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Van Rensselaer Manor Papers, Manuscripts and Special Collections

Collection Profile

Shoes, stockings, shirts, linen pants, blankets, brandy, cloth, cheese, vinegar, merchandise, brown medicinal beer, a suit of clothes, an English hat, a Rouen hat, oil lamps, a gun and baldric, powder and lead, cordage, grain scythes—these are some of the goods that two of America's early Dutch farmers, Brant Peelen and Cornelis Theunisen, must have been happy to receive from the ship Eendracht in 1634. They had lived in the wilderness at the upper Hudson for three years during which they lived off whatever they produced themselves, whatever they could trade with the Indians, and whatever was being sent to them by their employer, Kiliaen van Rensselaer from the Dutch Republic. Just four years earlier this wealthy Amsterdam jewelry trader had established the patroonship of Rensselaerswijck in New Netherland, which would remain in the hands of his descendants until about 1860.

Together, the heavily damaged letters, contracts, bonds, accounts, maps, ledgers and other documents that are left of the manuscripts of Van Rensselaer's patroonship are almost like a movie account of the development of one of America's earliest European settlements. Mere fragments of manuscripts provide images of how a settlement of not even 10 farmers in 1634 grew in 18 years to a community of more than 200 colonists who practiced law, religion, and poor relief, and became a full-grown society.

How contacts between colonists and Indians in those years took place is revealed in detail by letters, accounts, and various treaties of land transactions. Numerous accounts provide insights into various religious celebrations and customs as well as the routines of daily life. This collection contains an abundance of details about 17th-century material culture such as food, clothing, jewelry, furniture, and house and barn plans and descriptions. From one blacksmith's account we learn that cows were wearing bells that were produced and sold in Rensselaerswijck for a certain price. From tailors' accounts we learn about the products they made, materials they used, and prices, as well as the manner in which they worked; a tailor would often work for days and sometimes weeks at the Van Rensselaer's house. The records show that certain Dutch customs were kept long after the English had taken over New Netherland; a 1675 baker's account mentions that Maria van Rensselaer bought Sinterklaas [Santa Claus] goods illustrating that the feast of Saint Nicolas was celebrated in Albany at that time. In addition to business information, letters written between family members and friends reveal personal matters, such as relations with friends and other inhabitants of the village, raising children, illness, and death.

The Van Rensselaer Manor Papers reveal the successes and hardships of ordinary people, men, women, and children, wealthy and poor, masters and slaves, from the earliest years of America's written history into the 19th century. The users of this collection include historians, genealogists, archaeologists, and lawyers researching land titles and Indian rights. A finding aid is available on the New York State Library's Web site.

Collection Profile and Overview: Janny Venema
Illustrations: Thomas Rocco

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