Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Great Hardenbergh Patent

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 Livingstons. 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.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Is it Original?

When I guide tours at Clermont, I would have to say the most common question I get at Clermont is, "Is everything in the house original?"

Now, I am the queen of long-winded answers--perhaps that's why I was picked to manage this blog--but there is no easy way for me to answer this question.

It seems simple, right? It's a yes or no question. But there is no simple answer. The best I have come up with is this: "Everything at Clermont is the Livingston family in one period or another."

It's a bit like listening to a rock radio station. They play "the best of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and today." It's up to you to know when each song is from. In 1930, Alice had five generations of Livingstons before her to pick her "greatest hits" from.

Take the drawing room pictured above (photo from 1938). The problem is this: We are interpretted to the period of 1930. This means, that we have done our best to make Clermont look as Alice Livingston had it decorated that year. But Alice loved her family's old furniture. Instead of buying fashionable, new 1930s furniture, she dug through the attics and barns and back rooms to find anything "old."

Alice was taking part in the Colonial Revival , an important period of time when Americans started getting interested in their own history--especially the period of time surrounding the American Revolution. People all over the country were saving historic buildings, buying reproduction furniture, and playing Betsy Ross at their town pageants. Photographer Wallace Nutting was famous for recreating Colonial-esque scenes during the early part of the 20th century. His images were very popular and often used 18th cenutry antiques rearranged into modern interpretations.

So is everything you see on display at Clermont from 1776? No--here's where things get even more confusing. Even though Alice was refering to her family's 18th century "Colonial" history, she did not limit herself to the actual 18th century artifacts. Anything old would do--just so long as it was a good piece of furniture.

As a result, our rooms are a confusing mash-up of 19th-century Duncan Phyfe sofas under proud 18th century portraits. And causually sitting in the middle of all this is a late 19th century Belter style chair.

That's a little like wearing a poodle skirt with a Hannah Montana T-shirt and getting a Farrah Faucet hairdo. The styles weren't originally meant to go together. Each of the individual pieces in our outfit comes from a very specific point in time (the 1950s, 2000s, and 1970s), but together they make up one wholistic--albeit strange--fashion statement.

The people of the 1700s would never have recognized her decor. You can see the difference for yourself in the image at right of Schuyler Mansion in Albany, which is intpretted to the 1770s. Even in a mansion belonging to the Schuylers, the rooms look sparse to modern eyes. (read more about 18th century room decoration here)

That doesn't mean that Alice's decor is not historic though. It is historic to her time--1930. Remember our radio station that plays "the best of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and today?" If you taped that radio station and listened to it 20 years from now, you would know it was a special product of the 2000s. That very slogan identifys it as such. Plus, they've only picked what they consider "the best." They may be still be playing Bruce Spingstein, but they have probably forgotten the New Kids on the Block.

Alice's collection of furnishings come from about 150 years of Livingston history, but they are arranged and jumbled like that radio station, and together they form a whole new look that worked for the 1930s.

So I guess at Clermont the answer to the question "is it original?" is "yes." If it looks like Victorian girandole candelabra, it probably is--just remember that it might be sitting in front an Empire mirror and next to a 20th-century plant stand.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Deck the Halls (with Paper Lanterns?): Photos of Our Halloween Decorations

Halloween decorating is just about complete here, and I am relieved (and proud). For those of you who've followed along with me over the past couple weeks, I thought I would take a moment to post a few pictures that I snapped this morning of my handiwork.

You might recognize a few of the elements from my copious decorating posts. The silhouettes found their way back to the curtains and the table cloth in the dining room, and crepe and tissue paper streamers adorn the library. I also posted an image of the paper chandelier (finished) you can see me working on in the Picture of the Week this week.

Due to a severe weather forecast, we had to cancel last night's Legends by Candelight Tours. The weathermen predicted snow and rain--yikes! Since half our tour is outdoors, we had to take comfort and safety into account for both our visitors and our volunteers.

However you can still see the ghosts next week the 23rd and 24th and the 30th and 31st are as well. I have a full schedule of ghosts, including Chancellor Livingston , Nancy Shippen Livingston, and General Montgomery--all of whom are new this year. I hope I'll see some of you there since I am already gearing up my own Janet Livingston Montgomery impression.

Yes, I am willing to put my money where my mouth is a suit up as a ghost for two nights--though I won't tell you which ones.

Remember, this tour is good for lots of age groups; it's informative enough inquisitive adults, but with enough action for kids from about 7 years old and up. This makes it great for family outings or just a night out with friends. Just remember to reserve your tickets soon. Some of the tours are already full. ($10 for adults, $5 for children 12 and under. Friends of Clermont are just $3)

If you don't think you'r ready for a ghost tour, or even if you just can't make it on a Friday or Saturday night, try coming by for a daytime tour Tues-Sun, 11am to 4pm. You will still get to see the a truly unusual spectacle for a museum.

Friday, October 16, 2009

How Sweet it is (or was): the Foods of Halloween History

One of our favorite ways to mark our holidays in this world is through food. In almost every culture, we designate some foods to be prepared primarily only once in the year. In America roasted turkey is reserved primarily for Thanksgiving, and until recently marshmallow Peeps could only be found at Easter. Pepernoten cookies were a Dutch favorite, and my Swedish family always made tiny pepparkokar cookies at Christmas.

This practice gives an importance to both the holiday and the food itself. The exclusivity of the food gave it additional value, while anticipation of the treat among your festivities differentiated the holiday from any old Saturday night. Seeing Peeps appear at my local drugstore was a reminder of all of the things I associated with Easter (which, to this 6-year-old, meant candy and an egg-hunt). Halloween through history has been no exception.

Since it falls at harvest time, many foods that were associated with Halloween were our traditional fall vegetables: squashes, pumpkins, corn or popped-corn, and crisp fall apples. Even cabbage was used in a fortune-telling game called "kaling."

Many of these foods were used for decoration. The jack-o-lantern image at left goes back to 1875. Dry cornstalks or colorful ears of corn have been porch decorations as long as I can remember. And the strange squash men depicted in th 20th century Halloween card above seem to have been a popular theme on printed materials--though I have yet to see anyone try to make one of these rather scarey little guys in any historic photographs.

Apples were also very important to a number of games, edible treats, and fortune-telling activities. Since Halloween comes right in the wake of the apple harvest, this is also a practical association. Candied apples have been around since at least 1908, when they were sold along the New Jersey shore. But they were also used in bobbing for apples, no-hands apple eating contests (depicted at right), and fortune-telling games. Children hoped that if you peeled an apple in one long strip and threw it over your shoulder, the letter that it formed when it fell was to be the first letter of your future husband:

Last night 'twas witching hallowe'en,
Dearest; and apple russet-brown
I pared, and thrice above me crown
Whirled the long skin; they watchen it keen;
I flung it far; they laughed and cried me shame--
Dearest, there lay the letter of your name!

--"The Charms," Emma A. Opper, 1903

Halloween cakes began showing up at parties in the 20th century. With the easy availability of refined white flour and sugar, frosted cakes acheived widespread popularity. By baking little charms into the cakes, you could "predict" the future of the person who encountered that charm in their piece. For instance, the lucky girl who got the piece with the ring baked into her cake could expect an early marriage. Hopefully participants in this game chewed with care.

Since fall is the time of the nut harvest, nuts were also the focus of a number of fortune games. Setting two nuts in front of a fire and watching to see if the heat made them split from one another was hoped to depict whether you and a sweetie would marry. The nourishing treat could be found in many home-made candies of the day.

Of course, to a 21st century child, Halloween means one food, and one food only--CANDY! The central activity of our modern Halloween has become Trick-or-treating. This has been going on since about the 1930s, when Tootsie Rolls, Marry Janes, and Squirrel (makers of Squirrel Nut Zippers) were top-brand candies. And really, what is a holiday without some candy attached to it?
Candy corn--we're back to that fall vegetable thing again--has been around since about 1895. The same multi-color technology was also used to make other candy in vegetable shapes like pumpkins or radishes. Chicklets gum goes back to the same time period. The exotic goodness of cocunut was added to many products in the first half of the 20th century. And beginning as early as the 19th century, chocolate candies were also associated with cooler weather since the treat was so susceptible to melting.
Food is one of the best ways to get a personal involvement with history. When I encountered C Howards violet mints last week (in packaging alluringly unchanged since their introduction in 1934), I immediately bought a package. I was suprised by the unusual flavor to say the least. But I could not fight the pull towards this little culinary time capsule.

In a 2003 NPR interview, author Beth Kimmerle had the following to say about her book Candy: the Sweet History: "Candy is with us at very special moments -- we have candy at movies, we have candy at Easter, and we have candy at significant holidays like Valentine's Day. People want those memories again, they want to be able to relive those days... They're remembering their lives through candy."
Why not try a little history yourself by unwrapping a tasty treat this month?
Curious about some of your specific candy favorites? Try Beth Kimmerle's books, visit her blog, or visit this retro candy online store to learn more.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Nicholas and the Apocalypse

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

When last we left our intrepid hero, Nicholas Van Rensselaer, he was just stepping off the boat at Albany in 1675. He had gone from being the black sheep of his family to being the director of the family's great holdings in the new world and an ordained Anglican minister. He was destined to have only three years to enjoy these titles.

But let's take a step back. Nicholas had attained all of this by making the correct prediction that Charles II would regain the throne of England. But Nicholas had made a second prediction at the time which had garnered him even more attention. Nicholas had predicted that either Charles or his son would be the one to lead the Jews to Christianity.

By our standards this is an odd, even offensive, prediction. But at the time, it had a specific apocalyptic meaning. It was widely believed that the Second Coming would be signaled by events in the world, and one of the foremost of those would be the mass conversions of the “heathens”. Nicholas had essentially predicted that either Charles II or his successor James II would bring about the beginning of the End Times and the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Not that is was an uncommon prediction. Apocalypticism was always just beneath the surface in that time, and several others had made similar predictions about Charles or his line. But Nicholas' paired predictions, with the first having come true and the second being so portentous, made him a prophet to watch.

Of course, there was some bitter irony to his prediction. The return of Charles II – called the Stuart Restoration - put an end to a rich stream of apocalyptic speculation centered on the Commonwealth and Oliver Cromwell. With their hopes crushed, many Puritans fled to Holland or New England. Others would follow as Charles applied pressure to the church, including the Rev. John Livingston in 1663, fleeing to Rotterdam with a nine-year-old Robert in tow. It's notable that there were enough expatriates there that the Reverend was quickly able to resume his role as pastor.

But for all that, Nicholas had inadvertently allied himself with a different stream of speculation. There was a popular theory making the rounds in America that the Native Americans were actually descendants of the Jews. This theory – which lived long enough for Joesph Smith to pick it up in 1830 – was popularized by a missionary named Thomas Thorowgood in a pamphlet entitled Jews in America. In the introduction to the second edition of the pamphlet, published in 1660, some of Thorowgood's followers make a direct connection between their missionary work and Nicholas' prediction.

Nicholas was also publishing some pamphlets of his own. Around 1665-1666, a time of increasing apocalyptic foment, some of his predictions were published in a series of pamphlets. Mostly these were typical prophetic utterances, promising decline or destruction for nations that did not repent from their sinful ways. These pamphlets were in his native Dutch, and focus on the social and political situations of Amsterdam, which Nicholas compares to Jerusalem.

While this materials seems to have been popular in his native land, little of this popularity seems to have crossed the Atlantic. Nicholas' odd status as Anglican minister and visionary put him at odds with the Dutch Reformed churches in the region. The influence of the British monarchy got Nicholas a position in the Albany church, but there were immediate objections from the existing minister. At one point, Nicholas even found himself confined to his house because of a controversial sermon he delivered on the nature of original sin.

Nicholas was finally removed from the ministry by Governor Andros in 1677, an inglorious ending to his bizarre religious career. But Nicholas had one prediction left in him. A year later, as he was dying of some unknown cause, his young secretary rushed to be by his side. According to legend, Nicholas ordered him to be removed from the room, declaring that this young man would marry his widow. Sure enough, the young Robert Livingston would marry Alida Schuyler Van Rensselaer within a year of Nicholas' death.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Nicholas the Prophet

Joshua Hauck-Whealton is a curatorial intern at Clermont State Historic Site. His prior research into the Livingston family and other prominent New Yorkers gives him some additional perspective on the Livingston's early days in America.

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

Of all the characters that pass across our stage, none have quite the same level of oddness as Nicholas Van Rensselaer (1636-1678). It's a shame that he remains merely a footnote on our tour - “Nicholas – First husband of Alida Schuyler Livingston.” His impact on the colony of New York is profound but indirect. However, you have to know his story before you can understand the outcome.

Nicholas was clearly the black sheep of the Van Rensselaer family. Unlike his father - Kiliaen, the first patroon (1596-1640s) - or his siblings - including Jeremias, the fourth Patroon (1632-1674) - Nicholas had no head for business. What's more, he had no interest in it, though that didn't stop him from racking up a huge amount of debt.

What he did have was religion. Which would have been acceptable, if it were the pious, straight-laced Dutch Reformed Christianity of his family. But instead Nicholas was a mystic; he had visions, he spoke of receiving messages from a "spirit of truth", he prophesied.

He wrote several books on religion that his family considered "nothing but foolishness." They thought him crazy. They thought him a Quaker. To them, these seemed to mean the same thing. At one point, the Van Rensselaer family went so far as to have Nicholas confined for his apparent insanity.

Life turned around for Nicholas when one of his prophecies came true in a big way. Nicholas had somehow escaped his family and gone to Antwerp in 1658. There he met Charles II, King of Scotland and once the King of England, now in exile following the Glorious Revolution.

In Antwerp Nicholas apparently had another of his visions. He gave Charles II the good news: he would soon be restored to his throne. There's no record of exactly what was said or how the King responded, but it's hard to imagine the King being all that impressed with this odd merchant's son from Amsterdam.

That is, until a year and a half later when the English Parliament invited Charles back to England and reinstated him as monarch. The seemingly impossible had happened, and suddenly word was starting to spread about Nicholas' prediction. Charles II rewarded Nicholas with patronage, and Nicholas picked up unofficial title of “prophet to the King of England.”

Among the rewards that Charles II granted Nicholas was the official title of an Anglican minister. So here we have Nicholas, raised as a Dutch protestant, possessing "Quaker" traits, and now an Anglican minister. This confusing situation would come back to haunt Nicholas during his time as a minister in New York.

The Van Rensselaer family suddenly found themselves with a dilemma. While it's possible that they had reconsidered their earlier opinion of Nicholas, that seems unlikely. More probably, they were still embarrassed by their errant son and his odd ways. But now that he had the ear of Charles II, things would have to be different.

The Van Rensselaers wanted a few things from the new English monarch. First, they wanted some kind of assurance that Rensselaerwyck wouldn't be taken way from them by the British governors. Next, they really wanted to regain the sort of control over the inhabitants of Rensselaerwyck that they'd enjoyed before the British took over, and being given English-style manorial rights over the property would be just the thing. Finally, they really really wanted control of Albany, which was the center of the waning but still profitable fur trade.

And so, in 1675, Nicholas stepped off the ship in Albany. Over the protests of the Albany branch of the Rensselaer family, Nicholas was made director of Rensselaerwyck following the death of his brother. He also carried a letter from the Duke of York appointing him a minister of the Albany Dutch Reformed Church. And very likely he carried instructions from his family to use his influence with his new friend to secure Rensselaerwyck and Albany.