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Rensselaerwyck and the Anti-Rent Wars


This sketch focuses on Rensselaerswyck in its Albany context. It is NOT a comprehensive history of the patroonship. One wishes that it could do for the manor what the Colonial Albany Social History Project has done for the city of Albany. Alas, it cannot!

Rensselaerswyck: The Colonial Albany Project has adopted this spelling as the most frequently used and most easily accessible form of the word. For convenience, we consider the landed entity described here to be interchangeable with the place also known as "Van Rensselaer's Manor" or "the Patroonship."

Detail of a map made by Claude Joseph Sauthier on order of New York Governor William Tryon. It was engraved and printed in London by William Faden and wasdated 1776. Print copy in the Graphics Archive of the Colonial Albany Project. A larger view of this map shows the manor more within the context of greater Albany County.

For further information about the sketch



Taking into account numerous spelling and variations of address, the term "Rensselaerswyck" identifies the large tract of land first granted to Killiaen Van Rensselaer in 1629. Although its exact boundaries defied definition, it included all the land that surrounded the city of Albany. In fact, Beverwyck and then Albany encompassed land (a one-by-sixteen mile tract at its largest) that had been carved out of the manor - very much against the wishes of the Van Rensselaers.

In an article called "A Brief History of Rensselaer County" by Henry Zwack, Mr. Zwack says, "In 1629, Kilean Van Rensselaer established the feudal manor of Rensselaerwyck. The portion in Rensselaer County was 24 miles long and ran along the Hudson River to include what is now known as Schodack, Nassau, North and East Greenbush, Sand Lake, Grafton, Brunswick, Petersburg, Berlin, Stephentown, Troy and Rensselaer. Fort Crailo, located in the City of Rensselaer, was the early Manor house, and is the site where "Yankee Doodle" was composed."

Killian Van Rensselaer established a plantation or "patroonship" in the upper Hudson Valley as an efficient way to cultivate the land and mine the wilderness for farm and forest products that could be exported to Europe and sold. Before his death in 1643, the "first patroon" engaged hundreds of talented and willing settlers from across Europe and sent them to Rensselaerswyck to be his tenants. These American pioneers were primarily farmers but also were artisans, tradesmen, and others who could support what became the most successful settlement initiative of the New Netherland era.

Most of Van Rensselaer's tenants settled within a few miles of Fort Orange. Some of these tenants did practice agriculture and husbandry as specified in the terms of their contracts. But, in general, any effort to make the plantation profitable for the patroon was compromised by the widespread interest in trading for furs - initially an irresistable avenue to riches for many living in the region.

On Killian Van Rensselaer's death in 1643, management of the American estate passed to through two generations of his descendants to Killian Van Rensselaer. In 1704 "the Lower Manor" (Greenbush and Claverack) was detached and placed under the direction of Killian's brother, Hendrick Van Rensselaer - a one-time Albany city father. This partition made the northern part of the estate (Rensselaerswyck) even more important to the history of the city of Albany.

In 1685, royal governor Thomas Dongan had issued a patent for the "Manor of Rensselaerswyck" - establishing the patroonship as a legal entity, describing its borders, and defining the special rights of its proprietor. The patent also specifically excluded ". . .fforrt Albany and the Towne Albany" from the manor - setting the stage for Dongan's granting of the Albany city charter in July 1686.

In 1704, the Van Rensselaers partitioned the manor into two parts with the "lower manor" called Claverack going to Albany trader Hendrick Van Rensselaer who built Crailo and, in 1740, passed the estate on to his son.

Although a part of Albany County, from 1691 to 1775 Rensselaerswyck sent its own representative to the provincial Assembly. After the War for Independence, that seat was enveloped in Albany County. Watervliet was made a separate district in 1788 and Bethlehem was made a town in 1793. The manor on the east side of the Hudson became part of newly created Rensselaer County in 1791.

On the death of his father in 1747, Stephen Van Rensselaer II became patroon at age 5. During his short tenure, he expanded the tenant base and made a number of improvements on the property. On his death in 1769, the estate passed to his son, five-year-old Stephen III, and was administered by kinsman Abraham Ten Broeck until the young patroon came of age in 1784. By that time, the manor was the most populated entity within Albany County.

The manor ceased to exist following the death of Stephen Van Rensselaer III in 1839. However, the Van Rensselaer family continued to live at the Manor House, the focal point of manor activity, for many years.

Technically, everyone living within the boundaries of the Manor was a Van Rensselaer tenant. However, there seemed to be many exceptions as a number of large farms including Schuyler Flats may have paid no rentals. The first tenants were engaged by proprietor Killian Van Rensselaer and sent to America. Those pioneer New Netherland Dutch came from across Europe and have been profiled in The Van Rensselaer Bowier Manuscripts. They constituted a major population source for the city of Albany. The manor grew slowly over the next century as subsequent patroons attracted new tenants from those already in America.

The number of leases increased dramatically after the end of the Seven Years War as Stephen II and his successor, administrator and Van Rensselaer son-in-law Abraham Ten Broeck, became much more active in utilizing the potential of the land. New tenants of the third quarter of the eighteenth century primarily were recently arrived Europeans (many of German background) and some New Englanders. After 1784, Stephen III continued to engage tenants with many of the surviving leases dating from his tenure. These tenants included some Europeans and old Albany people. But they were primarily young Yankees who had spread west out of New England!

The earliest surviving census of the Manor was made in 1697. A list of freeholders provides eighty-one names of men in the "colony" of Rensselaerwsyck in 1720 and likewise in 1742.

"Stephen Van Renselaer III, for whom Stephentown is named, was the last patroon of Rensselaerwyck, one of the great leasehold manors, established by the Dutch in 1629. He was born in New York City on November 1, 1764.

Shortly after the Revolutionary War, Stephen Van Rensselaer III advertised "free" tracts of land of 160 acres to anyone who would develop the land. (After seven years farmers had to pay an annual rent of four fat fowls, 18 bushels of wheat and a day’s service. The rents were perpetual and binding on subsequent purchasers of the land and the patroon reserved mineral and water rights. These "incomplete sales" led to the Anti-Rent Rebellion 1839-1889, which influenced the wording of the Federal Homestead Act of 1862 and opened up the west to settlement.)

Many war veterans took advantage of Van Rensselaer’s offer, coming mostly from Massachusetts, Connecticut and eastern Long Island by boat up the Hudson River.

The first settlers were farmers. Soon mills were established along waterways to grind grain, provide lumber, and process wool for clothing. Abundant water power and dense hemlock forests in the area made milling and leather tanning important industries. General stores, inns, creameries, blacksmith shops and other support businesses naturally followed.

Throughout the first half of the 1800’s the town grew and prospered. Then the forest resources began to dwindle, and rail and water transportation for goods bypassed the area. Industry moved closer to less expensive means of transportation. Further, as forests were cut, the land lost its ability to retain rainfall, causing a severe drop in the watershed. One by one, the water-dependent mills went out of business. Little economic activity remained in the once-bustling hamlets. As others left our rocky hills for better opportunities in the newly opened west, a few hardy farmers stayed on.

Stephen Van Rensselaer III died at the Manor House of Rensselaerwyck in Albany on January 26, 1839. He is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery.

His death in 1839 and the stipulation in his will calling for the payment of all back rents started the Anti-Rent Wars."The Anti-Rent War (also known as the Helderberg War) was a tenants' revolt in upstate New York during the early 19th century, beginning with the death of Stephen Van Rensselaer III in 1839.

Stephen, who has been described as "[having] ... proved a lenient and benevolent landowner" was the patroon of the region at the time, and was a direct descendant of Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, the first patroon of Rensselaerwyck. The patroons owned all the land on which the tenants in the Hudson Valley lived, and used feudal leases to maintain control of the region.

Before the Revolutionary War, the patroons acted as feudal lords, with the right to make laws. The Anti-Rent War led to the creation of the Antirenter Party which had a strong influence on New York State politics from 1846 to 1851.

The first mass meeting of tenant farmers leading to the Anti-Rent War was held in Berne, New York on July 4th, 1839. In January, 1845 one hundred and fifty delegates from eleven counties assembled in St. Paul's Lutheran Church], Berne to call for political action to redress their grievances.

The Anti-Rent Wars lasted for more that 40 years, until the state legistature abolished the perpetual leasehold system.


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"Yankee Doodle" and the Van Rensselaer Manor"

Tradition and other more official sources have it that the American version of the song was written, at least in part, by a Dr. Richard Schackburg, a British army surgeon during the French and Indian Wars while at the home of the Van Rensselaer family. Schackburg's lyrics were said to be composed to make fun of the colonials who fought alongside the British troops.

"Mr. Johnsing's Chowder: March Song" from musical production Yankee Doodle Dandy . Hugh Morton (words) and Gustave Kerker (music), 1898.
Music Division, Library of Congress.There are many theories regarding the origins of the words "Yankee" and "Doodle." One theory suggests that "Yankee" (or "Yankey") was derived from "Nankey," which can be found in an unpleasant jingle about Oliver Cromwell. Another possibility holds that the Indians corrupted the pronunciation of "English," resulting in "Yengees." By the mid-1700s it certainly referred to America's English colonists.

"Doodle," as found in old English dictionaries, meant a sorry, trifling fellow; a fool or simpleton. "Dandy," on the other hand, survived also as a description of a gentleman of affected manners, dress, and hairstyle. All taken, "Yankee Doodle" is a comic song and a parody. Indeed, the British made fun of rag-tag American militiamen by playing "Yankee Doodle" even as they headed toward the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

Of humble origin and perhaps questionable in matters of lyrical "taste," "Yankee Doodle" has survived as one of America's most upbeat and humorous national airs. In the fife and drum state of Connecticut, it is the official state song. George M. Cohan revived the tune in his "Yankee Doodle Boy" (also known as "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy") of 1904. It should surprise no one that John Philip Sousa was immensely fond of this work. He employed it in many of his arrangements and patriotic fantasies. He even used it as a counter-melody in his march "America First."