The Legacy of Land Monopoly
in the Hudson River Valley
Raymond E. Crist
[Reprinted from The Freeman, September and
October, 1940, published with the original title, "Mutiny on the
Maner: The Legacy of Land Monopoly in the Hudson Valley"]
The author of this article is Professor of
Geology and Geography in the University of Illinois. Another
study by Dr. Crist on the land question entitled "The Land
Is the Chief" appeared in the February, 1940 issue of The
Freeman, having been reprinted, by permission, fro the Scientific
Monthly. The present article was written expressly for The
The men who settled along the Hudson River after the first land
grants were made found awaiting them there the institution of the
manorial system, precisely the institution many of them had come from
Europe to escape.
The adjustment to the new physical environment kept the first
settlers from being too keenly aware of the harsh economic conditions
in the new land, but their descendants found galling in the extreme
the yoke of New World feudalism, which became more firmly entrenched
each year. The struggle for freedom was a long one, lasting well over
two centuries; each generation in turn stoically took up the task of
the destruction of feudalism with all its injustices. The story of the
abolition of this system along the Hudson is a real thriller for those
who believe that there is a "middle way," that the
democratic way of life is a reality to be cherished, that evolution is
preferable to revolution, that ballots are a consummation more
devoutly to be wished than bullets.
In 1609, Henry Hudson, in the employ of the Dutch East India Company,
in the attempt to find the Northwest Passage to China, sailed up what
is now the Hudson River. During the ncxt few years an occasional Dutch
ship visited the river and returned to Holland loaded with skins of
beaver, mink, otter, and wildcat. The New Netherland Company,
organized in 1614, obtained a monopoly on the river trade and sent out
fur expeditions so successful that two years later its sponsors asked
for continuance of its charter. But the Dutch government decided to
leave the river open to competition for a few years while it planned a
powerful monopolistic stock company to handle the American trade --
the West India Company.
That organization was founded in 1621, and in April of 1624 thirty
families of Walloons embarked on the ship "New Netherland,"
bound for the mouth of the Hudson. They were mostly Protestant
refugees, farmers from the South Netherlands where they had felt the
pressure of Roman Catholic Spain. They were enjoined to obey orders,
be loyal Reformed Calvinists, and convert the heathen. They must live
where they were told for at least six years, lending a hand at all
communal enterprises, selling all materials for export to the Company,
recognizing the company's rights to all mining properties and pearl
fisheries. They must not sell for profit the products of their
handicraft (so as not to compete with the industries of Holland). They
must plant only what they were ordered to plant.
But agriculture did not thrive along the Hudson under the West India
Company although that company was committed to colonize its "sphere
o£ influence." The fur trade was so profitable that it
absorbed the interest of the Company. It was easy to encourage petty
traders to come out from Holland, for they reaped a great deal of
profit without actually making the New World their home; but it was
far less easy to get worthy Dutch peasants to leave their prosperous
homeland to settle on the wild shores of the Hudson.
However, many stockholders of the Company wanted to participate as
individuals in the virgin land; accordingly, in 1629 the directors of
the Company, by a "Charter of Freedom and Exemptions"
established the patroon system. This charter permitted grants of great
river estates to members of the Company who within four years would
settle at least fifty persons on the lands granted them. The
patroonships might extend sixteen miles along one shore of the river
or eight miles along both shores, and "as far inland as the
situation of the occupants will permit." The patroon had to
secure the title to his lands from the Indians, but once ho had
obtained it he might hold the land as a "perpetual fief of
inheritance." This last factor was of utmost importance because
it meant the creation of a feudal sort of tenant system along the
Hudson River which was destined to be at the root of many of the
unhappy developments along the valley for the next two hundred years.
One of the first patroons, Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, never set foot on
his great Hudson River estate which he named Rensselaerswyck, but he
did figure out various ways in which to make a paying business out of
his absentee landlordship. He even tried to enforce an edict
prohibiting any trader not under contract to him from sailing into the
waters of his patroonship! As for his tenants, he cheated and
bulldozed them at every turn. He had his own store where supplies were
sold to his tenants at enormous profit to himself.
But these great estates were held as a "perpetual fief of
inheritance," and remained in the hands of one family for
centuries, just as the haciendas of Mexico. A farmer might be granted
a perpetual leasehold by which he could live in a house and till
fields for his lifetime, provided that he agreed to give each year a
share of his crops and his increase of livestock to the owner of the
land. As early as 1650 the secretary of Pieter Stuyvesant wrote to the
Lords of the Dutch States-General that in Rensselaerswyck "no one
down to the present time can possess a foot of land of his own but is
obliged to take upon rent all the land which he cultivates."
In the late 1670's Robert Livingston married the widow of Nicolass
Van Rensselaer, and started on the road to property accumulation on a
large scale. By his marriage -- his wife had been born Alida Schuyler
-- he was connected with two of the most powerful up-river families,
and he at once set out to gain control of other lands along the river.
Nor was he deterred by scruples which might have been acquired as a
result of his religious upbringing. He became the purveyor of supplies
to the military of the province, and in this capacity was able to "pinch
an estate out of the poor soldiers' bellies." The huge estate
comprised more than 160,000 acres of land, and the Van Rensselaers
lived very comfortably off the rents of the permanent leases. But the
large grants to single families meant slow development of the country.
Settlers preferred to live where they could own their own land.
Livingston had on his great grant but four or five cottages in which
lived poverty-stricken vassals too poor ever to become independent
farmers. And with the years it became even more impossible for free
farmers to gain a foothold. A year or so of bad crops and the farmer's
leaseholds were cancelled and they found themselves ejected for debt.
Dispossessed tenants then took over their acres -- people with even
less chance of voicing grievances if or when there were any.
About a century after the consolidation of the vast domains along the
lower Hudson, such as those of Frederick Phillipse, Stephen Van
Cortlandt or Captain John Evans, conditions were ripe for a revolt of
the feudal serfs against harsh conditions. One of the most spectacular
revolts was led by William Prendergast, who had taken his land in
perpetual lease from Frederick Phillipse. He could not even will his
land to his wife or heirs without the consent of the manor lord, and
even if the consent was granted, his heirs must pay the lord a third
of the value of the farm in order to keep it. Furthermore, whoever
held the lease must each year pay the manor lord, for the privilege, a
portion of his crop, poultry and labor. And the manor lord felt secure
in his aristocratic belief in the superiority of the few. He was the
Judge in his own manorial court, where he sentenced recalcitrant
tenants to corporal punishment and imprisonment. He himself paid the
British Crown for his vast domaine an annual quitrent of four pounds,
twelve shillings -- exactly the same amount which William Prendergast
was obliged to pay each year for his few acres.
The injustice of
it rankled and he decided to right it.
Hundreds of farmers rallied to the cry of "Pay your honest debts
-- but not a shilling for a rent." They raided Justice Peters,
dragged him through the mud, gave him a flogging and a, ducking as
well. The manor lords in vain denounced the "Levelers," who
marched into the manors of the Hudson Highlands and declared manor
rents abolished, and who put dispossessed farmers back on their land.
And the army of vengeance under William Prendergast grew as it moved
southward on New York. The city was in a panic, on the verge of
hysteria. General Gage sent three hundred troops to restore law and
order; but such precautions proved unnecessary because, persuaded by
his Quaker wife that by so doing needless bloodshed would be avoided,
Prendergast gave himself up. She stood by him "without indecorum,"
at his trial, heard the judge pronounce the sentence of high treason
against his majesty, and immediately galloped off to interview the
Governor, Sir Henry Moore. Within six months William Prendergast was
back on his farm with his wife and children, but the farmers had not
won their battle. There were many years of struggle before them. The
process of increasing their holdings was carried forward by the manor
lords, which meant further impoverishment of the tenantry. By the time
of the war of the Revolution nearly five-sixths of the inhabitants of
Westchestcr County were poor manor tenants, practically serfs, bound
to the soil.
Many men of the Hudson valley fought valiantly against the British in
the War of the Revolution because they believed that once the
Revolution was won, not only would the feudal system of the
patroonships be abolished by a new democratic government but that the
large estates formerly owned by the Tories would be confiscated and
divided up into small farms for independent farmers. They were tired
of paying toll to the manor lord for the privilege of working manor
lands -- a tribute due the lord only because an ancestor had been
lucky enough to be first on the river land. And by May, 1775, two
hundred and twenty-five Hudson River men signed their names to a
sheepskin parchment on which it had been written that they were
resolved ''never to become slaves," and that they would not
consent to be ruled save by themselves. They were ready to fight
valiantly for their riverside land and their liberty, and this they
did under George Clinton, a burly country lawyer, son of a farmer. He
lived on a hill farm and knew what he was fighting for, and the other
farmers knew he could be trusted.
At the end of the war these farmers were exultant. There were
thousands of acres along the Hudson that had belonged to the Tories
and these were to be divided up. But the men of small means did not
get the slices of Tory land they had expected. Land speculators fell
upon the confiscated properties like vultures upon carrion, and even
the landed families who had favored independence did not hesitate to
grab what they could of the estates stripped from those who had
sympathized with the British. The Livingstons, the Gouverneurs, the
Roosevelts and the Beekmans managed to get the bulk of the James De
Lancey estate into their possession; with this substantial economic
backing these families were able to play an important role in the
social, political and business life of the new republic.
But the condition of the farmers remained much the same. On the
hundreds of thousands of acres of the Van Rensselaer Grant, on the
Livingston Manor the farmers still lived on land first taken on
perpetual lease by their ancestors. If they sold that land they were
bound to pay a quarter of the price to the manor lord who had forced
them into feudal servitude, which consisted not only of sharing crops
with the proprietor, but of rendering menial service to him as well.
The feudal barons refused to sell their [remainder to be added if