Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Nicholas' Legacy

This is the fifth post in a series on Nicholas van Rensselaer
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.

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