The Calico War

A dispatch from guest post-er Peter Zimmerman.

In the 1840s, a band of Calico Indians wrought havoc in Delaware County and probably enjoyed doing so. They were based in the sleepy hamlet of Bovina Center, New York, where I lived last summer for a spell, as well the neighboring communities of Roxbury, Andes, and Kortright. About ten miles east of Delhi, it’s been described as a happy alternative to congestion and screeching traffic.


The name Bovina was suggested by one General Erastus Root, who noted the area’s fitness for grazing.

Today, I’d venture a guess that there are more dairy cows than human inhabitants.

 Bovina today 2

The Calico Indians were known to be flamboyant dressers. Typically they wore calico longshirts belted at the waist, red flannel pantaloons, sheepskin masks with a fringe around the neck, and coarse animal hair for a beard. The masks were ornamented with fabric flowers, faded blue ribbons, mesh over the eye holes, and goatees, sideburns, and eyebrows made from fur.

 Calico 1

At the pow-wow among the grotesque
The chief wore a striped calico young lady’s dress…

Other variations: horns of leather, wolf-like snouts, plumes of horse hair, tassels hanging from pointed ears, and “hard fierce animal-like mouths.” When on the warpath, they blew tin horns, brandished knives, and carried pitchforks and clubs.

Calico 3

The thing is, the Calico Indians were not the Delaware or the Lenape. In fact, they weren’t Native Americans at all. Rather, the group was comprised of farmers, many in their teens, who, inspired by the Boston Tea Party, were protesting the patroonship system, created in the 1660s when the Dutch ruled New York.  Similar to sharecroppers, they were fighting for the right to buy their own land. According to Henry Christman’s Tin Horns and Calico, “a few families, intricately intermarried, controlled the destinies of three hundred thousand people and ruled in almost kingly splendor near two million acres of land.”

Calico 2

Known as the Anti-Rent War, this all took place for a few years in the 1840s, and in the end, the farmers won: the State of New York abolished “all feudal tenures of every description, with all their incidents,” declaring that “no lease or grant of agricultural land for a longer period than 12 years hereafter made, in which shall be reserved any rent or services of any kind, shall be valid.”

Although the Calico Indians certainly looked nothing like the Delaware or Lenape, their fierce loyalty and ability to subsume their individuality to work and think as a group were very tribe-like.

Oddly enough, no one has ever found any of these clothes and gear, which begs the question, is it all just a big hoax?


Filed under Art, Culture, History, Jean Zimmerman

4 responses to “The Calico War

  1. jk

    Definitely not a hoax. A few of the Calico Indians’ outfits still exist. One small comment– the Delaware are the Lenape–it was applying an anglicized name to the tribe in the region of Delaware taken from De La Warr a British colonizer.

  2. Paul _L

    The anti-renters did not win, they simply accepted the landlords land sale offer that was on the table the whole time. “Throughout their campaign, the antirenters had refused landlords’ offers to sell their land, so tenants’ buyout of their landlords’ property after 1846 marked the defeat of the insurgency, not its victory”. Either way, the conflict ended for good which was a fine thing.

  3. lkcr

    Oh, that name, Bovina … I certainly hope no young woman ended up with that moniker. It was bad enough that a town was saddled with it. I suppose at one time it was a bucolic appellation, but at the present it doesn’t carry what I would call pleasant connotations. At least, in my neck of the woods.


    Fascinating Feudalism. Those uppity Rensselaers and Goulds! A lifetime lease can’t be broken, even if the land turns out to be rocky and poor… UNFAIR!

    I’m glad the Anti-Renters won out, eventually, and I’m glad some of them left their stony New York hill farms and reestablished themselves on the fertile prairies of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois.

    Thanks for the story! (You guys turn up the strangest stuff! Interesting stuff! Rasputina and Sister Kinderhook and weird *cello rock* with historical lyrics… Wow!)

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