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Old News with Jack Bond

Steuben County’s Rural Rent Strike Risk

How economic collapse forced Steuben County together

Many people consider the issues of early America to be colonization, British control, or the problems of the frontier, if they think of them at all. However, people also dealt with economic and social issues that are still relatable today. An event I think some today could very much understand was one detailed in Professor W. Woodward Clayton’s book “History of Steuben County” published in 1879, when an economic disaster risked the foreclosure of Bath.

The land that would become Steuben County was originally in dispute after the Revolutionary War because two land grants gave the territory to New York and Massachusetts respectively. Kings were not known for geography, nor for their respect for the work of surveyors. Eventually after an agreement with the Seneca Nation, Massachusetts agents were allowed to buy the land but with the stipulation that when it was sold it would be part of New York. After American independence, foreigners could not buy land but the Pulteney Estate in London found a way around it by having one of their agents, Charles Williamson, move to America and buy the land for them in 1792. Charles Williamson would later be the founder of Bath and help the early settlers colonize the area.

When the Steuben county area opened up for settlers there was a rush of people from Pennsylvania. There were so many that, a year later when an Irish immigrant tried to get some lodging he found out that all the rooms were taken and only got lodging because of the generosity of a Dutch immigrant. Bath not only had a sawmill and two gristmills but also had two schools soon after its formation. The county’s trajectory of growth was hopeful.

But popularity and success couldn’t stay forever. Five years after the Erie Canal was built in 1825, profitability of farmers’ crops and timber plummeted. According to historian Kirk House businesses didn’t want to use the local rivers like the Cohocton anymore since using the Erie was more profitable. The area collapsed economically as businesses wanted to buy from one expansive route instead of multiple little ones. 

With lumber and crops unable to be sold and farmers’ lands having trees they couldn’t remove, the locals had to do something. Everyone had to pay a mortgage the same price before the economic collapse but with land and businesses that were worth much less than before. The towns got together and asked for debt relief from the agent who was then representing the Pulteney Estate: Robert Troup.

In a letter sent to Troup, the collective tenants listed the problems caused by the economic collapse, including the inability to pay their mortgage or even cover the interest, and not having the labor to even clear their lands to improve their farms. Troup responded by downplaying their concerns, and promised to help stimulate the economy with “inspiration.” However, to his credit, he did plan to reevaluate the land with the help of a surveyor and reduce the mortgages accordingly.

Many people were really concerned about this response, as evaluating land that they’ve been struggling to improve could mean that the improvements they made would be counted against them in calculating their debt. The residents also felt like their main concerns weren't addressed in Troup’s response. Months after this, the communities together decided to suspend all payments until they got the needed debt relief. 

Robert Troup was appalled by the request for universal debt relief. He cited some familiar reasons to avoid that request. He said that it would be unfair to those who regularly paid their debt, and be advantageous for those that never made payments and just accumulated profit. However, ultimately Troup assured the locals the appraisal and debt payment were going to be fair and generous. Appraisal would evaluate the land separately from the improvements. Troop also allowed farmers to pay mortgages with crops at higher than market value. He ended the letter by “gently” reminding the locals that if payments did not resume he would have to pursue legal action and foreclose.

Eventually the surveyor appraised the land and the locals' fears did not come to pass. Their mortgages were reduced to more manageable prices and they could resume paying, secure that they weren’t going to be foreclosed because of forces outside their control.

No matter your own opinion on this crisis, whether or not either side was reasonable, it was a very modern problem. Bath almost came to the point of a rent strike due to the regional problem they all shared. The territory may have been drawn out by a noble’s hand but a community was formed by the people on it.

About the author

Jack Bond is a writer and editor raised in Horseheads, New York. He has a fascination with Southern Tier History and wants to better understand — and share — the facets of these communities lost to time.

During his spare time Jack reads both speculative fiction and history.


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