Rembrandt Peale portrait of Martha Washington | Wikimedia Commons, National Portrait Gallery
Explore the lives of Martha Washington, Janet Livingston Montgomery, and Catheryna Rombout Brett for Women’s History Month.
In 1987, the National Women’s History Project petitioned Congress to expand Women’s History Week to include the entire month of March. Since then, the National Women’s History Month Resolution has been approved each year with bipartisan support in the House and Senate. Of course, the Hudson Valley has no shortage of important female historical figures. Here are three with a particularly long-lasting impact on the region.
Catheryna Rombout Brett
Brett’s father, Francis Rombout, was a prosperous fur trader and prominent citizen in New Amsterdam (aka New York City). Rombout purchased 85,000 acres of Valley land from the Wappinger Indians, about one-third of which was left to his daughter, Catheryna (pronounced Katrina) when she was four years old. Twelve years later, Catheryna married British naval officer Roger Brett. Five years after that, the couple — along with their children and slaves — moved to the “land in the Wappins” (as her father referred to it).
The Bretts hired a Long Island architect to build a Dutch-style house. That home, now known as the Madam Brett Homestead, remained in the family over the next seven generations — nearly 250 years.
Tragically, Catheryna became a widow when Roger Brett drowned after being knocked off his sailing sloop by the boom. Undaunted, she remained in the wilderness, raised three sons, and ran several successful business ventures — including the gristmill at the mouth of the Fishkill Creek. She legally defended her boundaries and managed her estate personally — no easy feat in the early 18th century. “After her husband died, many people encroached upon her property and even hired natives to scare her off her land,” says Lorraine MacAulay, curator of the homestead. “But she was friendly with the natives. She met in the woods with local judges to look over the surveys and confirm her boundaries. And she rode her property lines every day.”
Brett is buried under the pulpit of the First Reformed Church of Fishkill, which she helped to found. In 1800, her great-granddaughter, Alice Schenck Teller, bought and remodeled the house, and it became known as the Teller Mansion. It stayed in the Teller family until 1954 when it was nearly demolished and replaced by a supermarket. In the nick of time, the Melzingah chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution bought it and turned it into a museum.
Brett should be remembered as the “First Lady of the Hudson Highlands,” MacAulay says. “She was educated, successful in marriage and — as a single mother — successful in business. She is a good role model.”
Visiting Madam Brett Homestead:
Maintained by the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Madam Brett Homestead sits on the nearly six acres that remain from Catheryna Brett’s original inheritance of more than 28,000 acres. The home features hand-hewn cedar shingles, sloped dormers, Dutch doors, and a native stone foundation. Original furnishings include a significant collection of China-trade porcelain; original Georgian, Empire, and Victorian furniture; early dolls, textiles, and tools; a punch bowl presented by Lafayette; and original items belonging to Catheryna Brett.
Tours are held from 1-4 p.m. on the second Saturday of the month, May through December
In 1781, George Washington had already defeated the British Army at Yorktown — but he knew that the Revolutionary War was far from over. The enemy still had 13,000 troops in New York City, and another 17,000 in Charleston and Savannah. A peace treaty would not be signed until 1783. That made the years in between rather perilous for the colonists. In fact, Washington later admitted that, during this time, the war came as close to being lost as at any time since it began.
Between April 1782 and August 1783, Washington made his headquarters in Newburgh. It was there that some of his most important decisions regarding the end of the war and the beginning of the new republic were made. And he did all this with his beloved wife, Martha, at his side.
Martha Washington spent a total of 12 months in the Hudson Valley, says Kathleen Mitchell, interpretive programs assistant at the Washington Headquarters State Historic Site. “She came here on April 1, 1782, left in July to manage their home in Mount Vernon, and returned in November,” Mitchell says.
Martha was a major influence on the events of the time. “Their personal life is not recorded much, but she must have been his sounding board,” Mitchell says. She was also a trusted assistant, performing clerical duties such as copying military orders; maintaining George’s personal correspondence and expenses; and managing the household, which included entertaining the important military officers, political figures, and guests who visited constantly.
And she did it all with an amiability that belied her difficult living conditions. “This was a very stark environment, and she was very wealthy and could have wanted to go home,” Mitchell says. “But she was willing to make any sacrifice to be there for him.”
Martha’s time here was critically important to the Valley and the country. She supported her husband as he negotiated with a contentious Congress, dealt with his troops, and defused a potential mutiny among his officers. Even though Washington could have anointed himself king, he rejected any suggestion of an American monarchy. He understood the direction the country should take — and so did his wife. “They were very conscious of not being royalty,” Mitchell says. “They were American, not aristocratic.”
Visiting Washington Headquarters State Historic Site:
The nation’s first publicly owned historic site (it opened July 4, 1850), the Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site includes Washington’s office, Martha’s bedchamber (which she used as her office), and their dining room and dressing rooms. The grounds offer sweeping views of the river and Newburgh-Beacon Bridge; the museum will bring in new exhibits this year.
Tours by reservation November to mid-April. Tours during museum hours from mid-April through October on Wed.-Sat. 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., Sun. 1-4 p.m. $7, $5 seniors & students, under 13 free
Janet Livingston Montgomery
One of Martha Washington’s local friends was Janet Livingston Montgomery. She and her husband, Richard Montgomery, came from two of the earliest and wealthiest families that settled in the Valley. When Richard became the first officer killed in the Revolutionary War — at the Battle of Quebec in 1775 — Janet took on an even more important role: the country’s first widow.
“She became an 18th-century Jackie Kennedy,” says Raymond Armater, executive site director of Montgomery Place Historic Estate in Annandale-on-Hudson. “With his death, the nation starts to mourn the war, and the family represents the ultimate patriots.”
Just 35 years old at the time, Janet would outlive her husband by 53 years. And much like Jackie, she helped preserve her husband’s memory while still making a life of her own. The memorial is Montgomery Place. “She builds the place as a shrine to her husband,” Armater says. “And time is good to her cause. The house is finished in 1804, and soon after that Fulton’s steamboat comes to the river. The Hudson Valley became a place of pilgrimage for tourists. Boat tours would slow down at Revolutionary War sites like West Point and Kingston, as well as Montgomery Place.”
But Janet was far more than just an icon. She was also a descendent of early Dutch landowners. The Dutch empowered women to be strong businesspeople. Her estate was a working farm, producing fruit trees, lumber, and other products of the land. Indeed, Montgomery Place is still a working farm — one of the last historic riverfront estates that remains in business.
She also stayed interested in the business of the new country. She visited the Washingtons often, and attended the ball after his first inauguration. In 1825, the Marquis de Lafayette called on her at Montgomery Place during his return visit to America.
But perhaps the most telling image of her comes to pass in 1818, when her husband’s remains were moved from Quebec to New York City. On July 4, the boat that carried him down the Hudson passed by her home. Janet, standing on her porch to watch, fainted at the sight, 43 years after his death.
“Hers is a politics-slash-love story,” Armater says. “Here’s this young couple, amazingly in love, he’s killed, she never remarries, remains totally devoted to his memory, and also plays an important role in the political and economic growth of the country.”
Visiting Montgomery Place:
Montgomery Place, a 380-acre estate, is centered around the mansion, which features a Classical Revival exterior. But a significant highlight of the site is its grounds. The terrace and north pavilion serve up glorious views of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains. The woodland trails, laid out more than 100 years ago, lead through a hemlock and mixed hardwood forest to the postcard-worthy waterfalls of the Saw Kill. Lush perennial, annual, and herb gardens dot the grounds, and you can even buy fruit produced by the estate’s orchards at the site’s farmstand.
Grounds open daily from dawn to dusk year-round. Admission is free. House tours are temporarily suspended.