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Mehitable Wing Prendergast

Vimmerstedt, Jennie.. “Valient Mehitabel Prendergast Saved Her Husband From Hanging,” Jamestown (NY) Post-Journal, 31 May 1969, p.2M.
The Post-Journal website: http://post-journal.com/

Valiant Mehitabel Prendergast Saved Her Husband From Hanging

Jamestowners Honor Her Every Memorial Day

By Jennie Vimmerstedt

Instead of the blare of bugles and ruffle of drums, which marked Memorial Day ceremonies in many cemetaries throughout the county, there was only the birdsong and cattle lowing as a small group made a pilgrimage up the hilly pastureland to the Prendergast Cemetery on top of a peaceful knoll on the Chautauqua-Stedman Road.

Here for many years this small group from Jamestown’s southside has paid tribute to one of the county’s most illustrious families in placing flowers on Mehitabel’s grave, singing America, and telling to the children in the group the story of this heroic woman whose daring horseback ride more than two centuries ago gained the King of England’s pardon for her husband sentenced to hang for treason.

Mehitabel Wing Prendergast was the mother of James Prendergast, the founder of Jamestown, and of other sons who were prominent in shaping history in this part of the country.

This valiant woman in the days when America was just beginning its struggle for political and economic freedom, played a stirring role in the “rent rebellions” along the Hudson River, a story that has been penned in books, newspaper articles, historic sketches and in an entire drama portrayed by “Calvacade of America,” a former TV series.

Mehitabel Wing was born March 20, 1738, to Quaker parents in Beekman, Dutchess County. Her husband, William Prendergast, was born in Kilkeny, Ireland, Feb. 2, 1727, and came to Pawling, Dutchess County.

Crops Were Poor

Our story goes back to 1766 in the days when wealthy manor lords held power in the Hudson Valley. William Prendergast rented a few acres from Frederick Philipse, lord of thousands of acres in Westchester and Dutchess counties. His huge manor house overlooked the Hudson at Yonkers.

Prendergast’s crops had been poor and he was behind in his rent. He was disturbed, too, over the exacting terms of his lease, providing that if he died the land could not be occupied by his wife or sons without the consent of Frederick Philipse, and that, if, after his death, that consent was granted, his wife or sons would have to pay the manor lord a third of the value of the crops to keep it, with portions of crops, poultry and labor as yearly payment thereafter.

Prendergast was also fed up with Philipse’s treatment of recalcitrant tenants, whom he sentenced to corporal punishment or imprisonment.

Then one day, on a visit to Yonkers, he learned that the pompous Frederick Philipse paid the British crown for his vast estate an annual rent of four pounds and 12 shillings, the same amount that Prendergast was paying yearly for his few acres.

Wherever he went, Prendergast spread the story of this “injustice.” Other farmers were suffering, too. It was not difficult to incite them to action, to raise an army of hundreds whom Prendergast drilled every day. He commanded them to pay their honest debts but not a shilling for rent.

Then they began their march against the manor lords, joined by other farmers who looked upon Prendergast as their “deliverer.” Rioters they would be called in this day and age. Levelers is what they were called by the manor lords “for trying to make for themselves as liberal a fortune as the land owner.”

Price On His Head

Frantic appeals were made to Gov. Henry Moore that he call out the militia to suppress them. The New York City Council even suggested a reward of 10 pounds for apprehending Prendergast.

When the 28th Regiment of Grenadiers was ordered from Albany to Poughkeepsie they took 50 prisoners but Prendergast was not among them. Two soldiers were killed in the skirmish.

Mehitabel, sensing that it was only a matter of time before her husband would be caught, persuaded him to give himself to the mercy of the Governor. In her Quaker dress and bonnet, she rode beside her husband into the Grenadiers’ camp. Prendergast was immediately placed on a sloop with guards and taken down the Hudson River to New York City.

A special trial commission was appointed, with Samuel Jones, leader of the New York bar as counsel for the King; David Horsmanden, chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Province; Judge Robert R. Livingston of the same court, members of His Majesty’s Council and others.

It was Aug. 6, 1766 when Prendergast was brought into the crowded court room. His 28-year-old wife who had met him at the wharf, walked by his side and sat down beside him. During the next 24 hours of the trial Mehitabel rose to give a brilliant defense of her husband.

She Gets Attention

Of her the New York Gazette or Weekly Post Boy wrote: “Solicitiously attentive to every particular and without the least Impertinence or Indecorum of Behaviour, sedately anxious for her husband, she never failed to make every Remark that might tend to extenuate the Offense and put his Conduct in the most favorable point of view, not suffering one Circumstance that could be collected from the evidence or thought in his Favour to escape the Notice of the Court and the Jury…And when he came to make his defense, she stood behind him, reminded him of and suggested to him everything that could be mentioned to his advantage.”

When the attorney general charged her husband as being the ring leader of the rent rebellion, she blamed it on one Samuel Munro, whom she knew to be safe in Massachusetts.

When he was charged with being a dangerous criminal, she replied that William had been “esteemed a sober, honest, and industrious farmer, much loved by his neighbors.

The attorney general jumped to his feet, addressing Justice Horsmanden. “Your lordship, I move you that this woman be removed from the court, lest she too much influence the jury.

Whereupon the chief justice exclaimed, “She does not disturb the court nor does she speak unseasonably.

Your Lordship, I do not think that she should speak at all, and I fear her very looks may too much influence the jury.

For the very same reason you might as well move the prisoner himself be covered with a veil,” argued Justice Horsmanden.

But Mehitabel might well have spared her words. The jury returned after a short deliberation with the verdict, “guilty!”

The chief justice still giving the Prendergasts the benefit of the doubt, stated, “Your verdict does not accord with the evidence in the opinion of the court. I must ask you to return to your deliberations.

Guilty Verdict Again

But again the verdict was “guilty.”

High treason against His majesty- Friday, the 28th of September- to be hanged by the neck until you are dead.

But the undaunted Mehitabel was already planning her next action. While the condemned man was being led away to the Poughkeepsie jail, she was mounting her horse, heading for Fort George on Manhattan Island, to see the Governor.

But first she turned her horse toward the home of her wealthier sister, Abigail, to borrow her prettiest dress, a white one with blue stripes.

It was 80 miles to the home of the Governor. Mehitabel urged the horse on, down the King’s Road, past Fish Kill, past Peeks Kill, past Tappan Bay, past the great Philipse manor house in Yonkers, over the Harlem River, then the full length of Manhattan Island, to Fort George.

While she was dismounting she begged for audience with the Governor. Then, according to the Wing archives, she strode up and down in front of him in her lovely blue and white striped linen, with arguments so convincing that the Governor, moved to tears, exclaimed, “Your husband shall not suffer.”

Reprieve Secured

The Governor wrote a reprieve, staying the execution “until His Majesty George III’s pleasure should be known.” He then permitted Mehitabel to draw up in her own words the petition for a royal pardon.

Then, anxious, lest her husband’s friends had stormed the jail to free him, and knowing that if he stepped foot out of jail the pardon would not be granted, Mehitabel urged the horse at a faster pace the return 80 miles.

First she headed for the sheriff with the Governor’s reprieve and then for the jail to tell her husband what she had done. In less than three days, she had ridden horseback and alone for 160 miles after a trial ordeal of 24 sleepless hours.

When she arrived at the jail she found it already surrounded by sympathetic friends wanting Prendergast’s release. She made them understand it was important to await results of the pardon plea.

Six months later the pardon arrived. A letter written to Governor Moore by the Earl of Shelburne, dated Whitehall, Dec. 1, 1766, ended with these words, “I have laid before the King our letter of the 11th of October, recommending William Prendergast who was sentenced to death for treasonous practices and riots committed in Dutchess County, to the Royal Mercy, and His Majesty has been gratiously pleased to grant him this pardon, relying that this instance of His Royal clemency will have a better effect in recalling these mistaken people to their duty than the most rigorous punishment.”

So William Prendergast, sentenced to be hanged for leading “Prendergast’s Rent Rebellion” was freed and allowed to return to his farm in the Harlem valley. There he lived with his family for some time, moving later to Pittstown in Rensselaer County. Through the years Mehitabel had given birth to seven sons and six daughters.

In the spring of 1805, the Prendergasts started for the southland where they could buy land with no strings attached- 29 altogether including children, grandchildren, sons-in-law, started out in covered wagons over the Pennsylvania hills with Tennessee as destination. William was then 78 and Mehitabel 67.

At Wheeling, they bought a flat boat, drove their wagons and livestock on board, floated to Louisville, Ky., and then went cross country to Duck Creek, near Nashville.

Family Comes Here

Disappointed in conditions in Tennessee, in poor roads and lack of schools, they started out again, this time through Kentucky, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania to Erie and into Chautauqua County.

There were few settlers in the county at that time and provisions were lacking. William suggested that they winter in Canada and return later. All went with him except a son-in-law, William Bemus and his family, who spent the winter at the Crossroads, and in the spring settled on the east side of Chautauqua Lake at what is Bemus Point; and Thomas who remained and bought land in Ripley.

In the spring of 1806 the family returned from Canada by way of Batavia where they contracted at the Holland Land Office for 3,337 acres of land near the present Chautauqua Institution.

Here William and Mehitabel began farming again. One of their daughters, a widow, and one who never married, lived with them. Their son, James, founded Jamestown. But all of their sons held official and trustworthy positions-attorneys, physicians, judges, supervisors in the early days of Chautauqua County.

William died on Feb. 14, 1811, at the age of 84. The next year the faithful Mehitabel went to be with him again. She died Sept. 11, 1812 at age of 74.

They are buried with several other members of the family in a small graveyard, a tiny part of what was once their farm with the waters of Prendergast Creek and Chautauqua Lake nearby.