Rent Riots, Rebels and Revolution: How Hillsdale Helped Win the American War for Independence

At the southeast corner of Routes 22 and 23 stands Hillsdale’s Revolutionary War memorial, which was erected in 1977. Compared to the imposing Soldiers and Sailors monument in the town square, it is modest in size and design. It’s likely that many people drive by without ever noticing it. Many who pass it regularly may have forgotten it’s there.

But Hillsdale played a dynamic role in the country’s transition from the colonial era to the Republic. In the town’s 15 known cemeteries lie the remains of 61 American Revolutionary War (ARW) veterans. There are likely more, whose stones have been lost to time and neglect. Austerlitz, formed in 1818 from a chunk of Hillsdale and smaller parts of Chatham and Canaan, has another 52 ARW interments, bringing the total to 113. Columbia County records 588 ARW veteran burials, meaning that almost 20 percent of all known ARW veterans in the county are buried in what was once Hillsdale.

Why did Hillsdale send so many men to war? One reason may have to do with the area’s pre-revolutionary history.

Back in January 2018, we wrote about the history of Nobletown, the forerunner of Hillsdale. In that post we noted that for many years the boundary between New York and Massachusetts had been in dispute. While the English-ruled Bay Colony contended that its western boundary was more than a mile west of today’s state line, the wealthy and powerful Van Rensselaers claimed that their New York manor lands included the thousands of acres of Rensselaer County and the land between the Hudson River and the Housatonic River (today’s Columbia County, extending into what is now Berkshire County). Much of this disputed territory had been acquired from the Mohican Indians through opaque land deeds that only further muddied ownership claims. The dispute lasted well over a century. (For an excellent history of the land disputes and border wars that followed, see Gary Leveille, Eye of Shawenon: A Berkshire History of North Egremont, Prospect Lake, and the Green River Valley, 2011)

The Van Rensselaers ruled their feudal-like patent by renting land to tenant farmers (leaseholders), quite different from the concept of individual land ownership (freeholders) prevalent in New England. The Van Rensselaers had little luck convincing their tenant farmers to settle in the hill country borderlands. The land was hilly and less attractive for farming, unlike the richer soil closer to the Hudson River. Also, the “distance from the Hudson River appeared to make commercial farming unfeasible and …[several years later] because potential settlers … were afraid of controversy with the New England colony over the land.” (Sung Bok Kim, Landlord and Tenant in Colonial New York, University of North Carolina Press, 1978, p. 283) Thinly populated, the area became a takeover target for Massachusetts, which was eager to push its border westward and encouraged its citizens to settle in the region. “Boston officials welcomed New York Dutch farmers if they supported Massachusetts’ territorial aspirations. It was a win-win situation for both the Bay Colony and for New York tenant farmers looking to escape the feudal system and enjoy actual land ownership.” (Gary Leveille, Eye of Shawenon, p. 71)

The Van Rensselaers (and the Livingstons to the south) resisted the encroachment vigorously, attempting to subdue the rebel tenants and Yankee squatters with force. In January 1755 the Nobletown rebels declared publicly that they owned their land under the authority of Massachusetts, provoking Van Rensselaer to form a posse to capture the rebellious tenants. Instead, they found themselves surrounded by the tenant militia and beat a hasty retreat. In May 1755 Van Rensselaer tried again, unleashing a company of armed men to clear out the Nobletown squatters. Robert Noble wrote “…our Houses have been torn down about our Ears, burnt before our Eyes, our Fences thrown Down, our Corn Fields laid waste we have sown but others have reaped, Husbands and heads of Families Carried to Gaol [jail] without Law …Wives and children left in the Wilderness unprovided for as the Ostrich’s young … You Don’t wonder If our hearts faint…” (Massachusetts Archives, Volume 6, pp. 615)

Hostilities intensified with retaliation on both sides. Finally, in June of 1766, Van Rensselaer assembled a band of about 140 experienced British soldiers led by the Albany sheriff to drive the interlopers out. Nobletown went up in flames and its residents fled to Egremont and Great Barrington.

This passage, from John L. Brooke’s Columbia Rising: Civil Life on the Upper Hudson from the Revolution to the Age of Jackson, describes the enduring impact of that event on the people in the border districts that included today’s Hillsdale:

“The peoples of the disputed hill districts north of Livingston Manor and east of Claverack were staunchly whig, and in their story lay a great lesson in the Revolutionary balance of consent and civil society. The inhabitants of Nobletown and Spencertown were still in contest with the Van Rensselaer family over the title to their land, and, since the Van Rensselaers supported the patriot cause, this struggle could well have drawn the hill people to tory allegiances. But the people of the east Claverack hills were the least touched by loyalism in the region and the most militant and united supporters of American Independence. In the summer of 1766 the settlers at Nobletown had lost everything at the hands of British troops called in by the … Van Rensselaers … Their accounts of the violence in 1766 must have underlain the militancy of the … hill town settlers against both the British and the claims of the Van Rensselaers to regional authority. The Nobletown-area militia regiment, the Ninth Albany, was clearly one of the most dependable in the county and was called up time and again to march to Kinderhook, to the Manor, across the river to the Helderberg hills, and up the Mohawk Valley to overawe suspected tories and to defend the state’s western frontier.”

After the war, many of these veterans settled in Hillsdale, accounting for the town’s high percentage of AWR graves. The veterans became leading citizens of the town, opening stores and businesses and serving in local government. Town fathers Parla Foster and Ambrose Latting were veterans, as were others whose names are now commemorated by town road signs: Collin, Hunt, and Rodman.

The relatively small Revolutionary War memorial belies the outsized role that Hillsdale residents played in our nation’s fight for independence. We owe them a debt of gratitude, on July 4th and every day.

(For a list of known ARW veterans buried in Hillsdale and Columbia County, see DAR Volumes I & II in the Roeliff Jansen Community Library Reference Room.)

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