One answer: same reason so many died in the Hatfield-McCoy feud. Revenge cycles plague all human societies, and in the eighteenth century, the ancient pattern played out right here along the New York-Massachusetts border. A grudge scaled up into a war, and only the machinery of the state could enforce a wary peace.
Another answer: a word that schoolkids chant every morning, a word that in 2019 seems both drab and incendiary, a word that was perhaps more vital and urgent in the 1700s. Liberty.
Using government jobs, strategic friendships, and marriage into a powerful family, Livingston leapt through a window of opportunity. Disease and war had emptied ancient Mohican holdings in the valley, and the colonial government believed that putting immense tracts in the hands of landlords was the best way to get the square miles settled and farmed. In 1682, Livingston bought from the Mohicans “three plains” and “two or three other small flats or plains” (as described in his deed) along the Roeliff Jansen Kill in Columbia County. Doubtless his position as Secretary of Indian Affairs helped open up the deal for him. This first purchase was eighteen hundred acres: two hundred along the Hudson near the mouth of the Kill, and the rest “adjoining the said two hundred acres and soe running back into the woods.”
The price: nine hundred and thirty guilders worth of wampum, and “kettles, knives, etc.” But whether this extinguished the native title was a question that plagued Livingston Manor for generations.
“When white people purchased … they said they only wanted the low lands, they told us the hilly land was good for nothing, and that it was full of wood and stones, but now we see people living all about the hills and woods although they have not purchased the lands. Hunting has now grown very scarce and we are not like to get our living that way.”
But the Livingston family persisted. In 1749 the grandson of the founder of the dynasty – Robert the Younger – took possession of the Manor, ready to defend and expand it.
That year, a petition to the General Court in Boston — requesting that the mountains be governed by Massachusetts – listed all the families living in the Taconics at that time and gave the size of each farm, number of years cultivated (and the number of barrels of “syder” produced, among other information.) In 1751 Christopher and Henry Brazee, John Hallenbeck, and Abraham and Richard Spoor all ran farms that had been in operation since 1691.
The 1751 petition also states: “… as to the quality of lands some of them appear to be very good…” but adds that “the great Tauconnuck mountain” is “very high and impassible.” Surely, in 1691, more accessible land was available? What drew families to such a remote place?
Whatever the reasons, the petition shows that in 1751, forty-four heads of families inhabited the Taconics, living on 966 acres of fenced land, most of it “along a small river or brook which heads in Taucaunuck Mountain.” The petition states that the inhabitants were “sensible that (their) lands are eastward of the utmost extent of (Livingston’s) patent” and asked “the protection of sd government to do duties or receive privileges there.” They had “paid great rents from year to year” but refused to do so any longer.
Six miles west of Sheffield? Wasn’t Ingersoll claiming a serious chunk of Livingston’s land running “…back into the woods?”
With his tenants petitioning Massachusetts, and Ingersoll trying to organize the land under his name, Robert the Younger struck back by attempting to eject two of his tenants, Hallenbeck and Loomis. He received a reply from a Massachusetts surveyor who’d laid out the disputed farms on the east side of the “Tackinick Barrick” (now Cedar Mountain) stating he “would like to talk in a friendly manner.”
The records of the Massachusetts General Court bear witness to a coordinated effort by the colony to push their boundaries as far west as possible, whatever Livingston’s deeds claimed. In 1752 Ingersoll submitted a record of expenses to the Court for business pertaining to the boundary dispute (mostly attempts to bail rebels out of jail.) The next year a committee visited the Taconics and declared that 3200 acres were “within limits of the petition.” A committee was formed to “dispose of the province’s lands lying west of Sheffield and Stockbridge.” And soon after Livingston’s meeting, Massachusetts surveyed the lands, and claimed possession by means of a tree-fence. (Despite the conclusions of the colony’s assessors describing the Taconics as “broken and barren” lands which would “cost a great deal of trouble to make a road into the mountains.”)
In July of 1753, several of the rebels, proclaiming their authority under Massachusetts law, “arrested” two Livingston tenants, Robert Van Deusen and his son – for trespassing. A proclamation for the arrest of this posse was issued. Livingston then led sixty men armed with “Guns, Swords and Cutlasses” to cut down the wheat field of Josiah Loomis and destroy five acres of Indian corn. In August, Livingston’s manor lord neighbor, Van Renselear, wrote to warn him that the “New England people Intirely Intendeth to Take you Dad or Alive.”
A confrontation at the home of Michael Hallenbeck is a cogent illustration of how disputes spiral into violence. A “company of men” (according to a petition sent by Taconics settlers to the General Court) arrived at Hallenbeck’s home in the mountains, armed with swords and pistols. Led by a New York sheriff, they claimed to be searching for Josiah Loomis, but Hallenbeck, armed with a hay fork, refused to believe them. At last he agreed to let John Robson in, but when he opened his half door, a sword sliced the back of his hand. Hallenbeck grabbed a gun and promised to fire if he wasn’t left alone. The sheriff “called for an ax to cut the shut door down and one of them took a great stone and flung against the door which made it tremble and they flung many great stones against the door…” One New Yorker at last broke in by somehow crawling under Hallenbeck’s door. When he “clasped Hallenbeck on the shoulder seizing him as prisoner” one of Hallenbeck’s sons “swore he would shoot and cocked his pistol and it missing fire three times and did not go off.” So lives were spared, by a faulty pistol. Hallenbeck was arrested, but escaped a few months later.
The General Court in Boston proclaimed that Massachusetts had title to the disputed lands. Two members of Livingston’s posse were arrested and imprisoned by the Sheffield magistrate.
The struggle reached a new level when Joseph Pain, a tenant, led a group accused of destroying one hundred and ten trees near Livingston’s iron furnace in Ancram. Ancram is about fourteen miles from the Taconics, so Pain’s action was nothing less than a guerilla attack by Massachusetts citizens on the province of New York. Confronted over his actions, Pain declared that the lands were his and he would destroy them as he pleased. (What principle underlay that bold statement?) Soon he was cornered in his home by a Livingston band whose leader proclaimed: “I will run my sword into your ass.”
In February, 1754, Livingston declared that these “restless people” – Ingersoll, Hallenbeck and Loomis – had visited Boston and returned not only with encouragement to go on agitating but also ten pounds each to cover expenses.