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van Rensselaer, Maria van Cortlandt

van Rensselaer, Maria van Cortlandt

July 20, 1645

New Amsterdam (later New York City)

January 24, 1689

Albany, New York

Overseer of Rensselaerswyck

"This lady was polite, quite well informed, and of good life and disposition."

Dutch travel writer Jasper Dankaerts.

Maria van Cortlandt van Rensselaer was an upper-class housewife who lived in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (which later became New York after being taken over by the English). When her husband died she became the overseer (manager or supervisor) of his family's estate to protect her children's inheritance. Van Rensselaer was raised in the tradition of seventeenth-century women in the Netherlands, who were considered the most independent in Europe. This independence was the result of being educated and trained to manage household accounts so they were able to take over the family business if they were ever widowed. Dutch women in the New World (a European term for North America and South America) were also expected to protect the family's wealth so that their children would have an inheritance. Maria van Cortlandt van Rensselaer fulfilled these expectations. Thus she was able to keep secure for her children one of the largest estates in New York.

Marries into prominent family

Maria van Cortlandt was born on July 20, 1645, the daughter of the wealthy New Amsterdam (later New York City) merchant Oloffe Stevense van Cortlandt and Anna Loockermans. In 1662 she married Jeremias van Rensselaer. When Jeremias proposed to Maria, she was considered too young to marry (she was seventeen). Yet Jeremias felt she was mature enough to manage a household. As he explained in a letter to his mother, "You may think perhaps that she is still a little young and therefore not well able to take care of a household. She is only entering her eighteenth year, but nevertheless we get along very well in the household." He had actually been patient: "I had been thinking of her already a year or two before, when now and then I did an errand at the Manahatans." After they were married, the young couple left for Albany. They settled in the patroon house (home of the Dutch proprietor, or head of the colony), which was the best dwelling at Rensselaerswyck, consisting of two cellars, two rooms, and an attic.

Rensselaerswyck

In 1629 the Dutch West India Company (an enterprise founded to promote colonization in America) realized that in order to attract settlers to the New World, it would need wealthy investors. Among those who came forward was one of the directors of the organization, Kiliaen van Rensselaer. He was awarded a large land grant that formed the basis of Rensselaerswyck, an estate located in the area of present-day Albany, New York (on the Hudson River, about 160 miles north of New York City). Van Rensselaer himself never visited America, but the care of Rensselaerswyck was entrusted to his sons, who made the long journey across the Atlantic Ocean to become managers of the estate. Most important, they guarded title to the land against other speculators (interested buyers). The van Rensselaers lived at the fur-trading post of Fort Orange. In 1654 Jeremias van Rensselaer, the younger son of Kiliaen by a second marriage, settled in America. In 1662 Jeremias married Maria van Cortlandt and took her to live at Rensselaerswyck. They remained on the estate for the rest of their lives.

Widowed with six children

The Dutch placed great importance on family and looked forward to the birth of children. In May 1663 Jeremias wrote to his brother in Holland: "You may perhaps be longing to hear whether we have any baby yet. My answer is no, but that my wife is pregnant and that, please God, she will be in childbirth in two or three months at the longest." Maria gave birth to Kiliaen, named for his grandfather, the following August. When Jeremias died in 1674 Maria was responsible for the care of five children under the age of eleven, and she was pregnant with her sixth child. After giving birth she became lame and had to walk with crutches for the rest of her life.

A visit with Maria van Rensselaer

In 1680 Dutch travel writer Jasper Dankaerts called on Maria van Rensselaer at her estate, Rensselaerswyck, near present-day Albany, New York. Dankaerts gave the following account of their visit:

We went to call upon a certain Madam Rentselaer, widow of the Heer Rentselaer, son of the Heer Rentselaer of the colony named the colony of Rentselaerswyck, comprising twelve miles square from Fort Orange, that is, twenty-four miles square in all. She is still in possession of the place, and still administers it as patroonesse [female patroon, or proprietor], until one Richard van Rentselaer, residing at Amsterdam, shall arrive in the country, whom she expected in the summer, when he would assume the management of it himself. This lady was polite, quite well informed, and of good life and disposition. She had experienced several proofs of the Lord [had religious experiences]. The breaking up of the ice had once carried away her entire mansion, and every thing connected with it, of which place she had made too much account. Also, in some visitations of her husband, death, and others before. In her last child-bed, she became lame or weak in both of her sides, so that she had to walk with two canes or crutches. In all these trials, she had borne herself well, and God left not Himself without witness in her. She treated us kindly, and we ate here exceedingly good pike, perch, and other fish, which now began to come and be caught in great numbers. We had several conversations with her about the truth, and practical religion, mutually satisfactory. We went to look at several of her mills at work, which she had there on an ever-running stream, grist-mills, sawmills, and others. One of the grist-mills can grind 120 schepels [90 bushels] of meal in twenty-four hours, that is, five an hour. Returning to the house, we politely took our leave. Her residence is about a quarter of an hour from Albany up the river. . . .

Reprinted in: Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. Lexington, Mass.: C. C. Heath and Company, 1993, pp. 276–77.

Struggles to save estate

Maria van Rensselaer had to deal with significant business responsibilities and mounting debts. In addition, she had the task of obtaining a land grant that would guarantee family possession of the almost twenty-four square miles of the Rensselaerswyck property. Jeremias's younger brother, Nicholas, tried to take over the estate. Unlike many widows with young children, van Rensselaer did not remarry, so she did not have the help of a husband in fending off Nicholas's claim. When possible she relied on her father and her brother, Stephanus van Cortlandt, who lived in New York City. Eventually they reached a compromise whereby Nicholas was appointed director, van Rensselaer was elected treasurer, and Stephanus served as bookkeeper. When Nicholas died in 1678 his widow married Robert Livingston, a member of a prominent New York family. Livingston immediately tried to force division of Rensselaerswyck among various heirs. He continued his efforts until 1685, when he and the van Rensselaers agreed upon a settlement.

Manages Rensselaerswyck

During this time—in spite of her rapidly declining health—van Rensselaer remained in charge of the day-to-day running of the estate. She oversaw the leasing of farms to tenants. She also bought and sold land, wheat, and cattle, and maintained houses, barns, mills, and fences. In addition, "to keep up the dignity of the colony," she entertained distinguished visitors such as the governor. Her most important responsibility, however, was ensuring a future for her children. Since Jeremias had made no provisions for his family in his will, Maria sent Kiliaen to be apprenticed to (learn a trade from) a New York silversmith. Two of her other children went to New York City to live with her parents. All of the children eventually married well, and Kiliaen became the sole owner of Rensselaerswyck in 1687. When Maria died in 1689, at the age of forty-three, she had succeeded in securing for her children the most valuable estate in the colony. The van Rensselaers became an important family in early New York society.

For further research

The Correspondence of Jeremias Van Rensselaer, 1651–1674. Edited by A. J. F. Van Laer. Albany, N.Y.: University of the State of New York, 1932.

The Correspondence of Maria Van Rensselaer, 1669–1689. Edited by A. J. F. Van Laer. Albany, N.Y.: University of the State of New York, 1935.

James, Edward T., and others, eds. Notable American Women, Volume III. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 510–11.

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. Lexington, Mass.: C. C. Heath and Company, 1993, pp. 276–77.

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