Wednesday, December 23, 2009
It's been six long and winding posts since Nicholas Van Rensselaer told Charles II that he'd be restored to the throne. Let's recap, shall we? (The following section sounds a lot better if you imagine it being read by James Burke. But then, doesn't everything?)
"So Nicholas' prophecy gets him in good with the king, which also gets him in the good graces of his family - for once. So his family gets him a good position and a good marriage in the New World, in the hopes that this will get them control over Albany. But Nicholas gets sick and dies, and then his family gets the shaft. Alida gets Robert, Robert gets a day in court, and maybe New York gets to keep Albany. Get it? It's all connected."
Thank you, James.
The year 1683 was a tense one for the British colony of New York and the Van Rensselaer family. The Rensselaers had been poised to wrest control over the city of Albany away from the British crown. But when young Robert Livingston married Alida Van Rensselaer, the family was placed on the defensive. Robert's claim to inheritance of some of the Rensselaer land gave the British Governor Thomas Dongan the additional leverage he needed.
Robert was also making common cause with several other people who were claiming debts owed by the Van Rensselaer family. Some factions even wanted Rensselaerwyck dissolved and the land sold off. The Rensselaer family might not only lose their claim to Albany, but to their vast holdings of land in the new world. It all depended on what deal they could work out with the Governor.
Enter the distinctly uncomfortable Stephanus Van Cortland, former Mayor of New York City and related to all sides by business, blood and marriage. He was married to Alida's sister, but was himself the brother of the primary representative of the Rensselaer family in America, Maria Van Rensselaer. Loyalties well and truly divided, Van Cortland began negotiations between Robert, the Rensselaers and the Governor.
The smoke finally cleared in 1685, and the three sides seem to have each gotten some of what they wanted. The Rensselaers finally got manorial control over Rensselaerwyck, and the manor was actually expanded. In addition to the 850,000 acres usually pictured, they were granted another large plot of land down the river which was titled Claverack. All told, they now controlled over 1 million acres. For this, however, they had to give up any claim to the city of Albany and a large area of land around it.
This set the stage for Governor to write the Dongan Charter the next year. At long last, the city of Albany was free and clear, independent of the Rensselaer manorial control. The family would test their authority from time to time, but Albany remained legally independent.
Robert Livingston came out of this without much - on paper, at least. Though he managed to avoid getting stuck with Nicholas' debt, a little money and a fair amount of wheat was the only payment he received for giving up his claim to the Rensselaer lands. It might seem odd that the man who instigated this whole affair should wind up with so little, but shortly thereafter he received the famous grant of around 600 acres, which he promptly turned into around 160,000 acres. From this angle, it's hard not to see that as a payoff.
In one swoop, the future of Albany was secured, Rensselaer control over their lands was solidified and Robert Livingston had become one of the greatest landowners in the region. And it can all be traced back to a simple prophecy spoken by the black sheep of the Rensselaer family to an exiled monarch. Nicholas Van Rensselaer lived, prophesied and died, leaving New York changed in his passing.
Friday, December 18, 2009
I was prodded to dig through some of Alice's photo albums this week by an inquiry on Facebook about Punchy the Boston terrier. During my digging I came across this picture of the Livingston's Greyhound Wagon (pronounced Va-goan) pulling Janet in a dog cart in 1917. Wasn't I surprised!
"A Dog of Flanders"--a heart-rending story that was read to me as a child.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
The death of Nicholas was like the breaking of a mirror: it brought the Rensselaer family seven years of misfortune. Not only had they lost their access to the King's ear, but they lost control over some of their property as Nicholas' widow now stood to inherit some of her late husband's property. The situation got worse when Alida married Robert Livingston, a man who's ambitions were as boundless as the lands of the New World.
What made this particularly bitter was that very recently it had looked like they would get everything they wanted. Nicholas' influence had paid off, and in the summer of 1678 Governor Edmund Andros received instructions from the Duke of York that the Rensselaers were to be given control of Albany and full rights and privileges over the domain of Rensselaerwyck, Ordered by his sovereign to give up the hub of the Indian trade and hand enormous influence to an already powerful family, Governor Andros did something very courageous - he did nothing. Andros bravely dragged his feet and issued soothing words until the end of his tenure five years later.
That sounds flip, but it's quite serious. It's hard to know what the loss of one of its two principle cities in New York would have done to British control over the area. The Rensselaers were businessmen first and colonists second, and it's quite possible that they would have run the city as a trading post with an eye towards profit alone. But Andros delayed, then Nicholas died in the winter of that year and the family lost some of its clout. Then Robert Livingston married Nicholas' widow, and things suddenly got complicated.
Historians differ on exactly what Livingston tried to wrangle out of the Rensselaer family. Some report that Robert tried for it all: Patroonship over all of Rensselaerwyck. Working is his favor was the confusion resulting from the gradual shift from Dutch law to British law. The Dutch would allow women to inherit business and property, and so the Rensselaer family insisted that the lands all go to Nicholas' sister, Maria Van Rensselaer. However, British law was more restrictive in what women could inherit, and so Robert could claim to be the direct male heir as Alida's new husband.
But laying claim to any of Nicholas' property came with risks. Nicholas was the wastrel son with no head for business, and he'd racked up significant debts before he died. Robert needed to carefully thread the needle, laying claim to the property through Alida's inheritance, while not becoming responsible for the crushing debts. That might have tempered his ambition, and some sources record that he only lay claim to 10% of the estate - essentially the portion that Nicholas could have claimed to own outright rather than just oversee as director. Still, 10% was over 80,000 acres, and the Rensselaer's were loath to give it up.
This argument was waiting on the Governor's desk in 1682 when Andros left and Thomas Dongan took over. The order to hand over control to the Rensselaer family was still in force, but Andros' delays meant that the family had never been able to collect. The conflict meant that a good chunk of the developed land in the state was under uncertain control, and the Albany itself could not know if it was a British city or a trading post for the Rensselaer family. Backed by the Duke of York's authority, the family had every right to full control over the their lands and the city.
Dongan wanted British ncontrol of Albany, but one way or another he needed the conflict to be ended. When Robert Livingston renew his claim for some of the Rensselaer property in 1863, it touched off a long series of negotiations that would determine the way that the state of New York would develop.
Saturday, December 12, 2009
In my earlier Dog Blog mentioned that I could not for the life of me read this particular headstone in our little Pet Cemetary. For a four years now I have not been able to make out anything but the date. My best guess on the word above was "died," although even I have to admit, it wasn't a very good guess.
Thank goodness for Joe, our maintenance supervisor! While pouring over some old maps, he found that someone had labeled each grave in easy-read-handwriting. The mystery dog's name is Odin!
What made Odin so special? This is an attractively ornate stone in comparison with the others, and Odin was the first dog at Clermont we can find who merrited such a permanent grave marker.
Friday, December 11, 2009
This one is a costume myth so I am always tickled by it. The myth begins with pier tables, like ours pictured on the right or the one from the Brooklyn Museum pictured at left. These decorative tables often have mirrored glass beneath the table top. According the story, these mirrors were called "petticoat mirrors" and were installed to allow ladies to check to make sure that their petticoats were not showing beneath their skirts. Often located in hallways, where a woman would be entering or leaving a house, it seems sensible.
It's not the purpose of the mirrors. Any woman well-to-do enough to own a piece of furniture as expensive pier table or visit a home with a pier table knew enough to check to make sure her underwear wasn't hanging out before she left the bedroom. It's a little "low" for a genteel woman to be checking her underwear in the mirror, not unlike a modern woman stopping to check her underwear lines in a public mirror--a little too personal to share.
Not only that, but an historic petticoat is not like a modern slip, whose thin elastic waistband can allow it to slip down your hips and peek beneath your skirt. Before the days of elastic, petticoats were sewn onto a secure waistband that wasn't going anywhere.
The purpose of the mirrors was decorative. Reflecting light around a room on highly-polished surfaces, including mirrors, glass, crystal pendants on chandeliers, or fine wood surfaces, was a way of demonstrating wealth. It dazzled the eye and demonstrated a great deal of labor (performed by servants or slaves) that was needed to maintain that level of clean.
I always assumed that this myth came from someone's great-aunt Bessy, a rare woman who put aside decorum and periodically checked her petticoat in the mirror when no one was looking. But the other day I had to dress up as 1910s Ollie, and since my petticoat is on an elastic waistband, I was worried that it had slipped down and was hanging out my back. How indecent!
Off I went in search of a "petticoat mirror," of which we have aplenty. But shoot! It was impossible to see the hem of my skirt! That big old table sticking out of the wall made it so I could see nothing but the floor--not even my toes. Even in our wide hallyway, I could not back far enough away to get a glimpse of my own petticoat. I had to go chasing upstairs to Alice's full-length mirror in order to find out that several inches of white petticoat were indeed hanging out of my backside.
So there it is, the myth of the petticoat mirror put to bed--not only would the practice of checking your underwear in public be a little taboo, but it doesn't even work (much to my disappointment that day)!
**Want to see more petticoats from Clermont's collections? See here for images of children's petticoats from the late 19th century!
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Robert of Clermont could look out from his front door, cast his gaze upon the Catskill Mountains, and declare that he owned all he could see. But could he do that honestly? Yes and no. He owned perhaps a third of the Great Hardenbergh Patent, which encompassed the Catskill Mountains. But which third? And how many acres did that actually amount to?
Since the Patent spent almost half a century without being properly surveyed, its boundaries remained loosely defined. Eventually, as the land around it was claimed, it began to be roughly defined by its shared borders with other patents. Of course, in land disputes, roughly defined borders wind up in court. It seems that a number of lawyers made quite a bit of money off the Patent, as owners of the surrounding land did battle over who owned what.
But the Indians themselves didn't practice land ownership, and control over a given piece of land could be very fluid. The question arose of which group of natives one needed to approach. Of course, unscrupulous colonists could take advantage of this confusion. It seems that there were certain Indians who were willing to say with a straight face that they controlled any given piece of land, and were willing to sign it over for a very reasonable price.
It's not immediately clear who Johannes Hardenbergh approached. Most likely it was some portion of the River Indians – a loose category that included the Esopus and Mahican Indians. But whatever claim this group might have had was disputed by the Mohawk, at least over the western portion of the Catskills. The Mohawk went so far as to threaten war on the various members of the River Tribes if the Hardenbergh Patent included the northwest Catskills and the lands around the Delaware river.
Those were just the official problems, and there were innumerable smaller problems. Many of the early New Yorkers had a practical approach to land ownership: if it wasn't currently occupied, then it was free for the taking. The responsibility for dealing with such attitudes fell to Johannes Hardenbergh himself. From the time the Patent was granted until shortly before he died, Johannes rode the trails of the Catskills, forcing out squatters, fending off lumber thefts and correcting the occasional straying fenceline.
Between policing his land, bargaining with the Indians and making the occasional court appearance, Johannes was never able to get the land surveyed, which just extended the problem. Not only was the lack of external boundaries a problem, but the lack of internal partitions meant that the owners could never divide up the land and lay claim to their share. Johannes died in 1745, while the Patent bearing his name was still six years from being properly surveyed. In his will, he directed that his sons should sell off his shares and give up on the Patent.
The lack of internal partitions meant that Robert of Clermont could not be absolutely sure which third of the Patent was his. The lack of external boundaries meant that he could never be sure how many acres his third share made up. Estimates of the total acreage for the Patent range from 1 million acres to two million acres, which is quite a range. The 1.5 million acres is a guess in hindsight, based on modern maps and boundaries set by decades of legal wrangling.With the death of Johannes Hardenbergh, de facto control over the fate of his Patent passed on to the largest single landowner, which happened to be Robert. Under Robert, lagging surveys that were set into motion under Johannes were finally completed and the Patent was finally defined, divided and distributed. At some point in the 1750s, Livingston was able to claim some of the northeastern portion of the Catskills and lands south to what is now Woodstock. More than a decade after buying in, he was able to truly say that he owned all he could see, without squinting.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
The truth is that we love the flicker of a real candle flame and the smell of pine and spruce as much as anybody, but as a museum, our concerns always have to be ballanced with protection of the artifacts. Treating potentially-fragile 18th century artifacts with kid gloves may seem obvious, but it is equally important for us to be gentle with our twentieth century artifacts. We are charged with maintaining them for the public in perpetuity, and even the smallest damage can add up over that length of time. In the interest of the artifacts, we have to accept a little faux in our "Ho ho ho."
Friday, November 27, 2009
Monday, November 23, 2009
Van Rensselaer's odd career ended in 1678, with his death from an unrecorded illness. To his family, it must have seems like their hopes of attaining full control over their land died with him. But things were about to get more complicated, because his widow, Alida, now carried his family connections and a legal claim to his property. And within a year, she had married a up-and-coming young man named Robert Livingston.
Let's slow down a bit. The problem with the standard narrative is that it makes the marriage seem like a foregone conclusion. Read it too quickly and you're left with the impression that Nicholas simply willed his wife to Robert Livingston like a piece of furniture.
Part of the problem is the eternal impediment to understanding figures in history: their future is our past. Of course Alida and Robert would marry, because we know they did. But another part of the problem is that women of important men are often treated like an adornment, and little thought is given to what their relationship must have been like.
It's a mistake to treat Alida Livingston as a piece of furniture. Unlike the English, the Dutch had few reservations about leaving their lands and businesses in the control of wives and daughters. Further, women could own property, engage in business and trade, sue or be sued, all without male sponsorship.
It's worth noting that after the death of Nicholas, de facto control over the vast estates of Rensselaerwyck passed to his sister-in-law, Maria. In fact, had Nicholas not ingratiated himself to the British monarchy it's likely that Maria would have inherited control after the death of her husband Jeremias, the third Patroon.
Granted, Maria was not exactly typical of the women of her day, but neither was Alida. Alida was the daughter of Philip Schuyler, a prosperous merchant and founder of the prominent family. Her mother was Margaretta van Schlechtenhorst, whose father Brandt had served as the second director of Rensselaerwyck. Her sister Gertrude had married Stephanus Van Cortland, still another prominent family in the region. Her marriage to a Rensselaer completed the circle. To tie things together even tighter, Stephanus Van Cortland was the brother of Maria Van Rensselaer.
The purpose behind this blizzard of names is not to confuse, but just to show that Alida was an extremely well connected young lady. As part of the nexus of several great merchant families, it's not surprising that Alida would be well versed in matters of trade and business. When her father Philip died, she inherited and ran his estates for almost three decades.
Her skill as a businesswoman come through in her letters to Robert. Robert spent a good portion of his time away from their home in Albany. He traveled down to New York City to purchase supplies, and abroad to London or Amsterdam to negotiate business deals. All the while, Alida ran the household, the manor, and a general store in Albany.
The letters that Alida wrote are studded with business advice, political thoughts, inventories from the store, updates on construction and the occasional strong opinion, (“That is what you get from New England, you get cheated.”) What quickly becomes clear is that Alida and Robert were partners in a variety of ventures, and only one of them was romantic.
And so when you read in a historical work that “Robert Livingston provided supplies to the British Army,” you should mentally add Alida's name to the sentence. Perhaps Robert negotiated the contract and purchased some of the bulk supplies, but it was Alida who oversaw the processing and distribution. And so it was the partnership between the two, formed in the year after Nicholas Van Rensselaer's untimely death, that began the Livingston family's great fortune.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Thursday, November 12, 2009
It's a tricky business. Only one historic room on our tour route has overhead lighting: the kitchen. Although John Henry Livingston had electricity installed at Clermont in 1923, overhead lighting was not installed in any of the parts of the house frequented by the family--instead, it was located only in servants' areas.
The photo above shows Clermont's kitchen in 1965, shortly after we received the mansion from Alice Livingston. Those three hanging fixtures are a blessing on a dark day for me; I can only imagine how much the cook appreciated them. But you can still see kersone lamps affixed to the walls. I do not know whether these were a hold-over from the pre-electricity days or meant as a back-up lighting source in case of power outages. You might also notice that our notoriously dark kitchen (in the north wing) had a skylight added in the middle somewhere around the 1860s. Apparently lighting this space has always been a bit of a chore.
That takes care of the kitchen, but what of the rest of the house? By the standards of the 1920s, John Henry installed plenty of electrical outlets throughout most of the house. Most downstairs rooms have two or three, and without a proliferation of other electrical applicances (TVs, DVD players, or stereos), this would have provided plenty of locations for plugging in lights. A number of electric lamps remain in our collections, a few of which are still used on special occassions. These would have provided a small amount of localized, low-intensity light, something familiar to both he and Alice, who grew up during the time of candles, gas, and kerosene.
Alice and John Henry's generations were accustomed to much lower levels of light than the modern American. For one thing, artificial light was not put into use on an overcast day. While many of us will turn on a lamp when the clouds get a little too thick, weaker flame-based lighting sources were generally ineffective against such gloom.
Also, one candle, the usual requirment for evening reading, throws the equivilant of about a three-watt incandescent bulb--and I complain when I am left trying to make do with a 40 watt! Candles could also be expensive, and many families tried to minimize their usage. Locating them in front of mirrors was a favorite way of doubling your light without increasing your candle usage. And Mrs. Edward Livingston was remembered fondly for the extravagance of lighting her house up "au jour" (as bright as day) during the early 19th century.
Whale oil, more genteel and more expensive still, was also commonly used, though it could be smokey. Kersoene came along in the 1850s and revolutionized home lighting with an affordable bright source (Laura Ingalls Wilder fondly described her family's single kerosene lamp in her largely autobiographical book Little House in the Big Woods), and other forms of lighting, especially argand lamps, also provided good illumination to a small area. These lamps all required daily cleaning (a task which could take hours) and continued to pose a risk of fire. At left is an image of a lamp (of indeterminate fuel) in Clermont's drawing room from the 1880s.
Gas lighting was available to many city-dwellers, and it appears as though the Livingstons may have kept a resovoir themselves. Family lore describes a gas chandelier over the billiards table in the library (both of which have since been removed) and photographic evidence from another 1880s image shows what could be a table lamp in the dining room, plugged into a gas fixture on the wall.
That brings us to the dining room: a whole story unto itself. When John Henry installed electricity in the rest of the house, he left the dining room alone. "If it [candlelight] was good enough for the Chancellor, it is good enough for me," he is reported to have said. No electrical outlets were installed there. Nor do we have evidence of a candle-burning chandelier, as we do in other rooms.
Instead, the Livingstons continued to dine by candlelight for the duration of their lives at Clermont. Six candles were used on the dining room table, and additional candleabras, boasting three candles each, were located at either end of the large room. Remember what I mentioned about people being accustomed to lower levels of light? At the estimated equivilant of three-watts per candle, this would be roughly like trying to light a very large room with a 36 watt bulb.
The secret to lighting a room with these generally weak sources comes down to one skill: lighting only the areas that you need to see. Whereas most of us are used to lighting our rooms with a broad wash of overhead light, when using candles or lamps, many dark corners usually remain: you light the dining room table, but leave some of the portraits lurking like ghosts along the walls. You light the mantel (where the mirrors bounce back extra light), but leave the sofa as a curvacious shadow in the middle of the room.
In fact, lighting in this way gives you the ability to control what people look at. With their eyes drawn to the lighter areas of the room, you can subtly direct their attention. It is an art that theatrical lighting technicians spend years studying.
We modern electricity-users can get a little romantic about our candle-light. But the fact is that electric lighting generated mass excitement for reason at the turn of the century. Its practical, generally safe, and infinitely brighter capabilities revolutionized the way we experience the night, and people gravitated to electricity spectacles like the "Illuminations" of the 1909 Steamboat Bicentennial cellebration (pictured at right in Poughkeepsie).
Every time I find myself crawling around with an extension cord and an electric lamp at Clermont, I am trying to ballance the appearance of this historic use of light with the needs of the modern, light-greedy human eye. What do we do about it? That is a long story too, and I will save it for another blog entry.