A Catskill Catalog: Oct. 8, 2008

I am looking at a map of the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson Valley in 1750. The two- million-acre Hardenbergh Patent contains most of the Catskills, including half of Delaware, Greene, and Ulster counties, and three-quarters of Sullivan. This huge land grant, given to a group of speculators by Queen Anne in 1708, stretches from just southwest of the Village of Catskill to just north of the Village of Monticello, from the West Branch of the Delaware to just beyond today’s Ashoken Reservoir.
The Hardenbergh Patent is merely the largest of dozens of land grants that appear on the map of colonial New York. I count 23 patents, 13 manors, and a host of tracts, forming a jigsaw puzzle of land ownership in New York province under British rule. Some seem familiar. Kingston Patent, Hurley’s Patent, Marbletown Patent, Rochester Patent, and New Paltz Patent formed the basis of towns in our region. Others seem a bit strange: Chesecock’s Patent and Kakiate Patent don’t exactly roll off the tongue.
This hodge-podge of patents, manors, and tracts came to dominate land-ownership patterns in New York due to several historic factors. The Dutch government claimed the lands Englishman Henry Hudson explored in 1609, an expedition financed and controlled by Dutch business interests. In order to spur development, the Dutch offered huge tracts of land to developers who would sponsor immigrants, foster settlement, and exploit the resources of the new world. Because the river was the center of the colony, land grants were long stretches of shoreline, typically many miles, and all the land beyond the river for miles and miles inland.
By far the largest of the Patroonships, as the Dutch called these huge estates, was Rensselaerwyck, granted by the Dutch government in 1629 to Killiaen Van Rensselaer, “Patroon of the North River of New Netherland.” His manor stretched 24 miles “above and below Fort Orange, on both sides of the river,” Fort Orange is today’s Albany, and the Patroon’s land comprised all of today’s Albany and Rensselaer counties, 726,000 acres.
The English conquered New Netherland in 1664, with a mostly bloodless show of force that led the practical Dutch to cut their losses and turn administration over to their more powerful rivals. The English King Charles, whose father had been beheaded in a rebellion 15 years earlier, had recently been restored to the English throne after a period of puritan republican radicalism in London. He wasn’t interested in New England style colonial communities. He turned New Netherland over to his brother, James, the Duke of York. James appointed governors who sought to create an outpost in the New World that reflected the land-ownership patterns of the Old World.
A series of colonial governors converted the Dutch Patroonships to English manors and granted manors and patents to one wealthy British aristocrat or striving wannabe after another. By 1698, a colonial official complained that, “This whole province is given away to about 30 persons.”
The proprietors of these large tracts all agreed that their land would remain forever intact, never “alienated in fee simple,” legalese for sold outright. Instead, a novel legal form was created: the “lease in fee,” a perpetual lease that granted use of the land and inheritance rights for the settlers while maintaining the enduring ownership interest of the lord of the manor. Settlement terms were often attractive: the first seven years of rent were free, followed by an annual rent of, maybe 10 to 14 bushels of wheat per 100 acres farmed. Of course, the landlord retains all mineral rights and water rights forever.
By 1785, the price of wheat was high and land-hungry sons and daughters of New England farmers flocked into Albany, as many as 500 families a day, migrating to New York’s wilderness looking for land. Like the adjustable rate sub-prime mortgages of our day, the proprietor’s lease in fee was powerfully seductive – no money down, no payments for seven years, followed by a low, low annual fee, and wheat prices soaring! Lots of settlers settled on leaseholds, over 3,000 on the Manor of Rensselaerwyck alone.
In fact, inspired by American republican principles and the smart-business desire to keep his tenants productive during a later period of falling wheat prices, Stephen Van Rensselaer III, had rarely collected rents from his tenants, many of whom were second or third generation on the same farm when Van Rensselaer III died January 26, 1839. His heirs, his two sons, were forced to begin rent collection that year, in order to pay the many debts the estate owed.
Lease-holding farmers had already suffered under the New York state-specific “lease-in-fee” legal justification of feudalism. They largely missed out, in the mid-1830s, on the growth opportunities provided by rising agricultural prices because their lack of clear land-title made it impossible to raise capital by mortgaging their land. This sudden collection of long-dormant rents was the last straw.
On the Fourth of July, 1839, tenant farmers in the Helderberg Mountain section of the Rensselaerwyck Manor held an angry assembly in the Albany County Village of Berne. They published an Independence Day Proclamation, publicly equating their lease-holds with “voluntary slavery” and proclaiming to the world, “we can no longer endure the infamy of tamely entailing upon future generations such wretchedness and unhallowed bondage as inevitably awaits them if we any longer submit ourselves to be thus unjustly, unrighteously, inhumanly oppressed and imposed upon.”
The Anti-Rent War had begun. It would not end until our own Delaware County was in open insurrection.