Sara Gansevoort

Shirley A. Rice

SaraThe Christmas season brought the family together at the Maiden Lane home of Leonard and Catharina De Wandelaer Gansevoort. In 1731, however, there was no holiday celebration. During the bountiful weeks of autumn, the people of colonial Albany could only watch as a smallpox epidemic claimed the lives of friends and neighbors. That year the harvest was gathered with little joy. A score of families already had lost one or more children; their deaths recorded in the deacon's account books at the Dutch church. Despite countless prayers, the Gansevoorts were not spared. Sara, aged thirteen, and her infant sister, Agnes, were buried in the church cemetery on the last day of December, 1731. Six other children of Leonard and Catharina survived - either avoiding the disease altogether, or strong enough to resist the high fevers that preceded the eruption of ugly, oozing sores. The local physician who attend Sara and Agnes could offer little but sympathy.

Yellow fever - carried by mosquitoes, and smallpox - an infectious virus, periodically ravaged the seventeenth and eighteenth-century community. The close proximity of Albany housing accelerated the spread of any outbreak. Pigs and cows, stabled in the muddy, poorly drained pens behind each house, attracted the insects and other pests responsible for these diseases. Sharing beds, eating utensils, and clothing, children were especially vulnerable.

Arrangements for Sara's funeral were made by an "inviter, " who was engaged to contact friends and relatives. He also provided madeira, cakes, and tobacco at the church parlor for the guests, some of whom traveled many miles to mourn the family's loss. Fatalities diminished after the beginning of the year, as cold weather tempered the severity of the attack. That winter, hardly an Albany family remained untouched by tragedy.

Sara's portrait, painted by Nehemiah Partridge, is graphic evidence of her parent's affection. She surely would be missed. At thirteen, she was old enough to supervise the younger children and to help Catharina cook, spin, and weave. Sara's skill with a needle delighted her mother. On the parlor table, a lap frame stretched the sampler she had worked in delicately tinted yarns over a linen canvas. Sara intended to finish it in time for her father's birthday. Carefully dyeing the soft stands of imported merino wool, she selected the verse and arranged the border design, displaying a sophisticated sense of color and balance. Catharina removed the half-finished piece from the stretchers and, gently folding it, placed it into the mahogany kas at the end of the room. Now, one of the younger girls would finish it. It was in this quiet way that Sara lived and died within a loving circle of family and friends.

Sara's family is chiefly remembered today by General Peter Gansevoort, a hero of the Fort Stanwix campaign in the Revolutionary War; by Gansevoort Street in Albany - near the southern boundary of the original city; and by the village of Gansevoort in Saratoga County.


Article written by then Research Associate Shirley Rice appeared in Women of Colonial Albany: A Community History Calendar for 1986 (Albany, 1985). The "Women" calendar featured biographical essays on twelve early Albany women and was marketed as a holiday gift/historical program.

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