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Historic Hudson Valley

Philipse Manor Hall



Give Us Our Land!

A replica of a typical tenant farmer's house
It's 1765. There's turmoil all around the colonies. The British have imposed the highly unpopular Stamp Act, which calls for the colonists to pay taxes for British war expenses. There are protests and mobs and demands to boycott British goods. But in the Hudson Valley, located a couple hours north of New York City, a group of tenant farmers could care less. They have bigger problems on their minds than whatever the British are planning - like how to feed their families and make sure they have a roof over their heads.

Boston and Philadelphia may have been hotbeds of revolutionary activity, but out in the rural country, which is where most of the people lived, there was little connection to what was going on in the cities. Their immediate concerns had to do with their landlords. In the Hudson Valley, first claimed by the Dutch in the 1600s, about seven families owned ALL of the good farming land in the entire area. So what does a person do with 50,000 acres? They lease parts of it to tenants.

The landlords in the Hudson Valley were much like European manor lords. They controlled their tenants' lives, economically, politically and socially. Their immense landholdings were the foundation of their power. Tenants lived in small, often one-room houses and would farm wheat, oats, barley, corn and potatoes on 100-acre plots. They would pay their landlords with their crops. Tenant farmers were restricted to using their landlords' gristmills to grind their wheat and corn into flour. Not only did they pay a fee to use the gristmills, they also had to pay to use the landlords' sawmills to saw logs. Landlords could also control to whom farmers sold their produce. Tenants may have had more rights than slaves, but they were still at the mercy of their landlords.

The seven families that owned the Hudson Valley had a good thing going. As long as the tenant farmers had some sense of security, they would not rock the boat, however unfair their treatment seemed. But in the 1760s, one family, the Philipses, became a little too greedy. They took over land that previously belonged to the Wappinger Indians and kicked out all the tenants leasing land from the Indians. The Philipse manor then made the decision that broke the backs of tenant farmers and altered the course of history in the Hudson Valley.

Imagine a family of 5 living in this one room!
Up until this point, the standard practice among the landowners was to offer tenants a 999-year lease. The tenants would pay their rent with the crops they raised. While not ideal, at least the long-term lease gave them some stability. But instead of offering 999-year leases, the Philipses demanded that tenants sign 1-3 year contracts and pay in cash.

This was devastating for farmers. Most did not have enough cash to pay up front. Signing short-term leases meant that farmers had no security for their families. At any moment they could be thrown off their land and find themselves homeless.

But one tenant, an Irishman named William Prendergast, refused to obey the Philipses' orders. In 1765, he rounded up 200 or so of his fellow farmers. What they did might surprise you. Instead of attacking the landowners, they burned the farms of the tenants who had signed the short-term contracts. To William and the other protesters these farmers were traitors.

Landlords in the Hudson Valley found the rioters a frightening bunch. They were challenging the landlords' stranglehold on political and economic power. And so, they called in the British army to put an end to the riots and arrest William.

William was charged with treason but never had a chance to be fairly tried. The court was made up of property-owning justices who had close ties to the landlords. His punishment was to be hanged and while still alive, have body parts cut off and burned in front of him. However, William was so popular that the sheriff's office could find no one willing to perform the execution. Not knowing what else to do, the landlords gave up their fight against him. He was even pardoned by King George III.

Tenant riots did not end with William Prendergast and the American Revolution. In nineteenth century America even more vicious riots took place. And even today, in many parts of the world, similar disputes between landlords and tenants continue to take place.

Before my gig with the US Trek, I spent a year volunteering in Zimbabwe. In many ways, Zimbabwe's current situation resembles the Hudson Valley in the 1760s, only it is even worse. Some 4500 white farmers own 85% of the good land, while 6 million black farmers have to make do with the rest. Since Zimbabwe's independence from white colonial rule in 1980, the government has tried to implement land reforms and give black farmers a fair share of the land. But twenty years later, little has been done. Most black farmers still live in poor conditions and farm very bad land. In recent months, black farmers have started to take over white farms and even burn, loot and kill white farmers.

Thinking about the situation in Zimbabwe and about William Prendergast and his band of rioters makes me feel uneasy. On one hand, I don't blame people for resorting to violence. William Prendergast was simply trying to survive and take care of his family. The Zimbabwean farmers are in the same boat. Given a government controlled by the rich, what other course of action is there? But while I sympathize with them, I wonder if it is ever right to burn property and beat people up. What do you think?

The one thing I do realize is how important the concept of land is around the globe. For many it is central to their sense of self-worth and purpose in life. In pre-industrial times, it was the main thing that could be passed from generation to generation. Without owning the land they worked on, tenant farmers in the Hudson Valley did not feel they had a stake in the American Revolution that was soon to occur. It's a struggle that now engulfs Zimbabwe. I wish with all my heart that the process could be less painful and bloody.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - Nathaniel Bacon: a rebel with a cause
Kevin - Another slab of Bacon: a rebel without a clue
Stephanie - You go, colonial girl wonder!
Teddy - Witchy woman's gonna put a spell on you!
Becky - Rock the vote the colonial way
Neda - The Regulators take on the big, bad tax men
MAD - The indentured servant trade: still rearing its ugly head