1994 Town of Knox Comprehensive Plan: History
The Town of Knox, which contains the hamlets of Knox and Township, is located in the northwestern corner of Albany County and encompasses approximately 26,000 acres. It is situated on a weathered, glaciated plateau which stretches south and west beyond the Helderberg Escarpment. In 1785, the western boundary was established to be 24 miles west of and parallel to the west bank of the Hudson River. The township overlooks the Mohawk and Hudson River Valleys, and on clear days the Adirondack Mountains to the north, and the Berkshire and Green Mountains to the east, are visible.
Prior to 1790, the Town was known only as a wild, mountainous part of the West Manor of Rensselaerwyck. In those times, Watervliet, the "mother" of the towns of Albany County, was a vast area with indefinite boundaries. As population increased, however, it became necessary to reduce this area into administrative units of manageable size. Therefore, in 1790, Rensselaerville, which included the present townships of Berne, Westerlo and Knox, was separated from Watervliet; Berne, which included the township of Knox, was apportioned from Rensselaerville in 1795; finally, the township of Knox was established, separate from Berne, on February 28, 1822.
Legend gives the Hamlet of Knox the early name of Fechtburg, or Fighting Hill. This name arose from a bitter dispute over leadership among a party of pioneers encamped at the site of the Hamlet. Later, the Hamlet became known as "Pucker Street", a reference to the inhabitants' aloof attitudes (or alternately, to a plethora of old maids in residence there) or, owing to the nearly 100-foot width of the road running through it, as simply "The Street". The origin of the name of Knox is uncertain, but probably came from Colonel Knox, Revolutionary War hero, or possibly, in honor of John Knox, the Reformer.
A map prepared by William Cockburn for Stephen Van Rensselaer in 1787 shows the Town divided into plots of approximately 120 acres. There were many settlers already on the land when the map was prepared; historians conclude that these were probably lease-holders, although this can not be conclusively documented since the original leases were a part of the Van Rensselaer papers destroyed in the Capital fire.
In 1845, the Town of Knox reported a population of 2,145 and Knoxville, as it was then known, contained about 30 dwellings. Following the Revolutionary War, many more settlers came into the area from the vicinity of Stonington, Connecticut.
The Patroon system, which was exported to the New World from Holland long after it had been abandoned there, encumbered a section of the Hudson River valley and the adjacent lands on either side with a coercive aristocracy that led to long, bitter years of hardship and suffering and eventually, to armed revolt.
In 1629, Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, a pearl and diamond merchant of Amsterdam and a director of the Dutch West India Company, was given a charter for a grant of land in America in return for his agreement to establish a colony of fifty persons on the grant within four years. Kiliaen's grant rapidly became the Manor of Rensselaerwyck, which stretched along both sides of the Hudson River for 24 miles and encompassed an area of about 700 thousand acres.
The first patroon of Rensselaerwyck never saw or visited his estate, but his agents served him well and the vast tract was handed down to his descendants intact. It became a hereditary seat of enormous economic and political power, as well as a source of ever-increasing wealth. The manor survived both the British conquest of the colonies in 1664 and the American Revolution more than a century later, with the powers of the patroon only superficially diminished.
Henry Christman's Tin Horns and Calico, a stirring and authoritative account of the struggle of the reluctant tenant farmers against entrenched injustice, describes their situation in the 1830's:
"Under the patroon system, flourishing as vigorously as it had in the days of the early seventeenth century, a few families, intricately intermarried, controlled the destinies of three hundred thousand people and ruled in almost kingly splendor over nearly two million acres of land."
Stephen Van Rensselaer III, sixth lord of the manor, and his son, Stephen IV, were the descendants of old Kiliaen most intimately bound up with the history of Knox. In Tin Horns and Calico, Henry Christman portrays the state of the manor as it was when Stephen III came of age in l785:
"Only scattered settlers had gone beyond the fertile valley lands to clear the heights of the Helderbergs, where thousands of untouched acres still awaited the ax and the plow. Stephen now announced a `liberal' program to people the rest of his seven hundred thousand acres. He would give the patriots of the Revolution homesteads without cost; only after the farms became productive would he ask any compensation.
"Surveyors were sent over the hills; farms of one hundred and twenty acres each were blocked out; exaggerated reports were issued about the fertility of the soil... Men began to come and to each the patroon said: `Go and find you a situation. You may occupy it for seven years free, then come in at the office, and I will give you a durable lease with a moderate wheat rent."
Several thousand farms were taken up on the basis of the patroon's vague offer, and for most of the prospective lease-holders, especially for those who found their "situations" in the rocky uplands of the Helderbergs, the seven years spent in clearing a homestead in the wilderness, were years of cruel privation and rugged toil. As Henry Christman wrote:
"Here the farmers spent their energy wresting a living from the grudging land, and talked with patient humor of the stones that pushed up perennially as the only dependable crop. Some even fancied that the Helderbergs were the last place made by God, and the dumping-ground for all the rock left over from Creation."
Many settlers had to "hire out" in order to support their families while they cleared their farms. Some traveled many miles to work for a half-bushel of corn a day, trudged home with the corn on their backs, and then picked up their axes to work at their own homesteads.
When the seven years of unremitting labor had ended and the settlers went back to the patroon for their "durable leases", they were handed contracts of "incomplete sale", which had been drafted for the patroon by his brother-in-law, Alexander Hamilton. With these "leases", or "incomplete sale" contracts, the patroon evaded the intent of laws enacted in 1792, and "sold" to the settlers the lands which they had cleared, subject to certain conditions, as set forth in Tin Horns and Calico:
"As 'purchase' price for the title to and the use of the soil, the tenant was to pay ten to fourteen bushels of winter wheat annually, and four fat fowls; and he was to give one day's service each year with team and wagon. He was to pay all taxes, and was to use the land for agricultural purposes only. The patroon specifically reserved to himself all wood, mineral and water rights, and the right of re-entry to exploit these resources. The tenant could not sell the property, but only his contract of incomplete sale, with its terms unaltered. A 'quarter-sale' clause restricted him still further: if he wished to sell, the landlord had the option of collecting one-fourth of the sale price or recovering full title to the property at three-quarters of the market price. Thus the landlord kept for himself all the advantages of land ownership, while saddling the 'tenant' with all the obligations, such as taxes and road-building."
Rent was due on the first of January. All through the Helderbergs teams were hitched to wagons or sleighs for the long pull over frozen roads to the office of the distant patroon. Some farmers traveled for more than a day. Once they had reached the office of the patroon's agent, they waited outside in the cold yard until their names were called. When summoned, they went up to a small, circular window and handed their "rates" to the agent inside. In turn, each tenant who had met his obligation came away from the window clutching his receipt for wheat and "four fat fowls" which had been delivered previously to one of the patroon's collection points. But whether a tenant could pay or not, or whether he was sick or injured, he was required to be represented at the patroon's office on Rent Day. No tenant was allowed inside the office, or permitted to examine the books in which his rents were recorded. The tenant had only his receipt and the agent's assurance that the entries were correct.