This is the sixth of a series of entries from the script used on April 21, 1955, when citizens of Bovina presented a pageant of the town's history - "Bovina Center, My Home Town." Though I'm not 100% sure, it appears the script was written by Vera Storie and her brother Fletcher Davidson. The items in brackets refer to the tableau of local citizens acting out parts of the story. [Sections I and II are in the May 21 blog entry, sections III and IV are in the June 21 blog entry, section V is in the July 21 entry, section VI is in the August 21 entry and section VII is in the September 21 entry.]
VIII. The Anti-Rent Trouble
Tracts of land in Delaware County were either given by grant or were purchased; and then the owners induced the settlers either to buy or to lease parts of this land from them. Some owners sold their lands to the settlers and made terms of payment such that they could be met. Others gave the settlers leases of their farms, granting the first five years’ use of the land without rent, and then requiring the payment of half of the permanent rent for the second five years, and then after that requiring the payment of full rent. In this way in New York State a few families, intricately intermarried, controlled the destiny of 300,000 people and ruled in almost kingly splendor over 2,000,000 acres of land. A large part of Delaware County was held under lease; and the evils of the lease-hold system bore heavily upon the farmers since much of the land was rough, rocky and difficult of cultivation. Farms were often unproductive, and settlers found they had a serious task to provide for their families and to make payments at the same time on their land. They, therefore, eagerly lent an ear to suggestions of relief; and in October 1844, this group met for the first time in Bovina at the hotel of John Seacord, the hotel located on the present site of Alex Hilson’s home. In imitation of their friends of Albany, Rennselaer, and Columbia Counties they formed an organization, which joined in disguised and armed bands of so-called Indians in warpaint and calico whenever it was necessary to resist an eviction. And they used their tin dinner horns to signal from farm to farm to bring to each eviction the jeering crowd of masked anti-renters [*Anti-renters]. Often too they would harass the landlord’s hirelings and sympathizers and engage in many pranks, an example of which occurred when some young roistering blades caught Timothy Corbin, stripped this dandy to his ruffled shirt, applied a bucket of tar and Dam Kelly’s best featherbed, and sent him homeward on his two mile walk in the frosty morning. However, the more serious object of these bands was, of course, to prevent the service of legal papers pertaining to the collection of rent and to interfere in the case of sales of property undertaken by officers of the law for the payment of back rent. Most of the persons engaged in these Indian bands were hot-blooded, reckless young men who were led into unlawful proceedings without due consideration. Therefore, in 1845 the legislature passed a law, making it unlawful for any person to appear in disguise; and armed as well as disguised, the person could be punished by imprisonment and fined. The fatal termination of these proceedings came in the summer of 1845.
Farmer Moses Earl lived on a leased farm in the town of Andes, three miles from the village, which carried a rent of $32 a year. The rent had not been paid for two years, and the agent was determined to collect it by sheriff’s sale. Under-Sheriff Steele and Constable Edgerton appeared on horseback to conduct the sale. About 200 disguised Indians were present and to hinder the sale, arranged themselves around the cattle to be sold. A pail of liquor, brought fro the house, was passed to each of the members of the Indian band; and the excitement reached a high pitch. As the officers of the law made ready to force the sale, an order was given by one of the disguised chiefs, “Shoot the horses! Shoot the horses!” A volley followed which wounded the horses upon which Steel and Edgerton rode. As Steele in return fired, almost instantly another order was given, “Shot him; shoot him.” Another volley followed; and three balls struck Steele, one of these wounds being fatal, causing his death five or six hours later. Intense excitement followed. Rewards were offered for the capture of the persons supposed to have been concerned in this regrettable affair. The hunt for murderers began, and Indians and witnesses fled. Indian dresses were burned or hidden in secret places; such as in the cookie jar. Men hid in the woods, in the haymows, and in far off places. Every house was ransacked in search of disguises, the only evidence needed to prove that someone in the house had been present at the murder. The men skulking in the woods didn’t dare to go home. Suspects let their crops rot in the fields. And homes were torn to pieces in the search; and often innocent people, sometimes old, were harmed. The governor declared the county in a state of insurrection and sent 300 troops to Delhi to maintain peace and to guard those who had been captured, many of whom were not even at the sale. Gradually hunger, the weary life of the hunted, and the betrayal of acquaintances drove the men in from their hiding places into the hands of their enemies.
A court convened in August for those who were brought before it; and 84 persons were, for the most part, unjustly convicted or confessed their guilt and were sentenced. Innocent or not, VanSteenburgh and O’Connor were found guilty of murder and sentenced to be hung on November 27th. In neither case, however, was it proved that the prisoner had fired any shot. O’Connor was a young resident of Bovina and lived on the Millard Russell farm. James Coulter, a Bovina farmer, took an active part in the anti-rent war and was on the spot when Steele was shot. Coulter Brook was named after the James Coulter family. As the date of the hanging of O’Connor and VanSteenburgh drew near, Governor Wright commuted their sentences to life imprisonment; and they were taken to Sing Sing Prison. All the other prisoners had been transported to Clinton State Prison in the Adirondacks where they remained in confinement until the winter of 1845. When these anti-renter were on their way to the Clinton Prison, streets and windows in every town through which they passed were crowded with curious people, seeking to get a glimpse of these anti-renters. Many women wept; and others shouted in a frenzy, “Down with the rent!” At Albany, too, people swarmed about to get a look at these men. Finally, after wearing chains for a week they, weary and jaded, reached Clinton Prison where days of hard, unending labor, laying walls, digging excavations, and mining iron faced them. After the excitement of the times had cooled, and Young had been elected the new governor of the state, at the request of 12,000 petitioners, he pardoned all of the anti-renters, who had suffered many hardships and insults both at the Delhi jail and the Clinton Prison. They were, indeed, glad to return to their families. Not long after, Edward O’Connor married his sweetheart Janet Scott; but the anxieties through which she had passed during his imprisonment had ruined her health and she soon died. O’Connor then left for the unsettled wilds of Michigan where he died of fever. He was hailed as a martyr and has come down in history as the champion of the Free Soil.
The result of the anti-rent agitation was that new laws were enacted, which cured some of the evils of the lease-hold system. The tenants were able to buy, at easy prices, the soil of the land they had tilled and occupied. But this affair created bitter feeling and animosities in the town of Bovina that took years to remove. Business men, in sympathy with the landlords, were boycotted and, thus, driven from town. Horace Greeley’s paper, in sympathy with anti-renters, was read by almost everybody in Bovina. It was jestingly said once that Bovina people read only the Bible and the Tribune.