Dutch Woman of New York
Wife of General Philip Schuyler
Catharine Van Rensselaer was born in 1734, the only daughter of John Van Rensselaer, who was called Patroon (landholder) of Greenbush, and was noted for his hospitality, and for his kindness toward the tenants of his vast estates. Catherine was the great-great-granddaughter of Killian Van Rensselaer, the original founder of the Dutch colony, named Rensselaerswyck, in the Albany region of eastern New York.
Philip Schuyler was born in Albany on November 11, 1733, into an old aristocratic Dutch family, one of the colony’s largest landholders. He received an excellent education. After commanding a company of New York militia in the French and Indian War, he managed the large estate left him by his father in the Mohawk and Hudson River valleys.
Catherine Van Rensselaer was well educated, and grew into a young “lady of great beauty, shape, and gentility.” She was a frequent visitor to the Van Rensselaer homes in Albany and down the valley at New York City, where she was introduced to the sons of New York’s most important families.
Catherine had known Philip Schuyler for several years before their wedding in September 1755, at the Albany Dutch Church, after which she moved to Albany and into the life of its most prominent native son. Although the marriage was urgent – their first daughter Angelica was born in February, 1756 – they were a devoted couple for the rest of their lives, and had fifteen children. At that time, Philip was an officer in the provincial army.
This marriage linked two of New York’s great landholding families, already joined by a number of intermarriages. Handsome, popular, and socially well connected, the young couple had little money, although Schuyler had been given a large tract of land in Saratoga by an uncle. The bride and bridegroom made their first home in his mother’s North Pearl Street house, where two of their children were born.
It is apparent that Catherine’s life was devoted to the care of her children. Little remains in her handwriting to tell her thoughts or give a glimpse of her daily life, but it must have been a busy one. Others have written of her industrious and thrifty supervision of a large and important household, her kindness to the needy, and her courage in times of peril. Eleven children were born to the couple, six girls and five boys, of whom eight lived to reach maturity.
In 1761, the Schuylers had completed arrangements to build a new home a short distance south of Albany, but Philip had to go to England to settle accounts from his work as quartermaster. While he was gone, Catherine supervised the building operations at what would become known as the Schuyler Mansion.
The Schuyler Mansion
This Georgian mansion was built on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River on an eighty-acre tract of land. The house was 63 feet wide by 48 feet deep of rose-red brick, a building material much used in Dutch New York, with double-hip roof enclosed by a wooden railing. The balustrade, the outside shutters, and other exterior trim were white. The grounds included an orchard, a formal garden, and a working farm. A country estate at Saratoga, on land given to them by Philip’s uncle, was also begun.
By the end of 1762, Catherine’s family included four children, and they had moved from Albany’s busiest location to the mansion on a hill overlooking the city. This would be Catherine Schuyler’s lifelong home. For the next forty years, she would be the grand dame of Albany’s most regal location where dignitaries such as George Washington were frequent visitors.
Throughout the Schuyler family occupancy from 1762-1804, the mansion was the site of military strategizing, political hobnobbing, elegant social affairs, and an active family life.
Philip returned from England and expanded their estate at Saratoga, increasing his holdings to tens of thousands of acres, adding slaves, tenant farmers, a store, and mills for flour, flax and lumber. His flax mill, for the making of linen, was the first one in America. If they had been situated in the South, Schuyler’s holdings at Saratoga would have been called a plantation.
Philip built several schooners on the Hudson River, to carry lumber and foodstuffs down to New York, and named the first Saratoga. An industrial center sprang up on his land; a smithy was built; wool and flax were grown and manufactured into cloth. The years passed, and the Schuylers grew wealthier.
At the same time, Philip Schuyler began his political career as a member of the New York Assembly in 1768, and served in that body until 1775. He went to the Second Continental Congress in May 1775 as delegate from New York. In June 1775, shortly after the Revolution began, Congress appointed Philip a major general, one of four who served under George Washington.
Because Philip’s business, military, and political careers often took him away from his growing family, Catherine and her children were frequent guests at her in-laws’ estate at the Flats. Reaching her fortieth birthday in 1774, she gave birth to three more children before 1781. Despite the stress occasioned by the War for Independence, the Schuylers spent time at both their Albany and Saratoga estates.
In 1777, General Burgoyne and his British troops attempted to make their way down the Hudson Valley, but met a great deal of resistance from the Americans who were creating road blocks, destroying provisions, and doing anything necessary to make Burgoyne’s trip difficult.
Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler is most famous for her bravery in burning her crops to prevent British troops from acquiring the food resources they could provide. She bravely traveled to their Saratoga estate to burn the wheat fields, and to request that their tenants do the same in order to prevent the British from harvesting them.
Image: Mrs. Schuyler Firing Her Wheat Fields
Emanuel Leuzte, Artist
Philip Schuyler resigned from the army in 1779, then served in two more sessions of the Continental Congress in 1779 and 1780.
In December of 1780, daughter Elizabeth’s marriage to General Washington’s brilliant young aide, Alexander Hamilton, at Schuyler Mansion gave Philip a son-in-law with whom he was to have a close personal and political relationship throughout the rest of his life. Hamilton lived at the Schuyler Mansion for months at a time, and wrote some of his important papers there.
Philip was a member of the New York State Senate from 1780 to 1784, and at the same time New York State Surveyor General from 1781 to 1784. He returned to the State Senate from 1786 to 1790, where he actively supported the adoption of the United States Constitution.
On the evening of July 29, 1788, when word reached Albany that the convention at Poughkeepsie had ratified the new Constitution – in whose creation Philip had played a leading role with his son-in-law, Alexander Hamilton – candles blazed in celebration from every window of the Schuyler home.
Philip was elected a United States Senator to the First United States Congress, serving from 1789 to 1791. Losing his bid for reelection, he returned to the State Senate from 1792 to 1797. He was elected again to the U.S. Senate and served until his resignation because of health problems on January 3, 1798.
Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler died in March 1803, at age sixty-nine.
In July 1804, when word of Alexander Hamilton’s death after his duel with Aaron Burr reached the elderly and ailing Philip Schuyler at Albany, it was a hard blow. Elizabeth lived for 50 years after the death of her husband.
Philip John Schuyler died in Albany on November 18, 1804.