Maria Van Rensselaer became the fifth patroon of Rensselaerswyck upon the death of her husband Jeremias Van Rensselaer in 1674. It was she who must be given credit for keeping the colony, or estate, of Rensselaerswyck together during the difficult early years of the estate. She was the patroon of Rensselaerswyck from 1674 to 1687, and during that time was in charge of running the estate, which at that time consisted of a few small rental farms, and several grain and lumber mills for grinding grain and producing lumber. She was the one who had to make all the operating decisions, not much different from being the operator of a farm operation. Following the 13 years she was in charge of the operations, her oldest son Killean reached the age where he could take over the responsibilities of running the Rensselaerswyck estate.
Maria’s father in law was Killean Van Rensselaer, who was the founder and therefore the first patroon of Rensselaerswyck, but he never visited the estate. He remained safely in the Netherlands, and turned the early management of the operations over to hired managers. Killean Van Rensselaer passed away in the Netherlands in 1644, one year before Maria was born. The second legal patroon was Killean’s son, Johannes Van Rensselaer, who was under age, and as a result served as the patroon from 1644 to 1652, in absentia. Johannes also never had an opportunity to even visit the estate. The estate during that time was managed by professional managers. The third patroon was Johannes’ brother, Jan Baptist van Rensselaer, who became the patroon in 1652, and remained the patroon until 1658, when his younger brother Jeremias Van Rensselaer took over the patroonship. It was Jan Baptist who built the Van Rensselaer Mansion near Albany, New York and furnished it with fine furniture imported from the Netherlands. It was said that the manor house resembled a Holland homestead.
Jeremias Van Rensselaer [1632-1674], the fourth patroon of Rensselaerswyck was the one who married Maria Van Cortlandt on July 12, 1662. Maria was born on July 20, 1645, so on her marriage day Maria was just 8 days short of her 17th birthday. Although that seems very young to get married, during that time period it was not at all unusual for girls to get married during their fourteenth year. Since Jeremias was the patroon of Rensselaerswyck, they had to live near the estate which was located near Albany, New York. Maria was the daughter of Oloff Van Cortlandt [1600-1684] and Annetje Loockermans [?-1689], and had been raised in New Amsterdam. The move to the Albany area was quite a change in environment for the young Maria, because it involved moving from a relatively urban New Amsterdam/New York to the frontier community of Albany, New York.
Jeremias and Maria had six children, four sons and two daughters, during their rather brief marriage of only 12 years. Jeremias passed away on October 12, 1674 while Maria was pregnant with her sixth child. Maria, at the time she became a widow, was only 29 years old. But in addition of having to take care of six young children, she also was responsible for the operation of the Rensselaerswyck estate, which at that time required a lot of hands-on activities. To make matters worse, at the birth of her sixth child, she became afflicted with what appears to be a muscular condition, which made it difficult for her to walk without crutches.
Apparently, during that time a woman could not officially, and/or legally, be a patroon, although Maria would be in charge of the Rensselaerswyck estate for the next13 years. To get around the legal problem, Killean, the son of Johannes Van Rensselaer, the second patroon, was appointed the legal patroon during the time Maria functioned as the actual and acting patroon of the estate. It appears that Killean did not even live in New Netherland at that time, but resided in Holland.
So it is possible that Maria was never legally the patroon of Rensselaerswyck. But in fact it was she who kept the estate going for the next 13 years. Even being physically disabled did not deter Maria from taking over the management of the estate, in addition to maintaining her household and taking care of her large family. Apparently, her parents, in what had become New York City in 1664, helped out by taking in two of the older children. New York City probably also provided better opportunity for education of the children who were then of school age.
During the time her deceased husband, Jeremias, was the patroon of Rensselaerswyck, the ownership of the estate technically and legally belonged to the Van Rensselaer family members, most of whom resided in the Netherlands. So Maria in her position of patroon had to deal with the other Van Rensselaer family members by mail.
Since the estate had been in operation for quite a while, for about 45 years, the Van Rensselaer family members in the Netherlands were looking for dividends. In addition the family in the Netherlands had run into some financial problems, so Maria was requested to find ways to raise money from the Rensselaerswyck estate to help out with the finances of the Van Rensselaer family branch whose members resided in the Netherlands..
But the financial condition of the Rensselaerswyck estate at that time was not sufficiently robust to help out the Dutch family members. So the Dutch family members began to pressure Maria to sell the entire estate, or at least part of it to raise financial resources for them.
Maria had become quite familiar with the Rensselaerswyck estate and had no desire to give it up, or to see it broken up. She had assumed responsibility to run and manage the grist mills, saw mills and other activities on the 24 square mile property. She also had to hire the workers, pay all the bills and deal with the mounting debts the estate had accumulated.
Along the way Maria had been able to obtain clear title to the property. And she wanted to continue the growth of the estate and make provisions for her own family. So as a result during the entire 13 year period Maria was in charge of the estate, she had to fight off attempts by the Dutch family members, in order to keep the estate intact. To her credit she was able to do so.
But to be able to maintain the Rensselaerswyck estate in functional format she had to remain in charge of the day to day operations. She had to oversee the leasing of farms to tenants, the acquisition and disposal of lands, the collection of rents from the tenants which was usually in the from of products or cattle which she then had to dispose of in the market. She was also responsible for the maintenance of the various mills and the buildings on the property. In other words running the estate was a full time and demanding responsibility.
Some people wonder why Maria never remarried. After all she was quite young when she became a widow. The reason can probably be found in the above responsibilities that faced her everyday. Her heavy work load may also have been responsible for her early death. But a year before she passed away, in 1687, her oldest son Killean became old enough to take over the responsibility of the patroonship of Rensselaerswyck. It is interesting to note that Maria’s son, Killian, married a person with the identical name as his mother. Killian’s wife was Maria Van Cortland Van Rensselaer, the daughter of Stephen Van Cortland, who in turn was his mother’s brother. So Killian Van rensselaer and and Maria Van Cortlandt were first cousins.
In 1685, Maria also had achieved an arrangement with the Dutch Van Rensselaers, living in the Netherlands and part owners of the Rensselaerswyck estate, concerning the ownership status of the estate. She was able to have the estate placed entirely in her and her family’s name. What the details of this financial arrangement were is not clear. But when Maria passed away on January 4, 1688, the entire estate had remained in the Van Rensselaer name. It was through her efforts and determination that she was able to achieve independence for the Rensselaer estate which kept the estate intact for her family. She was able to achieve the above through determination and devotion during her 13 year managerial responsibility of the estate.
Maria Van Cortlandt Van Rensselaer passed away on January 4, 1688, at the young age of only 42. It appears that the muscular affliction she had, and probably also the many responsibilities, were the cause of her early death. But then in those early years, the people were constantly threatened by health conditions, and medical care was virtually non-existent during that time period.
Based on the above the young woman, named Maria Van Cortland Van Rensselaer, has already been cited as one of the leading women in the colony of New Netherland. Maria was able to take over responsibility for organizing and maintaining a substantial economic enterprise, which eventually grew to one of the largest agricultural estates in the United States. Because of her accomplishments we have decided to include her in this listing. She definitely deserves to be a member of this community.
Note in the appendix at the end of the bio profile for Kiliaen Van Rensselaer [1595-1644] how the ten Van Rensselaers are related.
Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed., MAJOR PROBLEMS IN AMERICAN COLONIAL HISTORY, Lexington, MA: C. C. Heath and Company, pp. 276-277.
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