Dr. Smith Boughton / Willard Griggs
Amazing Graves: Ghosts of Sand Lake
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Everybody has a time, I guess, some event, hah, usually a war, that defines them. I couldn’t call what defined my life a true war, but I would call it a battle for justice, and it lasted years, longer than most wars.
You see, ever since I was a boy, I hated what wasn’t fair. I was always a rebel. My father and my uncles fought in the Revolutionary War to change things so that our society wasn’t for the few to “lead lives of Byzantine glory, but for men to make the most of their common humanity.” What good was that war if people couldn’t live with “independence and self-respect and the means to a good life”?
But I didn’t become a soldier; I became a doctor. I lived right up the road here in Alps. Nice little house. It’s still there today. But doctors then didn’t have offices so I traveled all over this county of Rensselaer, visiting the sick. I would pull a tooth for 25 cents or deliver a baby for 3 dollars. Now, I could help the people with their health, but they had bigger problems that plagued their lives.
Most of the people in this county were farmers, trying to make a living out of this rocky soil. Many of you live here so you know what I mean. The ground up around Taborton and Grafton doesn’t yield much. But what it did yield wasn’t for the farmers to keep! They were beholding to the PATROON! The Van Rensselaer’s! These “Patroons” had been “given” this land by a government that wasn’t even the United States of America! They were Dutch! Each year the patroons collected on leases that were fraudulent. The men who signed them were led to believe they would own the land after 7 years. But year after year they worked the land, and they still were considered “renters”. The farmers struggled while the Van Rensselaer’s became richer. I’ve heard the Patroon’s family earned over 40 million dollars from the land of this county. And you know what? They couldn’t have found their way from the Hudson River to Grafton by themselves. They didn’t know the land and they didn’t know the people. They just knew money and getting richer. Yet this county is still named for them. I don’t understand it.
Well, finally a group of farmers and people like myself who wanted to change the system and let the people who worked the land be able to own that land started meeting and planning.
What we did here in the 1840s may not seem dignified, but it worked. First, of course, we tried to get the laws changed through the state, but the law was on the side of the Patroons. So instead, we organized and we adopted the same protection the people of Boston used before the Revolution. We decided that if dressing up like Indians worked at the Boston Tea Party, it could work for us. If we could disguise ourselves and keep the Sheriff from delivering the writs to evict farmers who didn’t pay their “rent”, then we could make our point. We’d meet in different places, usually one of the Taverns. Some meetings were right here in Martin’s Tavern in Hoag’s Corners. We felt if we were strong, we could get the system changed.
Our women made us dresses. Our Indian garb we called it. Just like I’m dressed now. No one knew who we were and no two of us were dressed alike. Hah, we couldn’t even tell ourselves. And we gave ourselves names. Mine was “Big Thunder.” Probably called that because I liked to talk. When the Sheriff would come to a farm to evict some of the “tenants,” we’d be there. And we’d make sure he got nothing. We used these tin horns to let each other know when the Sheriff was coming. They’re pretty loud.
I didn’t want violence. Just justice. We did “tar and feather” one deputy, George Allen, and I do regret that. I guess maybe that violence was inevitable. And maybe it was also inevitable that as one of the leaders, I was arrested. Twice. The first time was the worst. I spent ten weeks shackled in a jail in Hudson. I almost died from the smoke in that cold cellar of a jail and I worried every day about my wife and my baby. I have to admit, there were times when I cried. After seven long months, I was finally set free-to await my trial. I got to see my good patient wife and my little son.
At the trial, I was deemed guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment in Dannemora. I did give way to tears as I said good-by to my dear wife, but I went peacefully.
But when all seemed lost, things turned around! My followers banded together and exerted all the pressure they could on the new politicians of the day. And they finally succeeded! The laws were changed to support the farmers. The new governor, John Young, released me from prison and I returned to this country I loved, the hills of Rensselaer County. And it gave me great joy to see that the farmers here could now own the land that THEY loved.
So what did I learn from my life?
“I have found the old maxim true…the man who attempts to overthrow an existing wrong or revolutionize a principle of government that is tyrannical must not expect to reap any reward-only in conscience and the satisfaction of knowing that his individual efforts bring a benefit to thousands. In this I am rewarded.”
Thank you for listening to my story. And maybe some of you know some wrongs that need to be righted-I tell you, it’s a hard road, but I felt it was worth it.
Well, Smith Boughton and some other friends of my early years love to spout off about justice and the rights of the people. And, yes, when I was young I supported the anti-rent cause. I also believe in justice. But as I grew older and saw the way the anti-renters were behaving with their tin horns and silly costumes, and their rebellion against the law of the land, I couldn’t continue to support them. Justice is the LAW. And if you don’t stay with the law, you deserve whatever happens to you! Sadly and ironically, I was the one who was abided by the law-and look what happened to me!
But, to begin my story, let me say again that I believed in the law. I was a deputy sheriff. And I walked a fine line between trying to support what I believed and not create more problems for the people who were my friends. Most of them were anti-renters. Early in my career I got in trouble for not arresting some of them after they’d caused some trouble up in Grafton. I had a lot of friends all through my life. Maybe that was my downfall.
My murder happened after the Civil War, after the Anti-Renters had more or less won the rights they felt so entitled to! But there were still some problems. The Patroons had seen the writing on the wall-and they had sold their leases on the land very cheaply to a Colonel Walter S. Church who thought he could get back his money plus more by collecting the BACK rents from some farmers. It was an investment for him. Colonel Church was an honorable man, in my estimation. He was the one who paid for this beautiful gravestone I have.
So the day I was shot…. The day I was MURDERED, I was doing my job. A Mr.William Whitbeck owed money to Mr. Church; he needed to pay the back rent for his farm. I went to his farm in East Greenbush on July 26, 1869 and he threatened me. I was alone that morning so I decided to get some reinforcements and return that afternoon. Looking back, that was probably a mistake. I have to say that the men I was able to recruit as a posse weren’t ….um…the best of characters. But they were all I could find! And Mr. Church wanted this done as soon as possible.
We were armed and we were ready. But the Whitbecks were ready too.
Before I knew what was happening, someone had fired a shot. The next thing I knew, shots were flying everywhere and I was hit. Four times-Six times-I couldn’t tell you how many shots. And they left me there to die, all those cowards! It was hours before I was cared for and taken back to my house in Averill Park. The most painful shot went through my mouth.
I was never able to say another word after that shot, though I lived for six more days-in painful agony! I had a nine inch fracture that nearly encircled my whole skull, bullets went through my back, my shoulder, another was between my shoulder and elbow. Because of the shot in my mouth I couldn’t even scream in pain! My wife cared for me. I couldn’t even tell her I loved her!
After six days of this hell, I died.
Smith Boughton talks of justice...was it justice that let me suffer for six long days? Was it justice that caused my death? Was it justice that my killers went free? I served the law all my life, but the law deserted me in my death. Where’s the justice there?
And my poor wife. The coroners needed to do an autopsy so they could prosecute the bastards who had shot me. They did that autopsy right on our kitchen table! It broke my wife’s heart! She never was the same after witnessing that gruesome scene.
My funeral was in the Presbyterian Church that is now the Sand Lake Center for the Arts. There was a procession from my house, which was next to what is now the Lakeview Restaurant in Averill Park, to the church and then to my resting place here. Hundreds of people came to follow my body to the church and later to the burial here in this cemetery. They knew. Oh, they knew that I had tried to follow the law of our land!
My wife joined me six months later. She never recovered from the shock and pain of my death.
But I haven’t been forgotten. Policemen, those persons who carry out the law day after day, year after year, don’t forget those who lost their lives in the cause of justice. Every year they put a wreath on my grave. Nobody puts one on old Smith Boughton’s grave!*
*In fairness, on September 1, 2010, members of the Nassau community and residents of Sand Lake joined together to launch Nassau’s celebration of the 200th Birthday of Big Thunder – Dr. Smith A. Boughton. At that time, a wreath was laid on Boughton's grave. (This document is from the Town of Nassau web site.)
[Val Kavanaugh wrote the above. Here, Val Gray portrayed Dr. Smith Boughton (Jim Holmes also portrayed Boughton on Sunday 10/16), and Ken Bagnell portrayed Sheriff Willard Griggs. Photos on this page by Ken Bagnell, Andrew Mace, Jane West Minotti and Jackie Tremont.]