The first post in a series on the Hardenbergh Patent...
We like to say that Robert of Clermont purchased some 500,000 acres of land across the Hudson. It makes for a dramatic moment on the tour, when the door is thrown open and the guests get to see the view of the Catskills from the front door of Clermont. “Robert,” we say, “owned that.” Like many of the best historic details, this is perfectly accurate and also grossly simplified.
Robert, who only inherited a lamb’s share of his father’s manor, had visions of creating an estate that would allow his heirs to live as gentlemen of leisure for generations to come. 13,000 acres was substantial, but not enough to support his family in the style that he wanted them to become accustomed. And so he began to look for real estate.
Robert had been a businessman for the first half of his life, living in New York City engaging in trade like his brother Philip. By 1740, when he was in his forties, he began to focus on acquiring land. His eyes must have been drawn to the unavoidable sight of the Catskill Mountains from his existing land. The idea must have occurred to him to join some of that land to his own, creating an estate that spanned the Hudson.
His timing was perfect. That land was part of the Hardenbergh Patent, also known as the Great Patent, and much of it was now for sale. However, the Patent was a confused mess, which was a legacy of its creation. In included an estimated 1,500,000 acres, and produced almost that many lawsuits.
The Patent was the brainchild of Johannis Hardenbergh, a young merchant from Kingston with dreams of a vast estate to rival the Livingston’s. He’d become familiar with the Catskills by hiking the trails in order to trade with the Indians. Along with six partners, Hardenbergh petitioned for a patent that was vaguely described that ended up encompassing almost all of the Catskills. The patent was granted on April 20, 1708.
The claimants then agreed to share the Patent eight ways. Sharp eyes will notice that there’s one more share than there were partners. That’s because one of the claimants was a silent partner, a man named Augustine Graham, currently the Surveyor General for New York. He’d been the one to advise Governor Cornbury to accept the claim of Hardenbergh and Company, and to resist any competing claims.
This was, of course, a conflict of interest and grossly illegal, nor was this the only legal oversight in the patent. At least two of the partners were stand-ins for other government officials who were also avoiding the appearance of impropriety. Since the whole patent was granted by Governor Cornbury, who was famously corrupt and about whom nothing good was ever said, it’s not surprising that these irregularities slipped through. Cornbury, the cousin of Queen Anne, is now best remembered for occasionally dressing like his more famous relative.
Also quite irregular were the boundaries of the patent. Hardenbergh had described the patent using a flurry on Indian place names, which was the custom of the time. So the patent was fixed to places with names like Kawinsinck, Pakataghkan, and Natagherackaghkanateponck. In addition to breaking the spellchecker, these locations tended to wander as the semi-nomadic Indians revisited the area.
For this reason, it was legally required that a new patent be surveyed within five years of being granted so that their content and boundaries were clearly established. However, granting the patent was one of Cornbury’s last acts as governor, and his replacement simply finalized the Hardenbergh patent without requiring it to be surveyed. It would be another 40 years before the patent was completely surveyed.
That meant forty years of legal battle over who owned what and where the boundaries of the patent stopped. By 1740, when Robert Livingston was looking to get in, many people were trying to get out. With the instincts of a businessman, Robert snapped up sharesat bargain rates, beginning by splitting a share with fellow businessman Gulian Verplanck. This was originally Augustine Graham’s full share, purchased from his widow.
By the time he was done, Robert owned a third of the Hardenbergh patent, or approximately 500,000 acres. However, where those acres actually lay was still up in the air until the survey was complete in 1751. Robert likely thought that he'd finally secured the fortunes of his family, but what he'd actually acquired was a massive headache.