then.

The Anti-rent question was still agitated, however; but the ammunition used was not bullets, and tar and feathers, but free discussion and votes. The Constitutional Convention of 1846 placed in the now instrument several provisions which served to cure some of the evils under which the leasehold system had labored. New laws were enacted by the Legislature which distributed the burdens of taxation more evenly. The clause in many leases which required a part of the price, in case of a sale by one tenant to another, to be paid to the landlord, was declared illegal and void. The question as to the validity of the titles by which the landlords hold their lands were by direction of the Legislature taken into the courts by the Attorney-General. In two cases the matter was carried to the Court of Appeals and by it decided in favor of the validity of the landlords' titles. Thus, the legal questions which had furnished legitimate grounds for the excitement were disposed of, and the county gradually subsided to its usual condition of quiet and good order.

The circumstance, however, which led to this peaceful solution of an angry question, was the almost universal sale of the fee-simple of the leased lands to the farmers. The experience of the landlords had been so unfortunate for a long time, that they were ready to put a very moderate price on the land, and to make very easy terms of payment On the other hand the tenants had had so severe and memorable a lesson upon the subject of rent paying, that they were ready to meet the landlord at a point more than half way, and become the possessors of their farms. Vast tracts in the county in this way, which before were almost universally under leases, have since then become fee-simple farms. Such an agitation as prevailed in 1845 and 1846 would be impossible now.

Index to Centennial History of Delaware County

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