Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"An Explosive Compound"

            That’s how a 19th Century Quaker described the marriage of William Prendergast: “the fire of the Irish temperament” and Mehitable Wing: “the persistence of Quaker passive resistance.” Perhaps this compound is what has made the tale so worth retelling: Wing and Prendergast, yin and yang. In 1766, Prendergast led an armed revolt against the Hudson Valley patroons. His gentle but resolute Quaker wife, Mehitable assisted in his legal defense at Poughkeepsie, and when that failed, rode in blue and white striped dress to Manhattan to beg for his life. Ultimately he was pardoned by King George III.

            I spent some summers horseback riding near where these events took place, and my father told me the story. For me, Wing was the star, Wing and her horse. Truthfully, I confused Mehitable with our other local heroine, Sybil Luddington, the “female Paul Revere,” who also rode a horse. Never mind that I was later married from the Meeting House where Prendergast held out against the British Grenadiers. New York State Regents History curriculum or no, I didn’t really get the whole Anti-Rent, down with landlords campaign. No matter, now I’m convinced that the story has a life of its own, its meaning changing with each telling.

Not Mehitable Wing! Sybil Luddington, Female Paul Revere, Also of Dutchess County.

            To research the story 1938, my father, Croswell Bowen, had only to drive a few miles from Hidden Hollow, his recently purchased summer home in Sherman, Connecticut.  Just over the Sherman border with New York is Quaker Hill, where the Wings had settled. The Akin Free Library there owns a complete set of pamphlets on the history of Quaker Hill. Or Bowen could have driven north to Lake Mauwehoo and the home of Warren Wilson’s daughter, Margaret Lund, for a copy of  Rev. Warren Wilson’s telling of the story. Warren Wilson was a Presbyterian minister sent to Quaker Hill as part of attempts to better life in rural areas. He became intrigued with Quaker Hill and the curious history of the odd borderland known as the Oblong. It is Wilson’s version of the tale that Bowen recounts. Dad remarks “It is not an unknown story up here,” but doesn’t make clear if the transmission was oral or written. The letter indicates he and Carmer already had already heard something of the tale, and knew the direction they’d take it: “Just as we suspected the story is certainly in her.” 

The Akin Free Library; Research Heart of Quaker Hill, LuceyBowen, 2009

            Meanwhile Carmer, in Manhattan, had access to newspaper accounts of the incident. Carmer puts these sources to use in The Hudson chapter “Without Indecorum of Behaviour.” In it, Mehitable shares the stage with William Prendergast’s activities and his qualities as a leader. Carmer was very interested in that episode; his friend the farmer-poet Henry Christman lived in the Helderbergs, the heart of the mid-19th century resurgence of the Anti-Renters. Although a self professed “Upstate Republican,” Carmer had a deep sympathy for working people, and for the origins of the American Revolution among ordinary farmers. Carmer traces the Prendergasts from their marriage, thru the rebellion and its aftermath. With the success of The Hudson, Carmer’s version brought the tale to a wide audience. Even as redoubtable a historian as Cornell’s Michael Kammen, as recently as 1983, relied on Carmer’s version.

            As a child I failed to see the significance of some of the details that Carmer brings forward in “Without Indecorum of Behaviour.” The first concerns Robert Noble’s anti-rent action farther upriver on the Van Renselaer Manor. Prendergast was leading a movement that threatened two very large patent-holders and their commercial interests. This was no dinner party. Robert Noble’s title to his lands, which Van Renselaer disputed, came from the Mohican John Van Guilder. Van Guilder and other family members came to the aid of Robert Noble in his fight against the patroon. Neither my father nor Carmer seem to have been aware that Van Guilder was the patriarch of the “border people, independent, primitive,” who finally settled in Guilder Hollow, north of Albany on the Vermont border, whose ilk Carmer labels “sociological islands” and writes about in “Witches Make Star Tracks,” elsewhere in The Hudson. I wonder if Van Guilder’s assistance provided the model for later Anti-Renters adopting “tin horn and calico” garb and masks. 
            Speaking of dress: Carmer includes the detail that Mehitable borrowed her sister’s blue striped linen dress to wear on her equine flight to appeal to Gov. Moore. This detail recalls the theme of songs and stories from around the world in which the witty and beautiful wife saves her husband or lover from some terrible fate. Mehitable is an archetype of English balladry, no wonder she made such an impression on judges and governors and gained Prendergast’s reprieve.

             Carmer observes “If this were not a true tale it would end here,” that’s to say, with Mehitable and William back on their leased acres, living happily ever after. But that was not to be. Another telling of the story is needed. Seeking information about the Prendergast revolt, Irving Wood, a professor of comparative religion at Smith College, claimed to have spoken with one beautiful older Quaker in 1881. “I do not know the story well,” she told him, “and I do not think thee will find many who do.” The story haunted her fancy, and she tried to imagine the conflicting emotions armed rebellion raised as Mehitable waited its outcome at home. “By and by, when she went out at the sound of still another hoof-beat, she found it was an old neighbor from Quaker Hill. And when she asked him, he only looked solemnly at her and said sternly, ‘Mehitable, thee is beginning to see the fruits of they sowing when thee married out of meeting. Only beginning to see. Those that take the sword shall perish by the sword,’ and he went on.”

            Woods added, that in addition to the disapproval of the Quaker community,  “The disappointment of his failure, and the stigma of a sentence of death seems to have weighed on William Prendergast.” The William Prendergast remained a customer of a store at Quaker Hill in 1771 but then the family moved, north, then west. While the Prendergasts are remembered in Chatauqua, where they finally settled, they were forgotten on Quaker Hill. As the old woman of Quaker Hill, observed, “Friends are not fond of keeping memories of wars and fighting.”

            Although one historian claimed that in the 18th Century, the “Story of Mehitable Wing was often told in Dutchess County, and she was called the heroine of Quaker Hill,” Michael Kammen found no reference to her in the 19th Century histories of Dutchess County. I am not surprised. Although Prendergast attempted to ally himself with the nascent revolutionary movement, the Liberty Boys, they would have none of it. The Revolution itself did not bring an end to feudal tenantry in the Hudson Valley; landlords like the Livingstons and Van Rensalaers took the patriot side and retained their power in the new government and courts. The armed resistance which had pitted neighbor against neighbor was quieted until 1844. The confrontations that took place then, between landlord’s agents, sheriffs serving eviction notices and down-rent tenants morphed into a political movement. In 1846, New York State amended its constitution to discourage the system of land rents. The landlords gradually loosened their hold on the land. Yet it was not until 1914, that the Wing Family association attached, to a boulder near the Wing homestead, a plaque telling Mehitable’s story. In 1940, Carmer took Mehitable’s story to the airwaves, as part of the DuPont sponsored radio broadcast, Cavalcade of America

            10 years later Carmer published the material again, as part of a series, "Winston Adventure Books," to which he was also consulting editor. Entitled Rebellion at Quaker Hill, A Story of the First Rent War, the tale is recast to suit the taste of pre-teen boys for adventures involving guns. Here the protagonist isn't William Prendergast or Mehitable, but Andy Wing, Mehitable's nephew. With her assistance he rides out after Prendergast and witnesses the events of the rebellion and Mehitable's intervention. Carmer gives to him the internal dialogue between his Quaker pacifism and his fears for his uncle. 
            In the most recent telling I’ve found, published in 2002, the story is emphatically Prendergast’s, and it is a tragedy. In an article “Crowd and Court, Rough Music and Popular Justice in Colonial New York,” historian Thomas J. Humphrey provides a detail of Prendergast’s rebellion that isn’t mentioned in Reverend Wilson’s or Carmer’s account. Prendergast and his group seized two tenants favorable to landlords Philipse and Beverly Robinson and subjected them to a mock trial in an outdoor court. Prendergast is briefly the master of political theatre. He presides and successfully intimidates the two. Inevitably, he is reversed, he surrenders and finds himself on trial for treason. Mehitable’s decorum and bravery are credited with saving him from a gruesome death, but the King’s mercy displays where power resides, and humbles Prendergast and his followers. 

            I was inspired to consult some of Humphrey’s sources. At about the same time as Carmer was writing The Hudson, the social historian Oscar Handlin, examined the court record of the trial in the archives of the New York Historical Society, and published them in the New York University Law Review.  Ah, original sources! I’m a huge fan of crime procedurals, and this document is a treasure of a script. The attorney general, John Kempe, questions each witness, and their testimony is recorded. Not a lawyer, but William Prendergast himself cross examines them. We can almost hear Mehitable, who accompanied him, prompting his questions. She’s a Quaker, committed to non-violence; the questions constantly force the witnesses to acknowledge Prendergast’s previously peaceful reputation, and his continued statements that the dispute was only with the landlords over rent and all other debts should be paid. Yet, as Handlin observes “The notes were made while the trial was in progress, and therefore do not form a finished narrative.” It was to Carmer, with his story teller’s magic, to do that, and to do it in a number of different fashions!


  1. I think Carmer's fascination with this story has much to do with his combination of "Upstate Republican" from his upbringing and close to pro-Union stance of his work with the Author's Guild.

  2. Thank you for this detailed and fascinating history. Upstate and Western New York are so rich in human stories. Carmer made you feel like you were witnesses them through his eyes and I appreciate your following in his footsteps.

  3. Thank you for the write up. Your blog has been linked as a reference article to the Chautauqua County Historical Society blog page. It is our bicentennial and we are featuring some 200 notable people from throughout the county's history.

  4. http://mcclurgmuseum.org/blog/?p=613

  5. Interesting blog. It would be great if you can provide more details about it. Thanks you
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  6. Manasi, what sort of details are you looking for?