Revolts Before the Revolution — Part I: Prendergast’s Rent War of 1766
As Gary B. Nash recounts in, The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America, much of the land in colonies like New York and New Jersey was controlled by a few wealthy families or investor “proprietors who sought to recreate the European estate-based system of landlords and tenant farmers. For example, in the Hudson River Valley, Rensselaerswick Manor totaled 1 million acres, Philipse Manor 200,000 and Beekman Manor a mere 100,000. According to Nash, by 1710 every acre of some 800 square miles of Duchess County had been patented to a handful of absentee landlords for token amounts of money. Most of these tracts were acquired as virtually free gifts from royal governors and some obtained by fraud. Henry Beekman received his vast patent in the 1690s from Governor Benjamin Fletcher for 25 pounds. The Philipse patent, covering all of southern Dutchess County was fraudulently obtained because no purchase was ever made from the original owners, the Wappinger Native American tribe.
As if living in the days of yore, the manor lords tried to exact medieval subservience from their tenants, each year obliging them to to perform the corvee — unpaid labor to build and maintain manor roads, just like French peasants were required to do. In fact this is exactly how the great American landlords saw their tenants, as peasants who would never be allowed to purchase land from them to become independent yeoman farmers. When tenants resisted rent increases or purchased land from Native Americans, landlords evicted them. This was made easy because the landlords also dominated local government, particularly the courts. As Nash notes, faced with a system stacked against them, tenants only had one realistic option to fight back — going outside the law.
Encouraged by the 1765 Stamp Act riots in New York City, upstate tenant farmers began to offer stiffer resistance to landlords. They soon formed their own militia bands; elected their own officers; formed popular courts to to try “enemies” they captured; threatened landlords with death; restored evicted tenants to their farms and broke open jails to rescue friends. As Nash tells us, “In effect, they formed a countergovernment,” that was seen as the height of treason by both the landlords and British colonial authorities.
The man whom several thousand Dutchess County tenant farmers chose to lead their uprising against manorialism is someone you’ve probably never heard of. William Prendergast was an immigrant from County Kilkenny in southeast Ireland. In the early 1750s, he became a tenant on the Philipse estate. Prendergast became respected in Dutchess County as an, “always saving, industrious man.” When the manager of Philipse Manor demanded in 1765 that tenants surrender their long-term leases for new one- to three-year leases, Prendergast stepped forward to lead angry tenants against this attack on their livelihoods. Vowing to “relieve the oppressed,” he led rioters on a rampage to reclaim the farms on the Philipse and Van Cortlandt Manors from which they had been evicted.
New York’s attorney general, John Tabor Kempe, responded by issuing a bench warrant for the arrest of the tenant rioters and the Westchester County sheriff nabbed three and hustled them off to jail in New York City, far from Prendergast and other potential jail breakers. But this only brought out an even greater number of insurgent farmers to a meeting called by Prendergast. They agreed unanimously to march on the city to “do justice and relieve the oppressed” and perhaps demolish the homes of John Van Cortlandt and Kempe as well. Some 300 armed farmers headed for King’s Bridge, which connected Westchester Country with Manhattan, on April 29, 1766. Warned that he was defying the authority of the king, Prendergast replied, “Mobs had overcome kings before and why should they not overcome now?”
Prendergast and his men were joined at the bridge by several hundred Westchester farmers. He made a spirited speech anticipating that New York’s urban workingmen, who had been so active in the Stamp Act riots would join them but this was not to be. As Nash notes, “In a classic case of divided laboring people, a problem that would hobble radical movements for many generations , New York’s plebeian ranks failed Prendergast’s hopes.” Nash goes on to speculate that the reasons for this may have included a rumor that the farmers intended to set parts of the city on fire, along with jubilation over news the Stamp Act had been repealed. Another factor may have been that some of the oppressive Hudson Valley landlords also had city mansions and had become active leaders of the Sons of Liberty, to which many of the workingmen belonged to as well. But Nash considers most important the fact that Royal Governor Henry Moore quickly called out the city’s better armed militia and regular troops, which forced Prendergast’s legion to retreat from the city.
Governor Moore ordered Prendergast and the other tenant leaders arrested on the spot but the city alderman sent to lead the effort allowed Prendergast and his cohort a chance to escape, which suggests that there was a least some sympathy among New Yorkers for the farmer rebels. Moore issued a proclamation offering a 100 pound reward for the capture of Prendergast, “Chief of the Country Levellers” and 50 pounds each for his two chief subordinates. Prendergast eluded the sheriffs, rejected his wife, Mehitable’s pleas to surrender and vowed to, “make daylight show thro’” anyone who attempted to seize him. But in July 1766, a British regiment dispatched to Poughkeepsie finally snared Prendegast. Hauled off to the Dutchess County Courthouse, he was charged with high treason.
When Chief Justice Robert R Livingstone read out Prendergast’s sentence, the entire colony of New York learned how greatly the rent war had frightened the rich and powerful. Prendergast was to be hung, drawn and quartered, a punishment usually reserved for slaves found guilty of murdering their masters or mistresses. As in the slave cases, the point was to terrify and dissuade anyone who might try to follow in Prendergast’s footsteps. Mehitable rode seventy miles on horseback to New York to plead with Governor Moore to reprieve her husband but to no avail. What saved Prendergast was that nobody could be found to carry out this grisly method of execution, despite the sheriff’s advertised offer of a “good reward” and a promise to disguise the executioner, “so as not to be known.”
It’s difficult to find anything of Prendergast’s story after his unavoidable reprieve. However, I did come across the text of an address to the Chautauqua County Historical Society delivered on April 10, 1976 by William A Evans Esq., described as a “Jamestown [New York] attorney.” According to Evans, Prendergast returned home as a “popular hero.” In 1771, he acquired absolute fee ownership of his land and then prospered as a lumberman, amassing a small fortune. He also remained loyal to King George III throughout the American Revolution. Evan’s, probably correctly, chalks this up to the fact that king pardoned Prendergast and spared him from a gruesome death. But the story of William and Mehitable did not end there. According to Evans, “Imbued with plenty of pioneer spirit and somewhat discontent after their troubles in Dutchess County, the Prendergasts set out with their many children and grandchildren for Tennessee.” Dissatisfied with the land there, they traveled back to New York towards the “unsettled regions of the Great Lakes and Chautauqua County.” They reached what is now the town of Ripley in the autumn of 1805 and “purchased a small hut there.” In the spring of 1806, William and his son James, purchased a 3,337 acre tract near Mayville, New York and put up a log house. William and Mehitable “found a haven in peaceful Chautauqua, surrounded by their children and grandchildren and lived to see them prosper and take important positions in the founding of the county and City of Jamestown.”