Van Rensselaer Manor Papers

The End of Dutch Culture in New Netherland

Man in colonial Dutch costume writing; detail of illustration from the lower right corner of the Map of Renselaerwyck.
Detail of illustration from the
Map of Renselaerwyck
Click image for full view of map

Although there was some bloodshed during the Anti-Rent Wars of 1840 to 1846, the issues were really resolved by legislative action and in the courts of law. In 1845, the New York State Legislature abolished the right of the landlord to seize goods of a defaulting tenant and taxed the income that the landlord derived from rent. The New York Constitutional Convention of 1846 prohibited any further leases of agricultural lands for a period longer than 12 years. These measures, however, did not abolish existing lease agreements.

In 1852, the Court of Appeals reversed the 1850 decision invalidating the Van Rensselaer land title based on the landlord-sponsored statute of 1830, which basically said that such land titles had to be legally questioned within forty years of their original land grant. But the reversal did not question another ruling in 1852 which confirmed that tenants who obtained "quarter-sales" after 1787 owned the land they farmed. In other words, these court decisions ruled that many of the clauses of the leases were invalid, but the collection of rent was not.

The disputes between landlords and tenants reached the high courts of New York State during the 1850s in a series of rulings that primarily considered the validity of the lease in fee agreements. The courts generally found most titles and the collection of rents to be valid. Nevertheless, the Van Rensselaers concluded that these legal disparities, coupled with diminished profitability of land rents, marked the beginning of the end of the great manorial estates, and they offered much of their land for sale to speculators. Walter Church, the son of a wealthy landowner of western New York, bought most of the leases which were available for $210,000. He too had trouble collecting back rents and brought over a thousand suits to court. While Church won all of them, he nonetheless died bankrupt in 1890. Otherwise, most of the farms were released or sold during the 1850s and 1860s to the tenants whose families had held title for multiple generations. A few tenants and their heirs, however, continued to pay rent to the Van Rensselaer family estate well into the twentieth century.

Last Updated: September 16, 2009