Stephen Van Rensselaer, III

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Stephen Van Rensselaer, III

Also Known As: ""The Patroon""
Birthplace: New York, United States
Death: January 26, 1839 (74)
New Brunswick, New Jersey, United States
Place of Burial: Albany, NY, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Stephen van Rensselaer II and Catherine Livingston Van Rensselaer Westerlo
Husband of Peggy Schuyler and Cornelia van Rensselaer
Father of General Stephen Van Rensselaer IV; William Paterson Van Rensselaer; Philip Stephen Van Rensselaer; Brig. Gen. Henry Bell Van Rensselaer; Alexander Van Rensselaer and 2 others
Brother of Philip Schuyler Van Rensselaer and Elizabeth Van Rensselaer
Half brother of Rep. Rensselaer Westerlo; Catherine Westerlo and Johanna Westerlo

Occupation: Financier, attended Princeton Univ. and graduated from Harvard Univ., Lt. Gov. of NY, Maj. General in War of 1812, US Congressman, founder of Renesselaer Politechnic Institute, 10th richest American of all time.
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About Stephen Van Rensselaer, III

General Stephen Van Rennselaer was a Major General in the New York State Militia during the War of 1812, and he commanded troops along the northern frontier. Stephen Van Rensselaer was badly defeated by the British at the Battle of Queenston Heights on October 12, 1812, and he resigned his post shortly thereafter.

Stephen Van Rensselaer III was born in New York City in 1764 - the first child of Stephen Van Rensselaer II and Catharina Livingston. He grew up at the Van Rensselaer Manor House - home of the most advantaged family in the Upper Hudson region. Losing his father at age five, he was looked after by his uncle, Abraham Ten Broeck - trustee or administrator the Van Rensselaer estate. In 1775, his mother married Domine Westerlo.

Raised to succeed to the title "Lord of the Manor," young Stephen was sent away to study. He graduated from Harvard in 1782.

He married Margarita, the daughter of General Philip Schuyler, on June 6, 1783. At age nineteen, he was six years younger than his bride. After bearing three children, she died in 1801. In 1802, he married Cornelia Patterson, daughter of the governor of New Jersey. She was the mother of ten children born between 1803 and 1820.

On reaching his twenty-first birthday, he took title to the family estate called Rensselaerswyck or "Van Rensselaer's Manor." His long tenure as Manor Lord spanned Albany's transformation.

In 1788, his first ward lot was valued substantially.

By 1790, he was established in the Van Rensselaer Manor House located on the road north of Albany in what was then Watervliet. At that time, he was by far the wealthiest infividual in the Albany area and his estate was served by fifteen slaves.

He served as lieutenant governor of New York State, general of the state militia, as a member of the United States House of Representatives, and was the founder of Renssselaer Polytechnic Institute. 

Stephen Van Rensselaer III died in 1839 at the age of seventy-five." He is remembered in local lore as "The Last Patroon" and "The Good Patroon."

Stephen Van Rensselaer III (November 1, 1764 – January 26, 1839) was Lieutenant Governor of New York as well as a statesman, soldier, and land-owner, the heir to one of the greatest estates in the New York region at the time. He was the father of Henry Bell Van Rensselaer, who was a politician and general in the Union Army during the American Civil War. His younger brother Philip Schuyler Van Rensselaer (1767-1824) was Mayor of Albany, New York from 1799-1812.

Early Life - Van Rensselaer was born in New York City, the eldest child of Stephen Van Rensselaer II (a great-grandson of Mayor of New York Stephanus Van Cortlandt) and Catharina Livingston (daughter of Philip Livingston). His family was very wealthy, and the van Rensselaer Manor House was a rich childhood environment for the young boy to grow up in. However, his father died in 1769, when van Rensselaer was only five, and the heir to his father's estate.

Van Rensselaer was raised by his uncle, Abraham Ten Broeck, who administered the Van Rensselaer estate after van Rensselaer II's untimely death. At an early age, Van Rensselaer III was raised to succeed his father as lord of the manor, and the remarriage of his mother to Dominie Westerlo in 1775 did nothing to change this.

To this end he was sent off to school, and in 1782, van Rensselaer graduated from Harvard University. One year later, he married Margarita Schuyler, the daughter of renowned Revolutionary War general Philip Schuyler. Van Rensselaer was only nineteen years old, but Margarita's death in 1801 would cause him to enter into his second marriage one year later with Cornelia Paterson, daughter of former New Jersey Governor William Paterson.

On his 21st birthday, van Rensselaer took possession of his family's prestigious estate, close to 1,200 square miles (31,000 km²) in size, named Rensselaerswyck, and began a long tenure as lord of his family's manor. Van Rensselaer desired to make money off of the land that was suddenly his, but was extremely reluctant to sell it off.

Instead, he granted tenants perpetual leases at moderate rates, which saved would-be landholders from having to pay all of their money up front. This meant that they could invest more in their operations, which led to increased productivity in the area. Over time, van Rensselaer would become landlord over 3,000 tenants, and proved a lenient and benevolent landowner. His tenants, who did not have to work in fear of sudden foreclosure or unfair treatment, were able to focus on their work, and the productivity Van Rensselaer created benefited the entire Albany area.

Politics and the War of 1812 - Van Rensselaer also spent a great deal of time in political pursuits; it is said that he did this more out of a sense of duty than of ambition. He served in the New York State Assembly from 1789 to 1791 and the New York State Senate from 1791 to 1796, being named Lieutenant Governor of the state in 1795. Van Rensselaer, over his time in politics, acquired a reputation as something of a reformer, voting in favour of extending suffrage and going against much of New York's upper class in doing so.

In 1786, van Rensselaer was made a major of the United States militia, which set him on a brief military career. Though the military was not Rensselaer's major pursuit, he was a militia major-general by 1801, a path which would come to a head during the War of 1812. Van Rensselaer, despite having held high rank in the militia for several decades, was, like most American militia officers at the time, virtually untrained and inexperienced. Clearly, van Rensselaer was not a good choice to command an entire American army, but politics as much as military tactics dictated many of the military appointments of the day.

Van Rensselaer was a leading opposition candidate for Governor of New York, and he made the incumbent Daniel D. Tompkins quite wary of running against him. Therefore, the Democratic-Republican Tompkins devised a way to remove Van Rensselaer from the picture. He did this by offering him command of the United States Army of the Centre. If van Rensselaer, who was, technically, a militia major-general, declined the post, then he would lose esteem in the eyes of the voters. If he accepted, he would be unable to run for Governor with the Federalists. If van Rensselaer proved a poor general (which seemed likely), he would be discredited and his reputation would be damaged. However, even if Van Rensselaer proved a natural and was able to do well, he would not be able to run for Governor because the military powers-that-be would refuse to remove him. Tompkins' clever maneuvering had eliminated his main rival, but it had given short shrift to the war that had only just begun.

Van Rensselaer accepted the post, and with his decidedly more soldierly cousin Solomon as his aide-de-camp, attempted to safeguard the honour of his country in the war (despite the fact that, as a Federalist, he had been against the war in the first place). But the Army of the Centre consisted largely of soldiers like himself — untrained, inexperienced militiamen, who, under the Constitution, did not actually have to cross over into Canada to fight. The British were in the process of fortifying the Queenston Heights that van Rensselaer would have to attack, and his officers were itching for action despite their general's desire to delay. To make matters worse, Brigadier-General Alexander Smyth, van Rensselaer's subordinate, had a large force of trained regulars that was theoretically under van Rensselaer's overall command. However, Smyth, a regular soldier, continuously refused to obey Van Rensselaer's commands or answer his summons. With his officers planning to try and force van Rensselaer out, the General saw that he had to act without Smyth against the fortified Queenston Heights position. It was a prodigious miscalculation.

On October 13, 1812, van Rensselaer launched an attack on the British position that would evolve into the Battle of Queenston Heights, in which Van Rensselaer's forces were badly beaten by the British generals Isaac Brock and, after Brock's death, Roger Hale Sheaffe. Van Rensselaer's preparations and his plan of attack were clearly a major reason for the scale of the defeat. He was unable to secure the element of surprise, he did not procure enough boats for his men to cross easily, and he was even unable to supply his soldiers with sufficient ammunition. Despite significantly outnumbering the British in the early stages of the battle, the American soldiers, untried and untrained, sometimes refused to cross the river. Van Rensselaer was not even able to coax the boatmen into going back over to rescue the doomed attack force. The defeat at Queenston Heights spelled the end to Van Rensselaer's military career, and after the battle, he resigned his post. Van Rensselaer's political ambitions were far from over, but, as Daniel Tompkins had hoped, Van Rensselaer would never become Governor of New York: He lost the gubernatorial election in April 1813 to Tompkins - Tompkins 43,324 votes, Van Rensselaer 39,718.

Later Life - After the war, Van Rensselaer still enjoyed a fair measure of popularity, and still had the energy to try to serve his country. He was on the canal commission for twenty-three years (1816 – 1839), fourteen of which he served as its president. In 1821, he was a member of the New York State Constitutional Convention, and two years later, he was elected by special election to the seat in the House of Representatives that his cousin Solomon had vacated. He served from February 27, 1822 to March 3, 1829, during the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth Congresses; during the last three sessions, he was the chairman of the Committee on Agriculture. During this time he memorably cast the vote that put John Quincy Adams in the White House at the expense of Andrew Jackson.

After 1829, van Rensselaer did not stand for re-election, and retired from political life to focus on educational and public welfare interests. He was regent of the State University of New York from 1819 to 1839.

Van Rensselaer was a Freemason, and twice served as Grand Master of Masons for New York.

Despite his active life, van Rensselaer's most lasting contribution to the world was to establish, with Amos Eaton, the Rensselaer School (now known as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, or RPI) "for the purpose of instructing persons, who may choose to apply themselves, in the application of science to the common purposes of life" in 1824. RPI became a well-respected American technological institution.

Stephen van Rensselaer III died in 1839, aged 74. He was buried on his family plot, but was later reinterred in the Albany Rural Cemetery.

Other relatives of the Van Rensselaer family in Congress:

Jeremiah Van Rensselaer 1741-1810

Killian Van Rensselaer 1763-1845

Solomon Van Rensselaer 1774-1852

This article incorporates facts obtained from the public domain Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.


Birth: Nov. 1, 1764 Death: Jan. 26, 1839

US Congressman, Lieutenant Governor of New York, New York State Senator, Educator. He was the fifth and last Dutch Patroon in direct descent from the first Patroon Kiliaen Van Rensselaer. He inherited a vast landed estate in Rensselaer and Albany counties when he was only five years old. His marriage to Cornelia Bell Paterson, daughter of polititian William Paterson, helped form a transition from the old order to the politics of the young nation. After being graduated from Harvard he served the New York state assembly from Albany County followed by the state senate and Lieutenant Governor of New York from 1795-1801. He was in the US Army during the War of 1812. Following the war he was elected in 1821 as the US Representative from New York and would serve in Congress until 1929. His vision and support enabled Amos Eaton to found the Rensselaer School in 1824 which later became Rensselaer Polytechinic Institute. It was “...the first school of science and school of civil engineering, which has had a continuous existence, to be established in any English-speaking country” according to Palmer C. Ricketts in his preface to the second edition of his History of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (1914). He was known to be a lenient landlord for over 3000 tenants. His son Henry Bell Van Rensselaer followed him to also become a US Congressman. He was first buried in the family vault at the Van Rensselaer Manor House, but was later reinterred in the family lot at Menands when that home was demolished. (bio by: D C McJonathan-Swarm)

Family links:

 Stephen van Rensselaer (1742 - 1769)
 Catherine Livingston Van Rensselaer Westerlo (1745 - 1810)

 Margaret Schuyler Van Rensselaer (1758 - 1801)
 Cornelia Bell Paterson Van Rensselaer (1780 - 1844)

 Catherine Schuyler Van Rensselaer (1784 - 1787)*
 Stephanus Van Rensselaer (1786 - 1787)*
 Stephen van Rensselaer (1789 - 1868)*
 William Paterson Van Rensselaer (1805 - 1872)*
 Philip Stephen Van Rensselaer (1806 - 1871)*
 Cortlandt Van Rensselaer (1808 - 1860)*
 Henry Bell Van Rensselaer (1810 - 1864)*
 Euphemia White Van Rensselaer Cruger (1816 - 1888)*
 Westerlo Van Rensselaer (1820 - 1844)*

 Stephen Van Rensselaer (1764 - 1839)
 Rensselaer Westerlo (1776 - 1851)**
  • Calculated relationship
    • Half-sibling

Burial: Albany Rural Cemetery Menands Albany County New York, USA

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Maintained by: Find A Grave Record added: Jan 01, 2001 Find A Grave Memorial# 864

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Stephen Van Rensselaer, III's Timeline

November 1, 1764
New York, United States
March 29, 1789
Age 24
Albany, NY, United States
Age 40
October 14, 1806
Age 41
Albany, Albany County, New York, United States
May 26, 1808
Age 43
Albany, Albany County, New York, United States
May 14, 1810
Age 45
Albany, NY, United States
Age 49
September 25, 1816
Age 51
Albany, Albany County, New York, United States
January 26, 1839
Age 74
New Brunswick, New Jersey, United States