Posts Tagged Anti-rent War

Behind the Art: Poets’ Walk Park

Monday, July 15th, 2019 | Permalink

In 1849 members of the Astor and Delano family commissioned the German-born architect Hans Jacob Ehlers to “improve” the sunlit fields, wooded vistas. ravines, and thick fields on a portion of their estates. The result became the “outdoor rooms” of Poets’ Walk Park, one of the prime examples of the Hudson River Valley’s hiking trails and an early examplar of American landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing‘s belief that “interacting with nature had a healing effect on mankind.”

As innocent and ennobling as this sentiment sounds today, it masks more pragmatic motives behind this artistic transformation of the Hudson Valley landscape. At the time of this commission, the Astors and Delanos were among the largest landholding families in the Hudson River Valley. They benefited from the earlier Dutch patroonship system, a medieval policy adopted by the Dutch West India Company in the 17th century that granted its investors thousands upon thousands of acres of land in the New World so long as they supplied the means and manpower to transform the land into profitable agricultural enterprises. Most often, this arrangement meant the investors employed freemen, laborers, and indentured servants to till the land in exchange for a portion of their crops, usually one-tenth, but often as much as a fourth of their production.

As you might expect, such a system penalized the people who worked the land. Though they could carry over the amount owed the landowner from year to year, their debts accumulated until the economic status of  the farm workers amounted to little more than serfdom. The system didn’t change after the British took over New Netherland in 1664. The British abolished the practice of feudal tenure and substituted the Dutch feudal manors with a system of patroonships in which parcels of land could extend 16 miles on one side of the river or eight miles on both sides. The largest of these, the manor of Rensselaerswyck (called Dragonwyck in the novel and in the movie on which it was based), encompassed all of what today are known as Albany and Rensselaer counties, as well as parts of Columbia and Greene counties. By the time the last patroon, Stephen Van Rensselaer (The Good Patroon), died in 1839, he was worth approximately ten million dollars (88 billion in 2007 dollars) making him the tenth richest American in history.

This wealth imbalance might not have mattered if the Good Patroon’s tenants had been allowed to carry over their debts as they had before. But when Stephen’s heirs called in their debts as was their legal right, the sudden bankruptcies and physical dislocation of so many tenants released the flood of built-up class antipathy which resulted in what is called the Anti-Rent War. For a period of ten years men dressed as “Calico Indians” repulsed wave after wave of law officials while establishing themselves as a potent political force in the state legislature. Their struggle resulted in a change to the New York state constitution which added provisions for tenants’ rights, abolished feudal tenures, and outlawed leases lasting longer than twelve years.

 

Given this new economic and cultural climate, it’s not surprising the “remaining manors dissolved quickly as the patroons sold off the[ir] lands” according to author Douglas T. Miller. The Delano and Astor families’ decision to re-purpose their lands into what became Poets’ Walk became part of a movement to restore the land to, in Downing’s words, “the whole people,” because a “natural style of landscape gardening” forms part of a good home which “will encourage its inhabitants to lead a moral existence.” Moving from there to the Conservation Movement of the late 19th and 20th centuries was a short trip philosophically.