When Albany was on the edge of the frontier...
Catherine van Rensselaer and Philip Schuyler courted during the bloody
early days of the French & Indian war. Not for the last time would the peaceful settlements
of New York's frontier burn! It was, however, the last time American frontiersmen,
colonial gentry, and Mohawks fought together beside the British to defeat a common foe down from Canada--French troops and their Indian allies.
Schuyler played an active role in the militia and at what would come to be known as The Battle of Lake George. Here, after the near-disaster of an early
morning ambush upon Americans, British, and their Mohawk allies, the tide--in northern New York --turned. In the course of a day’s hard fighting, their combined forces eventually gained a victory.
Abenaki and Caughnawaga warriors, allied to the French, had come to fight against their Mohawk cousins and against the British. Baron Dieskau, the French
commander, remarked after being informed of how many men had come to oppose him, that “there
were only so many more to kill.” Later, he would have to say of his foes:
“They fought in
the morning like good boys, at noon like men, and in the afternoon like devils.”
Young Captain Philip Schuyler, who spoke French, would be
the man entrusted to provide safe escort for the wounded French commanders to Albany, away from
the vengeance of the Mohawks, whose great war chief, Hendrick Theyanoguin, had
been killed during the initial part of the engagement. As
William Johnson explained to the injured Dieskau: “They want to kill and eat you, and put you in their
pipes and smoke you.”
Benjamin West's painting of William Johnson saving the wounded Baron from the tomahawk
Nine days later, in the midst of Albanian rejoicing for their victory and grieving
for their dead, Philip was married, on September 17, 1755, to “Sweet Kitty V. R.,”
also called, for her beauty, “the Morning Star.” Their first child,
Angelica, was born on February 22, 1756—a mere six months later. Their second
child, Elizabeth, who would marry Alexander Hamilton, was born on August 9th
1757 – or the 7th, sources differ, also in the small Albany house shared
with the Schuyler grandparents.
gabled house made of brick from Holland,” it stood a half mile from the Albany
stockade, now the intersection of State and Pearl Streets. In those days the place was
a common grazing ground, referred to as “the pastures.” A third
daughter, Peggy, arrived in September 24, 1758, and the family of five now lived in a few small rooms. Three babies in three years must have kept Catherine busy.
Our French & Indian War--The Seven Year's War to the Europeans--involved every nation on the continent, except the Ottoman Turks. In North America, that conflict had begun to wind down. Philip Schuyler, wanting to settle his accounts with the British army--he'd been a quartermaster, among his other duties--sailed to England to present his case. It was at this time that the building of the Schuyler's grand new home would begin, overseen by the energetic Catherine, for a brief time on a childbearing vacation.
At last it was deemed sufficiently safe to build outside of Albany's city limits, so work on what is today called the "Schuyler Mansion" got underway, as well as the construction of a large farmhouse on family property north and east of Saratoga. As the sea lanes cleared of warships, furniture and window treatments, bed curtains and rugs of both linoleum and fine wool made their way from Europe, traveling up the Hudson.
Catherine & Philip's bedroom
Without a doubt, the three little girls' had memories of building sites and workmen--as well as their mother doing paperwork and consulting with overseers as she tended to Philip's northern plantation. Skill at balancing the books would come in handy for Elizabeth during her own adult life when her husband Hamilton was too busy with nation-building and politicking to pay close attention to his own affairs.
While in England, Philip Schuyler became fascinated by the many busy canals he observed. When he returned home, he often entertained the local farmers by demonstrating how "water could be made to run uphill." He was an early proponent of the first great engineering--and wealth-creation--project of the next century--the Erie Canal. It was at this time too that he paid passage for skilled laborers to come settle on his lands. One of the first flax mills in the America would be built under Schuyler's fore-sighted direction.
His wife returned to woman's business, first producing a set of short-lived (no doubt premature) twins. Ten other deliveries, including a set of triplets, would follow. The three older girls, now moved into their new home, would grow up with some small sibling continually toddling after them.
Catherine's last child, (also "Catherine,") would be born in 1781, shortly after her eldest, party-girl Angelica--with, of course, the help of her husband, John Barker Church--had already twice made her a grandmother. George and Martha Washington came on a winter visit at the tail end of the Revolution to stand as Catherine's godparents.
Daughter #2, Elizabeth, herself not far behind in the generational baby race, gave birth to her and Hamilton's first child, their beloved, ill-fated son Philip, at the Albany house early in January of 1782.
Schuyler Mansion today
I'm skipping back and forth, I know, but I'd like to end with this story. When, in 1777, during the American Revolution, General Burgoyne attacked Albany, coming down the ancient warpath, Catherine, with a few servants, made a dangerous journey in the face of an invading army to burn the wheat at their Saratoga Farm to keep it from the hungry invaders. This tale is said to be only "a tradition," but, knowing the capable, no-nonsense Mrs. Schuyler, I think I'll chose to believe it.
An 1852 re-imagining of Catherine's brave deed by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze
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A Master Passion