We have Hamilton to thank for turning the Schuyler sisters into historic celebrities. In their onstage embodiments, they bring to light the underlying force that women played during America’s most revolutionary period. All highly intellectual, the sisters – Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy – found their voices through letters, records, and societal ties that ultimately forged the lasting legacies for which they now are known.
But where did their fire come from?
Twenty-two years before Angelica Schuyler was born, her mother, Catherine Schuyler, was the leading lady of Albany. Born into a family of legacy (Do the names Livingston or Van Rensselaer sound familiar?), Schuyler was a force to be reckoned with – perhaps even more so than her daughters were. In the book, Catherine Schuyler: A Woman of the Revolution, author Mary Gay Humphreys shines the light on one of the Hudson Valley’s earliest female leaders. Although the book was first published in 1897, it’s now back in print after more than 100 years off the market thanks to Warwick’s HVA Press. Read on for a glimpse into the woman’s lasting impact on the Hudson Valley.
As far as royalty in the Hudson Valley goes, Catherine Schuyler is as close to it gets. Born Catherine Van Rensselaer in 1734, she represented the union of the Van Rensselaers (her father was John Van Rensselaer) and the Livingstons (her mother was Engeltie Livingston). By the time she married her husband, General Philip Schuyler, at the Albany Dutch Church in 1755, she was already known as “a lady of great shape and gentility” and “delicate but perfect in form and feature…well educated in comparison with others, of sprightly temperament, possessed of great firmness and will,” Gay Humphreys writes.
Early in their marriage, the couple resided at The Schuyler House, Philip Schuyler’s family home at the corner of State and South Pearl Streets in Albany. By 1761, with the three most famous Schuyler daughters now born into the family, the Schuylers relocated to Schuyler Mansion just outside the heart of the city. Philip and Catherine, who continued to have a number of sons and daughters beyond their first three, would call this estate home for the rest of their lives.
Because Philip Schuyler served as an American general, he was often away from the couple’s home base in Albany. Instead of leaving the mansion, and its 80 acres, in the hands of a property manager, he gave full control to Catherine when he was gone. More unusually, he even included this in his will, stipulating that Catherine was to be the sole supervisor of the estate.
“When he was absent she was his representative, acting not upon orders but according to her judgment,” explains Gay Humphreys. While household management was enough of a burden in itself, Catherine faced the added responsibility of caring for her children. Yet in the heart of the developing Capital Region, she and her little ones found ways to keep busy, whether by visiting nearby farming families or spending winter afternoons on sleighs with friends.
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According to Gay Humphreys, Native Americans were not uncommon in the Albany area. On the contrary, they were regular visitors to the Schuyler property, which boasted shady trees that provided a welcome respite during sunny days.
“Under the shade of the overhanging trees the friendly Indians were accustomed to plant their wigwams, sharing in the benefits of the Schuyler’s great house,” Gay Humphreys explains. “Here the children were accustomed to play together, the boys learning the arts of wood and field from the Indian boys, the girls picking up all sorts of tricks in weaving and plaiting from the Indian girls, and all talking a curious language of English, Dutch, and Indian.”
It was a quiet, sunny Sunday morning in May 1775 when the Schulyers learned of the start of the American Revolution. They were at the county parish with the Capital Region community when a horseman dashed onto the grounds and handed his message to the most distinguished person present.
“It was Philip Schuyler, and he read to his neighbors the news of the battle of Lexington,” Gay Humphreys notes. As the congregation listened in silence to his words, they were struck by the solemnity of the speech and the significance of the speaker. “The scene was afterward described by an old man, a boy then: ‘He was the oracle of the neighborhood…His popularity was unbounded; his views on all subjects were considered sound and his anticipations prophetic.’”
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In 1775, a medical condition forced General Schuyler to leave his regiment and take solace at Fort Ticonderoga. During that time, Catherine came to the rescue to care for him and journey with him back to Albany. Her travels to the military base were by no means easy, but she persevered in the name of her husband and her station. As she once said, “A general’s wife should not know fear.”
“The itinerary of this dangerous and melancholy journey has been made out,” says Gay Humphreys. “It is a romantic region, as every tourist knows who has made the journey from Saratoga through Glenn’s Falls to Caldwell and the head of Lake George. Mrs. Schuyler, accompanied only by an aide-de-camp, went in an open wagon to McNeill’s ferry, where they were taken across the Hudson in a flat-bottomed boat.”
After a voyage that included a six-mile wagon ride, a riverboat cruise to Fort Edward, and a passage through a dense forest, Catherine finally arrived at Fort Ticonderoga to ease her husband’s pains.
“Here she cared for him until he was able to resume his duties, and then hastened back to her Albany home,” Gay Humphreys adds.
Intrigued by the woman who paved the way for the Schuyler sisters (and their siblings)? Visit HVA Press to read more about Catherine Schuyler: A Woman of the Revolution or order it online or from a bookstore near you.