In colonial times a large proportion of the farming land of New York came into the ownership of a few great proprietors. On these lands the leasehold system grew up, a product partly of the feudal ideas of the great land-owners, partly of the poverty of the farmers as a class. The lands, when first settled by tenants, were in general entirely unimproved, and the farmers who cleared them felt, with evident justice, that it was they who had created the flourishing country which had taken the place of the early wilderness. The poverty and misfortune of individual tenants, and the growing wealth and independence of the landlords as a class, tended to create dissatisfaction, especially when the proprietors, about 1840, attempted a more rigorous enforcement of their contract rights. United resistance on the part of tenants followed. Anti-rent associations were formed, and finally disorder and lawlessness, strife in the courts, at the polls, and in the legislature ensued. Portions of the state were declared in insurrection and the militia called out...The other day I was trying to find my Efner ancestors in Google Books. It was not the first time, and as usual, the pickin's were slim no matter how I spelled the name. Thinking a change of approach might be useful, I decided to Google the town of Blenheim, one of the Schoharie County towns in which the family of my third great-grandfather, Ezekiel Taylor Efner, had lived. The search turned up this curious little 89-page volume:
Mayham, Albert Champlin. The Anti-Rent War on Blenheim Hill: An Episode of the 40's : a History of the Struggle between Landlord and Tenant Growing Out of the Patroon System in the Eastern Part of New York. Jefferson, N.Y.: F.L. Frazee, 1906.
"Hmm, an Episode," I mumbled. There's something just a little titillating about that. You wouldn't want to miss an episode, say, of The Hardy Boys, would you? Or Nancy Drew? In an episode, stuff happens. Different stuff. Out-of-the-ordinary stuff. Exciting stuff! And then I thought, what the heck is a patroon system, anyhow? So I virtually took the virtual book off the virtual shelf to have a look.
First, I did a Search within the book to see whether any Efner was mentioned, but none was, nor any Ezekiel either. So, the episode was not going to be personalized for me. Nevertheless, and despite my innate dislike of reading and loathing of history as a subject, I scrolled down to the first page of text. (Did it help that the author's surname subliminally suggested mayhem? Maybe! And just between you and me, there've been plenty of times when I myself have wanted to go to war over the rent.)
This Indenture blah-blah-blah the yearly rent forever of fifteen bushels and an half of good sweet Merchantable Winter Wheat on the first day of January...Right away, I found the contract annoying, and the explanation that followed in the Preface told a bit about the history of this type of land system, which annoyed me even more. Well, as you can see, even before the first page of the first chapter, I'd already picked which side I was on. And by the second paragraph of said page, I was on a first-name basis with a dozen of the local tenant farmers. I even knew which ones were rocking new babies in little homemade red cradles.
"I tell you boys there is going to be trouble over in Albany county and it is already well under way. Sheriff Archer sent a deputy out from Albany day before yesterday to serve a writ on a man named Hungerford in one of those cases that young Steve VanRensselaer is bringing against his tenants. Hungerford showed fight and told the undersheriff to get right back to Albany and not try to serve any more papers. The fact is the people all through there have made up their minds that none of those writs shall be served and there is one thing about it, if the sheriff trys to send any one around to serve those papers that man is going to get hurt. The under-sheriff did serve several writs and then stayed over night at the Rensselaerville tavern. The landlord was a little uneasy and locked the barn up tight but yesterday morning the sheriff's horse was found with his mane and tail sheared off, the harness was all taken apart, and the wheels on the wagon changed. The under-sheriff took the hint and started back to Albany right after breakfast. I tell you the men are mad around there. They swear they will tar and feather the next constable that comes in sight."You know, there's something about dialogue that turns history into story. By chapter two, I was hooked. I had to go refill my coffee mug, because obviously I would be here for awhile.
An itinerant revivalist arrived on Blenheim Hill towards the end of October and found a welcome in the home of Thomas Peaslee. Aunt Eunice, dear old lady, spread a bountiful feast for the man of God, in spite of her fifty-seven years. She had been feeding preachers all her life and not a circuit rider in the country but knew her good cookery. The dominie had fasted all the way from the Helderbergs in anticipation of a seat at the Peaslee board and when he reached it he invoked the blessing of Jehovah with fervent lips. Those men of the cloth in the days of VanBuren were men of large capacity in more ways than one and the way they could eat would astonish a modern housewife. On this particular occasion Aunt Eunice witnessed the depletion of her viands with keen satisfaction, for it not only testified to her domestic skill but she felt also that out of the same mouth which now seemed to communicate with some bottomless receptacle, would proceed, measure for measure, words of Gospel fire, when the minister finally stationed himself in the pulpit of the Brimstone meeting house, after his hunger had once been appeased.Seriously, good thing I didn't have a mouthful of coffee when I read that! There would have been virtual coffee-splats all over this post!
Well, I'm not going to read you the whole thing. You can do that yourself in an hour or two. But I do want to point out one more paragraph, found at the bottom of p. 43:
Wheat had already commenced to fail on Blenheim Hill, and now the loss of the potato crop proved a serious blow to the farmers and the burden of rent day was brought home to them as never before. A short hay crop with snow in September made the outlook still more dubious. There was talk of "going west" and an exodus began which lasted for a decade and took from the Backbone some of its best blood. The route lay first to Cattaraugus county and finally extended to Wisconsin.My branch of the Efner family had lived in this part of Schoharie County for many years. Ezekiel Efner was enumerated in the town of Jefferson in the 1840 census. By 1850, he had removed to Wisconsin, where his family was enumerated in the town of Lyndon. I've always wondered why. Maybe The Anti-Rent War on Blenheim Hill is a little more personalized than it first appeared.
In any case, I found it informative, entertaining, and well worth reading. I've left The Anti-Rent War on Blenheim Hill on the table for you at My Ancestors in Books, along with a few other titles pertaining to Schoharie County history.