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Van Rensselaer Manor Papers

Birth of the Manor

It was the first half of the 17th century, and the Dutch were embarked on an unprecedented program of globalization. The Dutch first laid claims to the lands that are situated in the Hudson River Valley in 1609 with the voyage of Henry Hudson, who commanded an expedition sponsored by the Dutch East India Company. The first permanent settlements in New Netherland were established in 1624 in Manhattan and Fort Orange (present-day Albany).

The patroonship plan was devised by certain members on the board of directors of the private trading and shipping enterprise known as the West India Company to promote colonization of the region. The plan allowed an investor, called a patroon, to negotiate with the natives for a tract of land on which he was obligated to settle fifty colonists within four years at his own expense. The patroon was granted legislative and judicial powers as well as rights to hold the land in perpetual fief of inheritance, along with the right to dispose the colony by last will and testament. In essence, colonization was turned over to the private sector.

Killiaen van Rensselaer, a diamond merchant in Amsterdam and member of the board of directors of the West India Company, with the assistance of a knowledgeable agent named Bastain Jasz Krol, negotiated a contract of sale in 1630 with the Mohican Indians for land in the upper Hudson River Valley in the vicinity of the Dutch trading post and garrison known as Fort Orange. This was the founding of the Manor of Rensselaerswijck, which would last into the middle of the 19th century.

Initially, a fair number of willing settlers were attracted as tenants of Rensselaerswijck (passenger listbill of lading), with most of them choosing to settle near Fort Orange.  Some of these tenants practiced agriculture and husbandry as specified in the terms of their contracts (ledger of debit credit accounts), but in general, any effort to make the plantation profitable for the patroon was compromised by the widespread interest in trading furs, initially an irresistible avenue to riches for many living in the region. Fur trading was presumed to be the exclusive domain of the West India Company and this created tension between the company and the settlers.

The Manor Under English Rule

In 1685, Royal Governor Thomas Dongan issued a patent for the "Manor of Rensselaerswyck" establishing the patroonship as a legal entity, describing its borders, and defining the special rights of its proprietor. The boundaries established here encompassed much of the land now situated in present-day Albany and Rensselaer Counties.  However, the patent also specifically excluded ". . . fort Albany and the Towne Albany" from the manor, setting the stage for Dongan's granting of the Albany city charter in July 1686.

This confirmation of title by Governor Dongan made Rensselaerswijck one of the great manorial estates that lined both sides of the Hudson River during the English Colonial era and well into the first century of the American Republic.  In addition, the patroon was granted the title "Lord of Manor" and given freedom from taxation.

Although a part of Albany County, from 1691 to 1775, Rensselaerswyck sent its own representative to the provincial Assembly. After the War for Independence, that seat was enveloped into Albany County.  Watervliet was made a separate district in 1788 and Bethlehem a town in 1793. The manor on the east side of the Hudson became part of newly created Rensselaer County in 1791.

Van Rensselaer Family Succession

Killiaen van Rensselaer, the first patroon, died in 1643 never having seen his vast domain in New Netherland.  The patroonship eventually passed to his son Jerimias (1632-1674), who distinguished himself in trade and commerce as well as in facilitating a fairly smooth transition from Dutch to English rule.  Upon his death in 1675, the estate was managed primarily by his widow Maria van Rensselaer. 

In 1704 the Van Rensselaers partitioned the manor into two parts with the "lower manor" called Claverack going to Albany trader Hendrick van Rensselaer, who then passed the estate on to his son, Johannes Van Rensselaer, in 1740.  

Maria van Rensselaer's great-grandson, Stephen van Rensselaer II (1742-1769), inherited the manor at age five when his father Stephen van Rensselaer died in 1747.  During his short tenure as patroon, he expanded the tenant base and made a number of improvements to the property.  On his death in 1769, the estate passed to his son, five-year-old Stephen III, and was administered by kinsman Abraham Ten Broeck until the young patroon came of age in 1784.

Since the Van Rensselaers almost never sold any land outright, they found it difficult to attract settlers to their lands.  As late as 1767, a map prepared by John R. Bleeker under the direction of Stephen Van Rensselaer II (1742-1769) shows the location of 270 families that resided on the manor, which comprised at least 750,000 acres of land covering much of present-day Albany and Rensselaer counties.

The birth of the United States of America and the War of Independence did not diminish the land holdings of the Van Rensselaers and other manorial estates whose lords had joined the cause of the American patriots.  In 1785, Stephen van Rensselaer III (1764-1839) assumed full rights as the patroon and lord of the manor of Rensselaerswijck.  He became known for his philanthropic endeavors, such as establishing the institution of higher education now known as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1824.

Mapping and Surveying the Manor

On November 1, 1785, Stephen van Rensselaer III (1764-1839) came of age and assumed full rights to the title Patroon and Lord of the Manor of Rensselaerswijck. With the help of Alexander Hamilton (Stephen's wife, Margaret Schuyler, was the sister of Hamilton's wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, both daughters of General Philip Schuyler) Stephen made plans to develop and populate the vast land holdings of the manor.

Handbills were distributed announcing that the patroon would give the patriots of the Revolution homesteads without cost. The conditions of the grants stated that a farmer find a location, clear it, build a dwelling, and live there for seven years free. At the end of this time, he would go to the manor office and receive a "durable lease" with a moderate annual rent to be paid in wheat.  About 3,000 families took Van Rensselaer's offer.  Many of these new tenants were "Yankees" who had spread across New England and begun to overflow into New York State.  These "Yankee" settlers would by 1830 bring to an end the Dutch culture and tradition of Albany that had endured for two centuries.

The influx of settlers required that these homesteads be surveyed and that undeveloped lands be divided into farm lots. The Patroon commissioned John E. Van Allen and Job Gilbert in 1888 to survey and map the entire East Manor. They created divisions, for surveying purposes only, within the East Manor known as Elizabethtown, Philipstown, Roxborough, Greenbush, Schodack, Stephentown, Middletown, and Little Hoosick.  Similarly, William Cockburn was hired to survey and map the West Manor, particularly lands now situated in Rensselaerville, Berne Knox, and Westerlo. Jacob Winne and John Preston were also hired to survey many of the West Manor lots. The task of surveying manor lands was largely completed by 1795 and documented in field books and maps that included detailed information about the physical characteristics of the land. The most revealing information was that soil conditions in much of the manor, particularly the hilly areas, tended to be hard and rocky, not well suited for sustainable crop production.

The Anti-Rent Wars

Meanwhile, Stephen van Rensselaer, with the assistance of Alexander Hamilton, created a "durable lease" that would bind his tenants and their heirs to the manor in perpetuity.  By calling the contract an "incomplete sale," Hamilton had devised a means to sidestep the issue of feudalism, which had been outlawed in New York State in 1787. Tenants were required to pay the patroon an annual rent of ten to twenty bushels of winter wheat per one hundred acres, "four fat fowl," and a day's labor with a team of horses and wagon. In addition, the tenant was to pay all taxes and use the land for agricultural purposes only, while the patroon kept all timber, mineral, and water rights, as well as the right to exploit those resources. These leases also provided that when a tenant chose to sell all or part of his farm, was thus required to pay a "quarter sale" or one-forth of the sale price to the patroon in order to release the property to another individual or party. Hence, the patroon kept all the advantages of land ownership, and the tenant had all of the obligations of land improvement, road building and taxes. This was not quite the binding to the land of the old European feudal system, but it was fairly close in actual effect. 

When the tenants went to collect their "durable lease" after working their land for seven years, they were shocked to discover the terms of their lease and objected to the conditions, arguing that the terms were not what the patroon originally promised. However, Van Rensselaer would not negotiate, and the tenants had to choose between signing the "incomplete sale" contracts or leaving their 120-acre farm and all the buildings and improvements they had made over the previous seven years without compensation. Few actually refused the lease, but the seeds of tenant resentment towards the Van Rensselaer family were sown.

Rent payments were due to the offices of manor agents at the beginning of January as stated in leases. Soil conditions in much of the manor were not particularly good, and many tenants fell behind in their annual rent payments to the manor.  However, Stephen van Rensselaer III did not aggressively pursue overdue rent payments. As a result, he became known amongst many of his tenants as the "Good Patroon." In January 1839, Stephen van Rensselaer III died, and the tenants anxiously waited to see the extent of the Good Patroon's humanity. In his will, he divided his estate between Stephen van Rensselaer IV, the only offspring of his first marriage, and William Paterson van Rensselaer, the oldest son of his second wife. Stephen's half of the land estate was called West Manor and William's East Manor. His will also stated that Stephen and William should immediately collect back rents from his tenants and their heirs totaling $400,000 so that their inheritance could be unencumbered. 

Stephen and William aggressively pursued collecting back rents due to the manor, but their initial attempts were unsuccessful, as most tenants simply ignored their collection agents.  Several tenants met with the brothers, hoping to negotiate lenient payments of rent arrears and more favorable terms in the lease contracts that would lead to outright purchase of the land which families had been occupying for multiple generations. The brothers refused to renegotiate leases or sell lands.  Instead, they served writs and ordered sheriffs to collect debts or seize property and have non-compliant tenants evicted.  The tenants responded by refusing to pay any more rent and, with threats of violence and intimidation, the Anti-Rent Wars began. 

The End of Dutch Culture in New Netherland

Although there was some bloodshed during the Anti-Rent Wars of 1840 to 1846, the issues were really resolved by legislative action and in the courts of law. In 1845, the New York State Legislature abolished the right of the landlord to seize goods of a defaulting tenant and taxed the income that the landlord derived from rent. The New York Constitutional Convention of 1846 prohibited any further leases of agricultural lands for a period longer than 12 years. These measures, however, did not abolish existing lease agreements.

In 1852, the Court of Appeals reversed the 1850 decision invalidating the Van Rensselaer land title based on the landlord-sponsored statute of 1830, which basically said that such land titles had to be legally questioned within forty years of their original land grant. But the reversal did not question another ruling in 1852 which confirmed that tenants who obtained "quarter-sales" after 1787 owned the land they farmed. In other words, these court decisions ruled that many of the clauses of the leases were invalid, but the collection of rent was not.

The disputes between landlords and tenants reached the high courts of New York State during the 1850s in a series of rulings that primarily considered the validity of the lease in fee agreements. The courts generally found most titles and the collection of rents to be valid. Nevertheless, the Van Rensselaers concluded that these legal disparities, coupled with diminished profitability of land rents, marked the beginning of the end of the great manorial estates, and they offered much of their land for sale to speculators. Walter Church, the son of a wealthy landowner of western New York, bought most of the leases which were available for $210,000. He too had trouble collecting back rents and brought over a thousand suits to court. While Church won all of them, he nonetheless died bankrupt in 1890. Otherwise, most of the farms were released or sold during the 1850s and 1860s to the tenants whose families had held title for multiple generations. A few tenants and their heirs, however, continued to pay rent to the Van Rensselaer family estate well into the twentieth century.