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Colonial Albany and Rensselaerswyck

by Peter Christoph    Feb 2002

Curator of Manuscripts & Special Collections at the NYS Library - Retired

Webpage and links by Cliff Lamere    Feb 2002





Albany Beginnings in the Dutch Period


In September of 1609, Henry Hudson sailed the Dutch East India Company ship, de Halve Maen (the 

Half Moon), up the North (now Hudson) River to a final docking a little north of the present city of Albany. After four days of trading with local Indians and checking the water's depth further upstream (it was too shallow to continue), he sailed away. His explorations along the American coast and inland encouraged the Netherlands to claim the area from the Connecticut River to Delaware Bay. At first it was simply a place for traders to visit for a summer, or at most for a year and a half. In 1614, a four year monopoly was granted to a trading concern called the New Netherland Company, the first known use of the name "New Netherland," leading to the erection of a fortified trading post called Fort Nassau on Westerlo Island. A spring flood in 1617 destroyed the fort, and a new site was occupied along the Normanskill (a creek), also abandoned when the company's trading license expired in 1618.


The West India Company Takes Over


The West India Company was formed in 1621, chartered by the Dutch government to wage war against the nation's enemies and to enjoy ownership of all the Dutch colonies facing the Atlantic in Africa and the Americas. The Company, which operated the colony of New Netherland as a commercial enterprise, erected Fort Orange along the western shore of the Hudson River in 1624 and sent eighteen families, mostly Walloons, to raise food for the fort's traders and soldiers. However, the fort commander in 1626 meddled in a war between the local Mahicans and the Mohawks, which led to the Mohawks killing him and three soldiers. The families were moved to Manhattan for their safety, leaving only traders and soldiers at Fort Orange.


A decisive battle between the tribes in 1628 led to a sharp reduction in the presence and influence of the Mahicans in the area and the beginning of the long, usually positive relationship between the Dutch of Fort Orange and the Mohawk nation. In time the Mohawks would completely control Indian access to Fort Orange and thereby control the fur trade. They proved more efficient in controlling their monopoly than the Company was in controlling its side of the trade, since settlers continually infringed upon the Company 's monopoly.


The Creation of the Colony of Rensselaerswyck


In 1629, the West India Company faced up to growing problems in supplying food and services to settlers and company employees. The Company offered the right to company stockholders to develop and own independent agricultural colonies within New Netherland. The owner of each such colony was to be granted the title of patroon, meaning patron. The only one which succeeded was Rensselaerswyck, the majority stockholder and patroon being Kiliaen van Rensselaer, director of the West India Company's Amsterdam chamber. Van Rensselaer sent agents in 1629 who found the Mahicans willing to sell land and in November he was granted the title Patroon of Rensselaerswyck. The next year he sent out a supervisor, three farmers and their families, and five laborers, and the purchase was completed. As with many such purchases from the native Americans, there was soon great uncertainty even among the Dutch as to exactly what it was that had been sold to van Rensselaer. Several such questions were settled by further purchases made in 1631, 1652, and 1661, giving the Van Rensselaers control of the land on both sides of the Hudson River to a distance of two days' walk inland (formalized as eight Dutch sea-miles south of the mouth of the Mohawk River and eight sea-miles both east and west of the river, an area approximately 24 by 48 English land-miles. Fort Orange was now completely surrounded by van Rensselaer's colony, which would lead to decades of legal squabbling between the West India Company's government in New Netherland and Rensselaerswyck officials.


Early Rensselaerswyck Settlers


In the first summer, 1630, two farms were erected, one on the site of the present-day city of Rensselaer, the other on Westerlo Island, near the river 's west shore. These were not primitive farms in the wilderness; each was provided with a brick house and several outbuildings. Additional settlers were sent out each year or so, whenever van Rensselaer could convince people of the opportunities. The problem that he faced was that the Netherlands was enjoying its "Golden Age," there was plenty of money and no shortage of jobs at home and people had little incentive to emigrate. However, since the Netherlands was also a magnet for the politically, economically, or religiously disaffected from the rest of Europe, it had a surplus of foreigners working at entry-level jobs and minimum wages who were more than ready to move on. About half the settlers of New Netherland were anything but Dutch. People from Scandinavia, Germany, France, the Spanish Netherlands (Belgium), and the British Isles comprised most of the non-Dutch population, with an occasional Italian, Pole, or Spaniard.


The early settlers in Rensselaerswyck were farmers and craftsmen - carpenters, millers, smiths, and masons. At first they were forbidden to engage in the fur trade, which was restricted to the West India Company. However, the chance for profits was too great and the fines too small to discourage anyone from the trade, and in 1639 it was opened to everyone, with the Company to receive export duties on furs shipped out of the colony. Fort Orange, poised at the edge of the frontier, became the main trading place and in time was granted a monopoly so that furs could only be traded there. This had two advantages - the trade had to be conducted in the open so that all could see that it was conducted honestly and did not cheat the Indians (who were thereby kept pacified), and the trade could be properly regulated. The Mohawks were pleased with this arrangement, since they controlled all approaches to Fort Orange. They not only collected furs themselves, but acted as middlemen between other tribes (who they did not permit to cross their territory) and Fort Orange.


Trouble between Rensselaerswyck and New Netherland


Van Rensselaer had originally intended that his colony's main settlement would be on the east side of the river at Greenbush in the present city of Rensselaer, where he sent such notables as the first minister and the first brewer in 1642. However, a rival settlement developed around Fort Orange. Following the death of van Rensselaer in 1643, his heirs sent a relative-by-marriage, Brant van Slichtenhorst, as the colony's first on-site director, and Slichtenhorst actively encourage building around the fort. In time, residents of Rensselaerswyck virtually cut off the fort from the fur trade. This opened a struggle between Rensselaerswyck and New Netherland which was never settled during the Dutch period. Petrus Stuyvesant, director-general of New Netherland (not only the colony's director but also, in modern terms, the district manager of the West India Company's business interests in North America and the Caribbean). No one on either side of the Atlantic knew what the legal relationship was between the two colonies - New Netherland and Rensselaerswyck - Slichtenhorst and Stuyvesant each interpreting the uncertainties generously in favor of his employer. Stuyvesant finally threw Slichtenhorst in the fort dungeon at Manhattan, seized the area around Fort Orange (to the distance of a cannon shot) by right of eminent domain, and tore down the buildings closest to the fort to open up access. The remaining buildings within the "cannon shot" became the free city of Beverwyck, meaning Beaver District. The name is an obvious pun by Stuyvesant on the word bever: there is a Beverwijck, originally Bedevaarts Wijck, or Pilgrims District, in North Holland.


Succeeding Slichtenhorst as director in 1652 was Jan Baptist van Rensselaer, appointed by his half- brother, Johannes, the second patroon. Jan Baptist was succeeded by his brother Jeremias van Rensselaer in 1658. Jeremias stayed on for the rest of his life, making additional purchases of land to take the size of the colony to nearly a million acres, comprising most of present Albany and Rensselaer counties. Jeremias at age 29 married 16 year old Maria van Cortlandt, daughter of Manhattan merchant Olaf van Cortlandt. The family in America is descended from them (the name has died out in the Netherlands).


The English Take Over


Merchants in England were tired of competing unsuccessfully against the more technologically advanced Dutch in the American trade (English colonists were trading Virginia tobacco for Dutch equipment), and King Charles II granted the colony of New Netherland to his brother James, Duke of York, if he could take possession, and helped him out with ships and troops to that end. The fleet arrived in New York harbor in September 1664. After a few days of bluster, Stuyvesant was brought by his Council to see that the cause was hopeless and fighting useless, and he surrendered Fort Amsterdam on Manhattan. Fort Orange and the rest of the colony were quickly taken thereafter, and Beverwyck was renamed Albany, after the duke's Scottish title, duke of Albany. During a later war between England and the Netherlands, a Dutch fleet retook the colony of New York in 1673 and held it for 15 months before ceding it in a peace treaty in 1674, in return for the more profitable colony of Surinam.


With English soldiers in control of Fort Albany, relations between fort and community were sometimes strained. However, the English governors recognized that ruling the colony successfully would require granting the Dutch as much latitude as possible. Court at Albany was conducted in Dutch and under the customs of Roman-Dutch law until the 1680s. Inheritance continued to include all the children, rather than the English tradition of primogeniture. Women continued to participate actively in trade, although the more restrictive English custom and law had their effect.


Struggles for Control of Rensselaerswyck


Following the death of Jeremias van Rensselaer in 1674, his brother-in-law Stephanus van Cortlandt was appointed director. However, Stephanus had his own operations at Manhattan to occupy his time, and so his sister, Maria van Rensselaer, was in charge of the day-to-day operations of Rensselaerswyck. She was the bookkeeper, oversaw rent collections (conducted by her son Kiliaen), and bombarded anyone in power in New York, England, and the Netherlands with advice, criticism, and pleas for help as she struggled to hold the colony together. The relatives in the Netherlands had been trying to settle up the first patroon's many holdings on the two continents, but Maria refused to provide them with a proper accounting of Rensselaerswyck's finances. They wanted to sell off the colony entire or in parts, she wanted to hold it together as her children's inheritance. Maria also kept Rensselaerswyck from Robert Livingston, who greatly desired it and who had married Alida Schuyler, widow of Jeremias's brother Hendrick. Richard van Rensselaer, another of Jeremias's brothers and the best businessman in the family, came over to try and settle matters, but without much success, and soon had to return home to manage his own affairs. He did manage to sell off a few parcels, one to Abraham Staats (Staats Island) on the east side of the river, Schuyler Flats to Philip Schuyler on the west side, but in general Maria was able to stonewall.


Richard sent his nephew, Johannes's son Kiliaen, now the third patroon upon Johannes's death, in 1684 to try and settle up with Maria and sell off the colony. Instead, young Kiliaen became captivated by his cousin Anna, Maria's daughter, and married her.


The Colony Becomes a Manor


Maria, widow of Jeremias, and the rest of the van Rensselaers had long been trying to have the English confirm their right to the land, which had been done with everyone else who swore allegiance to the English crown. However, the English governors balked at turning over what amounted to control of Albany, New York's second largest town, to private ownership. Finally in 1685 an understanding was reached, with Kiliaen the patroon and his cousin, also named Kiliaen, Maria's son, being granted title to the land, which was now raised to the status of an English manor, with a seat in the New York general assembly, freedom from taxation, and the third patroon was now also the first lord of the manor. In return, the two cousins ceded title to the city of Albany and to a mile-wide strip extending northwest from Albany across their domain in the direction of Schenectady, which concession guaranteed Albany's access to the western trade. Richard van Rensselaer was most annoyed that the nephew he had sent to sell off Rensselaerswyck had agreed to having it become a manor instead.


[Note:  a map of the eastern half of the manor in 1767 shows a southern boundary which looks the same  as the present southern border of Rensselaer Co.  The northern border seems to be almost identical to the present northern edges of the Rensselaer Co. Towns of Brunswick, Grafton and Petersburg (listed from west to east).  The northern edges of the Town are parallel to the southern edge of the county.   If these lines are extended westward across the Hudson River, they would be the southern edge of Albany Co. and most the northern edge. - Cliff Lamere]


Then in 1687 the first lord of the manor died and was succeeded by Maria's son Kiliaen as second lord of the manor (and fourth patroon, a title which continued as an honorific but no longer with any legal significance). Maria had already managed to buy out most of her father-in-law's original investment partners, so the American family now had financial, as well as manorial control of Rensselaerswyck. Maria died in 1689, and in 1696 a final settlement was reached with the family in the Netherlands. The first patroon 's diamond and pearl business and landholdings in the Netherlands would become the property of the European branch of the family, Rensselaerswyck would be the property of the American family. Ownership of the land passed to Maria's four children: Anna, now married to William Nicolls (later Speaker of the General Assembly and longtime Van Rensselaer attorney in the English courts); Kiliaen, married to his cousin Maria van Cortlandt, daughter of Stephanus the lord of Van Cortlandt Manor; Maria, married to Peter Schuyler, major furtrader, first mayor of Albany, member of the provincial council, and chief officer of the county militia.; and Hendrick, married to Catharina, daughter of Johannes Pietersen van Brugh of New York.


Lifetime Leases


Rensselaerswyck had never made a profit in its first half century of existence. Maria and her son Kiliaen (the second lord of the manor) came up with the idea that, instead of granting leases for a particular number of years, which did not encourage the renters to keep up the property or stay there, they would instead grant lifetime leases, transferrable by will. In effect the tenants thereafter had all the privileges of full ownership, including the right to subdivide a holding among heirs, or sell off a portion, and to have the landowner's right to vote, the only restriction being that a small fee was due to the patroon each year, usually 2 to 4 bushels of wheat (the amount depending upon the size of the farm), and one or two fat fowl, as well as a day's labor on some public works project selected by the colonial director. The van Rensselaers would provide the buildings, equipment, and livestock, with the offspring from the livestock to be divided equally between farm operator and the manor. This was a very attractive opportunity to people who lacked the wherewithal to operate anything but the meanest little farm, and the population of the manor grew rapidly thereafter. This would continue until the early nineteenth century, when New England settlers of the stony farms in the hill towns on both sides of the river found the annual rents a burden they could do without, and refused to either pay the rents or leave the lands they were leasing. Eventually the van Rensselaers won their case in the New York courts, establishing that the anti-rent provisions in the 1846 state constitution did not apply to their operations, but then rather than continue the annoyance, they sold off the farms, giving the current occupant first refusal. This was largely completed during the 1860s, but some farms were still paying rents in the 1930s.


It is fair to say that the development of the Hudson Valley was much retarded by the lack of free land, most of the best land having been taken up in the colonial manors whose leases were generally not attractive. However, the idea that Albany was a sleepy Dutch backwater is not exactly true, though the town was not always as bustling as New England towns. It was the staging area for English and American armies in the various colonial wars against French Canada, so that there was frequent contact witb soldiers and merchants from the other colonies and from Great Britain, and some of the visitors would remain and make Albany their home. During the Revolutionary War, Albany was the northern frontier's staging area for American armies fighting the British. During the ensuing early years of the young Republic, there was a great influx into the nearby countryside of land-starved New England farmers, while their enterprising cousins, the merchants, settled in Albany itself and the pace of life quickened.





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