During the Colonial Period and following the Revolutionary War, much of New York State’s Hudson Valley, and lands west through the Catskills were owned by a few very wealthy landowners who were considered ‘Lords’ of their manors or in the Dutch, ‘Patroons.’ The longest lasting of these was the Manor of Rensselaerwyck which covered most of the land in today’s The tenants paid rent for perpetuity and service with horse and wagon.
Stephen Van Rensselaer III acquired the manor in 1785. He was considered ‘The good Patroon,’ since he was lenient in the collection of rent, but when he died in 1839, with his estate heavily in debt, his sons immediately pursued collection of the rents in arrears to settle his debts, often with violent consequences.
From 1839 to 1852, numerous options were proposed to resolve the conflict. In 1852 a case was decided in the courts which declared the conveyances to be deeds which transferred the title to the farmers. The Van Rensselaers abandoned their claims to the farms, but land speculator Walter S. Church, a cousin of the Van Rensselaers from western York, bought out the claims and vigorously pursued collection.
This is the story of one farmer, William Witbeck, who stood his ground against Walter S. Church with tragic results, an event that resulted in one of the most publicized trials in the capital district in the last half of the nineteenth century.