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Van Rensselaer, Maria Van Cortlandt (1645–c. 1688)

Colonial American administrator of the Dutch patroonship of Rensselaerswyck. Born Maria Van Cortlandt on July 20, 1645, in New Amsterdam (later New York City); died on January 24, 1688 or 1699, in Albany, New York; daughter of Oloffe Stevense Van Cortlandt (a merchant and city official) and Anna (Loockermans) Van Cortlandt; married Jeremias Van Rensselaer (first patroon, or proprietor, of Rensselaer-swyck), on July 12, 1662 (died 1674); children: Kiliaen, Anna, Hendrick, Maria, Johannes, Jeremias.

Maria Van Cortlandt Van Rensselaer was born in 1645 into a wealthy family of New Amsterdam, the Dutch colonial settlement that later became New York City. The third of seven children of one of the city's wealthiest citizens, she married Jeremias Van Rensselaer, a son of another wealthy family, in 1662. Jeremias directed his family's large estate, Rensselaerswyck, near Albany, New York. When he died in 1674, the couple's four sons and two daughters were too young to administer the 24-square-mile property, so Maria took over, assisted by her brother, Stephanus Van Cortlandt.

Van Rensselaer soon proved that she was skilled in business and management. Colonial turmoil, however, led to difficulties with her gaining clear title to the property after the English conquest of the area in 1664, the Dutch reconquest in 1673, and the final English reconquest in 1674. In November 1685, she finally won clear title to the estate, but during this time she also dealt with a 1675 challenge from her husband's younger brother Nicholas, who arrived from the Netherlands, claiming that he, not Van Rensselaer, should be director. Eventually, he became director, Van Rensselaer became treasurer, and her brother Stephanus became bookkeeper.

In 1678, when Nicholas died and Stephanus was living far away in New York City, the work of running the estate again fell squarely on Van Rensselaer, who faced increasing debts. Although she had never regained her strength after the birth of her last child, she continued to run the estate and to fight the claims of others that they should receive a share of the property. In addition, she found homes and trades for most of her children, who had not been provided for in her husband's will. By the time she died at age 42 or 43, she had successfully secured title to the estate—the richest land patent in the colony—for her children.

sources:

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Kelly Winters , freelance writer

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