Feudal Lords On Yankee Soil


Outside, winter rains pelted the hard earth and frozen waters where the Hudson and Mohawk rivers meet. Inside the magnificent manor house a sick old man sat with his son. The son noticed the old man’s stillness and tried his pulse. Stephen Van Rensselaer in, seventh lord of the manor of Rensselaerwyck, a rich, semifeudal prince in a young democracy, was dead. The date: January 26, 1839.

As the rains continued to fall that day and into the next the ice in the Mohawk broke up, and great jagged chunks spilled into the already swollen Hudson, which leapt its banks, leaving destruction in its wake, just as Van Rensselaer’s death would smash and sweep away an old social order.

The petty kingdom of Stephen Van Rensselaer m centered approximately at the city of Albany. His manor ran twenty-four miles along the Hudson River and spread over its banks twenty-four miles in each direction, engulfing two counties and totalling at its peak some seven hundred thousand acres. From sixty thousand to a hundred thousand people lived on these lands and paid for the privilege in feudal rents of crops, fowl, and labor for the lord of the manor.

When Stephen in died, the manor of Rensselaerwyck had been in the Van Rensselaer family for over two hundred years. The Dutch West India Company had deliberately planted a feudal aristocracy in America as one of its schemes to draw more settlers to its sparsely settled colony, New Netherland. More colonists meant more profits, the company reasoned, and Dutch settlers would help discourage a land grab by neighboring English colonies.


The feudal system the company directors tried was called patroonship: a member of the company who could settle fifty colonists within four years was granted a large tract in New Netherland over which he ruled as patroon, wielding the powers and privileges of a feudal baron. The patroon held all civil and military authority and administered justice both for the pettiest offenses and for crimes punishable by death. The colonists were his subjects and vassals.

Among the company directors was Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, an Amsterdam pearl and diamond merchant who in 1630 acquired the patroonship where the two rivers meet from four Indian chiefs—not for gems but for a basketful of baubles.

Kiliaen Van Rensselaer was an absent but attentive landlord. He never saw his kingdom on the Hudson but kept his managers on a taut leash. “I am far from my property,” he wrote, “and must therefore pay close attention so as to prevent losses.” Van Rensselaer made sure the patroonship was generously supplied with horses, cattle, tools, and skilled hands but kept the bookkeeping to himself. As he wrote to the director of New Netherland, “I would not like to have my people get too wise and figure out their master’s profit.”

The English seized-New Netherland in 1664, but the Van Rensselaer patroonship survived intact. Rensselaerwyck was by then the only patroonship still existing. The two others— Pavonia , “land of the peacocks,” in New Jersey, and Swaanendael , “valley of the swans,” in Delaware—had already failed.

On taking power the English governor simply renewed the Van Rensselaer grant and restyled the patroonship as the “manor” and the patroon as “lord of the manor.” The English then proceeded to hand out huge land tracts themselves. In the latter years of the seventeenth century English colonial governors granted manors and land patents to families whose names reverberate through NewYork’s history and dot the state’s geography—Livingston, Fell, Philipse, Morris, Schuyler, and Van Cortlandt among them.

The Revolution was sixty-odd years past, and still the farmers of upstate New York were treated like serfs—until they decided to fight the Establishment

Livingston Manor occupied a hundred-and-sixty-thousand-acre chunk of New York running from the Hudson River to Massachusetts. Van Cortlandt Manor covered some two hundred square miles of what is today choice Westchester County real estate. The vast Hardenbergh patent sprawled over 1,500,000 acres of the Catskill Mountains and surrounding lowlands. Johannis Hardenbergh and his partners had received the grant from the corrupt and exotic governor, Lord Cornbury, whose custom it was to take a daily stroll dressed in silk gowns like a fashionable lady. Cornbury did this, his friends said, to demonstrate his resemblance to his cousin, Queen Anne.

As Governor William Tryon, who ruled New York in the 1770’s, later explained English colonial philosophy, it was “good policy to lodge large tracts of land in the hands of gentlemen of weight and consideration.” This aristocracy cemented its grip on the life of the colony, and later the state, through an elaborate filigree of intermarriage. Stephen Van Rensselaer n, for example, sixth lord of the manor of Rensselaerwyck, married Catherine, daughter of Philip Livingston, signer of the Declaration of Independence, Stephen Van Cortlandt, mayor of New York City, married the sister of Peter Schuyler, mayor of Albany. The Schuylers were, in turn, related to the Van Rensselaer, the Van Cortlandt, and the Livineston families.