John Hunter of Pelham Helped the Widow of a Law Enforcement Officer in 1845
Recently I ran across an enigmatic reference to John Hunter of Hunter's Island in the Town of Pelham published in 1845. The reference read:
"The Hon. John Hunter, of Hunter's Island, a large proprietor of lands in Delaware county, has ordered a deed to be made out granting 200 acres of land to Mrs. Steele, the widow of the Deputy Sheriff, who was killed by the Indians in the execution of his duty."
Source: [Untitled], Brooklyn Evening Star, Sep. 19, 1845, p. 2, col. 4 (NOTE: Paid subscription required to access via this link).
Quickly I was able to find another similar reference. It read:
"DEP. SHERIFF STEELE'S WIDOW. -- The Hon. John Hunter, of Hunter's Island, a large proprietor of lands in Delaware county, has ordered a deed to be made out granting 200 acres of land to Mrs. Steele, the widow of the deputy sheriff who was killed by the Indians in the execution of his duty. This act of generosity is as worthy of all commendation as it is just and generous; and is a worthy example for all large landholders. -- Goshen Clarion, Friday."
Source: DEP. SHERIFF STEEL'S WIDOW, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep. 20, 1845, p. 2, col. 5 (NOTE: Paid subscription required to access via this link).
The references were thoroughly baffling. The year 1845 was long after the end of wars and battles among Native Americans and European settlers in the State of New York. Thus, something about the reference to a Deputy Sheriff being killed by "Indians" certainly seemed amiss. Yet, parts of the accounts rang true. John Hunter of Hunter's Island in the Town of Pelham did indeed own thousands of acres of land in Delaware County in upstate New York. Moreover, he certainly was capable of deeding 200 acres to a local resident.
Another Pelham history mystery! I love such Pelham history mysteries.
Research revealed an amazing story tied to the Town of Pelham. The story involves 19th century tenant-farmers pitted against giant landowners in New York -- giant landowners like John Hunter of Hunter's Island in the Town of Pelham.
From about 1839 until about 1852, a tenant farmers' movement arose in New York. According to the Encyclopedia of New York State, the movement, known as the Antirent Movement:
"decisively influenced New York State politics in the 1840s and helped destroy the system of tenanted estates, replacing them with owner-operated farms. With 25,000 - 60,000 supporters, it was the most extensive farmers' movement in the United States before the Civil War and one of the most influential popular movements of the antebellum era."
Source: "Antirent Movement" in ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NEW YORK STATE (Syracuse University Press, visited May 29, 2016).
The movement evolved from a system of leasehold estates in New York that first arose via giant land grants made by the Dutch and English colonial governments ranging in size from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of acres. Large landowners leased portions of their large estates to tenant farmers who paid an annual rent to live on and farm the land. By the early-to-mid 19th century, the system had evolved to a:
"modern and non feudal [relationship], founded on civic equality and the cash nexus. Tenants were legally free and could sell out and leave at any time. They owed landlords a specified yearly rent and were obliged to abide by certain restrictions on their use of the land. Typically, landlords reserved all mineral and manufacturing rights on the land as well as part of the sale price whenever a tenant sold his farm, but this contractual connection was embedded in a broader patron-client relationship. Landlords maintained tenant loyalty by tolerating irregular payments, occasionally forgiving a portion of the rent, assisting poor tenants, and subsidizing community institutions. In return, tenants deferred to their superiors, publicly affirming their loyalty and affection and voting as directed. But they also made the most of landlords' lenience, minimizing their rent payments (a strategy that led to large accumulations of unpaid rents) and ignoring landlords' prohibitions against cutting timber on unleased estate lands."
By about 1819, the relationship between such giant landlords and their tenant farmers was changing. Landlords were growing less tolerant of accumulating unpaid rents and standing-timber theft forbidden by their leases. Landlords resorted to the courts more frequently to enforce the terms of the leases against tenant farmers. Additionally, "[i]n several counties, including Ulster, Schoharie and Montgomery, large numbers of landlords replaced their long-term leases with those of between one and five years, ending tenants' status as economically secure, semi-independent proprietors." Id.
Resistance by the tenant-farmers was sporadic and local until about 1839, when it became a more organized movement that became known as the Antirent Movement exploded onto the scene. Crisis erupted on January 26, 1839 when the proprietor of three-quarters of a million acres of land located in today's Albany and Rensselaer Counties, Stephen Van Rensselaer III, died. His will instructed executors to pay his debts of $400,000 by collecting the rents owed to him by tenant-farmers who leased his lands. At the time of Van Rensselaer's death, his farmer-tenants owed him about $400,000.
The executors began prosecuting the farmer-tenants for unpaid rents and negotiating to settle outstanding amounts. Feeling pressure, the tenant-farmers began an organized rent boycott. According to one account:
"During the summer and fall of 1839, Albany Co lawmen marched into the hill towns to serve legal process on boycotting tenants. Farmers threatened, assaulted, and robbed them of their legal papers. The sheriff sent out increasingly larger posses, which were met by ever larger groups of farmers. By early December 1,500 tenants turned back 500 men sent by the sheriff, and Gov William H. Seward sent in the state militia, while publicly urging tenants to seek legislative redress and promising his office's help in doing so. The insurgents embraced the governor's offer. The crowds in the hill towns went home, and the antirenters (as they began to call themselves) began a petition campaign."
Over the next few years, the organized Antirent Movement grew and expanded from today's Albany and Rensselaer Counties into Schoharie, Columbia, Greene, Ulster, Sullivan, Otsego, Montgomery, Washington, and -- important for our purposes -- Delaware Counties where John Hunter owned thousands of acres of property. Members of the Antirent Movement dressed in disguises, often as "Indians," as they pursued their mayhem in the region.
By 1845, the Antirent Movement made its way to the little town of Andes, New York in Delaware County. The area included an active group of organized Antirent Movement members who dressed as "Indians" and served as the local enforcers to battle against those who bore responsibility for enforcing the law.
One man charged with enforcing the law was Deputy Sheriff Steele of Delaware County. The Deputy Sheriff had advertised a foreclosure sale of the livestock of a farmer named Moses Earle in payment for sixty-four dollars of back rent. According to an account of Deputy Sheriff Steele's efforts essentially to enforce the debt owed by Moses Earle that, unfortunately, is overly-sympathetic to the men who killed him:
"Indignation rose high among the antirenters, and the "Indians" collected to the number of two hundred in the nearby woods, where they made a hideous racket with horns and drums and war-whoops. As the sheriff and the agent of the landlord, who had gone there to bid on the property, began to round up the cattle, the "Indians" gathered from the woods to thwart them. Threatening talk and gestures passed back and forth. Trying to reason with the rioters, the agent told them he was there in accordance with existing laws, while they were outlaws; he declared his intention of bidding on the stock, whereupon they told him if he did, he would go home in a wagon, feet foremost. As he persisted in trying to drive the stock near the bars, the "Indians" massed themselves close to the cattle and swore to prevent the sale. Just then, Steele, and Edgerton the constable, and his posse, appearing on the scene, rode up to the bars. More altercations. It is said that Steele, to arm himself for the fray, had indulged too freely in liquor, and became uncommonly insolent; but it is also said that a pail of whiskey passed along the line of the 'Indians.' When Steele, with great bravado, charged over the fence in their midst, waving his sword, and the constable called to all citizens to unite in preserving peace, a cry of 'Shoot the horses!' arose from the infuriated 'Indians,' and the volley fell! The horses of both Steele and Edgerton were shot. Steele fell bleeding to the ground. Consternation reigned. Evidently no one had actually intended shooting any man, and at sight of what they had done, the 'Indians' fled in a panic. Steele, suffering horribly, was carried into the house, and died in a few hours. The whole country was roused. Who had fired that fatal shot? As several had fired, it was difficult to fix the crime. Suspicion centred most strongly upon one of the chiefs (Warren Scudder) and alarmed, he fled the country, the infuriated posse on his track. He outwitted them by concealing himself in a peddler's cart where he lay curled up amongst the dry goods and Yankee notions. The peddler stopped from house to house with his wares, while the pursuing posse flew by miles in advance, scouring the country for their prey. The fugitive went down the Mississippi, working on plantations there for several years, after which he returned and took up his old life undisturbed."
Source: "The Anti-Rent Wars" in Barrus, Clara, John Burroughs - Boy and Man, Chapter VIII (1920).
Now it is clear. Deputy Sheriff Steele was murdered by men known as "Indians" who dressed in disguises and roamed Delaware County enforcing their own brand of vigilantism. Deputy Sheriff Steele left a widow.
In 1845, John Hunter of Hunter's Island in the Town of Pelham learned of the sacrifice of Deputy Sheriff Steele and the fact that he left a widow. Apparently, John Hunter of Hunter's Island in the Town of Pelham wanted to extend some small form of thanks in support of the sacrifice of the Deputy Sheriff who died protecting lands in the region where Hunter owned massive amounts of land. Yet, it seems clear that Hunter also wanted to send a message of support in the region to all those who were charged with the responsibility of protecting major landowners like John Hunter and battling the many members of the Antirent Movement who roamed the region during that period.
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