This year is the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Rondout Suspension Bridge (or the Wurts Street Bridge, the Port Ewen Bridge, or the Rondout-Port Ewen Bridge, etc!), which opened to vehicle traffic on November 29, 1921.
The bridge was constructed to replace the Rondout-Port Ewen ferry Riverside, which was affectionately (or not so affectionately) known as "Skillypot," from the Dutch "skillput," meaning "tortise." Spanning such a short distance, the ferry was small, and with the advent of automobiles, only able to carry one vehicle across Rondout Creek at a time, causing long delays. Motorists advocated for the construction of a bridge, which was set to begin in 1917. But when the United States joined the First World War that spring, construction was delayed until 1921.
Staff at the museum had long known that there was a woman welder on the construction crew, but we knew nothing beyond that. Had she learned to weld at a shipbuilding yard during the First World War? Was she a local resident, or someone from far away? There were more questions than answers, until a few weeks ago when HRMM volunteer researcher and contributing scholar George Thompson ran across a newspaper article that he said went "viral" in 1921. Entitled, "Woman Spider," and featured in the Morning Oregonian from Portland, Oregon, the article indicated that "Catherine Nelson, of Jersey City" was our famous woman welder.
Having a name sparked off a flurry of research and the collection of 37 separate newspaper articles, all variations on the same theme. Fourteen articles were all published on the same day, September 3, 1921. But only one had more information than the rest - "Never Dizzy, Says Woman Fly, Though Welding 300 Feet in Air. Mrs. Catherine Nelson Has No Nerves, She Loves Her work and Is Paid $30 a Day," published in the Boston Globe. Which, wonderfully, included a photo of Mrs. Catherine Nelson!
Here is the full article from the Boston Globe:
KINGSTON, NY, Sept 3 – Three hundred feet above the surface of Rondout Creek, a worker in overalls and cap has been moving about surefootedly for several days on the preliminary structure that is to support a suspension bridge across that stream.
Thousands of glances, awed and admiring, have been cast upward at the worker, stepping backward and forward and wielding an instrument that blazed blue and gold flames and welded together the cables from which the bridge will swing.
“Some nerve that fellow’s got!” was a favorite remark, to which would come the reply: “You said it!”
But there’s more than awe and admiration now directed aloft, for it turns out that “that fellow” is a woman – Mrs. Catherine Nelson of Jersey City, the only woman outdoor welder in the world.
Isn’t Afraid of Work
She isn’t afraid of her work; she loves it; and – of course this is a big inducement – she gets $30 a day for it. She has never had an accident in her seven years’ experience at the trade. She’s as strong as a man, weighing 180 pounds to her 5 ft 6 in of height, and is a good looking, altogether feminine, Scandinavian blonde. She’s 31.
"I was born in Denmark and was married there," Mrs Nelson told the reporter. "But my husband died and left me with two small children, so I had to shift for myself.
"For two years I worked as a stewardess on an ocean liner, but I could not have my children with me and my pay wasn’t much, so I cast about for harder and better-paid work, so I could have my own little home.
"My husband was a garage keeper in Denmark, and I had worked with him, so I knew something of machinery. I got a job in a machine shop in this country. They had an electrical welding department there and I soon got a place there. I grew to love the work and I’ve been at it for seven years.
Does Not Get Dizzy
"This is the highest job I’ve been on, but one of my first was on a water tower at Bayonne, 225 feet tall. I’ve been on smokestacks and tanks plenty. No, I don’t get dizzy. I wear overalls and softsoled shoes, and I’m always sure of myself, for I haven’t any nerves.
"I like to pride myself on the fact that I’ve never turned down a single welding job because it might be dangerous.'
Showing Mrs. Nelson’s standing in her trade, it was she who was sent up from Jersey City when Terry & Tench, the bridge contractors, asked the Weehawken Welding Company for their best operator.
"My children and I are happy and comfortable now,' she said; 'and I hope to afford to take them home to Denmark for Christmas. But I will come back and tackle some more welding jobs."
The last published article we could find, "Says She Has No Nerves," published in the Chickasha Star, in Chickasha, Oklahoma on September 16, 1921, is almost a verbatim reprint of the Boston Globe article.
As a cable welder, Catherine Nelson was responsible for welding together the cable splices that made up the longest length of the cable span. Wire cable is produced in limited sections, and often the cable was spliced together with welding, which is among the strongest of the splices, replacing the earlier versions of wire wrapping, and later screw splicing. Welded splices are stronger and more durable than both.
Most welding was typically done in a shop setting, but some, as with Catherine Nelson, were done on site. She may have done additional welding while walking the cables, as most of the newspaper stories focus on her working 300 feet up in the air.
Once the initial suspension cables were in place, supporting cables for the deck of the bridge could be constructed, which were designed to provide additional support, rigidity, and to spread the weight load across the entire bridge.
This particular bridge is said to be unique for its "stiffening truss," located under the deck of the bridge.
The bridge was opened on November 29, 1921 to great fanfare. It remains the oldest suspension bridge in the Hudson Valley, predating the longer Bear Mountain Bridge by several years.
As for Catherine Nelson? We've yet to find any additional information about her, but if you have any leads, or are a relative with family stories, please let us know in the comments!
Sarah Wassberg Johnson is the Director of Exhibits & Outreach at the Hudson River Maritime Museum, where she has worked since 2012. She has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to support more history blog content, please make a donation to the Hudson River Maritime Museum or become a member today!
On September 22, 1897, Mrs. Edith Gifford boarded a yacht on the Hudson River along with other members of the New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs (NJSFWC) and male allies from the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society (ASHPS). The goal of this riverine excursion was to assess the horrible defacement of the Palisades cliffs by quarrymen, who blasted this ancient geological structure for the needs of commerce—specifically, trap rock used to build New York City streets, piers, and the foundations of new skyscrapers. All on board felt that seeing the destruction firsthand, with their own eyes, was the first step in galvanizing support for a campaign to stop the blasting of the cliffs.
The campaign that followed was successful: Women from the NJSFWC lobbied Governor Foster Voorhees, while men from the ASHPS found support in their own Governor Theodore Roosevelt. Their efforts led to the creation of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission (PIPC) in 1900 through an act to "preserve the scenery of the Palisades." Under President George Perkins, the Commission purchased or received successive tracks of land to save the Palisades from quarry operators, resulting in iconic recreational areas such as Bear Mountain State Park. When the Palisades Interstate Park opened in 1909, few could imagine that it would become one of the most popular public parks in the entire nation. A landscape marked by resource extraction became a landscape of recreation, environmental education, and nature appreciation.
The yacht trip characterized the collaborative nature of this critically important conservation story. What brought these groups and others together was not only a shared interest in the value of scenic beauty and recreation, but also a desire to save the trees growing along the base and top of the cliffs—an issue tied to other environmental initiatives at the time, especially the creation of a public park in the Adirondacks to protect the sources of the Hudson River. Women from the NJSFWC, especially Mrs. Edith Gifford, joined leading forestry experts like Gifford Pinchot and Bernhard Fernow in calling for the protection of the Palisades woodlands and other forested areas across New Jersey. Unlike scientific foresters, however, Mrs. Gifford and other women focused on public pedagogy. Through their efforts, the NJSFWC prepared the way for civic education, nature study, and environmental stewardship in Palisades Interstate Park and beyond.
Seeing the Forest from the Rocks
In the mid-1890s, as people on both sides of the Hudson began advocating for the preservation of the Palisades cliffs, many scientists and politicians were also beginning to recognize the importance of forests to water supplies. The publication of George Perkins Marsh's bestselling book Man and Nature in 1864 generated public discussion of the potentially disastrous consequences of large-scale deforestation: When trees are destroyed, Marsh warned, the ground loses its ability to hold moisture, and the disturbed ground becomes more susceptible to erosion. Deforestation threatened entire watersheds, impacting commerce, navigation, and public water supplies. His conclusions influenced emerging forestry experts, businessmen, and politicians, ultimately leading to the creation of a Forest Preserve in 1885, Adirondack Park in 1892, and the addition of the “Forever Wild” clause to New York State’s constitution in 1894.
Just as in the Adirondacks, scientific foresters in New Jersey raised concerns about the impact of deforestation on the state’s water supplies. As urban and suburban populations across New Jersey swelled, many felt that preserving water supplies and spaces for recreation was more valuable, and more feasible, than reviving timber revenues. In 1894, the NJ State Legislature ordered that a survey of the state’s forests be included in the State Geological Survey. The survey’s purpose was to determine the possibility of creating a network of forest reserves across the state to satisfy needs for water and recreation. It highlighted how the forests of the Palisades were composed of high quality, old-growth trees, vital to the protection of water supplies in the Hackensack Valley below. The survey also noted the Palisades’ value for future students of forestry. “This beautiful forest,” the report stated, “has almost as good a claim to future preservation as the escarpment of the Palisades.”
The State Forester of New Jersey at the time was Dr. John Gifford, husband of NJSFWC member Mrs. Edith Gifford. Both had been active members of the American Forestry Association and shared a passion for trees. Dr. Gifford was the founding editor of New Jersey Forester, which ultimately became American Forestry, the journal of the U.S. Forest Service. Mrs. Gifford was active in numerous urban reform and environmental campaigns. After the establishment of the NJSFWC in 1894, she worked to bring the issue of forestry into the discourse surrounding the preservation of the Palisades from quarrying. A newspaper report described her this way: “Mrs. Gifford is a New Jersey woman who makes a special study of forestry for the NJSFWC when not engaged in household duties. She can tell you all about the management of European forests…[and] pathetic tales of wanton destruction of beautiful forests in this country.” In 1896, she was appointed Chair of a new Committee on Forestry and Protection of the Palisades at the NJSFWC.
While scientific foresters focused on reports and surveys, Mrs. Gifford devoted herself to educating the public. At a NJSFWC meeting in 1896, which was attended by numerous state legislators and some of the nation's leading foresters, she showcased a traveling forestry library and exhibition, intended to educate the public, and especially children, about the importance of forests and forestry. The exhibition included contrasting images of ‘pristine’ forests and those ravaged by lumber dealers for economic profit; depictions of trees in art and leaf charts by Graceanna Lewis; maps of New Jersey forests and their connection to the state's geology; portraits of notable trees; and examples of erosion caused by deforestation in France and other European countries. The library consisted of a bookcase made of oak, encased in “a traveling dress of white duck.” Other women’s groups, libraries, and schools across the state could apply for the privilege of hosting it for a month. It included major forestry textbooks of the day, including What is Forestry? by Bernhard Fernow; Franklin Hough’s Elements of Forestry; tree planting manuals; and pamphlets on forestry’s importance to watershed protection and timber supplies.
Sargent attended the meeting and wrote a rave review in his journal, Garden and Forest. Applauding the role of women in increasing public literacy about trees, forests, and forestry, he linked their efforts directly to policy making. "No comprehensive forest policy," he wrote, "can even be devised without a more cultivated public sentiment." The exhibition and traveling forestry library were not merely didactic tools, Sargent explained; they encouraged a sentimental connection between trees and people. The "cultivation of a sympathetic love of trees," for Sargent, was the basis for citizen involvement in forestry, forest preservation, and nature appreciation. “The arrangement of this exhibit," Sargent remarked, "was so effective that it seemed a pity that it must be transient, and the suggestion that every library and schoolroom should have something of this kind…was felt by all who saw it.” In the wake of this meeting, Mrs. Gifford’s traveling forestry library circulated in women’s clubs across the state. Clubs applied for the privilege of hosting the oak bookcase for a month at their own expense and used it to generate public discussion of forestry issues. Explaining the necessity of such a library as well as other forms of outreach—including reading circles and exhibitions—Gifford stressed the centrality of pedagogy to policy making: “Much education is needed to bring about necessary legislation and progressive methods,” she argued.
Going further, Mrs. Gifford took the cause of public education and forestry to the national level. At a General Federation of Women’s Clubs meeting in 1896, of which the New Jersey State Federation was a part, she urged members across the country to take a pledge to forestry by declaring among themselves, “We pledge ourselves to take up the study of forest conditions and resources, and to further the highest interests of our several States in these respects.” Copies of the document were sent out to all 1500 local GFWC clubs as well as the press, augmenting both women’s role in forest protection and public awareness of the problem. The pledge in its entirety was published in her husband's journal, The Forester, shortly afterwards, ensuring widespread media attention.
Mrs. Gifford was not the NJSFWC’s lone forestry advocate. Mrs. Katherine Sauzade, for instance, included the value of the Palisades woodlands in her 1897 speech calling for the preservation of the Palisades. Whereas Mrs. Gifford stressed the importance of healthy forests to healthy waterways, Mrs. Sauzade instead emphasized the role of trees in creating the “wild, rugged character” of their beloved Palisades. In this instance, trees functioned as part of the scenic beauty of the area; their value was not as parts of an invisible system, but as part of the visual splendor of the place. For Sauzade, destroying the scenic beauty of the trees as well as the cliffs was an attack on civilization itself. “We cannot escape,” she wrote, “the disgrace, nor the just censure of the civilized world if we permit, by further neglect, the continued defacement of these grand cliffs.”
By the time the yacht set sail on the Hudson in September 1897, therefore, forestry was already a dominant interest at the NJSFWC and elsewhere in the state. On deck, watching the blasting of the cliffs of the Palisades at the Carpenter Brother’s quarry, Mrs. Gifford declared that “the forestry interest…exceeds the interest of preserving the bluffs.” Reminding her colleagues of her studies of the Palisades woodlands, she remarked that “in some places, the Palisades look exactly as they did when Hendrick Hudson sailed up the river. That is a very remarkable thing to find a primeval forest near the heart of a great metropolis.” Mrs. Gifford’s statement was supported by Joseph Lamb of the ASHPS, who built one of the first resorts on the Palisades in the 1850s. “The Palisades,” he stated on the yacht, “are perhaps more valuable as woodlands than anything else.” At a national GFWC meeting in 1898, NJSFWC President Cecelia Gaines (later Cecilia Gaines Holland), raised the issue of forestry and the protection of the Palisades once again: “There are utilitarian reasons for the protection of the Palisades,” she told club members. “The valleys at their feet are covered with farms and small towns whose water supplies are drawn from sources in the Palisades. Disturb or remove these sources by blasting and the dwellers below suffer in consequence.”
From Nature Study to Nature Appreciation
Despite the essential role of the NJSFWC in the creation of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission in 1900, women were excluded from the commission itself on the basis of their gender. This, however, did not stop their involvement in Palisades conservation or in forestry more generally. In 1905, GFWC President Lydia Phillips Williams declared in a speech at the American Forestry Congress that “[The GFWC’s] interest in forestry is perhaps as great as that in any department of its work…[forestry committees] are enthusiastically spreading the propaganda for forest reserves and the necessity of irrigation.” By 1912, however, women were excluded once again, this time from the American Forestry Association—the organization that Mrs. Gifford had once been a part. Environmental historian Carolyn Merchant suggests that this shift was due to the full-fledged institutionalization of scientific forestry, which was not accessible to women, or to their opposition to Hetch Hetchy.
With the creation of the PIPC in 1900, interest in protecting the forests of the Palisades for water supplies continued. At the opening ceremony for Palisades Interstate Park in 1909, New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes stated that he hoped that the creation of the park was the first step in “[safeguarding] the Highlands and waters…The entire watershed which lies to the north should be conserved.” George Frederick Kunz, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, echoed this sentiment in his own address. Pointing to the example of the Adirondacks, he said, “It must be borne in mind that without your forests you would have no lakes…until we have reforested our hills, we will not have proper water for this river.”
Reforesting the Palisades through tree planting was part of the growth of the park itself. Students at newly created professional forestry programs at Yale and the New York State College of Forestry in Syracuse contributed to this process—in 1916 alone, students planted 700,000 trees. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps managed wooded areas in Palisades Interstate Park, planted trees, and constructed new infrastructure. Forestry students also used the woodlands of the Palisades as a laboratory, studying the area’s vegetation, conducting ecological surveys, and developing forest management plans.
Yet, as Palisades Interstate Park grew, the social and recreational aspects of forestry were stressed more than its importance for water or timber supplies. Given their close proximity to New York City, the value of the Palisades’ woodlands to public welfare and urban reform—key tenets of the Progressive Era—could not be ignored. In 1920, the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse published a bulletin that outlined the value of “recreational forestry” in the Palisades. “The Palisades Interstate Park of New York and New Jersey,” it stated, “on account of its proximity to the American metropolis, is, and should be, dominated by the needs of the people in the vicinity of this great city.” In a section called “Forests versus City Streets,” the author addressed how forestry camps could improve the well-being of New York City’s low-income residents. “Outdoor influences,” he wrote, “…curb and counteract tendencies of other environments which fail to promote the ultimate good of these juvenile elements of society.” He continued, “Impossible it is to estimate the aggregate of all the impressions of associations that stir the dull soul…and influences that prompt to effort and incite nobler living.”
Similarly, an ecological survey of Palisades Interstate Park in 1919 included an entire section on “The Relation of Forests and Forestry to Human Welfare.” While the survey began by discussing social forestry initiatives in Palisades Interstate Park, it concluded by addressing the public needs that inspired National Parks: “The moment that recreation…is recognized as a legitimate Forest utility the way is opened for a more intelligent administration of the National Forests. Recreation then takes its proper place along with all other utilities.” Far from city streets, park visitors experienced the wonder of the Palisades woodlands firsthand through excursions and nature study. When they left, they brought back a new appreciation for nature of all kinds.
Mrs. Gifford’s pedagogical mission, therefore, was ultimately realized in the park itself. Few could have predicted in the 1890s how much of an impact the introduction of trees to a campaign to save an ancient geological structure would have. Recognition of the importance of an informed public shaped not only the growth of the park itself, but also the future of environmentalism in the United States.
Jeanne Haffner, Ph.D., is a landscape historian and associate curator of “Hudson Rising” (March 1 - August 4, 2019) at the New-York Historical Society. She previously taught environmental history and urban planning history and theory at Harvard and Brown Universities, and was a postdoctoral fellow in Urban Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks (Harvard).
This article was originally published in the 2019 issue of the Pilot Log. If you enjoyed this post and would like to support more history blog content, please make a donation to the Hudson River Maritime Museum or become a member today!
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.
Hudson River Maritime Museum
50 Rondout Landing
Kingston, NY 12401
The Hudson River Maritime Museum is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the maritime history of the Hudson River, its tributaries, and related industries.
Become a member and receive benefits like unlimited free museum admission, discounts on classes, programs, and in the museum store, plus invitations to members-only events.
The Hudson River Maritime Museum receives no federal, state, or municipal funding except through competitive, project-based grants. Your donation helps support our mission of education and preservation.