Rensselaer, Maria van Cortlandt van (1645-1689)
Maria van Cortlandt van Rensselaer (1645-1689)
Overseer of rensselaerswyck
Dutch Expectations. Women of the Netherlands were considered the freest in Europe. In part, this freedom was the unintended consequence of their being educated and trained to manage the accounts of their households in good times, and the businesses of their husbands if they died. Dutch women in the New World were also expected to know how to keep a family’s wealth together so that when the children were old enough to take over there would be something there for them. Maria van Cortlandt van Rensselaer lived her life in accordance with these expectations and was able to secure for her children one of the largest estates in colonial New York.
Rensselaerswyck. In 1629 the Dutch West India Company realized that in order to attract settlers it would need the private initiative of those wealthy enough to provide funding. Among those who came forward was one of the directors of the company, Kiliaen van Rensselaer. The large land grant the company awarded him formed the basis of Rensselaerswyck, located around what is now Albany, New York, up the Hudson River some 160 miles from New York City. Kiliaen never visited America, but the care of Rensselaerswyck was entrusted to various sons who made the long journey over to become resident managers and, most important, to guard title to the land from other speculators. They lived at the fur-trading outpost of Fort Orange. In 1654 Jeremias van Rensselaer, younger son of Kiliaen by a second marriage, settled in America, and in 1662 he married Maria van Cortlandt. They remained at Rensselaerswyck the rest of their lives.
Marriage. Maria van Cortlandt was born in America in 1645, the daughter of the wealthy New Amsterdam (later New York City) merchant Oloff Stevensen van Cortlandt and Anna Loockermans. She was thought to be too young to marry. As her husband explained in a defensive 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 together very well in the household.” Jeremias 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 Manhatans.” The young couple then left for Albany where they lived in the patroon’s house, the best dwelling in Rensselaerswyck, consisting of two cellars, two rooms, and an attic.
Family. The Dutch placed a high premium 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 childbed in two or three months at the longest.” Maria gave birth to Kiliaen, named for his grandfather, on 24 August; he was baptized two days later. Both godfathers and godmothers were close family, but none of the four lived in Albany so surrogates stood in for them. Life in America often meant separation from loved ones rather than easy access to them. The birth of her son also marked the beginning of illness, lameness, weakness, and pain that Maria van Rensselaer lived with for the rest of her life. For a time one leg was paralyzed, although by the spring she could walk with a crutch. This condition restricted her mobility and kept her from family and friends, as her father was informed in March 1664, “We would have gone to see you by this yacht, but owing to the little improvement in my wife’s walking, this could not take place.” It was not until April 1664, almost nine months after Kiliaen’s birth, that she was “churched,” the ceremony of the first going to church after a birth which symbolized a woman’s return to the community. Maria’s health did not keep the couple from having more children. When Jeremias died in 1674 he left behind five children, the eldest eleven years old, and a pregnant wife.
Businesswoman. The death of Jeremias van Rensselaer left his wife not only a large family but also significant business responsibilities. In 1664 the English had conquered the province from the Dutch, which meant learning a new language and new laws and political customs. The van Rensselaers were faced with the task of procuring a land grant that would guarantee the family possession of the almost twenty-four square miles that was Rensselaerswyck. Others, including heirs of old Kiliaen, the original patroon, also had their eye on this land. Claims were not settled until 1685. Unlike many widows with young children, Maria van Rensselaer did not remarry so did not have the help of a resident male. Instead she relied upon first her father and then her brother, Stephen van Cortlandt, when she could, but they lived in New York City, not Albany. It was up to her to negotiate the day-to-day concerns of the holding by leasing lands to tenants; buying and selling land, wheat, and cattle; and keeping up the houses, barns, mills, and fences. It was her responsibility to entertain distinguished visitors, such as the governor, “to keep up the dignity of the colony.” She was also responsible for the future of her children. Kiliaen was apprenticed to a New York silversmith, and two other children were sent to New York City to live with her parents. Four of her children married well, two to cousins. Through marriages and the childlessness of other van Rensselaer heirs her son Kiliaen eventually became the sole owner of Rensselaerswyck. She lived to see this, dying in 1689 at the age of forty-three.
The Correspondence of Jeremias Van Rensselaer, 1651–1674, edited by A. J. F. Van Laer (Albany: University of the State of New York, 1932);
The Correspondence of Maria Van Rensselaer, 1669–1689, edited by Van Laer (Albany: University of the State of New York, 1935);
Robert G. Wheeler, “The House of Jeremias Van Rensselaer, 1658–1666,” New-York Historical Society, Quarterly, AS (1961): 75–88.