A Tour of New Netherland

Albany

A portrait of Stephen van Rensselaer III, the last patroon of Rensselaerswijck

Rensselaerswijck


In 1631, seven years after Fort Orange was founded on the shores of the North River, one of the principal investors in the West India Company, a Dutch diamond merchant named Killiaen van Rensselaer, bought a sizable tract of land around the fort from the Mahicans who had long lived there, and proceeded to establish a "patroonship," or private farming community, which he named Rensselaerswijck. The West India Company, frustrated as to how best to populate its colony, had recently opened it up to private entrepreneurs, with the condition that in exchange for a piece of land each entrepreneur had to ship fifty colonists to it within four years. Of several such attempts, Van Rensselaer's was the only patroonship that was even marginally successful-indeed, it lasted into the nineteenth century, passing down through generations of the Van Rensselaer family.

Kiliaen Van Rensselaer never visited America, but he devoted a considerable portion of his attention and energy to his domain, which he fully intended to see turn a profit. It never did in his lifetime-he died in 1643, at the age of sixty-three-but it grew, with a steady stream of farmers and tradesmen coming from Europe.

The patroon's idea had been that Fort Orange and Rensselaerswijck would be mutually supporting: the fort would provide protection, and the patroonship would supply the fort with goods. But these two Dutch interests, almost literally on top of one another, eventually came into conflict. Two strong-willed men appeared on the scene at about the same time: Petrus Stuyvesant, director-general of New Netherland and thus the man in charge of Fort Orange, and Brant van Slichtenhorst, the director of Rensselaerswijck. Van Slichtenhorst took his position seriously, and refused to acknowledge Stuyvesant as his superior. He began almost at once to expand the patroon's already vast holdings. In 1649, he bought two adjoining tracts, which became the historically vital regions of Catskill and Claverack. He also made it a point of honor to defend the patroon's turf. It infuriated Stuyvesant when Van Slichtenhorst forbade Company workers from cutting wood or quarrying stone on the patroon's lands. A very personal struggle now escalated over power and jurisdiction. Van Slichtenhorst began building settlers' houses near the fort; Stuyvesant, claiming the "freedom of the fort" demanded a security perimeter, forbade all construction within a cannon-shot of the fort. Van Slichtenhorst ignored the order, and laid out plans for a community most of which fell well within the 3,000-foot perimeter that Stuyvesant had stipulated. Stuyvesant threw Van Slichtenhorst in prison for his insolence; Van Slichtenhorst escaped, and recommenced the building of his community. Stuyvesant ordered more soldiers to Fort Orange-making it ironic that the regarrisoning of the fort happened not as a result of Indian attacks or the English threat but because of the brewing confrontation with another Dutch entity.

Stuyvesant could not tolerate the existence of a growing, bustling community within the shadow of the fort and in defiance of his orders. Events came to a head when Van Slichtenhorst clashed violently with the commissary of Fort Orange. Company soldiers attacked Van Slichtenhorst's son; when Van Slichtenhorst vowed to retaliate, the guns of Fort Orange were trained on Van Slichtenhorst's house. In New Amsterdam, Petrus Stuyvesant boarded a Company ship and sailed northward to deal once and for all with the matter.

To learn how Stuyvesant resolved the conflict, go to Beverwijck.

  • An article on the patroonship of Rensselaerswijck by Charles Gehring, director of the New Netherland Project.

  • The Crailo State Historic Site in Rensselaer, New York, is a museum of New York's Dutch history, located on what was once Rensselaerswijck.



About the New Netherland Institute

For a quarter century NNI has helped cast light on America's Dutch roots. In 2010, it partnered with the New York State Office of Cultural Education to establish the New Netherland Research Center, with matching funds from the State of the Netherlands. NNI is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Contributions are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law. More

The New Netherland Research Center

Housed in the New York State Library, the NNRC offers students, educators, scholars and researchers a vast collection of early documents and reference works on America's Dutch era. Directed by Dr. Charles Gehring. More

 

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