The manorial system of land tenure, first introduced to New York by the Dutch, was continued under English rule. Patents to huge tracts of land were granted to a few powerful colonists who in turn granted leases that provided for a perpetual rent to the farmers who worked the land. Failure to pay the rent resulted in ejection from the property. Also, without freehold title, many farmers could not meet the property qualifications to vote in elections and serve on juries. Although Dutchess County was subject to the Philipse patent, the farmers leased their lands from the Wappinger Indians. In 1765, the Philipse family went to court and successfully enforced their claim against the Wappingers. Immediately, their representatives imposed manorial leases on tenant farmers. This was met with strong resistance. The farmers rallied behind Wappinger Sachem Daniel Nimhan, who appealed the case to the Court of Chancery. No attorney could be found to represent the Sachem, and the court was comprised of men who owned large landed estates. When the Court of Chancery rejected the appeal, the Philipse estate brought fifteen actions to eject tenant farmers from their holdings. In November 1765, the local farmers met and agreed to reinstate the dispossessed tenants by force, if necessary. A governmental proclamation issued on April 30, 1766, offered a reward for the seizure of specifically named leaders of the farmers' movement, including William Prendergast. By the end of June, 1766, the movement involved approximately 1,700 tenant farmers, armed with firearms. They were known as "levelers," because they believed that their equitable claim to the land should be recognized and their leases converted into fee simple titles. On June 20th, the Governor's Council sent the Twenty-Eighth Regiment to disperse the crowd and arrest the leaders. William Prendergast was detained on a charge of treason and taken to a New York prison.
In July, the Court of Assizes sat in Dutchess County under military guard. The bench was comprised of Chief Judge Daniel Horsmanden, and associate justices Johns Watts, William Walton, Oliver De Lancey, Joseph Reade, William Smith, Whitehead Hicks, and John Morin Scott. All were among the landed gentry of the colony and Justice Robert R. Livingston was present in court, although not sitting. On Wednesday, August 6, 1766, William Prendergast, a "sober, honest, and industrious Farmer much beloved by his neighbors," was indicted on a charge of high treason. The jury trial lasted twenty-four hours and was widely followed. Prendergast, assisted by his wife, Mehitabel Wing, conducted his own defense. It is reported that "she never failed to make every remark that might tend to extenuate the offence, and put his conduct in the most favorable point of View; not suffering one Circumstance that could be collected from the Evidence, or thought of in his Favour to escape the Notice of the Court and Jury." The prosecuting attorney sought (but failed) to remove her "lest she might too much influence the Jury" by "her very Looks." The jury returned a verdict of "guilty" with a recommendation of mercy, but the court sentenced Prendergast to be hung, drawn and quartered.
Mehitabel Wing immediately appealed to Governor Harry Moore who, on September 1, 1766, granted a reprieve until the King's pleasure might be known. Prendergast later received a royal pardon and was able to return to his farm. Decades later, the anti-rent movement would again become a force in New York politics.
Irving Mark and Oscar Handlin. Land Cases in Colonial New York (1765-1767): The King v. William Prendergast, 19 N.Y.U. L. Q. Rev. 165 (1941-1942)
Irving Mark. Agrarian Revolt in Colonial New York, 1766. 1 American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 111 (1942).
The Historical Society of the Courts of the State of New York 140 Grand Street, Suite 701 White Plains, N.Y. 10601 914.824.5717