Feudal Lords On Yankee Soil


The male Van Cortlandt line is extinct. The Verplancks, who owned the land where Moses Earle farmed and Osman Steele died, have perished, too. But across the Hudson River another branch of the Verplanck family still owns land purchased from the Wappingers Indians and other tribes in 1683.

The intertwined lineage of these families is still evident today in the names of men like Cortlandt Van Rensselaer Schuyler, West Pointer, four-star general, one-time NATO chief of staff, and long a key figure in the administration of former Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller.

As for the heirs of Stephen Van Rensselaer III , the nominal fifteenth lord of the manor is a New Hampshire antiques dealer, Charles Augustus Van Rensselaer II , manorless in all but the honorific. Mr. Van Rensselaer concludes, “It wasn’t right for one family to hold land forever, anyway.” Next in line as honorary lord of the manor is his son, Charles in, a Florida society columnist who wrote for a time for the old New York Journal American under the by-line “Cholly Knickerbocker.”

As for the magnificent manor house of Rensselaerwyck, events crowded in on it. By the latter part of the nineteenth century the grounds near the manor house had become a lumberyard. The New York Central Railroad passed perilously close by, creating the dreadful prospect that the Van Rensselaers might have wound up on the wrong side of the tracks. In 1893 the proud old place was torn down and shipped, stone by stone, to Massachusetts, where it was partly reassembled and served for seventy years as a fraternity house at Williams College. The house had an imminent date with the wrecker when some history-minded private citizens from Albany County moved to its rescue. The building was again dismantled and this time brought home. The remaining bones of the Van Rensselaer manor house are now scattered in several Albany storage sites until an appropriate place is found to resurrect this monument to an age now vanished.