Monday, November 23, 2009

Robert and Alida, Alida and Robert

The third post in a series on Nicholas van Rensselaer...

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.

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