Monday, February 29, 2016

The Schuyler Sisters


Seen from a certain angle, the Schuyler girls were fairy tale princesses. They had white wigs, French dresses and a daddy who owned most of upstate New York. They had other identities, too, as frontier girls, occasionally in peril because their father’s kingdom really was land which had once belonged to the first people who'd come here. This backstory is a familiar feature of the early days of America, how plantations--that obscuring euphemism--took root, their aim to "tame"  (harvest) all they could get from a bountiful "wilderness.” 

That's not the foreground of my stories. The girls are. They drew my  interest particularly because I'm deprived--an only child. I've had to research the experience of siblings. As I read about the life that these girls lived, I realized that Margaret, Elizabeth and Angelica literally grew up together. Dutch ladies they were, but you could almost call them "Irish triplets", these same sex sibs born bam-bam-bam in 1756, 1757, and 1758. How could they not be emotionally entwined?

Back to the fairy tale idea. As it happened, these Schuyler girls each grew up and each one married a handsome prince.

Margaret was the youngest and the last to be married. She chose a life in the old-time Hudson Valley Dutch style, which, by that time, was already passing away. She married a van Rensselaer—her cousin, a boy she’d known all her life, whose family owned "the other half of upstate."  Land was the basis for her husband's wealth, though this, i8n the next generation would prove impossible to keep.  It was a safe and well-nigh predictable marriage--even though her father was, as usual, incensed because it began with an elopement--so romantic it was almost de rigueur for any spirited 18th century lady of fashion.
 Margaret Schuyler van Rensselaer

Elizabeth, the middle sister, married a wanderer, a fortune-seeker, a self-taught knight in shining armor who sometimes, like Sir Lancelot, went completely mad. Her life overflowed with drama, and she was nowhere near as materially comfortable or secure as the other two sisters, but she always knew who she was: her husband's "Queen Bess." She bore eight children and raised every one in a time where this wasn't a given. She lived almost until the Civil War, still standing by her man and his reputation fifty years after death had parted them.

 Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton "Betsy"
Angelica was, by all accounts, "the fairest of them all." She picked for herself a dashing lord of the material world, a buccaneer with a credible alias as an English gentleman. Her daring husband knew how to conduct a lady out an upstairs window and down a ladder in the middle of the night, away to a forbidden marriage. After the romance was over, he became a businessman with the stamina to write insurance all day and gamble all night. With his position and money, he took Angelica to London, and to Paris where her wit and beauty enchanted royals as well as the brilliant and the notorious.

Angelica Schuyler Church
Of these ladies, I’d imagine that only Betsy would ever have stood before a blackened, cavernous fireplace with a stick of wood or a ladle in hand, directing the business of her kitchen. The complex odors of a wood fire, which seem to us moderns like camping, would have filled the room and saturated clothing. Mrs. Hamilton wouldn't have worn her good dresses down in the cookshop, barely even for a visit. A certain amount of greasy smoke would have been everywhere, necessitating a spring cleaning that ended with a white washing. There was little of the new stove technology in her world, except, perhaps, in the better city homes she shared with her husband in Philadelphia and New York.


Like the English great houses, these early American “mansions” would not have been in a rush to modernize. The best they could do was to create a wing to house a kitchen, often a one story addition to the back of the house. In the cities, the kitchen would be down stairs--way downstairs!

There were plenty of hands—labor both slave and free—and plenty of fuel, for the menfolk are busy chopping down the great northeastern boreal forest, consuming it for building and energy, for shipping and industry. She might not have dirtied her hands scrubbing the floors, but she’d know how it should be done, and she wouldn’t hesitate to explain it to you while you worked on your knees before her. She wasn’t retiring, although she probably wasn’t taller than five feet. Nothing shy about this lady within the confines of her home; she was a Leo and a Schuyler, too, after all.

The Grange, NY, NY
Alexander Hamilton's final home
Upon which he spent entirely too much money.

Theirs is a delightful family/historical story, three women living through such a profound transition. I only wonder that it hasn't been retold more. It's been an honor and a delight to attempt to try.

~~Juliet Waldron