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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"Down With the Rent" Banner

The above photo of the historic "Down with the Rent" banner located in the Grafton Town Hall suffers from glare and is somewhat hidden behind a bell that was removed from one of the town's churches. But its story is interesting. The write-up below was in a brochure made available at the Town Hall.

The Anti-Rent Wars were fought throughout the Hudson Valley of New York State on land manors from the late 1830's through 1850's. Although it is a little remembered chapter of New York history today, it had significant political and economic implications at the time which continue to resonate even today. An archaic feudal land holding system was in existence from the 17th through the 19th century on the estate of the Patroon of Albany and Rensselaer counties, and of other estates in the lower Hudson Valley. It gave farmer tenancy to the lands in perpetuity, but blocked the sale of the property to the men who worked the land. After many years of lax rent collection, large back rent accounts accrued in Rensselaerwyck Manor.  This vast holding was comprised of 3/4 million acres and had more than 3,000 tenants. When the so called "good patroon," Stephen Van Rensselaer died, his will specified that all back rents be collected immediately to settle his debts. The tenant farmers were stunned and dumbfounded. Efforts to collect these back rents made delinquent farmers desperate. They organized a political movement known as the Antirenters Party whose symbol was the hatchet held by the Indian on the banner. It lobbied for legislative redress, electing enough members to constitute 1/8 of the legislature from 1842-1847. Many meetings and assemblies were held. Local Anti-Rent Associations were formed including the Grafton Anti-Rent Mutual Protection Association. They had at least 62 dues paying members including Peter Hydorn. [Rensselaer County Historical Society] Meanwhile the farmers withheld further rent payments. Sheriffs and their deputies were dispatched to collect the rents or evict the farmers and their families and auction off household goods to pay back rents. Farmers resisted, dressing in calico "dresses" and leather masks to disguise themselves. They called themselves Calico Indians. Tin dinner horns were used to summon neighbors for help when the sheriff arrived or when bands gathered to dissuade tenants from paying their rent. Armed resistance included threats and acts of violence including one in Grafton in 1944. A band of about 36 Calico Indians approached Elijah Smith who was cutting wood for the Patroon. The heated exchange led to the gunshot death of Smith.

Another documented anti-rent activity in Grafton was the preaching by Rev. Peter Stover on the tax collection. The so-called taxes or fees of 3 cents per acre of leased land were imposed on members of the Grafton Ant-Rent Association. Some of the monies were used to fund the costs of attorneys in lawsuits related to the Anti-Rent activities. Other documents suggest some of the monies were used to buy ammunition for Calico Indian members. [Grafton Historical Society - Hydorn Collection] This is reported to have split the Methodist congregation and 25 families left the church.
Finally, legislation was enacted and a constitutional amendment was passed at the state constitutional convention in 1846 which made it illegal to lease land for agricultural purposed for more than 12 years. The wars died out in the 1850's. A few small remnants survive to remind us of the conflict.

This banner is a significant artifact because it is a unique object of this historical period which had both political and economic implications for the state. It is also an excellent example of folk art of the period.

The banner belonged to Peter T. Hydorn (1812-1876), a Grafton resident and documented member of the Grafton Anti-Rent Association.