Berne Local

Anti-rent Wars

St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Berne & the Anti-Rent War  

The Anti-Rent War, also referred to as the Helderberg War, was a period of civil insurrection that centered on the collection of back rents for leased lands from tenant farmers by the Van Rensselaer family. This historic episode was initiated with the 1839 death of Stephen Van Rensselaer III, the patroon of the Manor of Rensselaerwyck, a vast upper Hudson Valley land holding which had been granted to the first patroon, Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, in 1629. Since its creation, lands within the manor were owned outright by the Van Rensselaer family and leased to tenants; the vast majority of these were farmers who were obligated to pay an annual fee of agricultural products and labor to satisfy their lease obligations. Stephen Van Rensselaer III, known by tenants as “the good patroon” and the last lord of the manor, had done much to improve the settlement of the family’s lands while at the same time maintaining ownership and the longstanding lease-fee structure. His will directed his heirs to collect the manor’s outstanding debts from leaseholders in order to pay his personal debts, amounting to approximately $400,000, thereby setting the stage for a period of unrest in rural areas of the Hudson Valley contained within the Van Rensselaer family’s land holdings. These agitations soon spread to other counties beyond those contained within the bounds of the Manor of Rensselaerwyck, among them Delaware and Schoharie counties, where similar feudal land-lease arrangements existed and were soon challenged by means of civil disobedience and political activity.  

Attempts to collect deferred rents by agents of the Van Rensselaers were greeted with considerable resistance and hostility by tenants, and these sentiments ultimately coalesced into a political movementthe Anti-Renter partywhich held considerable sway in New York State politics during the second half of the 1840s. Most of the Van Rensselaer tenants, such as those residing in Berne, could not afford to pay the amounts demanded, nor could they secure favorable terms, and after failing to obtain pecuniary relief by means of the state’s legal system, they revolted against the system. Both Berne and the nominated church share strong associations with thisrural movement as it developed an organizational structure from its grassroots beginnings. The first large-scale meeting of tenant farmers was held in Berne in July 1839, at which time a committee was formed to approach the principal heir, Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, an effort which failed to yield the desired result. In January 1845 a more considerable event was staged, as 150 delegates from 11 New York State counties assembled at Berne in St. Paul’s—the first Anti-Rent State Conventionto call for political action.

While political means ultimately accounted for the demise of the tenant-lease system, some farmers took matters into their own hands and engaged in clandestine activities meant to stifle the efforts of rent collectors and law enforcement officials. Many Anti-Renters masked their identities with colorful calico “Indian”disguises and sheepskin masks with painted decoration and unusual features. They armed themselves with a variety of weapons and implements, among them knives, pistols, muskets, spears, and hatchets, in addition to farm tools such as scythes. Horns were used to warn others of imminent danger. Anti-Renters organized themselves into small “cells,” each independent of one another and commanded by a “chief,” and while in disguise used pseudonyms such as Big Thunder, Black Hawk, Red Wing and Pompey to conceal their true identity. Conflicts between the Anti-Renters and agents of the Van Rensselaer family typically centered on resistance to law enforcement activity, legal actions such as the serving of papers, and forced property sales.

Leaders of the revolt were held accountable for their actions and were tried for their roles in 1845, among them Dr. Smith Boughton, known as Big Thunder, who was tried, ultimately found guilty, and sentenced to life imprisonment for his role as a leader in the movement. Although the first trial failed to yield a guilty verdict, the second trial, which included a fist-fight between the lead counsels in open court, ended in Boughton’s conviction. When called upon for comment Boughton indicated that he had done nothing contrary to the institutions of his country as he understood them. Boughton was ultimately pardoned by Governor John Young, whose campaign had been supported by the Anti-Renters party and who had indicated his desire to pardon incarcerated Anti-Renters if elected.

Berne was among those areas of Albany County where anti-rent sentiments ran highest and where support for the movement was considerable. The following account, which chronicles the efforts of law enforcement to capture two prominent Anti-Renters in Berne, offers a sense of the tensions that existed at the time between anti-rent advocates and law enforcement representatives and agents of the Van Rensselaer family:

"On Sunday night, about 8 o’clock, a posse of 21 policemen left [Albany] for Berne, among the Helderberg Mountains, with warrants against certain parties charged with felony, in resisting the execution of the law, and tarring and feathering E.M. Fish on the 23rdApril last. The police were armed to the teeth, and were instructed to arrest the accused at all hazards. They arrived at the residence of the principal persons, named Turner, about 4 o’clock this morning, and, surrounding the house, demanded an entrance. This sudden surprise was totally unexpected, and a refusal to comply with the demand followed. After waiting a half hour, the police broke in the door, and after a thorough search found the two Turners secreted in the garret, when they were arrested, handcuffed, and it being daybreak, and the horns being sounded, thereby warning others of danger, the police started for Albany. For 18 miles the Anti-Rent Indian signals were heard, and a large force followed after the posse for several miles, when suddenly it was discovered a barricade had been erected across the road, of sleighs, wagons, &c., and a demand for the delivery of the prisoners was made. The answer returned was, to take them at their peril; each policeman drawing a loaded revolver, as evidence of what might be expected. The Anti-Renters not liking this sort of argument, dispersed after swearing vengeance against the offices. The barricade was removed, and at half past 3 o’clock this afternoon the police arrived in this city with their prisoners, who are now in jail."

The convention held at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on the 15th and 16th of January 1845 was an important milestone in Anti-Rent War and one at which steps were taken to distinguish a collective political agenda from efforts of a more mercenary and lawless nature. “The proceedings of the convention were marked by an unlooked for degree of moderation and firmness,” one nineteenth-century observer noted; “While condemning the lawless proceedings in many parts of the leasehold districts, they passed resolutions upholding the cause of reform in the land-tenure, and on February fifth, sent a committee with petitions to the Legislature at Albany.”15 The following period account of the convention was published in the Albany Argus a few weeks after the event:


Anti-Rent State Convention

"The Anti-Rent State Convention, pursuant to previous notice, convened at Bern on the 15th ult. It being ascertained that most of the delegates were in attendance, the convention was called together at the Lutheran Church, at 10 o’clock A.M.

The building, a large and commodious edifice, was soon filled to overflowing, many being unable to effect an entrance.

The convention was immediately called to order, and Dr. F. Crounse, of Guilderland, was chosen President pro tem, and Wm. Murphy, of New Scotland, Secretary.

It was then moved and carried that the delegates from the different Associations present their credentials and take their seats. It was ascertained that eleven Counties, and a much greater number of Associations, were represented."


The counties represented at the Berne convention were Albany, Columbia, Delaware, Greene, Montgomery, Otsego, Rensselaer, Schenectady, Schoharie, Sullivan, and Ulster; from these a committee was formed consisting of one officer from each county. Additionally, another committee was formed to draft resolutions and select the best form of political petition. Following an adjournment, the convention reassembled and, after the selection of officers, the group was addressed by John Mayham of Schoharie; next Harvey Hamilton of the committee responsible for drafting resolutions presented the following:

" WHEREASThe time has arrived when it becomes necessary for us, as citizens and tenants, residing on mannors [sic], claimed and leased by landlords under grants from foreign Governments, thus in a formal and public manner to correct false representations and misapplied constructions of the designs and purposes of the Anti-rent Associations in the various counties of this state. Public functionaries, and also the press, both powerful organs, have widely spread charges of combination of tenants for the secret purpose of hiring persons disguised as Indians, to set law at defiance, and obtaining right by might. When the public mind is abused, it is calculated to defeat the objects sought for, and tends to bring associations into disreputetherefore we publically declarebefore God and manthat no such combinations have been made within our knowledge or belief, and can exist only in imagination. The associations of tenants are for honorable and legal redress of grievances, to be obtained from the proper tribunals. The only services employed are legal counselsthe only expenses, those for publications, the attendance on courts and sessions of the Legislature. Over the acts of individuals the associations have no control, and therefore disclaim any accountability."

The organization then was presented a series of resolutions—“which were passed upon severally, and adopted”— among them the boycott of publications which it felt misrepresented their positions, the disavowing of criminal activity, and the abandonment of traditional Whig and Democratic party lines in favor of political nominations made as “Anti-rent.” Next, the committee on petitions was announced, at which time a petition to the state legislature was presented and adopted, and ultimately an address made to the attendee’s fellow New York citizens, which closed with the following: In this, we ask, nay, we demand to be heard and trusting in the righteousness of our cause, we rest fully assured that when our grievances shall be fairly and fully stated to our fellow citizens, they cannot without a generous sympathy, and a cordial co-operation with us in dispensing equal justiceto all.”

Following the Berne convention, the organization had a stronger structure and a defined political mission, and in 1846 arguably reached the height of its influence politically; it was that year that it helped John Young, a Whig, win the New York State governorship. After that point, political infighting and partisan agendas led swiftly to the demise of Anti-Renter influence in the state legislature. The last expressly anti-rent newspaper, the Albany Freeholder, ceased publication in 1851, and in 1852 the organization failed to convene at the state level. However, by this time, the efforts of the Anti-Renters had been successful in the dismantling of the tenanted estate system in New York State, thereby marking it as one of the great national populist movements of the nineteenth century.