Anti-Rent War

The Anti-Rent War (also known as the Helderberg War) was a tenants' revolt in upstate New York in the period 1839–1845. The Anti-Renters declared their independence from the manor system run by patroons, resisting tax collectors and successfully demanding land reform.

Poster announcing an Anti-Rent meeting in the town of Nassau, New York


The incident began with the death of Stephen Van Rensselaer III in 1839. Van Rensselaer, who was described as having "...proved a lenient and benevolent landowner" was the patroon of the region at the time, and was a descendant of Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, the first patroon of the Manor of Rensselaerswyck. During his life, he preferred to allow rents to accumulate or to accept partial payment when tenants were in financial constraints. However, his leases also included a "quarter-sale" provision, which required tenants who sold their leases to pay Van Rensselaer one fourth of the sale price or one additional year's rent. The patroons owned all the land on which the tenants in the Hudson Valley lived, and used this feudal lease system to maintain control of the region. When he died, Van Rensselaer's will directed his heirs to collect outstanding rents and "quarter sale" payments to apply to the estate debts. When the heirs attempted to collect, tenants could not pay the amounts demanded, could not secure a favorable payment schedule from the heirs, and could not obtain relief in the courts, so they revolted.

The first mass meeting of tenant farmers leading to the Anti-Rent War was held at the top of the Helderberg mountains in Berne, New York on July 4, 1839. They issued a declaration of independence, promising: "We will take up the ball of the Revolution where our fathers stopped it and roll it to the final consummation of freedom and independence of the masses."[1]

In December 1839 the Anti-Renters repulsed a 500-man posse led by Albany County sheriff Michael Artcher and including William Marcy and John Van Buren. Governor William Seward threatened the rebels with 700 militiamen and obtained their surrender. However, an insurrection continued to smolder. Disguised "Calico Indians" resisted tax collection and law enforcement, sometimes tarring and feathering their enemies.[1][2]

In January 1845, one hundred and fifty delegates from eleven counties assembled at St. Paul's Lutheran Church[3] in Berne to call for political action to redress their grievances.[4]


The Anti-Rent War led to the creation of the Antirenter Party, which had a strong influence on New York State politics from 1846–51.[5] Newly elected governor Silas Wright moved in 1845 to stamp out the Calico Indians, and pushed for a law which outlawed disguises.[2]

Trials of leaders of the revolt, charged with riot, conspiracy and robbery, were held in 1845 with Amasa J. Parker presiding. Attorneys included Ambrose L. Jordan, as leading counsel for the defense, and John Van Buren, the state attorney general, who personally conducted the prosecution. At the first trial, the jury came to no conclusion and Parker declared a mistrial.[6] During a re-trial in September 1845, the two attorneys started a fistfight in open court. Both were sentenced by the presiding judge, John W. Edmonds, to "solitary confinement in the county jail for 24 hours." At the conclusion of the trial, one defendant, Smith A. Boughton, was sentenced to life imprisonment. After the election of John Young as governor with the support of the Anti-Renters, he pardoned Boughton.[7]

John Van Steenburgh and Edward O'Connor were sentenced to death by hanging for their involvement in the shooting of Undersheriff Osman Steele, an incident which took place at Moses Earle's farm in Andes, New York during a sheriff's sale after Earle was unable to pay his rent.[8] Earle and two others were sentenced to life in prison.[8] Several others received lesser prison sentences.[8] Governor Young later commuted the death sentences to life in prison.[8]

The New York Constitution of 1846 added provisions for tenants' rights, abolishing feudal tenures and outlawing leases lasting longer than twelve years.[1][2] The remaining manors dissolved quickly as the patroons sold off the lands.[1]

People involvedEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d Miller (1967), pp. 66–69.
  2. ^ a b c Thomas Summerhill, "Anti-Rent Wars (New York)", in Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-class History Vol. 1, ed. Eric Arnesen; Routledge, 2007; ISBN 978-0-415-96826-3; pp. 118–119.
  3. ^ Berne, NY: history, archived from the original on November 5, 2011, retrieved April 15, 2016
  4. ^ Christman, Henry. Tin Horns and Calico, a Decisive Episode in the Emergence of Democracy. ISBN 0-685-61130-2.
  5. ^ Michael Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War, NY: Oxford U Press, 1999, 240-42, 299,591-91,647,655-56.
  6. ^ Bradbury, Anna Rossman (1908). History of the City of Hudson, New York. Hudson, NY: Record Printing and Publishing. p. 147.
  7. ^ Adams, Arthur G. (2003). The Hudson Through the Years. New York, NY: Fordham University Press. p. 243. ISBN 978-0-8232-1676-5.
  8. ^ a b c d "Biography, Osman N. Steele". Officer Down Memorial Page. Fairfax, VA: Retrieved December 7, 2019.
  9. ^ Charles W. McCurdy (2001). Anti-Rent Era in New York Law and Politics, 1839-1865. p. 205. ISBN 9780807825907. It was a bittersweet occasion for Lawrence Van Deusen, president of the Anti-Rent Association of Albany County. Van Deusen took pride in the unity and staying power of his fellow tenants since 1839, when Stephen Van Rensselaer IV ...
  10. ^ McCurdy, Charles W. (2001). The Anti-Rent Era in New York Law and Politics, 1839-1865. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. p. 315. ISBN 978-0-8078-2590-7.
  11. ^ Seton, Anya (1944), Dragonwyck (novel)

Further readingEdit

  • Christman, Henry (1961) [1945]. Tin Horns and Calico: A Decisive Episode in the Emergence of American Democracy. New York, NY: Collier Books – via HathiTrust.
  • Ford, Eric (June 2002), "New York's Anti-rent War 1845–1846", Contemporary Review.
  • Kubik, Dorothy (1997), A Free Soil — A Free People: The Anti-Rent War in Delaware County, New York, ISBN 0-935796-86-X.
  • McCurdy, Charles W (2001), The Anti-Rent Era in New York Law and Politics, 1839–1865, ISBN 0-8078-2590-5.
  • Miller, Douglas T. (1967) Jacksonian Aristocracy: Class and Democracy in New York, 1830–1860. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Reeve, Huston (2004), "Popular Movements and Party Rule: The New York Anti-Rent Wars and the Jacksonian Political Order", in Pasley, Jeffrey L; Robertson, Andrew W; Waldstreicher, David (eds.), Beyond the founders: new approaches to the political history of the early American republic, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, pp. 355–86.