Here to return to
PATROONS AND LORDS OF THE MANOR
THEIR High Mightinesses, the States-General of the United Netherlands, as we have seen, granted to the Dutch West India Company a charter conveying powers nearly equaling and often overlapping those of the States themselves. The West India Company in turn, with a view to stimulating colonization, granted to certain members known as patroons manorial rights frequently in conflict with the authority of the Company. And for a time it seemed as though the patroonship would be the prevailing form of grant in New Netherland.
The system of patroonships seems to have been suggested by Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, one of the directors of the West India Company and a lapidary of Amsterdam, who later became the most successful of the patroons. A shrewd, keen, farseeing man, he was one of the first of the West India Company to perceive that the building up of New Netherland could not be carried on without labor, and that labor could not be procured without permanent settlers. “Open up the country with agriculture: that must be our first step,” was his urgent advice; but the dwellers in the Netherlands, finding themselves prosperous in their old homes, saw no reason for emigrating, and few offered themselves for the overseas settlements. The West India Company was not inclined to involve itself in further expense for colonization, and. matters threatened to come to a halt, when someone, very likely the shrewd Kiliaen himself, evolved the plan of granting large estates to men willing to pay the cost of settling and operating them. From this suggestion the scheme of patroonship was developed.
The list of “Privileges and Exemptions” published by the West India Company in 1629 declared that all should be acknowledged patroons of New Netherland who should, within the space of four years, plant there a colony of fifty souls upwards of fifteen years old. “The island of the Manhattes” was reserved for the Company. The patroons, it was stipulated, must make known the situation of their proposed settlements, but they were allowed to change should their first location prove unsatisfactory. The lands were to extend sixteen miles along the shore on one side of a navigable river, or eight miles on both sides of a river, and so far into the country as the situation of the colonies and their settlers permitted. The patroons were entitled to dispose of their grants by will, and they were free to traffic along the coast of New Netherland for all goods except furs, which were to be the special perquisite of the West India Company. They were forbidden to allow the weaving of linen, woolen, or cotton cloth on their estates, the looms in Holland being hungry for raw material.
The Company agreed that it would not take any one from the service of the patroon during the years for which the servant was bound, and any colonist who should without written permission enter the service of another patroon or “betake himself to freedom” was to be proceeded against with all the available force of the law. The escaped servant would fare ill if his case came before the courts, since it was one of the prerogatives of a patroon to administer high, middle, and low justice — that is, to appoint magistrates and erect courts which should deal with all grades of crimes committed within the limits of the manor and also with breaches of the civil law. In civil cases disputes over contracts, titles, and such matters, where the amount in litigation exceeded twenty dollars, as well as in criminal cases affecting life and limb, it was possible to appeal to the Director and Council at Fort Amsterdam; but the local authorities craftily evaded this provision by compelling their colonists to promise not to appeal from the tribunal of the manor.
The scherprechter, or hangman, was included with the superintendent, the schout fiscaal, or sheriff, and. the magistrates as part of the manorial court system. One such scherprechter named Jan de Neger, perhaps a freed negro, is named among the dwellers at Rensselaerswyck and we find him presenting a claim for thirty-eight florins ($15.00) for executing Wolf Nysen.
No man in the manorial colony was to be deprived of life or property except by sentence of a court composed of five people, and all accused persons were entitled to a speedy and impartial trial. As we find little complaint of the administration of justice in all the records of disputes, reproaches, and recriminations which mark the records of those old manors, we must assume that the processes of law were carried on in harmony with the spirit of fairness prevailing in the home country.
Even before the West India Company had. promulgated its charter, a number of rich merchants had availed themselves of the opportunity to secure lands under the offered privileges and. exemptions. Godyn and Blommaert, in association with Captain David de Vries and others, took up a large territory on Delaware Bay, and here they established a colony called “Swannendael,” which was destroyed by the Indians in 1632. Myndert Myndertsen established his settlement on the mainland behind Staten Island, and his manor extended from Achter Kul, or Newark Bay, to the Tappan Zee.
One of the first patents recorded was granted to Michiel Pauw in 1630. In the documentary record the Director and Council of New Netherland, under the authority of their High Mightinesses, the Lords States-General and the West India Company Department of Amsterdam, testify to the bargain made with the natives, who are treated throughout with legal ceremony as if they were high contracting parties and fully capable of understanding the transaction in which they were engaged. These original owners of the soil appeared before the Council and declared that in consideration of certain merchandise, they agreed to “transfer, cede, convey and deliver for the benefit of the Honorable Mr. Michiel Paauw” as true and lawful freehold, the land at Hobocan Hackingh, opposite Manhattan, so that “he or his heirs may take possession of the aforesaid land, live on it in peace, inhabit, own and use it... without that they, the conveying party shall have or retain the least pretension, right, power or authority either concerning ownership or sovereignty; but herewith they desist, abandon, withdraw and renounce in behalf of aforesaid now and forever totally and finally.”
It must have been a pathetic and yet a diverting spectacle when the simple red men thus swore away their title to the broad acres of their fathers for a consideration of beads, shells, blankets, and trinkets; but, when they listened to the subtleties of Dutch law as expounded by the Dogberrys at Fort Amsterdam, they may have been persuaded that their simple minds could never contend with such masters of language and that they were on the whole, fortunate to secure something in exchange for their land, which they were bound to lose in any event.
It has been the custom to ascribe to the Dutch and Quakers the system of paying for lands taken from the Indians. But Fiske points out that this conception is a mistake and he goes on to state that it was a general custom among the English and that not a rood of ground in New England was taken from the savages without recompense, except when the Pequots began a war and were exterminated. The “payment” in all cases, however, was a mere farce and of value only in creating good feeling between savages and settlers. As to the ethics of the transaction, much might be said on both sides. The red men would be justified in feeling that they had been kept in ignorance of the relative importance of what they gave and. what they received, while the whites might maintain that they created the values which ensued upon their purchase and that, if they had not come, lands along the Great River would have remained of little account. In any case the recorded transaction did not prove a financial triumph for the purchaser, as the enterprise cost much in trouble and outlay and did not meet expenses. The property was resold to the Company seven years later — at a price, however, of twenty-six thousand guilders, which represented a fair margin of profit over the “certain merchandise” paid to the original owners eight years earlier.
Very soon after the
purchase of the land on the west shore of the North River, Pauw bought, under
the same elaborate legal forms, the whole of Staten Island, so called in honor
of the Staaten or States-General.
To the estate he gave the title of Pavonia, a Latinized form of his own name.
Staten Island was subsequently purchased from Pauw by the Company and
transferred (with the exception of the bouwerie
of Captain De Vries) to Cornelis Melyn, who was thus added to the list of
patroons. Other regions also were erected into patroonships; but almost all
were either unsuccessful from the beginning or short-lived.
The patroonship most successful, most permanent, and most typical was Rensselaerswyck, which offers the best opportunity for a study of the Dutch colonial system. Van Rensselaer, though he did not apparently intend to make a home for himself in New Netherland, was one of the first to ask for a grant of land. Ile received, subject to payment to the Indians, a tract of country to the north and south of Fort Orange, but not including that trading-post, which like the island of Manhattan remained under the control of the West India Company. By virtue of this grant and later purchases Van Rensselaer acquired a tract comprising what are now the counties of Albany and Rensselaer with part of Columbia. Of this tract, called Rensselaerswyck, Van Rensselaer was named patroon, and five other men, Godyn, Blommaert, De Laet, Bissels, and Moussart, whom he had been forced to conciliate by taking into partnership, were named codirectors. Later the claims of these five associates were bought out by the Van Rensselaer family.
In 1630 the first
group of emigrants for this new colony sailed on the ship Eendragt and reached Fort Orange at the
beginning of June. How crude was the settlement which they established we may
judge from the report made some years later by Father Jogues, a Jesuit
missionary, who visited Rensselaerswyck in 1643. He speaks of a miserable
little fort built of logs and having four or five pieces of Breteuil cannon. He
describes also the colony as composed of about a hundred persons, “who reside
in some twenty-five or thirty houses built along the river as each found most
convenient.” The patroon’s agent was established in the principal house, while
in another, which served also as a church, was domiciled the domine, the Reverend Johannes
Megapolensis, Jr. The houses he describes as built of boards and roofed with
thatch, having no mason-work except in the chimneys. The settlers had found
some ground already cleared by the natives and had planted it with wheat and
oats in order to provide beer and horse-fodder; but being hemmed in by somewhat
barren hills, they had been obliged to separate in order to obtain arable land.
The settlements, therefore, spread over two or three leagues.
The fear of raids from the savages prompted the patroon to advise that, with the exception of the brewers and tobacco planters who were obliged to live on their plantations, no other settlers should establish themselves at any distance from the church, which was the village center; for, says the prudent Van Rensselaer, “every one residing where he thinks fit, separated far from others, would be unfortunately in danger of their lives in the same manner as sorrowful experience has taught around the Manhattans.” Our sympathy goes out to those early settlers who lived almost as serfs under their patroon, the women forbidden to spin or weave, the men prohibited from trading in the furs which, they saw building up fortunes around them. They sat by their lonely hearths in a little clearing of the forest, listening to the howl of wolves and fearing to see a savage face at the window. This existence was a tragic change indeed from the lively social existence along the canals of Amsterdam or on the stoops of Rotterdam.
Nor can we feel that these tenants were likely to be greatly cheered by the library established at Rensselaerswyck, unless there were hidden away a list of more interesting books than those described in the patroon’s invoice as sent in an oosterse, or oriental, box. These volumes include a Scripture concordance, the works of Calvin, of Livy, and of Ursinus, the friend of Melanchthon, A Treatise on Arithmetic by Adrian Metius, The History of the Holy Land, and a work on natural theology. As all the titles are in Latin, it is to be presumed that the body of the text was written in the same language, and we may imagine the light and cheerful mood which they inspired in their readers after a day of manual toil.
I suspect, however, that the evening hours of these tenants at Rensselaerswyck were spent in anxious keeping of accounts with a wholesome fear of the patroon before the eyes of the accountants. Life on the bouweries was by no means inexpensive, even according to modern standards. Bearing in mind that, a. stiver was equivalent to two cents of our currency and a florin to forty cents, it is easy to calculate the cost of living in the decade between 1630 and 1640 as set down in the accounts of Rensselaerswyck. A blanket cost eight florins, a hat ten florins, an iron anvil one hundred florins, a musket and cartouche box nineteen florins, a copper sheep’s bell one florin and six stivers. On the other hand all domestic produce was cheap, because the tenant and patroon preferred to dispose of it in the settlements rather than by transporting it to New Amsterdam. We learn with envy that butter was only eight stivers or sixteen cents per pound, a pair of fowl two florins, a beaver twenty-five florins.
How hard were the terms on which the tenants held their leases is apparent from a report written by the guardians and tutors of Jan Van Rensselaer, a later patroon of Rensselaerswyck. The patroon reserved to himself the tenth of all grains, fruits, and other products raised on the bouwerie. The tenant was bound, in addition to his rent of five hundred guilders or two hundred dollars, to keep up the roads, repair the buildings, cut ten pieces of oak or fir wood, and bring the same to the shore; he must also every year give to the patroon three days’ service with his horses and wagon; each year he was to cut, split, and bring to the waterside two fathoms of firewood; and he was further to deliver yearly to the Director as quitrent two bushels of wheat, twenty-five pounds of butter, and two pairs of fowls.
It was the
difficult task of the agent of the colony to harmonize the constant hostilities
between the patroon and his “people.” Van Curler’s letter to Kiliaen Van
Rensselaer begins: “Laus Deo! At the Manhattans this 16th June, 1643, Most
honorable, wise, powerful, and right discreet Lord, my Lord Patroon —.” After
which propitiatory beginning it embarks at once on a reply to the reproaches
which the honorable, wise, and powerful Lord has heaped upon his obedient
servant. Van Curler admits that the accounts and books have not been forwarded
to Holland as they should have been; but he pleads the difficulty of securing
returns from the tenants, whom he finds slippery in their accounting.
“Everything they have laid out on account of the Lord Patroon they well know
how to specify for what was expended. But what has been laid out for their
private use, that they know nothing about.”
If the patroon’s relations with his tenants were thorny, he had no less trouble in his dealings with the Director-General at New Amsterdam. It is true, Peter Minuit, the first important Director, was removed in 1632 by the Company for unduly favoring the patroons; and Van Twiller, another Director and a nephew of Van Rensselaer by marriage, was not disposed to antagonize his relative; but when Van Twiller was replaced by Kieft, and he in turn by Stuyvesant, the horizon at Rensselaerswyck grew stormy. In 1643 the patroon ordered Nicholas Coorn to fortify Beeren or Bears Island, and to demand a toll of each ship, except those of the West India Company, that passed up and down the river. He also required that the colors on every ship be lowered in passing Rensselaer’s Stein or Castle Rensselaer, as the fort on the steep little island was named.
Govert Loockermans, sailing down the river one day on the ship Good Hope, failed to salute the flag, whereupon a lively dialogue ensued to the following effect, and not, we may be assured, carried on in low or amicable tones:
Coorn: “Lower your colors!”
Loockermans: “For whom should I?”
Coorn: “For the staple-right of Rensselaerswyck.”
Loockermans: “I lower my colors for no one except the Prince of Orange and the Lords my masters.”
The practical result of this interchange of amenities was a shot which tore the mainsail of the Good Hope, “perforated the princely flag,” and so enraged the skipper that on his arrival at New Amsterdam he hastened to lay his grievance before the Council, who thereupon ordered Coorn to behave with more civility.
The patroon system was from the beginning doomed to failure. As we study the old documents we find a sullen tenantry, an obsequious and careworn agent, a dissatisfied patroon, an impatient company, a bewildered government — and all this in a new and promising country where the natives were friendly, the transportation easy, the land fertile, the conditions favorable to that Conservation of human happiness which is and should be the aim of civilization. The reason for the discontent which prevailed is not far to seek, and all classes were responsible for it, for they combined in planting an anachronistic feudalism in a new country, which was dedicated by its very physical conditions to liberty and democracy. The settlers came from a nation which had battled through long years in the cause of freedom. They found themselves in a colony adjoining those of Englishmen who had braved the perils of the wilderness to establish the same principles of liberty and democracy. No sane mind could have expected the Dutch colonists to return without protest to a medieval system of government.
When the English took possession of New Netherland in 1664, the old patroonships were confirmed as manorial grants from England. As time went on, many new manors were erected until, when the province was finally added to England in 1674, “The Lords of the Manor “ along the Hudson had taken on the proportions of a landed aristocracy. On the lower reaches of the river lay the Van Cortlandt and Philipse Manors, the first containing 85,000 acres and a house so firmly built that it is still standing with its walls of freestone, three feet thick. The Philipse Manor, at Tarrytown, represented the remarkable achievement of a self-made man, born in the Old World and a carpenter by trade, who rose in the New World to fortune and eminence. By dint of business acumen and by marrying two heiresses in succession he achieved wealth, and built “Castle Philipse” and the picturesque little church at Sleepy Hollow, still in use. Farther up the river lay the Livingston Manor. In 1685 Robert Livingston was granted by Governor Dongan a patent of a tract half way between New York and Rensselaerswyck, across the river from the Catskills and covering many thousand acres.
But the estate of which we know most, thanks to the records left by Mrs. Grant of Laggan in her Memoirs of an American Lady, written in the middle of the eighteenth century, is that belonging to the Schuylers at “the Flats” near Albany, which runs along the western bank of the Hudson for two miles and is bordered with sweeping elm trees. The mansion consisted of two stories and an attic. Through the middle of the house ran a wide passage from the front to the back door. At the front door was a large stoep, open at the sides and with seats around it. One room was open for company. The other apartments were bedrooms, a drawing-room being an unheard-of luxury.” The house fronted the river, on the brink of which, under shades of elm and sycamore, ran the great road toward Saratoga, Stillwater, and the northern lakes. “Adjoining the orchard was a huge barn raised from the ground by beams which rested on stone and held up a massive oak floor. On one side ran a manger. Cattle and horses stood in rows with their heads toward the threshing-floor.” There was a prodigious large box or open chest in one side built up, for holding the corn after it was threshed, and the roof which was very lofty and spacious was supported by large cross beams. From one to the other of these was stretched a great number of long poles so as to form a sort of open loft, on which the whole rich crop was laid up.”
Altogether it is an attractive picture of peace and plenty, of hospitality and simple luxury, that is drawn by this visitor to the Schuyler homestead. We see through her eyes its carpeted winter rooms, its hail covered with tiled oilcloth and hung with family portraits, its vine-covered stoeps, provided with ledges for the birds, and affording “pleasant views of the winding river and the, distant hills.” Such a picture relieves pleasantly the arid waste of historical statistics.
But the reader who dwells too long on the picturesque aspects of manors and patroonships is likely to forget that New Netherland was peopled for the most part by colonists who were neither patroons nor lords of manors. It was the small proprietors who eventually predominated on western Long Island, on Staten Island, and along the Hudson. “In the end,” it has been well said, “this form of grant played a more important part in the development of the province than did the larger fiefs for which such detailed provision was made.”