logo Click BACK to return to basecamp
Lost Teachers
Search Info
White beveled edge

Meet Teddy

Teddy Archive

Cool Links
The Anti-Rent War

A Brief History of Rensselaer County



Stand and Deliver! America's own Robin Hood & Co.

Daphne is down
The Rensselaer estate stretches out as far as I can see. I squint my eyes and try to envision how his property looked 150 years ago when the great Anti-renter rebellion took place. His enormous castle sits in beautiful manicured gardens. There is a library with just about every book ever written, a fully stocked kitchen for his live-in gourmet chef. On special occasions all the candles in the ballroom are lit while a mini-orchestra belts out waltzes direct from Europe. The staff of one hundred lives in small cottages hidden in back of the house, and a dozen farmhands maintain stables for the aristocrat's prizewinning horses.

The year is 1839. In all, Stephen Van Rensselaer III owns two million acres of land. Three hundred thousand farmers lived on his land, and the taxes they pay enable Rensselaer to live a life of opulence. With so many living on his land, and the sumptuous luxury Rensselaer enjoys, he is doing better than most kings and queens back in the "Old World".

But wait a minute! This is not the France of Louis XIV! This is America, during the so called "Jacksonian age", when liberty was at its highest. Although most Americans were not allowed to vote, those white men who were allowed to vote did so enthusiastically. So how could a feudal landlord rule over the lives of 300,000 farmers?

Well, history ain't just a series of facts and dates. Just because we proclaimed ourselves a democracy on July 4, 1776, did not mean that all men were suddenly equal. Poor whites, all blacks, and all women all had to fight for their right to participate in our democracy.

Teddy in the town of Rensselaer, the remnants of feudal times
Here is the story of the poor white, the anti-renters, a wide collection of rootin' tootin' farmers. These were poor white farmers without any say in politics, who decided to take matters into their own hands. They were furious with their landlord, who abused them at will with the protection of the government. In the spirit of the original American Revolutionaries, the farmers began to dress up as Indians and form militias. The next time a sheriff came he would be in for one Big Surprise.

The sheriff, after receiving a threatening letter from a tenant farmer, decided to send the deputy in his place to collect rent. Most farmers had no money to pay, so either their grain was taken or their livestock sold. That day, the deputy's job was to sell the cow and pigs belonging to Moses Earle.

The deputy, gun at his side, rides his horse up the lane towards the Earle farm. In a thicket to the side of the road, the deputy thinks he spies an Indian staring at him through the bush. But that would be impossible! Indians had disappeared from these parts over a century earlier.

"Bum-badah-deee!" The tinny blaring of a horn goes off in the thicket.

The echoing sound of the horn is met by another horn tooting in the distance. In less than a minute, the whole valley is squealing with the noise of tin horns trumpeting. This makes the deputy nervous, but he has to do his job. He cannot come back empty handed.

The deputy arrives on at the Earle house to find Moses sitting with his wife and kids on the porch. They look like a ragged bunch, clothes in tatters, mud on the kids' cheeks. It almost hurts to take the animals away from people who are doing so badly already. Will taking their cow away help them in the long run?

The deputy remembers that it was not his job to ask questions, and so he proceeds to the front porch.

"You Moses Earle?" the deputy asks.

"Yessir," a thin, wiry man with a bushy mustache responds, "I am Moses and this here's my family."

The wife offers a smile that is painful to look at. The kids, all nine of them, are too awestruck by the visiting deputy to do anything other than look up with wide eyes.

"I am the deputy-Sheriff from Rensselaer county." the deputy says, "Is your barn out back?"

Without waiting for a reply the deputy walks right past the house and towards the old, dilapidated barn house. Inside, Bessie is chewing her cud. She's not much of a cow, her ribs stand out at the sides and she barely gives enough milk to feed the kids. Still, she keeps the kids chubby, and that is important in the cold northeastern winters.

This is where Farmers used to gather and make plans
The family has gathered around the entrance to the barn, watching as the deputy leads a rope around Bessie's neck. All they can do is watch in sadness as their livelihood is taken away from them.

"I'll be back momentarily to take the pigs," the deputy says as he leads Bessie past the lean farming family.

"Oh no you won't," says a deep voice from out of the wood.

The deputy stops in his tracks and turns to see an Indian with a tin horn around his neck holding a musket.

"You're not going anywhere with this man's cow," the man dressed as an Indian says evenly, "you had better make yourself scarce."

The deputy knows that he cannot return empty handed to the Sheriff. He also believes that he can fire his gun faster than any backcountry hillbilly. He grips his pistol, getting ready to fire at the Indian.

Threats are exchanged. More pretend Indians pop out of the bush. Suddenly, a shot rings out, and then another. When the smoke clears, the deputy is lying dead with his hand sill tightly holding the rope to the cow.

Whoops! Somebody is going to get in trouble for this!

These were some exciting times! It was like Robin Hood comes to America. Sheriffs, deputies, and rent-collectors came back from their outings naked, tarred & feathered, and sometimes dead. The poor were striking back against the rich. It was a time of lawlessness and revenge, and a doctor who traveled by horse was leading it all.


Bill and Ted's excellent encounter!

Doctor Smith Boughton used to charge a quarter to pull a tooth, and a dollar to set a broken leg. During his out-calls he got in touch with the extreme poverty many farmers experienced in Rensselaer county. He was already a firecracker of a guy, having joined the uprising in Canada to fight against the government controlled by the wealthy. During that uprising, called "The Patriot's War", he was stuck on an island for over a month under attack from Canadian troops. He came out of that battle with white hair on his head and red blood in his veins. He was ready to fight for the common man.

"I could not stand idle," he wrote, "and see thousands deprived of their natural and, as I conceived, social and legal rights."

He would talk to patients around the countryside about the importance of true democracy. He gave many speeches in meetinghouses and taverns. During those speeches, he would explain the advantages of standing up to their oppressor together. He was such an exhilarating speaker that he was given the Indian name, Big Thunder.

The marker commemorating Smith Boughton
The farmers followed Big Thunder under banners stating "Down With The Rent". They rallied around poverty stricken farmers, they resisted the unfair laws, and ultimately, they won. After thirty years of fighting, the big families tired and sold off most of the leases. Instead of having to rent from these usurers, the farmers could own and live off their own land.

But is the fight really over?

Daphne dances on the sacred grave of the rebel farmers
In the 1980's, Ronald Reagan enacted legislation that encouraged giant farms while leaving small farmers prey to cutthroat competition. The result was tens of thousands of American farmers losing their farms. All their land was bought up by agribusinesses-corporations subsidized by Reagan's administration. Today we still live in a land strikingly similar to Rensselaer county in 1840 and the Loire valley of 17th century France. The corporate landowners control vast amounts of land, leaving the landless workers to tend to the fields.

Is it time for a new Robin Hood, a new Big Thunder to take the scene?


Please email me at: teddy@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - How Mr. Potato Head changed the face of America
Daphne - Know-Nothings without a clue
Kevin - Rock the vote by discovering Dorr!
Irene - Mormonism: Shedding light on a little known religion
Kevin - Heck no! We won't go for a 16 hour work day!
Kevin - To Sarah With Love
MAD - Give nasty, old poverty a kick in the shin!