Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Endgame

This is the sixth and final post in a series on Nicholas van Rensselaer...

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.

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