Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Hudson River Maritime Museum's 2018 issue of the Pilot Log.
A remarkable family of African American river men participated in the transition from working sail to steam during America’s Industrial Revolution. Sometimes referred to as the Black Schuylers, the family began with one or more sloops early in the nineteenth century and seized the opportunity to acquire steamboats early in the 1840s. The Schuyler Steam Tow Boat Line figured prominently in the operation of steam tows on the Hudson River and by 1888 reportedly employed eighteen boats in Albany in the towing of canal boats on the river. The family acquired real estate in Albany’s south end between Pearl Street and the river, traded grain and coal, issued stock, and invested in railroading. Their wealth placed them in Albany’s elite business and charitable circles and their esteemed status led to their burial in Albany’s prestigious Albany Rural Cemetery alongside Albany’s other business and political leaders. That so little is known of this family and its accomplishments may be more a reflection of their race than of their accomplishments. The family’s identity as Black, while not a barrier to their early success in business, may have played a discriminatory role in their lack of prominence in the historical record. Ironically, the lighter skin of later generations may also have played a role in their lack of visibility in more recent Black History scholarship. While incomplete, it is hoped that this account may spur further research into the life and contributions of this Hudson River family.
Until the second half of the nineteenth century, Albany’s commerce and financial opportunities were almost entirely dependent upon the city’s position at the head of ship navigation on the Hudson River. The river served as New York’s “Main Street” well into the nineteenth century and Albany was strategically situated near the confluence of the upper Hudson River and the Mohawk River. Although Albany received larger ships, much of the freight and passengers coming in or out of Albany before the 1807 advent of steamboats was carried by single and double-masted sloops and schooners of 100 tons capacity or less. These sailing vessels continued to carry freight into the fourth quarter of the nineteenth century, even as steamboats soon attracted much of the passenger business. Captain Samuel Schuyler, the progenitor of the Black Schuylers, began and sustained his career with these boats and raised his sons Thomas and Samuel on them.
Albany grew rapidly in the 1820s and 1830s as a direct result of the surge in freight handling brought about by the much heralded completion of the Champlain and Erie canals in 1823 and 1825 respectively. Both canals terminated in Albany. Freight moving east and south from Canada, Vermont, the Great Lakes region and the interior of New York was shipped on narrow, animal-towed canalboats with limited capacity. 15,000 such boats were unloaded at Albany in 1831. These cargoes needed to be stockpiled and transferred to larger sloops and schooners for trip to New York City and other Hudson River towns. Over time, steamboats became more efficient and reliable, especially after Livingston-Fulton monopoly on steamboats in New York was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1824.
One innovation with implications for canal freight was steam towing which presented an economical alternative to “breaking-bulk,” the laborious process of unloading and transferring cargoes at canal terminals. Steam-powered sidewheel towboats appear to have been introduced on the Hudson River in the 1840s and could tow long strings of loaded canalboats directly to their destinations without unloading. Captain Schuyler’s sons capitalized on this concept and transitioned from carrying freight on sloops to towing rafts of canalboats and other craft behind powerful steamboats. They were at the right place at the right time and had the experience and extensive business connections to make the most of this innovation.
Captain Samuel Schuyler (1781-1841 or 1842) was one of Albany’s first African American businessmen. His origins in Albany are obscure but his surname suggests that he was enslaved by the Dutch-American Schuylers who were among Albany’s wealthiest and politically most prominent families. Philip Schuyler (1733-1804), known for his role in the American Revolution and early advocacy for canals, held slaves in Albany and at his other properties. Slavery was practiced extensively in Albany County until gradually abandoned in the early nineteenth century.
Albany County manumission records report that a slave named Sam purchased his freedom in 1804 for $200 from Derek Schuyler. It is possible, but by no means certain, that Sam is the same man later referred to as Captain Samuel Schuyler. The fact that Samuel married in 1805 so soon after this date lends further credence to this possibility.
Samuel Schuyler is described as a “Blackman” in the Albany tax roll of 1809 and a “skipper” and free person of color in the Albany directory of 1813. He was involved in the Hudson River sloop trade and owned property in the area of the waterfront which appears to have included docks and warehouses at the river and a home on South Pearl Street. He married “a mulatto woman” named Mary Martin or Morton (1780-1847 or 1848) and had eight or more children with her including Richard (1806-1835), Thomas (1811-1866) and Samuel (1813-1894). Richard was baptized in Albany’s Dutch church on North Pearl Street. Captain Schuyler came to own a flour and feed store as well as a coal yard at or near the waterfront. His sons joined the business which was known as Samuel Schuyler & Company in the 1830s.
The elder Captain Schuyler died in 1841 or 1842. After his burial, or perhaps after their mother’s burial in 1848, the younger Schuylers erected an imposing monument in the new Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands, established in 1844. The monument is a tapered, four-sided column resting on a plinth. It is significant that the column is engraved with a realistic bas relief anchor commemorating his sailing career and the three chain links denoting the fraternal organization Odd Fellows to which he apparently belonged. An inscription notes that the monument is dedicated to “OUR PARENTS.” That Schuyler and his family were accepted in a prominent location in the cemetery in spite of their African-American heritage is noteworthy because at the time the Albany Rural Cemetery had a separate section designated for African-American burials.
The younger Samuel Schuyler (1813-1894) and his brother Thomas (1811-1866) both began their careers in the sloop trade. Thomas began his career as a cabin boy in his father’s sloop and progressed in skill and responsibility. Samuel attended the old Beverwyck School in Albany and began his apprenticeship aboard the sloop Sarah Jane at age 12. He became the master of the sloop Favorite and later the Rip Van Winkle. He then purchased the Rip Van Winkle and together with his brother Thomas bought the sloops Anna Marie and Favorite. Samuel Schuyler married Margaret M. Bradford (1816-1881) and Thomas Schuyler married Ellen Bradford (1820-1900). The brothers appear to have bought their first steamboats, including the Belle, in 1845. The towboat enterprise was operating in the 1840s as the Schuyler Towboat Line and may have been incorporated in 1852. In that year the Schuylers financed and built the America, the powerful and iconic flagship of their fleet. Samuel became the company’s president and Thomas became the firm’s treasurer. Both men were active in Albany business and charitable circles serving as officers of bank, stock and insurance companies, trade organizations and charitable endeavors. Their business interests extended beyond towing as evidenced by a $10,000 investment in the West Shore Railroad built along the Hudson’s west shore through Newburgh, Kingston, Catskill and Albany.
Schuyler’s towboat business clearly prospered. In 1848, Samuel bought a relatively new but modest brick house at the corner of Trinity Place and Ashgrove Place in Albany’s South End and greatly enlarged it. Among other changes, he added an imposing round and bracketed cupola at the roof, making the house one of the largest and most stylish in the neighborhood. The house still stands. Thomas appears to have been a driving force in financing and building a new Methodist-Episcopal church nearby at Trinity Place and Westerlo St. in 1863. The Albany Hospital and the Groesbeckville Mission also benefitted from his philanthropy. Thomas died in 1866 and was buried alongside his father beneath a Gothic-style tombstone. His brother Samuel published a tribute to his brother which memorialized his many contributions to the Albany community.
An 1873 stock certificate indicates that the Schuyler’s company was at that time doing business as Schuyler’s Steam Tow Boat Line. The certificate proudly includes an engraving of the America and indicates that D.L. Babcock served as
president, Thomas W. Olcott as secretary and Samuel Schuyler as treasurer. Thomas W. Olcott, a wealthy White banker prominent in Albany society was known to be sympathetic to African Americans, most notably having an elderly Black servant buried in the Olcott family plot in the Albany Rural Cemetery.
By 1886, Howell & Tenney’s encyclopedic History of the County of Albany has little to say about Schuyler other than a perfunctory sentence that he “now employs eighteen boats, used exclusively for towing canal-boats.” Other Albany businessmen and industrialists are profiled at considerable length, but aside from a brief sentence about Schuyler and his very large business, nothing further is mentioned. Is it possible that his African American heritage, despite being half “mullato” from his mother, had now become a negative consideration in his social standing in the community?
Samuel Schuyler sold his large 1857 towboat Syracuse to the Cornell Steamboat Company in Kingston in 1893. He died in 1894 and was buried in Albany Rural Cemetery some distance away from his parents in a new but equally popular area of the cemetery. His burial plot is located near the “Cypress Fountain” where other prominent New Yorkers including the Cornings and U.S. President Chester Arthur are buried. Close at hand is the imposing monument dedicated to Revolutionary War Major General Philip Schuyler. Samuel’s ponderous granite monument is designed in the popular Victorian style of the day and is a proportional expression of the family’s wealth. Samuel and Margaret’s children and possibly his grandchildren are buried alongside of him.
There are many unanswered questions about the Schuylers and their careers on the Hudson River and conflicting accounts that need resolution. It is hoped that this brief account may lead to new research that could shed light on this family, its social and business contributions and the ever evolving issues surrounding race in eighteenth and early nineteenth century New York.
Samuel Schuyler Jr's granite stone monument in section 32 of the Albany cemetery. His monument is near that of the Erastus Corning family (steamboats and railroads) and near the mid-nineteenth century monument erected to Rev War Major General Philip Schuyler. It is in what was one of the premiere areas of the cemetery in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Stefan Bielinski, The Colonial Albany Social History Project; The People of Colonial Albany, website hosted by the New York State Museum, exhibitions.nysm.nysed.gov
Howell & Tenney, History of the County of Albany, W.W. Munsell & Co., New York 1886.
Abbott, Reverend W. Penn, Life and Character of Capt. Thomas Schuyler, Charles Van Benthuysen & Sons, Albany, 1867.
Albany County Hall of Records, Manumission Register.
Tashae Smith is a former Education Coordinator of the Hudson River Maritime Museum. She has a BA in History from Manhattanville College and is attending the Cooperstown Graduate Program for her MA in museum studies.
Editor's Note: The following text is a verbatim transcription of an article written by George W. Murdock, for the Kingston (NY) Daily Freeman newspaper in the 1930s. Murdock, a veteran marine engineer, wrote a regular column. Articles transcribed by HRMM volunteer Adam Kaplan. For more of Murdock's articles, see the "Steamboat Biographies" category at right.
No. 150- American Eagle
One of the earlier steamboats to ply the waters of the Hudson River, the “American Eagle” made her appearance in 1831 and soon became a popular vessel along the banks of the lower section of the river and around New York harbor.
A complete record of the “American Eagle” cannot be found, and thus the only data concerning the vessel’s construction places the date at 1831 and the location as Hoboken, New Jersey. Who her builder was or what her dimensions were, has been lost in the pages of time, but she was built for service on the New York and Harlem route to carry commuters between the two communities.
The “American Eagle” was what is now known as the “older type side-wheel steamboat,” powered with the old type cross-head engine. This same type of engine was the predecessor of the more famous walking-beam engine, and the famous old “Norwich” plied up and down the river for many years with a cross-head engine furnishing power for her churning paddle-wheels. It is believed that the “Norwich” was the last steamboat in operation with the old cross-head engine.
Carrying freight and passengers out of New York, the “American Eagle” was in service on various routes for a number of years. In 1843 she was placed on a route between New York and Cold Spring Harbor, leaving the foot of Fulton Street, East River, every afternoon and proceeding to a Harlem dock where she made a landing and was met by horsecars which conveyed her passengers to Fordham where stages ran to immediate points twice daily.
Leaving Harlem, the “American Eagle” pushed her way to New Rochelle, a community which was popular at that period as a summer resort for the well-to-do people of New York City.
Ladies were often seen meeting the steamboat with fashionable rigs- either to transport the “head of the house” to his summer estate or to convey visitors who came up from the city for a stay in the country.
From New Rochelle the “American Eagle” would proceed to Glen Cove and Cold Spring Harbor- its terminus, and would then return to New York City. The vessel continued on this route until 1848 when she was sold.
On May 18, 1849, the steamboat “Empire,” while on her way up the Hudson River to Troy, collided with the schooner “Noah Brown” in Newburgh Bay and had to be beached near Fishkill, with a loss of 24 lives. The steamboat “Hendrik Hudson” replaced the “Empire”, and then the “American Eagle” came on the route until the damaged vessel could be returned to service.
The records next show the “American Eagle” on the route from New York to Low Point and New Hamburgh in opposition to the “William Young”- a vessel which was constructed at Cornelius Carmen’s Shipyard at Low Point for Benjamin Carpenter. This latter vessel was launched on July 17, 1830, and was completed in September of that year. The “American Eagle” remained on this opposition route for a short while and was then placed in service on the Peekskill-New York route as a freight and passenger carrier. Sundays found the “American Eagle” in use as an excursion vessel.
Later in her history the “American Eagle” was running from Manhattanville to New York as a “market boat,” and from that time on records of the steamboat “American Eagle” have vanished- and what finally happened to the vessel is unknown.
George W. Murdock, (b. 1853-d. 1940) was a veteran marine engineer who served on the steamboats "Utica", "Sunnyside", "City of Troy", and "Mary Powell". He also helped dismantle engines in scrapped steamboats in the winter months and later in his career worked as an engineer at the brickyards in Port Ewen. In 1883 he moved to Brooklyn, NY and operated several private yachts. He ended his career working in power houses in the outer boroughs of New York City. His mother Catherine Murdock was the keeper of the Rondout Lighthouse for 50 years.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Hudson River Maritime Museum's 2017 issue of the Pilot Log.
The economic, military and social history of New York is inextricably linked to the role of its abundant waterways and deep harbors. The pervasive influence of shipping and naval defense in the development of the state over four centuries of Euro-American history is rarely recognized. Historians have investigated some of its highlights, such as the pioneering efforts of Fulton and Livingston in the development of steam propulsion, New York’s role in the development of scheduled packets, and the state’s contributions to the clipper ship, but far less is known about the workaday ships, boats and barges that built and sustained the economy and security of New Yorkers well into the twentieth century. Even less is known about the highly skilled individuals who made their lives building and operating these craft or the communities of sailors and mariners that they formed. Underwater archaeology is a relatively new avenue of inquiry that can offer new and important insights into this history.
New York State’s extensive waterborne navigation and trade inevitably led to accidents and sinkings. The state’s numerous waterways, and cold fresh waters have in many instances preserved these ships, their cargoes, and their people. It is estimated that there may be 10,000 shipwrecks in New York. At least 300 have been observed through remote sensing in the Hudson River alone. The State’s bottomlands represent one of the greatest maritime museums in North America. As such, this extensive collection of shipwrecks and all they contain must be managed and interpreted for the benefit of all.
While not as immediately accessible as our brick and mortar museums, wreck sites offer direct and unbiased evidence of the past, including both familiar and unfamiliar episodes. Documented shipwrecks and submerged battlefields have provided dramatic insights into New York’s role in the French and Indian War, the naval defense of the Hudson River and Lake Champlain during the Revolutionary War, and the Battle of Plattsburgh Bay during the War of 1812. As expected, well-preserved canal boats have been found in deep water in the Finger Lakes and Lake Champlain and larger carriers under steam and sail have been documented in the approaches to New York harbor and in lakes Erie and Ontario. The physical and archaeological integrity of New York’s shipwrecks comes as a surprise to many. In the cold deep waters of the Great Lakes, sailing ships are often physically complete with masts still erect, as if someone placed a plastic ship model in an aquarium. Some contain human remains and the personal effects of those who perished. Canal boats in the Finger Lakes have been seen with window glass in the cabins and household items scattered inside. In the Hudson River, sunken sloops are sometimes protected by deep accumulations of sediment and still contain undelivered freight such as a deck load of brick or a hold full of intact earthenware -- virtual time capsules of life and industry in the nineteenth century.
Unexpected wreck sites have also appeared. Often, these challenge our understanding of the past. In recent years, our underwater museum revealed the presence of a fantastic, multi-faceted French and Indian War gun battery fitted with gunports and propelled by sweeps; forensic minute-by-minute evidence of evolving ship formations during the Battle of Valcour Island in 1776; alternatives to the pivoted centerboard in commercial sloops and schooners; sailing canal boats with hinged masts for transit through canal, river and lake; and cargoes of commodities and manufactured goods reflecting the evolving economy of the Empire State. Imagine the insights to be learned when, in the future, we discover the wreck of a seventeenth-century sloop engaged in trade between New York, Albany and perhaps the West Indies?
All museums face challenges in keeping the lights on, caring for and preventing the loss of collections, establishing appropriate climate control and finding new educational approaches to engage with ever-changing audiences. New York’s underwater museum is no different. There is little public money available to help. The artifacts in this museum are constantly under threat of theft and vandalism, and there is no hope of meeting museum climate control standards. Perhaps the biggest challenge is indifference. For all but few, shipwrecks are truly ‘out of sight, out of mind’. As a consequence, state and federal agencies have been slow to address the much needed management and protection of these resources. Progress in this area is further complicated by the fact that no single New York State agency is responsible for managing archaeological properties on the state’s bottomlands. A series of state agencies have tangential jurisdictions and policies related to shipwrecks and underwater lands, but without unified leadership, new and more effective policies and approaches are unlikely to emerge.
The underwater museum is also beset by a long list of myths and misconceptions spread by fiction writers, treasure hunters and hucksters. The actual laws relating to shipwrecks and cultural resources are virtually unknown. Many falsely believe that shipwrecks are primarily important for the gold they may have and that the principle of “finders-keepers” is valid, allowing divers to take whatever they want from historic wreck sites. Some believe that newly discovered wreck sites may be “arrested” by salvors for private enrichment, setting the stage for negotiations with the state over what may be taken and what may be given back to the state. In New York State, disturbing historic shipwrecks for anything other than permitted archaeological investigation is prohibited. Unfortunately, the theft of archaeological materials is difficult to investigate and rarely a priority for law enforcement. In addition, many fail to appreciate that most materials submerged underwater for long periods of time cannot survive removal from the water without laboratory treatment. Many ‘would-be collectors’ have discovered this the hard way when their prized wooden souvenirs turn to dust and are lost forever.
Those wishing to visit the underwater museum may inadvertently damage its collections through carelessness. Unlike brick and mortar museums which provide staff and are able to greet visitors as they enter and leave, our underwater lands are unstaffed and unable to ask patrons to refrain from handling the exhibits or maintaining buoyancy control. Over time, divers can damage fragile wrecks by anchoring boats to wrecks, climbing onto and into wrecks, and handling or snagging fragile elements such as rails, tillers, wheels and small parts. The practice of dragging an anchor until it snags a wreck is particularly damaging. Eventually, it destroys the wreck. An especially well-preserved canal boat in Seneca Lake was ruined some years ago when a dive boat anchor pulled her fragile cabin off and left it upside down in the mud. Dive preserves with independently anchored mooring buoys effectively prevent this kind of damage and must be expanded throughout the state.
History has stirred the imagination of others who would remove entire wrecks and place them on land for exhibit. In all but a handful of attempts, these projects have underestimated the long-term cost of recovering and conserving a shipwreck, and overestimated the public funding and gate receipts available to finance these projects. This is a recipe for defeat and destruction. Failed recoveries in New York State in the early twentieth-century included a French and Indian War sloop in Lake George, the Revolutionary War gunboat Duke of Cumberland and the armed Revolutionary War schooner Royal Savage. The poster child for all that can go wrong with such projects is the Great Lakes schooner Alvin Clark in Michigan. The intact 1847 schooner was raised by enthusiastic amateurs in 1969 and after being pumped out actually floated on her own keel. Full of determination but with little appreciation of the costs involved and no realistic plan for conserving the ship or financing the operation, the project quickly soured, ruining the schooner and the project’s chief promoter. The sinking, rotting and collapsing schooner was dragged onto land where she was bulldozed only 25 years later. Successful recoveries are rare. They require a publically compelling ship, a science-based plan for long-term conservation, and a sober budget with realistic sources of continuing revenue. The Swedish warship Vasa, Henry VIII’s flagship Mary Rose, the Confederate submarine Hunley and the turret from the U.S. ironclad Monitor are among the very few success stories to date.
Environmental conditions present challenges as well. While in-situ preservation, the equivalent of “do no harm” in medicine, is often the best available option for most wreck sites, chemical degradation including oxidation, biological agents including mussels and worms and natural forces including erosion and moving debris all play a role in the gradual deterioration of shipwrecks. These forces are greatly lessened in deep, cold fresh water, but are still present. The advent of invasive species such as zebra mussels represents a new and growing threat. Mussels rapidly colonize wrecks, hasten the degradation of iron fasteners and add considerable weight to fragile structures.
Historic wreck sites may also be damaged through dredging, the remediation of contaminated bottomland soils, and the construction of pipelines, cable conduits, bridges, marinas and bulkheads. While these undertakings are reviewed and licensed by state and federal agencies, the destruction of archaeological resources typically proceeds if alternatives are found to be impractical. Attempts are made to offset the destruction through recordation and, in some instances, the salvage and conservation of some artifacts.
New York’s rich and extensive collection of historic shipwrecks provides a rare educational opportunity to re-examine the past and to gain fresh insights into how this state evolved into the Empire State.
In order for shipwrecks to become meaningful to the public, they must first become much more accessible. Scuba diving is not for everyone and not all wreck sites are or should be visited by divers due to depth, hazardous conditions or fragility. For divers, historic shipwrecks throughout the state that are safe and interesting should be identified and designated as submerged heritage preserves and equipped with anchored mooring buoys and orientation signage. Submerged heritage preserves support tourism and have positive economic impacts for host communities. Divers and their families spend money on lodgings, restaurants, local retailers and other area attractions in addition to air fills and boat charters. For non-divers and divers alike, wrecks can be made virtually accessible on land through imaginative interpretation. Traditional museum interpretive techniques including photography, graphics, sonar images, conserved artifacts, models and touch screen monitors that encourage topical exploration have an important function. New techniques such as shore-side information and signage, underwater video footage, virtual tours and real-time monitoring should also be explored in order to further enhance these experiences.
Sound museum practice requires shared goals, a well-defined management structure and accountable leadership in order to protect the public’s interest and the future benefits of collections. Incidentally, these are the same elements required in protecting our land and water resources. As codified by the federal Abandoned Shipwrecks Act of 1987, historic shipwrecks are in most instances public resources that must be managed by each state for the educational and recreational benefit of the public. In spite of the efforts of dedicated civil servants, educators, and technical experts over more than three decades, New York State government has yet to create the coherent management structure anticipated by the Act. Until it does so, the state cannot fully tackle the needs of these resources nor fully realize their potential benefits. In the interim, our brick and mortar maritime museums can help by convening interested individuals, supporting surveys, establishing inventories, creating exhibits and engaging the public in the continuing quest to learn, conserve and promote preservation and strong diving ethics. We must also educate our elected representatives and agency officials on the important role they can play in supporting this work through improved management, law enforcement and grants to not-for-profit organizations.
 Chief NYS agencies in this area include the Office of General Services which serves as the state’s landlord over public bottomlands; the State Museum which manages archaeological resources on public lands for the benefit of the People; the Division for Historic Preservation which is charged with identifying, documenting and protecting historic and archaeological properties; the Department of Environmental Conservation which is responsible for historic and archaeological properties within its major parks and environmental protection (including cultural resources) throughout the state; the Department of State which assists communities in waterfront planning and tourism; and the Office of the Attorney General which defends the state’s interests.
 Historic shipwrecks in NYS are protected by Section 233 of NYS Education Law and the federal Abandoned Shipwrecks Act, both of which define historic wreck sites as public property.
 State and Federal agencies are required to consider impacts to historic and archaeological sites before building, funding or licensing projects under the National Historic Preservation Act, the State Historic Preservation Act, and other laws that institutionalize historic preservation.
 Submerged Heritage Preserves have been established in Lake George and Lake Champlain as partnerships between the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and several not-for-profit organizations. The NYS Department of State is attempting to create additional preserves in the Great Lakes, the Finger Lakes and the waters around Long Island. The Hudson River is not considered a safe environment for recreational diving as it is particularly dangerous for divers, with strong current and near-zero visibility. Novice divers should not attempt expeditions in the Hudson River.
Mark Peckham is the First Vice President of the Board of Trustees, Hudson River Maritime Museum. Peckham recently retired from the New York State Historic Preservation Office and has a deep interest in the submerged maritime history of the Hudson River.
Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site has been open to the public since October 17, 1917 and will be celebrating its 100th anniversary this season. The home was built between 1761 and 1765 by Philip Schuyler of Albany who, after serving in the French and Indian War, went on to become one of four Major Generals who served under George Washington during the American Revolution. Prominent for his military career, as a businessman, farmer, and politician, Philip was the main focus of the museum when it opened in 1917. Over the last hundred years, however, the narrative told by historians at the site has expanded to emphasize the roles of Philip’s wife Catharine Van Rensselaer Schuyler, their eight children (five daughters; three sons), and nearly twenty enslaved men, women, and children owned by the Schuylers at their Albany estate.
Since March was Women’s History Month, I am pleased to set aside Philip Schuyler, and instead bring you the history of the women of Schuyler Mansion – Catharine Schuyler and her five daughters Angelica, Elizabeth, Margaret, Cornelia, and Catharine (henceforth Caty to avoid confusion with her mother). Some of those names will sound familiar to fans of the Broadway show Hamilton: An American Musical. The oldest daughters, Angelica, Elizabeth, and Margaret “Peggy” Schuyler, born in 1756, ‘57, and ‘58, feature heavily in the plot because second daughter Elizabeth married Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, in 1780.
It is largely through Elizabeth’s efforts that so much information exists about Alexander Hamilton, Philip Schuyler, and the rest of the family. Women were often the family historians of their time, collecting letters and documents. Elizabeth was particularly tenacious in this role. Unfortunately, since women’s actions were not considered relevant to the historical narrative (and perhaps due to some degree of modesty from the female collectors), sources by and about women were not always preserved. Through careful inspection of the documents that remain, however, we can piece together quite a lot about these six women.
For the Schuylers, documentation started young, with receipts and letters describing the girls’ education. In the period, core literacy was most often taught at churches where basic reading and writing were a means to an end in teaching scripture. This holds true for the Schuylers. In 1764, when Angelica was 8 years old, Philip purchased “cathecism books more for Miss Ann”. Philip additionally paid for lessons in French, dancing, geography, history, writing, and arithmetic. In combination with references to music, ornamental embroidery, and the “women’s work” which the girls most likely learned from Catharine, these lessons constituted every subject deemed appropriate for women by contemporary educational philosopher Benjamin Rush, and more. This family was well educated even amongst their peers.
Catharine’s education, however, remains mysterious as no letters in her handwriting exist. Given her social status, it is unlikely that she was illiterate. However, it is possible that she was literate only in Dutch, as approximately half of Albany still spoke Dutch as their first language. Anne Grant (a contemporary of Catharine’s) described in A. Kenney’s Gansevoorts of Albany:
“In the 1750s girls learned to read the Bible and religious works in Dutch and to speak English more or less, but a girl who could read English was accomplished; only a few learned much writing.”
Knowing women’s childhood education is critical to our understanding of their adult lives. Even today, education molds children to fit the ideals of the culture they live in and therefore shows parents’ aspirations for their children. In the 18th Century, the ideal for women of this social class can be defined by four main roles: wife, mother, household manager, and social manager. By educating his daughters in dance, music and etiquette, Philip Schuyler prepared them for the wealthy social scene where they would meet potential suitors. By having them learn French, they could read philosophies and poetry and other refined subjects that would be impressive to the educated elite that Schuyler hoped those suitors would be. Meanwhile, Catharine taught them the household work that would be required of them once married.
Historically, women have been defined primarily by their spouses. It is a mistake to do so, however, marriage was exceptionally important for women in the 18th-Century. Under English government, women had no political rights and very limited legal, economic, or property rights. An adult woman’s power came from the influence she had over her spouse, and the influence she had over the next generation through the training of her sons. As such, at the start of the 1700s, 93% of women in the Northeast were married. This declined to 78% by century’s end, which likely correlated with a growing population of women, rather than declined need or desire to marry.
While arranged marriages were fading out of style with non-nobility by the mid-18th-Century, wedding arrangements still looked quite different from today. In more liberal households, as the Dutch tended to be, a woman had a fair amount of say in who she was to marry, but only so long as she was marrying from within an appropriate social circle. Parental permission was still required and a suitor who brought in political or property assets was preferred. Romantic love (or attraction - the term “romantic” was not yet used as we think of it today) as a prerequisite for marriage was gaining popularity, but was not considered necessary. Marriage was often treated as an economic pact. If love existed or developed, it was a bonus.
There are two marriages in the Schuyler family that are key to understanding this family’s dynamics - Philip Schuyler’s marriage to Catharine Van Rensselaer in 1755, and eldest daughter Angelica’s marriage to John Barker Church in 1777.
Philip and Catharine’s marriage mostly fit the cultural ideal described above. Both were fourth generation Dutch, meaning that their great-grandparents were the first to come from the Netherlands in the mid- 1600’s. Philip’s family made its fortune in the beaver fur trade and supplemented their income through land speculation and marriage. Meanwhile, Catharine’s family came over as part of the Dutch Patroon system. Akin to a feudal system in some ways, Patroonships gifted land to wealthy Dutch families in order to colonize New Netherland, which later became New York. By the time of Catharine’s birth, her father owned more than one hundred and fifty thousand acres of land throughout the colony. Not only was the couple from the same wealthy elite social circle and approved of by both families, they had a seemingly romantic courtship. In letters before their marriage, Schuyler asked his friend Abraham Ten Broeck to pay his regards to “Sweet Kitty VR” if he should see her.
Philip and Catharine likely expected their children would also marry with wealth, education, and family approval in mind. Angelica’s marriage broke those expectations when, in 1777, she married an elegant young commissar who called himself John Carter. Carter came to the home to settle military accounts with Philip Schuyler. While Carter looked the part of the wealthy, well-educated man, Philip knew nothing of Carter’s family and worried about his connection with Angelica. No one could tell Philip more about “Carter”, because this was an assumed identity. The man was actually John Barker Church, a broker from a prominent family in England. Church fled to the colonies to escape gambling debt, and possibly fallout from a duel.
Either unconcerned with her suitor’s background, or uninformed of it, Angelica married John Barker Church without parental permission. As a result, she was disowned and forced to take up residence with her maternal grandparents in Greenbush. She stayed with them only two weeks before her grandfather coaxed Philip and Catharine to meet with the couple and forgive them. It is unclear if Church revealed his identity to the Schuylers at that time, as the couple continued to be known as the “Carters” until the end of the war.
After this marriage, Philip no longer had the confidence that his children would marry under the ideals of the time, and because he was so quick to forgive Angelica, his children saw this as precedence. At least three more of the eight children eloped.
Second daughter Elizabeth married with permission, but Angelica’s elopement clearly still weighed heavily on Philip’s mind when he responded to Alexander Hamilton’s request for Elizabeth’s hand in February of 1780:
“Mrs. Schuyler[...] consents to comply with your and her daughter’s wishes. You will see the impropriety of taking the dernier pas [fr: last step] where you are. Mrs. Schuyler did not see her eldest daughter married. That gave me also pain, and we wish not to experience it a second time.”
The formal parlor at Schuyler Mansion where Elizabeth Schuyler married Alexander Hamilton on December 14, 1780
Hamilton was far from Schuyler’s ideal. He was an orphan raised in poverty in the Caribbean with no land, money, or family ties. And yet, Schuyler hesitantly said yes. Perhaps it was only Hamilton’s military career under George Washington that earned Philip’s approval. Or, perhaps the question lurked at the back of Philip’s mind: “if I say ‘no’… will they marry anyway?” Philip maintained control over the situation by asking the pair to marry at Schuyler Mansion, forcing them to wait until Hamilton could take military leave. The couple married in the formal parlor of Schuyler Mansion on December 14, 1780.
The next in line was Margaret, nicknamed Peggy. Unlike her sisters, Peggy married close to home in 1783. Stephen Van Rensselaer was a cousin on her mother’s side. The relationship was very near the ideal set forth by their parents. It strengthened the family’s connection with one of the wealthiest Dutch families in Albany. In fact, after inheriting the bulk of the Van Rensselaer estate at 21 years old, including his land holdings - approximately 1/40th of New York State – and accounting for inflation, Stephen ranks 10th on Business Insider’s list of the wealthiest Americans of all time. There are rumors that Peggy and Stephen eloped, but very little evidence to support it. A relative of Stephen’s reacted with surprise that Stephen, then 19, married so young, especially since his bride was 25, but there was no surprise or outrage from either parents. There was no question that this was a powerful match.
The next Schuyler daughter, Cornelia, was 17 years younger than Peggy, but despite the age gap, the influence of Angelica’s marriage still held power. Cornelia eloped in 1797 with Washington Morton, an attorney from New York who appears to have attempted to gain parental permission but, in his own words:
"Her mother and myself had a difference which extended to the father and I had got my wife in opposition to them both. She leapt from a Two Story Window into my arms and abandoning every thing [sic] for me gave the most convincing proof of what a husband most Desire [sic] to Know that his wife Loves him."
This description is hyperbole, since Cornelia more likely snuck out a door than leapt out a window. It is possible that Angelica gave her young sister advice or even direct aid with her elopement. Angelica had recently returned from Europe and Morton wrote that they were married by the same Judge Sedgwick who had married Angelica to John Barker Church. Philip forgave Cornelia quite quickly, but never really found a place in his heart Morton, who became Schuyler’s least favorite in-law. Philip wrote to his son of Morton:
Washington Morton fit the economic expectations of the Schuylers, but his irreverent sense of humor & flippant behavior diminished his worthiness in Philip’s eyes.
"his conduct, whilst here has been as usual, most preposterous. Seldom an evening at home, and seldom even at dinner - I have not thought it prudent to say the least word to him[...]as advice on such an irregular character is thrown away."
Young Caty did better in Schuyler’s estimation, but her marriage was also an elopement. She married attorney Samuel Bayard Malcolm not long after her mother’s death in March of 1803. However, given descriptions of the big reveal, it is likely that the couple has already married, but Catharine’s death prevented Caty from being able to tell her father. Schuyler accepted Malcolm soon after, so when Schuyler died the next year, Caty would have had a clean conscience.
Unfortunately, Malcolm died in 1817. So as not to remain a powerless widow, Caty remarried in 1822 to James Cochran, a prominent attorney and politician who was the son of Washington’s personal physician. Cochran was also her first cousin. Marrying a cousin was seen as a safe match, particularly for widows and widowers, as it consolidated wealth amongst family and one could trust that one’s children would be accepted since the new spouse was kin.
The Schuyler women had birthing rates similar to the averages for their time period. Margaret and Cornelia Schuyler died young (42, and 32 respectively). Caty's reflect two marriages, as her first husband died while she was still of child-birthing age.
For women, a marriage contract provided necessary economic stability. Spending too long outside of the contract resulted in a lack of security for oneself and one’s family. By marrying well, men could also gain economic ground and benefit from the production of heirs. A woman could have a lot of influence on the early education of these heirs since she was the main caretaker until a child was old enough to go outside the home. For women, childrearing was an all-consuming part of their life after marriage. On average, women in the mid to late 18th century gave birth once every other year from her marriage until death or menopause, whichever came first. Infant mortality rates were high, with approximately half of children dying before reaching the age of 3. Even with this mortality rate, birthrates still averaged eight surviving children per mother! Towards the end of the century, women began having fewer births with slightly lower infant mortality rates – averaging 6 surviving children per mother.
Catharine Schuyler fit these averages. According to the family bible, Catharine gave birth to fifteen children. Eight survived to adulthood. Her last child came when she was 47 years old. In other ways, Catharine was unusual - among the seven children who didn’t survive infancy, there was one set of twins and one set of triplets. Multiple births were rare, and the fact that Catharine survived those dangerous births was a testament to her health.
As one can imagine this pattern was both physically and emotionally devastating for women. The majority of their lives were spent being pregnant, recovering from pregnancy, and taking care of young children, many of whom did not survive. Throughout this cycle, the Schuyler women were also managing the household and the social affairs of the family. Catharine thrived as a manager and Philip seemed to put a great deal of trust in her logistic abilities. She made purchases for the home, received orders, and was responsible for decisions concerning the estate in Schuyler’s absence. Aided by Schuyler’s military mentor John Bradstreet, she also acted as overseer for the initial construction of Schuyler Mansion while her husband was on business in England.
Schuyler Mansion once had 125 total acres with 80 acres of farmland and a series of back working buildings. Catharine was often placed in charge of the property in Schuyler's absence and managed the slaves who worked in the household.
While attending to business, political, and military affairs, men were not home to prepare for or entertain high caliber guests whose support was often needed to maintain said business, political and military affairs. It fell on Catharine and the girls to foster a social atmosphere for their home. They threw parties, called on other households, and were ready to receive unexpected visitors at any time – including, for instance, the more than twenty military visitors sent to the home when Burgoyne was taken “prisoner guest” after his surrender to General Gates at the Battle of Saratoga.
Catharine also acted as an overseer for the unsung women of Schuyler Mansion – the enslaved servants. The head servant Prince, the enslaved women including Sylvia, Bess and Mary, and the children like Sylvia’s children Tom, Tally-ho, and Hanover, who helped serve within the home, all reported directly to Catharine. These women did the majority of labor within the home – cooking, cleaning, mending, laundry, acting as nannies when the girls travelled, and perhaps even producing the materials used for these tasks – like rendering soap and dipping candles. All this was done while raising their own families. Sources on the enslaved women of the Schuyler household are even sparser, of course, but we tell the stories we have and hope that we will someday know more.
Documents do not always allow us to tell the full range of stories we would like to tell. Thankfully, the Schuyler women were accomplished. Though they did not always fit the ideals of their society perfectly, they made themselves a prominent part of it. They married well, managed their family’s social connections and households, and very importantly, raised children who valued history and valued preserving their family’s legacy. While there are many questions that we at Schuyler Mansion still wish to answer about these women, we are fortunate to have the sources to interpret their lives, not just during Women’s History Month, but year round. To get more stories about these women, visit Schuyler Mansion’s blog or visit Facebook for information on our upcoming “Women of Schuyler Mansion” focus tour.
Danielle Funiciello has been a historic interpreter at Schuyler Mansion since 2012. She earned her MA in Public History from the University at Albany in 2013 and has been accepted into the PhD Program in History for Fall 2017. She will be writing her dissertation on Angelica Schuyler Church.
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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