History of the ‘Down with the Rent’ Flag

A rare flag with deep roots in the history of New York State, the ‘Down with the Rent’ Flag features a man with a horn, a small tomahawk and an Indian headdress beside the words, “Down with the Rent”. It is a lasting symbol of the Anti-Rent Movement of the 19th century, when peasant farmers in Upstate New York revolted against landholders, or patroons, who were charging the peasants annual rent for use of the land.

About Patroonship

The patroon system was a feudal manor system instituted by the Dutch West India Company in 1629. To foster colonization and development of what is now largely New York State, land grants were offered to investors. The landholders were known as patroons and the land they owned a patroonship. Anyone living on the land besides the patroon’s family was considered a mere tenant and was required to pay annual rent to the patroon. The largest patroonship, which covered 750,000 acres in Albany and Rensselaer counties, was owned by the Van Rensselaer family.

Birth of the Anti-Rent Movement

Stephen Van Rensselaer III was known as a “good patroon” who was lenient about collecting rents, but when he died in 1839, his will specified that all back rents were to be collected immediately. Unable to pay their debts or find relief in the courts, the tenant farmers became desperate. On July 4, 1839, the first mass meeting of tenant farmers was held at the top of the Helderberg mountains in Berne, NY. They organized a political movement known as the Anti-Renters Party and decided to revolt.

The Anti-Rent War

Between 1839 and 1845, the Anti-Renters disguised themselves as Calico Indians in order to resist law enforcement and evade those attempting to collect rent and taxes. They donned masks, headdresses and calico cloth, and used tin horns to summon their neighbors for help – which explains the silhouette depicted on the ‘Down with the Rent’ flag.

The resistance occasionally became violent and some fatalities occurred. However, it was at least partially successful. In the New York Constitution of 1846, provisions for tenants’ rights were added, ending feudal tenures and outlawing leases longer than twelve years. The remaining patroonships dissolved shortly thereafter, as the patroons sold off the lands.

The “Down with the Rent” Flag

The “Down with the Rent Flag” was discovered in 1955 by the granddaughter of Peter Hydorn, a member of the Anti-Renters Party, who died in 1876. Mina Hydorn Stuart discovered the banner folded in a chest of drawers in Grafton NY and gave it to the Grafton Community Library. It is the only Anti-Rent banner known to have survived and remains on display at the Town of Grafton Town Hall.

Own a Piece of New York State History

‘Down with the Rent’ Flag replicas are available for purchase at Gettysburg Flag Works. Made in the USA of durable all-weather nylon, the historical New York State flag is available in three sizes, and includes a canvas header and brass grommet attachment.

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