Gateway to the Classics: Historic Boys by E. S. Brooks
Historic Boys by  E. S. Brooks

Van Rensselaer of Rensselaerswyck, the Boy Patroon

(Afterward Major-General, and Lieutenant-Governor of the State of New York)
[A.D. 1777]

I question whether any of my young readers, however well up in history they may be, can place the great River of Prince Maurice (De Riviere Van den Voorst Mauritius), which, two hundred years ago, flowed through the broad domain of the lord patroons of Rensselaerswyck. And yet it is the same wide river upon whose crowded shore now stands the great city of New York; the same fair river above whose banks now towers the noble front of the massive State Capitol at Albany. And that lofty edifice stands not far from the very spot where, beneath the pyramidal belfry of the old Dutch church, the boy patroon sat nodding through Dominic Westerlo's sermon, one drowsy July Sunday in the summer of 1777.

The good dominie's "seventhly" came to a sudden stop as the tinkle of the deacon's collection-bell fell upon the ears of the slumbering congregation. In the big Van Rensselaer pew it roused Stephanus, the boy patroon, from a delightful dream of a ten-pound twaalf, or striped bass, which he thought he had just hooked at the mouth of Bloemert's Kill; and, rather guiltily, as one who has been "caught napping," he dropped his two "half-joes" into the deacon's "fish-net"—for so the boys irreverently called the knitted bag which, stuck on one end of a long pole, was always passed around for contributions right in the middle of the sermon. Then the good dominie went back to his "seventhly," and the congregation to their slumbers, while the restless young Stephanus traced with his finger-nail upon the cover of his psalm-book the profile of his highly respected guardian, General Ten Brock, nodding solemnly in the magistrate's pew. At last, the sands in the hour-glass, that stood on the queer, one-legged, eight-sided pulpit, stopped running, and so did the dominie's "noble Dutch "; the congregation filed out of church, and the Sunday service was over. And so, too, was the Sunday quiet. For scarcely had the people passed the porch, when, down from the city barrier at the Colonic Gate, clattered a hurrying horseman.

"From General Schuyler, sir," he said, as he reined up before General Ten Broek, and handed him an order to muster the militia at once and repair to the camp at Fort Edward. St. Clair, so said the despatch, had been defeated, Ticonderoga was captured, Burgoyne was marching to the Hudson, the Indians were on the war-path, and help was needed at once if they would check Burgoyne and save Albany from pillage.

The news fell with a sudden shock upon the little city of the Dutchmen. Ticonderoga fallen, and the Indians on the war-path! Even the most stolid of the Albany burghers felt his heart beating faster, while many a mother looked anxiously at her little ones and called to mind the terrible tales of Indian cruelty and pillage. But the young Van Rensselaer, pressing close to the side of fair Mistress Margarita Schuyler, said soberly: "These be sad tidings, Margery; would it not be wiser for you all to come up to the manor-house for safety?"

"For safety?" echoed high-spirited Mistress Margery. "Why, what need, Stephanus? Is not my father in command at Fort Edward? and not for Burgoyne and all his Indians need we fear while he is there! So, many thanks, my lord patroon," she continued, with a mock courtesy; "but I 'm just as safe under the Schuyler gables as I could be in the Van Rensselaer manor-house, even with the brave young patroon himself as my defender."

The lad looked a little crestfallen; for he regarded himself as the natural protector of this brave little lady, whose father was facing the British invaders on the shores of the Northern lakes. Had it not been one, almost, of the unwritten laws of the colonie, since the day of the first patroon, that a Van Rensselaer should wed a Schuyler? Who, then, should care for a daughter of the, house of Schuyler in times of trouble but a son of the house of Rensselaer?

"Well, at any rate, I shall look out for you if danger does come," he said, as he turned toward the manor-house. "You'll surely not object to that, will you, Margery?"

"Why, how can I "laughed the girl. "I certainly may not prevent a gallant youth from keeping his eyes in my direction. So, thanks for your promise, my lord patroon, and when you see the flash of the tomahawk, summon your vassals like a noble knight and charge through the Colonie Gate to the rescue of the beleaguered maiden of the Fuyck. Why, it will be as good as one of Dominie Westerlo's Northland saga-tales, won't it, Stephanus?" And, with a stately good-by to the little lord of seven hundred thousand acres, the girl hastened homeward to the Schuyler mansion, while the boy rode in the opposite direction to the great brick manor-house by the creek.

Twenty-four miles east and west, by forty-eight miles north and south, covering forest and river, valley and hill, stretched the broad colonie  of the patroons of Rensselaerswyck, embracing the present counties of Albany, Rensselaer, and Columbia, in the State of New York; and over all this domain, since the days of the Heer Killian Van Rensselaer, first of the lord patroons, father and son, in direct descent, had held sway after the manner of the old feudal barons of Europe. They alone owned the land, and their hundreds of tenants held their farms on rentals or leases, subject to the will of the "patroons," as they were called,—a Dutch adaptation of the old Roman patronus, meaning patrician or patron.

Only the town-lands of Beverwyck, or Albany, were free from this feudal right—a territory stretching thirteen miles north-west, by one mile wide along the river front, and forced from an earlier boy patroon by the doughty Peter Stuyvesant, and secured by later English governors; and at the time of our story, though the old feudal laws were no longer in force, and the rentals were less exacting than in the earlier days, the tenantry of Rensselaerswyck respected the authority and manorial rights of Stephen Van Rensselaer, their boy patroon, who, with his widowed mother and his brothers and sisters, lived in the big brick manor-house near the swift mill creek and the tumbling falls in the green vale of Tivoli, a mile north of the city gate.

And now had come the Revolution. Thanks to the teaching of his tender mother, of his gallant guardian, and of the good Dominie Westerlo, young Stephen knew what the great struggle meant—a protest against tyranny, a blow for human rights, a defence of the grand doctrine of the immortal Declaration that "All men are created free and equal." And he had been told, too, that the success of the Republic would be the death-blow to all the feudal rights to which he, the last of the patroons, had succeeded.

"Uncle," he said to his guardian, that stern patriot and whig, General Abram Ten Broek, "you are my representative and must act for me till I grow to be a man. Do what is best, sir, and don't let the Britishers beat!"

"But, remember, lad," said his uncle, "the Revolution, if it succeeds, must strip you of all the powers and rights that have come to you as patroon. You will be an owner of acres, nothing more; no longer baron, patroon, nor lord of the manor; of no higher dignity and condition than little Jan Van Woort, the cow-boy of old Luykas Oothout on your cattle farm in the Helderbergs."

"But I'll be a citizen of a free republic, won't I, Uncle? said the boy; "as free of the king and his court across the sea as Jan Van Woort will be of me and the court-leet of Rensselaerswyck. So we'll all start fair and even. I'm not old enough to fight and talk yet, Uncle; but do you fight and talk for me, and I know it will come out all right."

And so, through the battle-summer of 1777, the work went on. Men and supplies were hurried northward to help the patriot army, and soon General Ten Broek's three thousand militia-men were ready and anxious for action. The air was full of stirring news. Brandt and his Indians, Sir John Johnson and his green-coated Tories, swarmed into the Mohawk Valley; poor Jane McCrea fell a victim to Indian treachery, and the whole northern country shuddered at the rumor that twenty dollars had been offered for every rebel scalp. And fast upon these came still other tidings. The noble General Schuyler, fair Mistress Margery's father, had, through the management of his enemies in the Congress and in the camp, been superseded by General Gates; but, like a true patriot, he worked just as hard for victory nevertheless. Herkimer had fallen in the savage and uncertain fight at Oriskany; in Bennington, stout old Stark had dealt the British a rousing blow; and Burgoyne's boast that with ten thousand men he could "promenade through America" ended dismally enough for him in the smoke of Bemis Heights and the surrender at Saratoga.

But, before that glorious ending, many were the dark and doubtful days that came to Albany and to Rensselaerswyck. Rumors of defeat and disaster, of plot and pillage, filled the little city. Spies and Tories sought to work it harm. The flash of the tomahawk, of which Mistress Margery had so lightly jested, was really seen in the Schuyler mansion. And the brave girl, by her pluck and self-possession, had saved her father and his household from the chance of Tory pillage and Indian murder. Good Dominie Westerlo kept open church and constant prayer for the success of the patriot arms through one whole anxious week, and on a bright September afternoon, General Ten Broek, with a slender escort, came dashing up to the "stoop "of the Van Rensselaer manor-house.

"What now, Uncle?" asked young Stephen, as he met the General in the broad hall.

"More supplies—we must have more supplies, lad," replied his uncle. "Our troops need provisions, and I am here to forage among both friends and foes."

"Beginning with us, I suppose," said the young patroon. "Oh, Uncle, cannot I, too, do something to show my love for the cause?"

"Something, Stephen? You can do much," his uncle replied. "Time was, lad, when your ancestors, the lord patroons of Rensselaerswyck, were makers and masters of the law in this their colonie. From their own forts floated their own flag and frowned their own cannon. Their word was law and from Beeren's Island to Pafraet's Dael the Heer Van Rensselaer's orders were obeyed without question. Forts and flags and cannon are no longer yours, Stephen, and we would not have it otherwise; but your word still holds as good with your tenantry as did that of the first boy patroon, Johannes the son of Killian, when, backed by his gecommitteerden  and his sclzepens, he bearded the Heer General Stuyvesant and claimed all Rensselaerswyck as his 'by right of arms.' Try your word with them, lad. Let me be your gecommitteerden and, in the name of the patroon, demand from your tenantry of Rensselaerswyck provisions and forage for our gallant troops."

"Oh, try it, Uncle, try it—do," young Stephen cried, full of interest; "but will they give so much heed, think you, to my word?"

"Ay, trust them for that," replied the general. "So strong is their attachment to their young patroon that they will, I know, do more on your simple word than on all the orders and levies of the king's Parliament or the Continental Congress."

So, out into the farm-lands that checkered the valley and climbed the green slopes of the Helderbergs, went the orders of the boy patroon, summoning all "our loyal and loving tenantry" to take of their stock and provender all that they could spare, save the slight amount needed for actual home use, and to deliver the same to the commissaries of the army of the Congress at Saratoga. And the "loyal and loving tenantry" gave good heed to their patroon's orders. Granaries and cellars, stables and pig-sties, pork-barrels and poultry-sheds, were emptied of their contents. The army of the Congress was amply provisioned, and thus, indeed, did the boy patroon contribute his share toward the great victory at Saratoga—a victory of which one historian remarks that "no martial event, from the battle of Marathon to that of Waterloo—two thousand years,—exerted a greater influence upon human affairs."

The field of Saratoga is won. Six thousand British troops have laid down their arms, and the fears of Northern invasion are ended. In the Schuyler mansion at Albany, fair Mistress Margery is helping her mother fitly entertain General Burgoyne and the paroled British officers, thus returning good for evil to the man who, but a few weeks before, had burned to the ground her father's beautiful country-house at Saratoga. Along the fair river, from the Colonic Gate to the peaks of the Katzbergs, the early autumn frosts are painting the forest leaves with gorgeous tints, and to-day, the first of November, 1777, the children are joyously celebrating the thirteenth birthday of the boy patroon in the big manor-house by the creek. For, in Albany, a hundred years ago, a children's birthday party really meant a children's  party. The "grown-folk" left home on that day, and the children had free range of the house for their plays and rejoicing. So, through the ample rooms and the broad halls of the Van Rensselaer mansion the children's voices ring merrily, until, tired of romp and frolic, the little folks gather on the great staircase for rest and gossip. And here the fresh-faced little host, in a sky-blue silk coat lined with yellow, a white satin vest broidered with gold lace, white silk knee-breeches, and stockings tied with pink ribbons, pumps, ruffles, and frills, is listening intently while Mistress Margery, radiant in her tight-sleeved satin dress, peaked-toed and bespangled shoes, and wonderfully arranged hair, is telling the group of girls and boys all about General Burgoyne and the British officers, and how much they liked the real Dutch supper her mother gave them one day—"suppawn and malck and rulliches, with chocolate and soft waffles, you know,"—and how General the Baron Riedesel had said that if they stayed till Christmas he would play at Saint Claes (Santa Claus) for them.


"Suppawn and Malck and Rulliches, with chocolate and soft waffles, you know," said mistress Margery.

"Oh, Margery!" exclaimed Stephen, "you wouldn't have a Hessian for good old Saint Claes, would you?"

"Why not?" said Mistress Margery, with a toss of her pretty head. "Do you think you are the only patroon, my lord Stephen?"

For Santa Claus was known among the boys and girls of those old Dutch days as "the children's patroon" (De Patroon Van Kindervrengd ).

"I saw the Hessian baron t'other night, Margarita," said Stephen's best boy-friend, Abram Van Vechten; "he never could play at Santa Claus. He's not the right shape at all. And then a Hessian! Why, I'd sooner have old Balthazar!"

"Oh, dear, what a Saint Claes he'd make!" cried all the girls and boys, for old Balthazar Lydius was the terror of the Albany children in those days—"a tall, spare Dutchman, with a bullet head," a sort of Bluebeard to their imaginations, living in his "big mahogany house with carved beams," near the old Kerk, and scowling and growling at every Kinder  who passed his door.

"No, no, Abram," protested Margery, "I'd rather have the baron, even if he is a Hessian. Only imagine old Balthazar playing at Saint Claes, girls! Why, he's as sour as a ladle of Aunt Schuyler's kool-slaa. Show us how he looks, Stephen; you can, you know."

"Yes, do, do!" shouted all the girls and boys. "Show us Abram's Kinder-vrengd. Let 's see which is the best patroon."

So the boy lengthened down his face and pulled in his cheeks and looked so ferociously sour that the children fairly shrieked with delight at the caricature, and Abram cried: "That 's it; that 's old Balthazar as sure as you live!" That's just the way he looked at me last winter when I almost ran into him as I was sliding down the long coast at Fort hill. My! I was so scared that I ran as fast as my legs could carry me from way below the Kerk  clear past the Van der Hayden palace."

But, in the midst of the laughter, a quick step sounded in the hall, and General Ten Brock came to the children-crowded staircase. "The Helderberg farmers are here, lad," he said to his nephew; and the young patroon, bidding his guests keep up the fun while he left them awhile, followed his uncle through the door-way and across the broad court-yard to where, just south of the manor-house, stood the rent-office. As the boy emerged from the mansion, the throng of tenants who had gathered there at his invitation gazed admiringly at the manly-looking little lad, resplendent in blue and yellow, and gold lace, and greeted him with a rousing birthday cheer—a loyal welcome to their boy patroon, their young Opperkoofdt, or chief.

"My friends," the lad said, acknowledging their greeting with a courtly bow, "I have asked you to come to the manor-house on this, my birthday, so that I might thank you for what you did for me before the Saratoga fight, when you sent so much of your stock and produce to the army simply on my order. But I wish also to give you something besides thanks. And so, that you may know how much I value your friendship and fealty, I have, with my guardian's approval, called you here to present to each one of you a free and clear title to all the lands you have, until now, held in fee from me as the patroon of Rensselaerswyck. General Ten Broek will give you the papers before you leave the office, and Pedrom has a goodly spread waiting for you in the lower hall. Take this from me, my friends, with many thanks for what you have already done for me."

Then, what a cheer went up! The loyal tenantry of the Helderberg farms had neither looked for nor expected any special return for their generous offerings to the army of the Congress, and this action of the boy patroon filled every farmer's heart with something more than gratitude; for now each one of them was a land-owner, as free and untrammelled as the boy patroon himself. And, as fair Portia says in the play,

"So shines a good deed in a naughty world,"

that, when young Stephen Van Rensselaer went joyfully back to his children's party, and the Helderberg farmers to black Pedrom's "spread" in the lower hall, it would have been hard to say which felt the happier—the giver or the receivers of this generous and manly gift.

The years of battle continued, but Dominie Doll's boarding-school, smoked out of 'Sopus when the British troops laid Kingston in ashes, found shelter in Hurley; and here the boys repaired for instruction—for school must go on though war rages and fire burns. The signs of pillage and desolation were all around them; but, boy-like, they thought little of the danger, and laughed heartily at Dominie Doll's story of the poor 'Sopus Dutchman who, terribly frightened at the sight of the red-coats, fled wildly across a deserted hay-field, and stepped suddenly upon the end of a long hay-rake left behind by the "skedaddling" farmers. Up flew the long handle of the rake and struck the terrified Dutchman a sounding whack upon the back of his head. He gave himself up for lost. "Oh, mein Got, mein Got!"  he cried, dropping upon his knees and lifting imploring hands to his supposed captors, "I kivs up, I kivs up, mynheer soldiermans. Hooray for King Shorge!"

Nearly two years were passed here upon the pleasant hill-slopes that stretch away to the Catskill ridges and the rugged wildness of the Stony Clove; and then, in the fall of 1779, when the boy patroon had reached his fifteenth birthday, it was determined to send him, for still higher education, to the College of New Jersey, at Princeton. Of that eventful journey of the lad and his half-dozen school-fellows, under military escort, from the hills of the Upper Hudson to the shot-scarred college on the New Jersey plains, a most interesting story could be told. I doubt whether many, if any, boys ever went to school under quite such delightfully exciting circumstances. For their route lay through a war-worried section; past the dismantled batteries of Stony Point, where "Mad Anthony Wayne" had gained so much glory and renown; past the Highland fortresses, and through the ranks of the Continental Army, visiting General Washington at his headquarters at West Point, and carrying away never-forgotten recollections of the great commander; cautiously past roving bands of cruel "cow-boys" and the enemy's outposts around captured New York, to the battered college buildings which had alternately been barracks and hospital for American and British troops. And an equally interesting story could be told of the exciting college days when, almost within range of the enemy's guns, the boom of the distinct cannon would come like a punctuation in recitations, and the fear of fusillades would help a boy through many a "tight squeeze" in neglected lessons. But this was education under difficulties. The risk became too great, and the young patroon was finally transferred to the quieter walls of Harvard College, from which celebrated institution he graduated with honor in 1782, soon after his eighteenth birthday.

The quiet life of an average American boy would not seem to furnish very much worth the telling. The boy patroon differed little, save in the way of birth and vast estate, from other boys and girls of the eventful age in which he lived; but many instances in his youthful career could safely be recorded. We might tell how he came home from college just as the great war was closing; how he made long trips, on horseback and afoot, over his great estate, acquainting himself .with his tenantry and their needs; how, even before he was twenty years old, he followed the custom of his house and married fair Mistress Margery, the "brave girl "of the Schuyler mansion; and how, finally, on the first of November, 1785, all the tenantry of Rensselaerswyck thronged the grounds of the great manor-house, and, with speech and shout and generous barbecue, celebrated his coming of age—the twenty-first birthday of the boy patroon,—now no longer boy or patroon, but a free American citizen in the new Republic of the United States.

His after-life is part of the history of his State and of his country. At an early age he entered public life, and filled many offices of trust and responsibility. An assemblyman, a State Senator, a lieutenant-governor, a member of Congress, a major-general, and the conqueror of Queenstown in Canada in the War of 1812, one of the original projectors of the great Erie Canal, and, noblest of all, the founder and patron of a great school for boys,—the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Troy,—he was, through all, the simple-hearted citizen and the noble-minded man. But no act in all his long life-time of seventy-five years became him better than the spirit in which he accepted the great change that made the great lord patroon of half a million acres the plain, untitled citizen of a free republic.


"The throng of tenants greeted him with a rousing birthday cheer."

"Though born to hereditary honors and aristocratic rank," says his biographer, "with the history of the past before him, in possession of an estate which connected him nearly with feudal times and a feudal ancestry, and which constituted him in his boyhood a baronial proprietor, he found himself, at twenty-one, through a forcible and bloody revolution, the mere fee-simple owner of acres, with just such political rights and privileges as belonged to his own freehold tenantry, and no other." And though the Revolution, in giving his country independence, had stripped him of power and personal advantages, he accepted the change without regret, and preferred his position as one in a whole nation of freemen, to that feudal rank which he had inherited from generations of ancestors, as the Boy Patroon, the last Lord of the Manor of Rensselaerswyck.

From the patrician emperor of old Rome to the patrician citizen of modern America these sketches of Historic Boys have extended. They represent but a few from that long list of remarkable boys, who, through the ages, have left their mark upon their times,—lads who, even had they died "in their teens," would still have been worthy of record as "historic boys." The lessons of their lives are manifold. They tell of pride and selfishness, of tyranny and wasted power, of self-reliance and courage, of ambition and self-conquest, of patience and manliness. History is but the record of opportunities for action availed of or neglected. And opportunities are never wanting. They exist to-day in the cities of the New World, even as they did ages ago with young David in the valley of Elah, with the boy Marcus in the forum of Rome, or with the valiant young Harry of Monmouth striving for victory on the bloody field of Shrewsbury.

Whenever or wherever a manly boy says his word for justice and for right, or does his simple duty in a simple, straightforward way, regardless of consequences or of the world's far too-ready sneer or frown, the stamp of the hero may be seen; and however humble his condition or contracted his sphere there is in him the mettle and the possibilities that may make him, even though he know it not, a worthy claimant for an honored place on the world's record of Historic Boys.

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