On July 4, 1776, a small but steadfast group of North American rebels banded together, vowed to fight for their freedom and independence, and led an unlikely but ultimately successful escape from the shackles of Old-World European domination.
But you know that.
On July 4, 1839, a small but steadfast group of North American rebels banded together, vowed to fight for their freedom and independence, and led an unlikely but ultimately successful escape from the shackles of Old-World European domination.
Bet you didn’t know that. Unless, that is, you live around the Hilltowns of western Albany County or in other select parts of the Hudson Valley, where you may have some knowledge of the so-called Anti-Rent Wars of the 1830s and 1840s.
You might also know it if you are someone like Bruce Kennedy. Kennedy, a documentary filmmaker living in Asheville, North Carolina, is a direct descendent of one of the leaders of this little-known uprising, a man named Dr. Smith A. Boughton, who was better known, at least in this context, as Big Thunder. You’ll see why in a bit. Boughton was Kennedy’s third-great grandfather. Kennedy grew up in Troy, and his grandmother lived nearby, in the town of Averill Park, near the Boughton ancestral home. “As kids, we were marched up to visit my granny, and she told us the story of the rebellion,” Kennedy says. Back then, he recalls, “it just seemed tiresome. Later on, we began to appreciate it.” He has been tracking down original source material and conducting interviews for about three years now, in order to portray this forgotten but important event. “Doing this story has become an obligation to honor the people who conducted this rebellion,” including Big Thunder, Kennedy says.
So, Big Thunder? Really?
The backstory: When the Dutch settled the Valley, the Crown gave enormous tracts of land to a small group of notables called the Patroons, who had names you’ve likely heard of, including Van Rensselaer and Vanderbilt. The land was rented to tenant farmers who paid their debts with crops and other capital. In this semi-feudal but legal arrangement, a few privileged families controlled more than 2 million acres of land from Albany to Delaware Counties, as well as the lives of about 300,000 people.
Feudalism was declared illegal in New York State in 1782, but the practice continued. After the War for Independence, many farmers found themselves still beholden to these old aristocracies. The farmer paid all taxes, while the landowners paid nothing. The farmer had no right to buy the land, even though, in many cases, the landlords did not have legal title to the land they were renting out. They could be evicted for failure to pay the rent even if they had enough personal property to cover the debt. In the 1830s, they began to wonder why they or their ancestors had fought for self-governance 50 years earlier, only to still be held under the yoke of another European master.
According to an 1880 history of Delaware County, “One who remembers the old times tells us he never seriously rebelled against the system under which he lived until its seeming injustice suddenly broke upon him after he had called to pay his rent to the representative of the Hardenbergh estate, and found him living near New York in what appeared to him to be extravagant splendor, on the proceeds of his tenants’ toil among the mountains of Delaware.” Income inequality! Occupy Patroon Street! Revolution was again in the air!
Stephen Van Rensselaer III, who is still listed among the 10 richest men in American history, had just recently died, and his sons, including Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, tried to collect back rents. But while the father, known as “the Good Patroon,” was a more pleasant man,” Kennedy says, “the sons were spoiled brats.” When the farmers asked to meet with SVR IV about forgiving the debts, he refused and sent his minions to tell them to write up their grievances.
On that intentionally chosen July 4 in 1839, some of these tenant farmers met in Berne, one of the Hilltowns, to plan their fight for economic freedom and justice. They issued their own Declaration of Independence, which read in part, “We have counted the cost of such a contest, and we find nothing as dreadful as voluntary slavery…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.”
SVR IV responded pretty much as King George III did; he ignored their demands and sent local sheriffs in to collect. They refused. The Anti-Rent Wars were on. They would last for more than a decade, and, though Kennedy says, ‘It wasn’t war, it was popular rebellion,” people suffered and died for their cause.
This early phase is also known as the Heldeberg Wars, for the mountains that overlook the Albany Hilltowns, but the rebellion spread throughout the Hudson Valley. “Boughton was selected by the farmers to represent them in the legislature and in front of the judiciary, all the normal ways to approach a problem within the law,” Kennedy says. But then, as now, the corridors of power were hopelessly gridlocked. So Boughton and his co-conspirators “decided to try illegal civil disobedience until it was resolved.”
Inspired by the Boston Tea Party, the farmers disguised themselves as “Calico Indians,” with costumes made from their wives’ calico dresses and sheepskin masks, and took names like Big Lion, Black Hawk, Red Wing, Pompey, Thunderbolt and, yes, Big Thunder. They would sound tin dinner horns, and the “Indians” would gather to meet, disrupt property sales, resist evictions, tar and feather opponents, and cause other acts of mayhem. In January 1845, 150 delegates from 11 counties met at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Berne to call for political action.
In August 1845, though, things got out of hand. A Delaware County sheriff named Osman Steele was shot and killed at a farm sale. That got people’s attention. Governor Silas Wright declared Delaware County in a state of insurrection. The leaders were charged with riot, conspiracy, and robbery. Two were sentenced to hang, but their sentences were commuted. One defendant, Big Thunder Boughton, was sentenced to life in prison.
It took several more years for things to shake out, but, eventually, the feudal system broke down. In 1845, tired of the hassles, many large landholders agreed to sell out, including SVR IV, who agreed to sell his rights in the Heldebergs. In 1848, his brother, William, sold out his rights in more than 500 farms in the “East Manor” in Rensselaer County. In the 1850s, the remaining Van Rensselaer leases were sold.
The state legislature, which until that point had done nothing, was forced to act. An Anti-Rent political party formed and helped elect candidates favorable to their positions, and, with newfound political clout, they changed the laws. Some of these progressive Anti-Renters even moved out to the Midwest, where, in 1854, they were instrumental in organizing the Republican Party. And when John Young, a supporter of the Anti-Renters, was elected Governor of New York in 1847, he pardoned Big Thunder Boughton.
All in all, it’s a great story. So why has it been mostly forgotten? Kennedy thinks that the participants felt what they had done was dishonorable. Four sheriffs were killed, and 400 people in Delaware County were put in prison for months. “I think people felt shame that they broke the law and killed a sheriff,” he says. “I talked to a historian who knew a woman who, as a kid, had found an outrageous Indian costume at her grandmother’s house. The grandmother told her, ‘You put that away and you never talk about it again.’”
Yet today, with the same issues of class and income inequality simmering, he feels the story is more relevant than ever. “The remarkable irony to me is that many extremely conservative people are great fans of this rebellion, but, when I try to connect it to a rebellion against the elites of the time, they refuse to see how it relates to today. They want to just leave history back there.”
The lesson for the rest of us, he says, is that, “what those people did then, that looks like democracy to me. As our rights are being restricted, as they were in that era, direct action is something we all have to routinely engage in. It is not comfortable and we would rather not, but the only way to keep this thing called democracy going is by direct action. I believe taking to the streets is the only way people can get democracy.”
The name of his film, by the way, is Righteous Rebellion.