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Van Rensselaer, Maria Van Cortlandtlocked

(20 July 1645–24 January 1689)
  • Geoffrey Gneuhs

Van Rensselaer, Maria Van Cortlandt (20 July 1645–24 January 1689), director of the patroonship of Rensselaerswyck, was born in New Amsterdam (now New York City), the daughter of Oloff Stevensz van Cortlant (Van Cortlandt), a merchant and official, and Anneken Loockermans. Her father, who was one of the wealthiest men in New Amsterdam, served as a city official under both the Dutch and English regimes. Little is known about Maria’s early life. In 1662 she married Jeremias Van Rensselaer, whose father, Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, had founded Rensselaerswyck (Rensselaerswijck), a semifeudal estate near present-day Albany, New York. Van Rensselaer and her husband, who had come to America as director of the patroonship, had six children. Lame after the birth of her last child, she had to use crutches and suffered other infirmities throughout her life. Authorized by the Dutch West India Company as one of several patroonships to promote settlement in New Netherland, Rensselaerswyck was the only one to succeed; the others all reverted to the Dutch West India Company. By the late 1660s it included one million acres, extending from the Mohawk River south along the Hudson River to near present-day Coeymans, New York, and east and west of the Hudson, encompassing all of modern Rensselaer and Albany counties. It had about forty houses and 200 inhabitants.

In 1664 the English conquered New Amsterdam. Under the articles of surrender, the property rights of the colonists of New Netherland were guaranteed; nevertheless, the duke of York ordered the newly appointed governor, Richard Nicolls, to confiscate all property that was owned by persons in Holland, in which category the Rensselaerswyck estate belonged. Nicolls, however, never followed through with the confiscation. In 1673 the Dutch briefly regained possession of the colony, during which time Jeremias Van Rensselaer petitioned the Dutch authorities to continue his family’s rights to the estate. This was granted for one year with the stipulation that a formal renewal be obtained from the states general of the Netherlands. But before such a renewal was received, New Netherland once again reverted to the British by the treaty of Westminster (1674). Under the treaty, the colony was restored to the duke of York and placed under the governorship of Edmund Andros.

In July 1674 Jeremias Van Rensselaer petitioned the duke of York to have Andros confirm the Van Rensselaer family’s title to the estate and grant them the patent. But Jeremias died in October 1674 and thus the petition was held in abeyance. As there were no adult family members in the colony—her children were not yet of age—Maria Van Rensselaer assumed administration of the vast estate with the help of her brother Stephanus Van Cortlandt. In November 1674 her brother-in-law Nicholas Van Rensselaer came from Holland to America and, because of his friendship with Andros, was appointed minister of a Dutch church in Albany, whereupon he took over management of Rensselaerswyck. The following year he petitioned Andros to have himself appointed director of the estate. Maria, with the support of her brother, opposed Nicholas’s proposition, claiming there was no authority for such an appointment. But the Van Rensselaer family in Holland ignored her wishes, and in April 1676 a court in Albany provisionally appointed Nicholas director, with Maria treasurer and her brother bookkeeper. Her annual compensation was to be 150 bushels of wheat, which she shared with her brother. Finally, in June 1678 the duke of York finally instructed Governor Andros to grant the Van Rensselaer family a patent for the estate, but for some unexplained reason Andros never took action.

In November 1678 Nicholas Van Rensselaer died, leaving Maria once again to administer Rensselaerswyck. Officially her brother was director, but as he resided in New York City, she effectively managed the estate, with its many gristmills and sawmills. However, the estate had incurred significant amounts of debt, and a claim to it was made by Robert Livingston on the basis of his marriage to the widow of Nicholas Van Rensselaer. To adequately provide for her six children in the midst of these challenges, she sent her three eldest children to New York City; there her eldest son Kiliaen van Rensselaer became apprenticed to a New York silversmith, while the other two children lived with Maria’s parents. During this time Van Rensselaer kept up a steady correspondence with her brother Stephanus Van Cortlandt and her brother-in-law Richard Van Rensselaer—the latter had lived briefly in America but returned to Holland to look after the family’s interests there—and she continued prodigiously to press for clear title of the estate.

In 1683 Colonel Thomas Dongan became governor of New York, and Maria and the Van Rensselaer family submitted to him the warrant they had received from the duke of York five years earlier and requested that he grant the patent that would include the town of Albany, which in 1652 had been taken out of the estate by Peter Stuyvesant, director general of New Netherland. Two years later, after the Van Rensselaers dropped their claim to Albany, Governor Dongan granted a patent for Rensselaerswyck to two men named Kiliaen van Rensselaer—the son of Johannes Van Rensselaer (deceased) and Maria Van Rensselaer’s son, the representatives of the Dutch and American branches of the family, respectively. Rensselaerswyck was erected into an English manor with Johannes’s son Kiliaen as its first lord. Shortly thereafter Maria Van Rensselaer’s daughter Anna married her cousin, the first lord; however, he died in 1687 without issue, thus making Anna’s brother Kiliaen lord of the manor. Maria’s son became the fourth patroon of Rensselaerswyck, which had been founded by his grandfather.

Maria Van Rensselaer died in Albany the following year, having succeeded in securing the inheritance and property rights of her eldest son and seeing her other children well married to other prominent families of early colonial America, including the Van Cortlandts and the Schuylers. Her correspondence, although dealing mainly with the administration of her huge estate and legal matters concerning title to it, nevertheless gives a picture of daily life in seventeenth-century America.


A published collection of Van Rensselaer’s writings are in Correspondence of Maria Van Rensselaer, 1669–1689, ed. Arnold J. F. Van Laer (1935); an earlier volume, Correspondence of Jeremias Van Rensselaer (1932), contains her husband’s writings. For a discussion of her life and the history of Rensselaerswyck, see Samuel G. Nissenson, The Patroon’s Domain (1937), and for the dispute between her and Robert Livingston, see Lawrence H. Leder, Robert Livingston, 1654–1728, and the Politics of Colonial N.Y. (1961). A good history of the period is Oliver A. Rink, Holland on the Hudson: An Economic and Social History of Dutch New York (1986).