Dr. Crounse pushed for an end to patroons’ tyrannical rule, using political action rather than violence

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical society

Sadly, Dr. Crounse’s house on the corner of Route 146 and Gun Club Road was not preserved considering his historical connections to the Anti-Rent Wars as well as the Civil War, an old house with truly local historical connections. The doorway has been restored and is on display at Guilderland Public Library.

Effusive eulogies and memorials followed the Jan. 26, 1839 death of Stephen Van Rensselaer III, the last Patroon of Rensselaerwyck describing him as charitable, civic-minded, and a lenient landlord. Coming into his inheritance of 1,200 square miles in Albany, Rensselaer and Columbia counties at age 5 in 1763, he had become one of the richest men in the United States of that era.

His wealth came from hundreds of tenant farmers on his patroonship. These farmers were locked into perpetual leases for their farms, expected to pay the annual rent of four fowls, 10 or more bushels of wheat depending upon the acreage of the farm, and a day’s labor for the landlord with a team and wagon.

If the tenant farmer wished to move on, he was expected to have rent paid up and in addition give to the patroon one quarter of the money received for buildings and improvements he or an ancestor had made on the land. A tremendous number of tenant farmers were arrears in rent with no prospect of moving on.

That same day in January 1839 as Stephen Van Rensselaer III’s death, 32-year-old Dr. Frederick Crounse of Knowersville would likely have set out on his rounds to visit seriously ill patients in Guilderland and the Helderberg Hilltowns assuming midwinter snowdrifts didn’t block his way. Almost all of his patients were tenant farmers who would be affected by Van Rensselaer’s death. Dr. Crounse had become very familiar with the difficulties facing the tenant farmers on Van Rensselaer lands.

Dr. Crounse’s medical training was typical for a country doctor. As was common to prepare for a career in medicine at that time, he first studied classical languages with Rev. Adam Crounse, Lutheran pastor in Sharon where he was born, then moved on to the study of medicine first under the direction of Dr. Miller at Sharon and then Dr. White at Cherry Valley.

Next he traveled to Herkimer for some formal medical education at Fairfield Medical College where he attended three courses of medical lectures. After practicing medicine for two years in New Scotland, Dr. Crounse had moved to Knowersville where he built his home and a small two-room office on the Schoharie Road property.

Dr. Crounse began his practice when the nation was in the era of Jacksonian democracy, yet this section of New York was locked in feudalism with Van Rensselaer, the Livingstons, and others living on the rents from tenant farmers who were locked into perpetual leases very difficult to break unless a tenant took a loss on the labors of establishing his farm.

Stephen Van Rensselaer III’s ancestor Kiliaen Van Rensselaer had been granted this huge area by the Dutch West India Company 200 years earlier in 1629 on the condition he would bring over settlers to aid in populating the colony of New Netherland. His incentive was to be his and his descendants’ profit to be made from the collection of annual rents paid by these tenant farmers.

And, as long as later landlords had supported the Patriot cause, after the Revolution these estates were left intact, the rents untaxed.

At Stephen Van Rensselaer III’s death, he was deeply in debt due to his extravagant living and investments failing as the result of the Panic of 1837, a period of economic depression. His will divided Rensselaerwyck between two sons: William inherited the land in Rensselaer and Columbia counties while Stephen IV came into possession of Albany County, including a large number of farms in Guilderland. His sons were directed to collect all the back rents to pay off their father’s debts.

Farmers who had settled on the fertile lowland farms usually had little trouble making their annual rent payments, unlike the unfortunate farmers in the Helderbergs who struggled to raise crops in an area of thin, rocky soil and harsh climate. These tenants were frequently in arrears in their rent payments. Since Stephen Van Rensselaer III hadn’t forced payment of back rents, at the time of his death there were rents owed with a value of almost half-a-million dollars.

As Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, who had inherited the west half of his father’s manor including Guilderland and the Hilltowns, faced the prospect of paying off his share of the large debts owed by his father’s estate, his agents set out to collect back rents or evict farmers from their farms. Angry farmers reacted by forming committees and holding protest meetings.

Even farmers who were up to date on rent payments joined in, fed up with the unfair rents and lease system. A committee of tenants attempted to actually meet with Stephen Van Rensselaer IV to discuss the rents, but he insisted on written communications, which he promptly rejected. In response, farmers held a giant anti-rent meeting in Berne on July 4, 1839.

As his agents appeared with writs demanding payment or eviction from the farms, farmers responded by donning calico dresses and masks with feathers. Signaling each other over the miles by blowing tin horns whenever a Van Rensselaer agent showed up, neighbors gathered to harass the man or in some cases a sheriff and deputies. The Anti-Rent Wars had begun, carried on by “Calico Indians” hostile to any authorities attempting to collect rent or evict tenants.

As Dr. Crounse’s practice took him all over the Helderbergs, he not only treated the sick, but encouraged and sympathized with the aggrieved tenant farmers. His attitude was that the practice of long leases and tenant farming was a feudal system that had no place in a democratic republic.

He would have encouraged further resistance against Stephen Van Rensselaer IV and the authorities sent out against the farmers. However, he was also likely to have been aware that middle- and upper-class Albanians were deeply concerned about lawlessness, holding negative opinions about some of the activities of the masked, Calico “Indians” that were taking place and may have counseled some restraint.

The resistance to rent payments spread to other areas of eastern New York. The Anti-Renters in their disguises of calico and masks, signaling with their tin horns, began using guerilla tactics against county sheriffs and their deputies. At one point, Albany Country Sheriff Christopher Batterman from Hamilton (now Hamlet of Guilderland) was surprised by “Indians” as he and his deputies traveled to Berne to serve eviction papers.

He and his men were dragged from their wagon, disarmed, and the eviction notices burned. Batterman was asked what he would do if the situation were reversed. He replied, “I’d kill you as quick as I would a black snake.”

Batterman  and his men were reported to have been made to jump three times shouting, “Down with  the rent!” Further humiliation was inflicted by tarring and feathering them, tying them up, and placing them in their wagon and sending them on their way back to Albany.

Violence spread in other areas such as Delaware County where an undersheriff was killed at an eviction sale, but it did not reach such extremes in Albany County.

What really won the day for the farmers was not violence, but political action, and this was where Dr. Crounse became actively involved. A State Anti-Rent Convention was called in January 1845 to meet at Berne’s Lutheran Church.

In spite of the bitter winter weather, an estimated 200 delegates from 11 counties attended. The convention chairman was Dr. Crounse, an Anti-Renter of longstanding. Opening the convention, Dr. Crounse spoke words to the effect that the Patriots fought the Revolution to end tyrannical rule and yet it still was present in New York’s Hudson Valley. The time for change had come.

The Convention’s delegates had a more moderate approach to solving the problem than the Anti-Renters in disguises. Realizing they could accomplish more by political action than violence, they wrote up demands, including legislation to curtail landlords’ powers and to tax their rents.

Resolutions and speeches were copied and sent to the governor. Newspapers also received copies. Readers were impressed by the reasonable approach of the Berne Convention’s members, helping to bring about more favorable attitudes in the general community. Convention delegates also vowed to support only political candidates favorable to their cause and agreed to begin printing a weekly Anti-Rent newspaper in Albany.

A year later, Dr. Crounse was a member of a committee that met across the street from the State Capitol and was part of the delegation making a presentation to the legislators outlining their demands for legislative relief. The legislature put many of their demands into law with the approval of the sympathetic Governor John Young.

This was the beginning of the end of the manor system and the unfair lengthy farm leases, a process that went on for many years. In addition, judicial decisions also helped the farmers.

While the actions of the calico-clad “Indians” in Albany County took place in the Hilltowns, people in Guilderland and New Scotland supported their fellow leaseholders. The late Guilderland town historian Arthur Gregg quotes an 1848 document in Dr. Crounse’s handwriting, calling upon anti-renters in the town of Guilderland to meet at the Inn of Harmon Best (location unknown) to choose an Anti-Rent Whig candidate for the office of town supervisor.

And what about Stephen Van Rensselaer IV? By 1852, he had decided to give up after his efforts to come to some sort of agreement with angry tenants had failed.

Worn down, he sold the rights to the West Manor leases to a speculator named Walter S. Church who continued to threaten many farmers with legal action during most years of the 19th Century because many leases remained legally valid.

The decade of the 1840s was a turbulent time in eastern New York with the aristocrat-tenant farmer conflict earning it the name “Anti-Rent Wars.” Guilderland’s own Dr. Crounse helped to bring success to the tenant farmers in eventually winning support from the governor, legislators and members of the public.

The process of ending a system that had no place in democratic America had begun, but unfortunately stretched on for many years.