Robert Livingston


Robert LivingstonAlthough never elected to local office, the first American Robert Livingston probably was the most important person to live in colonial Albany.

Born in Scotland in 1654, the fourteenth child of John Livingston and Janet Fleming, he followed his father, a refugee Calvinist minister, to the Netherlands in 1663. Considerably younger and not close to his siblings, young Robert grew up in Rotterdam learning the intricacies of business and trade and becoming fluent in both English and Dutch. By 1670, he was keeping his own Dutch-language account book. Following the death of his father, in 1673 Robert Livingston returned to Scotland and then sailed for Boston to find his fortune in America.

Livingston's father was well-known in Puritan Boston where a merchant advanced the young son enough stock and credit to undertake a trading venture to Albany. Over the winter of 1674-75, Robert Livingston set up a store in the house of Gabriel Thomson and then purchased an Albany houselot the following Spring.

Livingston's business and muti-lingual capabilities placed him in great demand in the upper Hudson region. In August 1675, he became secretary of Rensselaerswyck; in September, clerk or secretary of the town of Albany; collector of the excise (tax); and then, secretary of the Albany Indian Commissioners. Coupled with personal trading and a partnership with New Englander Timothy Cooper, these offices should have provided him with substantial income. However, this newcomer experienced financial difficulty and frequently needed the intercession of Governor Edmund Andros to collect his fees. That connection to the English in New York - although of great value to Livingston personally, prevented him from gaining acceptance in still-Dutch Albany.

Local shunning and dunning abated considerably following his marriage in 1679 to Alida Schuyler, sister of future mayor Pieter Schuyler and the recent widow of Nicholas Van Rensselaer - formerly Livingston's Rensselaerswyck employer. Their marriage lasted almost fifty years and was a classic early American partnership. Mother of his nine children and the daughter and heir of two the most substantial fortunes in the region, Alida also proved an unparalleled business associate.

By the early 1680s, Livingston had turned his attention to acquiring land - first on behalf of his widowed wife, and then on his own. Livingston's enthusiasm for pursuing his wife's Van Rensselaer inheritance was applauded by the Schuylers but reviled by the Van Rensselaers. By then, these Livingstons had taken up residence in the Van Rensselaer house across from Alida's family home. From that upper State Street headquarters, Robert Livingston directed his considerable energies to amassing one of the largest fortunes in seventeenth century New York while helping structure development in Albany and in the region.

In 1686, he joined with Pieter Schuyler to persuade Governor Thomas Dongan to grant Albany a municipal charter like that awarded to New York City a few months earlier. Livingston was the architect of the so-called Dongan Charter which established Albany as an early American city and ensured that its future would be different from that of the surrounding countryside. Carved out of land within the colony of Rensselaerswyck, the Van Rensselaers had yet another reason to dislike Livingston.

Named in the charter, Robert Livingston was appointed clerk of the city and county of Albany. The clerk registered legal documents and collected a fee for each transaction. That position gave Livingston a hand in many aspects of the development of greater Albany County. He held that office until 1721 when it passed to his son, Philip - who became his Albany-based deputy/surrogate. That office brought the Livingstons in close contact with its appointing authority - the royal governor. Over the years, Robert Livingston proved of great value to the provincial government as an advisor, emmisary, and even financier. In return, he received land patents including one that created Livingston Manor in 1686, frequent and significant contracts, and a long-overdue appointment to the governor's Council in 1698.

Those connections to New York and ultimately to London enabled the astute and shrewd Livingston's becoming the wealthiest person in the upper Hudson region. But they did little to endear him to his Albany neighbors - who never really trusted the Scot and spoke out against him during his increasingly frequent absences. Although established in Albany where his Albany-born wife was raising their family, Robert Livingston's actual business went beyond the city stockade where trading in Anglo American networks kept him in New York and sent him to other cities and abroad more and more after 1690.

In the decade that followed, Livingston was closely involved in enabling the overseas mercantile interests of his oldest son John and son-in-law Samuel Vetch and wanted for a surrogate in Albany until second son Philip came of age in 1707. To fill this void, Robert Livingston had brought over his young nephew in 1687. However, Robert Livingston, Jr. proved more interested in furthering his own ends - particularly following his marriage to the daughter of Pieter Schuyler in 1697. Despite raising their large family without much active paternal support, Alida proved adept at upholding the crucial Albany end of Livingston's trading empire until her son was able to take over.

By that time, Robert Livingston was most frequently found in his substantial Manhattan townhouse where his trading vessels were moored at his own dock. Then he was building his country estate below Albany on bank of the Roelof Jansen Kil. Although he continued to contribute large sums for Albany's defense and other essential projects, by the 1700s Robert Livingston was represented in Albany chiefly by Alida and her coming-of-age children.

During the years from 1690 to 1710, Livingston's careers represented major stories in the growth and development of the province of New York. However, little of it had a major Albany context as he was rarely at home on upper State Street. Livingston was first elected to the New York General Assembly in 1709 - but more to represent his manorial interests and the growing downriver part of Albany County than the city of Albany. He was elected speaker of the provincial Assembly and served until retirement in 1726.

As "Livingston Manor" became more habitable, Alida and Robert were reunited on the Roeloff Jansen Kil where Alida had come to rescue her deteoriating health. As the Manor filled out, however, its owners suffered as their health was not good. In 1716, Robert Livingston was called back from New York and spent six months at Alida's bedside. Over the next decade, the health of both partners deteoriated as their conditions were of great concern to their grown children. Alida Schuyler Livingston died in 1727. Robert Livingston died at the Manor two months short of his seventy-fourth birthday on October 1, 1728.

From a humble start as an Albany clerk, Robert Livingston established one of New York's premier political dynasties. Following their father's blueprint for success, his sons and grandsons took hold of leadership positions in business, government, and the law at the provincial, state, and national levels. Through marriage, his daughters and granddaughters connected the Livingstons to the most important families of New York and beyond.

biography in-progress


This handsome portrait, probably painted by Nehemiah Partridge about 1718, is now in a private collection. We copied the (now best available) image shown here from an unparalleled online resource. The image was described and printed in Ruth Piwonka, A Portrait of Livingston Manor, 1686-1850 (Friends of Clermont, 1986). The definitive work on Robert "The Founder" is Lawrence H. Leder, Robert Livingston 1654-1728 and the Politics of Colonial New York (Chapel Hill, 1961). As a young historian, I was (and remain today) particularly impressed by depth of Leder's scholarship and understanding. The most useable family genealogy is Florence Van Rensselaer's The Livingston Family in America and Its Scottish Origins (New York, 1949). See also, Cynthia A. Kierner, Traders and Gentlefolk:The Livingstons of New York, 1675-1790 (Ithaca, 1992). Also recommended is a major antiquarian history of the family by Edwin B. Livingston entitled The Livingstons of Livingston Manor (New York, 1910).
       The intent of this sketch of early Albany's most significant individual is to tell his story in an Albany context and to leave the larger (beyond Albany) life of Robert Livingston to his many biographers - beginning with those noted above.

Livingston's collection of the Albany Indian Records was edited and presented by Lawrence H. Leder as "The Livingston Indian Records, 1666-1723," in a special volume of Pennsylvania History 23:1 (January 1956). Secretary Livingston first signed the minutes in June 1677.

A somewhat overstated but still telling account of Alida Livingston as a businesswomen and her plight as a live-alone wife is found in Linda Biemer, "Business Letters of Alida Schuyler Livingston, 1680-1726," New York History 63:2 (April 1982), pp 183-207.

Livingston's holdings included two houses in Albany, pasture land outside the north gate, shares of the Saratoga Patent, and a tract of land on the Roelof Jansen Kil that became the basis for the Livingston Manor Patent - first granted in 1686.

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first posted: 6/8/00; last updated: 4/25/15