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Van Cortlandt Manor

 The Manor House

Van Cortlandt Manor
Lee Northshield

        The Van Cortlandt Manor, as it is restored today, provides a clear view of life at the manor during its most colorful and prosperous period and of the Van Cortlandts at the heights of their historic eminence and contribution to the development of the manor at Croton. As the manor and its lands were acquired, settled, developed, and dispersed, the parallel political, social, and economic importance of the Van Cortlandt family can be seen.
        The first Van Cortlandt in America, Oloff, came to New Amsterdam in 1638 as an employee of the Dutch West India Company. When the Company permitted independent businesses, he left the Company and began a career as a merchant, achieving both wealth and prominence as a merchant and politician. After the English took control of New York, he became an alderman and deputy Mayor. In 1642, he married Annette Lookermanns, the daughter of a well-to-do Dutch merchant. Their children married into other large Hudson Valley landholders' families and soon the Van Cortlandt family was connected by marriage with most of the eminent New York families of the time.1162004_124403_0.png  Oloff's oldest son, Stephanus, pursued careers in business and politics concurrently. He, too, married well. His wife was Gertruyd Schuyler. Among his political accomplishments, he held the position of Mayor of New York and Chief Justice of the New York Provincial Supreme Court, the latter being one of the highest honors being accorded to a colonial.
        Stephanus began acquiring land between Croton and Peekskill from the Indians as early as 1677 and by 1697 his landholdings in this area had grown to 200 square miles from Croton Bay north to the highlands and east to the Connecticut line. The various portions of the Manor were purchased by barter from the Indians beginning about the year 1683. For one large section consisting of several thousand acres the agreement ran, “for and in consideration of the sum of twelve pounds in wampum and several other merchandises.” Appended, the schedule of other merchandises mentioned in the deed included: 8 Guns, 9 Blankets, 5 Coats, 14 Fathoms of Duffels, 14 Kettles, 12 Shirts, 50 Pounds Powder, 30 Bars Lead, 18 Hatchets, 18 Hoes, 40 Fathoms Black Wampum, 80 Fathoms White Wampum, 2 Ankers of Rum, 5 Half Vats strong Beer, 8 Earthen Jugs, 14 Knives, 1 Small Coat, 6 Fathoms of Stroud Cloth, 6 Pairs of Stockings and 6 Tobacco Boxes.
        In 1697, a Royal Patent was issued designating the estate the Lordship and Manor of Cortlandt. Stephanus was the first and only Lord of the Manor of Cortlandt. As a traditional Dutchman, he willed the estate to all of his immediate heirs rather than solely to this oldest son and so the opportunity arose in the next generation for the property to be dissipated. Stephanus Van Cortlandt became a man of extensive business interests, and was one of the most influential men of his time in the affairs of the Province. From 1677, when he was appointed the first native American Mayor of the City of New York, he held that office almost consecutively until his death.
        During his brief ownership (he died in 1700), Stephanus continued to live in New York. It is assumed, however, that a stone structure existed on the site when he bought it, or was erected soon after. According to family tradition, Stephanus' wife is thought to have visited the manor more often than her husband, making the trip from New York to Croton by water. In addition to the house, the site is believed to have been a hunting lodge or part of an Indian trading post or fort, it is thought that a saw and grist mill may have existed on the property at this time.
        In 1732, several years after the death of Gertruyd Van Cortlandt, the manor was surveyed and divided. The front or river Lot #1 went to Stephanus' son, Philip, along with the South Lot #1 on the south side of the Croton River. The manor house and 10,000 acres comprised the extent of this property. In addition to the properties in Croton, Philip acquired his father's house in New York where he maintained his permanent residence. Philip and his family visited the manor more than Stephanus had, often to hunt and fish.
        Philip Van Cortlandt, like his father and grandfather, was a merchant as well as a political figure. He also married well, taking Catherine de Peyster as his wife in 1710. Philip sat on the Provincial Council from 1730 to 1740 and in 1740 was a member of a mission sent to Albany to make a treaty with the Iroquois Indians. It was during Philip's ownership of the manor that increased traffic had come to require a ferry across the Croton River. This ferry, rented to a tenant operator, formed an important link in the developing overland route from New York to Albany.
        When Philip died in 1747, his two surviving sons divided his estate. Stephen inherited Philip's house in New York and Pierre the manor house in Croton.

The Ferry House

        Pierre Van Cortlandt was the first family member to establish the manor as his permanent home. Pierre, who had married Joanna Livingston, brought her and his baby son, Philip, to live at Croton in 1749; 52 years after Stephanus had acquired it. It was under the management of Pierre and Joanna that the most colorful period of the manor's history began. Like all of his relatives before him, Pierre was both a merchant and a politician. While things at the manor were peaceful and happy, tension was mounting between the Colonies and the Crown. Pierre Van Cortlandt occupied the manor's seat in the provincial assembly and was greatly concerned about the Revenue measures enacted by the British Parliament. Many of his tenants had Tory sympathies as did some members of other families to whom the Van Cortlandts were linked by marriage. Pierre, however, was a Patriot and sat in several of the revolutionary provincial congresses. He attended the meeting of the Fourth Provincial Congress at White Plains that gave New York's ratification to the Declaration of Independence on July 9, 1776. He presided over the convention in 1777 which drafted the first Constitution of the State of New York. In the first election held under the new Constitution, Pierre was elected to the State Senate. The senate made him its presiding officer and, soon thereafter, Lieutenant Governor of the State. During much of the Revolutionary War, Pierre served as Acting Governor while George Clinton, who held a military command, was away from Albany much of the time.
1162004_124526_1.png        Prior to the Revolution, Pierre and Joanna were making improvements on the manor and the manor house. The interior of the house was plastered and the broad porch was added. Slaves were brought in to work in the main house. Apple orchards were planted, and a barn, cow house, and bee house were built west of the house. A carpenter and blacksmith shop was added. A brick kiln was built to the east along the Croton River.
        The manor had become a self-sufficient community with a position of social and economic importance to the Hudson River Valley. With the flaring of hostilities in the fall of 1776, the flour mill on the river was requisitioned to make flour for the Continental Army. It was during that year, that the Van Cortlandts evacuated the manor house and moved to Peekskill (and later farther up river to Rhinebeck), taking many of the Van Cortlandt family possessions. This turned out to be fortunate; the manor house was plundered by the British as they advanced up the Hudson in 1779. While Pierre was busy with the legislature during the Revolution, his son, Philip, was active in the military.
        Philip Van Cortlandt had an outstanding military career. He began as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Fourth Battalion of the New York Infantry. In 1776, General Washington made him Colonel of the Second New York Regiment. He briefly served as an aide to Washington and commanded troops under Lafayette, fought at the Battles of Saratoga and Yorktown and was a member of the military court martial that tried Benedict Arnold. After the American victory, Brigadier General Philip Van Cortlandt and Lieutenant Governor Pierre Van Cortlandt, his father, attended ceremonies celebrating the grand entry of George Washington into New York. With the war's end, General Van Cortlandt returned to the manor house. Because of the manor's plundered state, Pierre and Joanna remained in Peekskill until 1803.

The Dining Room

        Soon after the war, the various enterprises on the manor were once again thriving. New mills were built on both sides of the Croton River. Both sawmills were back in operation. The ferry house came into its own, as the linking-up of local roads had created a continuous roadway from New York to Albany. Weekly service on the stage coach was established on the Albany Post Road in 1784. The Van Cortlandt Ferry House provided refreshment and lodging to the travelers on these stages as well as a meeting place for local tenants and landholders.
        During this period of rebuilding after the war, Philip became the first Supervisor of the Town of Cortlandt, a State Assemblyman, a State Senator, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and a Presidential Elector in 1812. It was Philip Van Cortlandt, with his sister Catherine Van Wyck and her children, who had been responsible for the rebuilding of the manor house. When Philip died unmarried in 1831, he left a share of his property to Catherine's son Philip, his favorite nephew. Philip Van Wyck and his family lived in the manor house until Pierre III, son of Philip's brother Pierre, came of age. Pierre III had been a young boy during the Revolution. In 1836, he moved into the manor house with his bride Catherine Beck. They lived a quiet life at the manor and in 1895 the house passed to their living children, Catherine Van Cortlandt Matthews, James Stevenson Van Cortlandt, and Ann Stevenson Van Cortlandt. They remained until Ann Stevenson Van Cortlandt died in 1941 and willed the manor to her nieces (Catherine Matthews' daughters), Catherine Matthews and Mrs. William V. Mason and Mrs. Mason's daughter, Mrs. Robert Browne. In 1945, the manor house was sold outside the Van Cortlandt family for the first time in 250 years. Otis Taylor bought it in 1945. Upon his death in 1948, Jerome Britchey acquired it. He took down the barns and built the Starlite Drive-In where they had stood. In 1953, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. acquired the manor house and 5 acres of land and began the restoration of the manor house and grounds. As the restoration of the manor as it appeared in the 1800's was undertaken, he acquired more of the manor lands, obtaining approximately 17 acres.1162004_124627_2.png        In 1836, the manor as it existed was ordered to be mapped by Pierre III. These maps show the manor house, the outbuildings, lawns, orchards planted by Pierre I, the Bethel Chapel built in 1795 on the old Albany Post Road, and the adjacent cemetery, the mills, the ferry and the ferry house, and existing bridges. Insofar as the dam was begun at this time and the width of the Croton River was considerably diminished, it is now possible to see the original sites of the mills and dams and bridges which were once on the water's edge but which are now on dry land. During the lifetime of the manor a number of bridges were built across the Croton River, but due to floods and high waters, only remnants of them remain to show their location.
        The Van Cortlandt manor house, as it has now been restored, provides an effective look at the manor during its period of greatest local and national importance and prosperity.

Click Here to see a time line depicting the transition of owners the Manor experienced. The Manor remained in the property of a direct heir of Stephanus Van Cortlandt until 1945.