Wednesday, December 23, 2009


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.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Greyhound Named Wagon

Here is another dog story to add to the series on pets that I've been building up. Since I will be absent next week for the holidays, I thought I would double up and post an extra blog this week. I will be back to blogging again before the New Year.

I was prodded to dig through some of Alice's photo albums this week by an inquiry on Facebook about Punchy the Boston terrier. During my digging I came across this picture of the Livingston's Greyhound Wagon (pronounced Va-goan) pulling Janet in a dog cart in 1917. Wasn't I surprised!

It's not that I had never seen a dog pulling a cart before. Dogs have been harnessed for centuries as draft animals (at left is an image from the 1890s of a Belgian post card featuring a dog pulling a dairy cart). The tradition was carried on in many parts of the world late into the 19th century, and was made particularly famous in Belgium by an 1872 story entitled "A Dog of Flanders"--a heart-rending story that was read to me as a child.

In the past few decades, dog carting has even made a resurgence as healthy sport for dogs and their people (at right you can see a dog carting demonstration at Clermont in 2006).

It's just that seeing Janet seated there behind Wagon just caught me off guard. But driving--horses, cars, you name it--was a leisure activity popular among the wealthy. Janet and Honoria road around in a wicker pony cart when they were little. Honoria preferred the pony cart to the new car because she could get in and out at will to pick flowers, according to her mother. Clermont still has five miles of carriage paths and riding trails on its grounds that were originally used by the Livingstons for pleasure in the warm weather, and their neighbors the Churches at Olana enjoyed their own trails that wended around the hills, affording fine views of the Catskills and Hudson River.
rom its configuration, this little cart appears to be made specifically for dogs, and with the reins in her hands, Janet looks quite adept at driving her dog. Since they owned a special cart for the purpose and appear to have put some time into training Wagon to pull it, it seems that this was also a common afternoon passtime for the Livingston girls.

Wagon joined the Livingston family in 1916, a leggy brindle puppy who must have found particular pleasure in Clermont's wide-open landscape. His doggy companions at that time were Rufus the bloodhound and an aging Boston terrier named Punchy, and the three of them appear to have been the children's constant companions. A Pekingnese named Gobi joined them in 1917, bringing the Livingstons up to a four-dog household.
He appears in photographs with the Livingstons only through the winter of 1917, and it seems that he is the infamous "train chaser," that Alice later wrote about losing. By 1918, the only picutes of the dog cart show it being used by the children to pull Gobi around.
Finding Wagon and his dog cart is one more clue to understanding the Livingston's relationships with their pets. Pet ownership has the been subject of increasing study over the past few years because of the ways it helps us to understand ourselves. I was thrilled to find this curious piece of the puzzle in Alice's photo albums.

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.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Dog Blog: "Aha moment!"

Last August, I posted the Dog Blog, which has subsequently received more hits than any other of Clermont's blog entries. Apparently I need to write a little more about Clermont's ample pet population!

In my earlier Dog Blog mentioned that I could not for the life of me read this particular headstone in our little Pet Cemetary. For a four years now I have not been able to make out anything but the date. My best guess on the word above was "died," although even I have to admit, it wasn't a very good guess.

Thank goodness for Joe, our maintenance supervisor! While pouring over some old maps, he found that someone had labeled each grave in easy-read-handwriting. The mystery dog's name is Odin!

What made Odin so special? This is an attractively ornate stone in comparison with the others, and Odin was the first dog at Clermont we can find who merrited such a permanent grave marker.

Named after a Norse god (pictured above), Odin died on August 5, 1893 in the midst of John Henry's elaborate renovations and additions to the mansion at Clermont. In 1893 John Henry had only recently been married to his new wife Emily so it is a reasonable guess that Odin was a companion to John Henry through his years as a widower (from his first wife Catherine) or possibly the pet of his daughter Katharine through her teen years (Katharine was 20 in 1893, two years from her own marriage to an Englishman).
What kind of dog was Odin? Soda, the next dog we see with a stone marker in the pet cemetary (1902), was Jack Russel Terrier, and Boston Terriers were the first dogs John Henry later shared with his third wife Alice in 1906. Did John Henry have a preference for small, tenacious dogs? Or was Odin a larger, rangier creature like those sometimes pictured with his namesake? If I find out, I will be sure to let you know.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Mythical Mirrors

It made me laugh that a week after I posted the blog "Mythical Beasts" about common historic house myths, I had a personal run-in with disproving one: The myth of the petticoat mirror.

This one is a costume myth so I am always tickled by it. The myth begins with pier tables, like ours pictured on the right or the one from the Brooklyn Museum pictured at left. These decorative tables often have mirrored glass beneath the table top. According the story, these mirrors were called "petticoat mirrors" and were installed to allow ladies to check to make sure that their petticoats were not showing beneath their skirts. Often located in hallways, where a woman would be entering or leaving a house, it seems sensible.

It's not the purpose of the mirrors. Any woman well-to-do enough to own a piece of furniture as expensive pier table or visit a home with a pier table knew enough to check to make sure her underwear wasn't hanging out before she left the bedroom. It's a little "low" for a genteel woman to be checking her underwear in the mirror, not unlike a modern woman stopping to check her underwear lines in a public mirror--a little too personal to share.

Not only that, but an historic petticoat is not like a modern slip, whose thin elastic waistband can allow it to slip down your hips and peek beneath your skirt. Before the days of elastic, petticoats were sewn onto a secure waistband that wasn't going anywhere.

The purpose of the mirrors was decorative. Reflecting light around a room on highly-polished surfaces, including mirrors, glass, crystal pendants on chandeliers, or fine wood surfaces, was a way of demonstrating wealth. It dazzled the eye and demonstrated a great deal of labor (performed by servants or slaves) that was needed to maintain that level of clean.

I always assumed that this myth came from someone's great-aunt Bessy, a rare woman who put aside decorum and periodically checked her petticoat in the mirror when no one was looking. But the other day I had to dress up as 1910s Ollie, and since my petticoat is on an elastic waistband, I was worried that it had slipped down and was hanging out my back. How indecent!

Off I went in search of a "petticoat mirror," of which we have aplenty. But shoot! It was impossible to see the hem of my skirt! That big old table sticking out of the wall made it so I could see nothing but the floor--not even my toes. Even in our wide hallyway, I could not back far enough away to get a glimpse of my own petticoat. I had to go chasing upstairs to Alice's full-length mirror in order to find out that several inches of white petticoat were indeed hanging out of my backside.

So there it is, the myth of the petticoat mirror put to bed--not only would the practice of checking your underwear in public be a little taboo, but it doesn't even work (much to my disappointment that day)!

**Want to see more petticoats from Clermont's collections?  See here for images of children's petticoats from the late 19th century!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Hardenbergh 2: Even Harder

The second post in a series on the Hardenbergh Patent...

Robert of Clermont could look out from his front door, cast his gaze upon the Catskill Mountains, and declare that he owned all he could see. But could he do that honestly? Yes and no. He owned perhaps a third of the Great Hardenbergh Patent, which encompassed the Catskill Mountains. But which third? And how many acres did that actually amount to?

Since the Patent spent almost half a century without being properly surveyed, its boundaries remained loosely defined. Eventually, as the land around it was claimed, it began to be roughly defined by its shared borders with other patents. Of course, in land disputes, roughly defined borders wind up in court. It seems that a number of lawyers made quite a bit of money off the Patent, as owners of the surrounding land did battle over who owned what.

But one of the largest problems came from the original owners of the land. Or rather, the problem was over who really were the original owners. All the land technically belong to the British Monarchy, but through treaties the land not claimed by European settlers was owned by the Indians. So all acquisitions of new land had to begin by dealing with the Indians.

But the Indians themselves didn't practice land ownership, and control over a given piece of land could be very fluid. The question arose of which group of natives one needed to approach. Of course, unscrupulous colonists could take advantage of this confusion. It seems that there were certain Indians who were willing to say with a straight face that they controlled any given piece of land, and were willing to sign it over for a very reasonable price.

It's not immediately clear who Johannes Hardenbergh approached. Most likely it was some portion of the River Indians – a loose category that included the Esopus and Mahican Indians. But whatever claim this group might have had was disputed by the Mohawk, at least over the western portion of the Catskills. The Mohawk went so far as to threaten war on the various members of the River Tribes if the Hardenbergh Patent included the northwest Catskills and the lands around the Delaware river.

Those were just the official problems, and there were innumerable smaller problems. Many of the early New Yorkers had a practical approach to land ownership: if it wasn't currently occupied, then it was free for the taking. The responsibility for dealing with such attitudes fell to Johannes Hardenbergh himself. From the time the Patent was granted until shortly before he died, Johannes rode the trails of the Catskills, forcing out squatters, fending off lumber thefts and correcting the occasional straying fenceline.

Between policing his land, bargaining with the Indians and making the occasional court appearance, Johannes was never able to get the land surveyed, which just extended the problem. Not only was the lack of external boundaries a problem, but the lack of internal partitions meant that the owners could never divide up the land and lay claim to their share. Johannes died in 1745, while the Patent bearing his name was still six years from being properly surveyed. In his will, he directed that his sons should sell off his shares and give up on the Patent.

The lack of internal partitions meant that Robert of Clermont could not be absolutely sure which third of the Patent was his. The lack of external boundaries meant that he could never be sure how many acres his third share made up. Estimates of the total acreage for the Patent range from 1 million acres to two million acres, which is quite a range. The 1.5 million acres is a guess in hindsight, based on modern maps and boundaries set by decades of legal wrangling.

With the death of Johannes Hardenbergh, de facto control over the fate of his Patent passed on to the largest single landowner, which happened to be Robert. Under Robert, lagging surveys that were set into motion under Johannes were finally completed and the Patent was finally defined, divided and distributed. At some point in the 1750s, Livingston was able to claim some of the northeastern portion of the Catskills and lands south to what is now Woodstock. More than a decade after buying in, he was able to truly say that he owned all he could see, without squinting.