Nicholas Van Rensselaer
Stefan Bielinski

Nicholas Van Rensselaer was born in Amsterdam, Holland in 1636. He was the fifth son of West India Company director and Rensselaerswyck founder Killiaen Van Rensselaer. His mother was Van Rensselaer's his second wife, Anna Van Wely.

His powerful father died before the boy reached his eighth birthday. As the spirituality in his personality emerged, he began to experience practical difficulties. Initially apprenticed to learn business, Nicholas proved uninterested and reportedly "did not care to work." Returning to his widowed mother, he became devoutly religious and used his inheritance to write and publish several small books which his cousins dismissed as "naught but foolishness."

At age twenty-two, Nicholas went to Brussels and showed his writings to the exiled English monarch, Charles Stuart, who was taken by Van Rensselaer and his vision of the Stuarts' future. Later, Nicholas travelled to England for an audience with the now King Charles II. The king remembered "the young mystic" and had him ordained in the Church of England. Continuing his personal meditations, later he was appointed chaplain to the Dutch ambassador to England.

Misunderstood and mistreated by his family - who thought him insane or at least disturbed, Rensselaer charged that his brothers and uncle had imprisoned and tried to poison him. Estranged from his family in the Netherlands, Nicholas called on his connections with the English Stuarts to be permitted to accompany Edmund Andros when he took over as governor of New York in 1675.

Shortly after arriving, Andros appointed him co-minister at Albany and asked the Albany community to accept this Van Rensselaer as a good-faith gesture toward the Duke of York. However, Van Rensselaer's reputation had preceded him. He was rejected by the Albany congregation and shunned by Gideon Schaets, dominie of the Albany Dutch church. Almost immediately, politicking and litigation followed. But Van Rensselaer never was able to take the pulpit in Albany.

In the meantime, Nicholas Van Rensselaer was setting down roots in the upper Hudson Valley. In 1675, at age thirty-nine, he married nineteen-year-old Alida Schuyler. The couple resided in a house he recently purchased on the Elm Tree Corner but had no children. Now related by marriage to Albany's foremost trading family, Nicholas sought to assert himself in another area.

Following the death of his brother Jeremias in 1674, Nicholas expected to take over management of the Van Rensselaer estate in New York. Not surprisingly, Governor Andros granted his petition to name him interim administrator of Rensselaerswyck. Over the objections of the Albany Van Rensselaers, the family in Holland appointed Nicholas director of the patroonship in 1676. His tenure was anything but peaceful as his brother's widow, Maria, maintained control of patroonship finances - claiming that he was sick and incompetent.

In America only a few years, Nicholas Van Rensselaer died on November 12, 1678. A year later, his widow married Robert Livingston, Van Rensselaer's former bookkeeper. In 1680, Alida Livingston was granted permission to administer his estate which included the Albany house and extensive personal property.



the people of colonial AlbanyThe life of Nicholas Van Rensselaer is CAP biography number 5056. This profile is derived chiefly from family-based resources. Substantial quality material on the family is beginning to appear on the Internet. He is the subject of an article by New York History 35:2 (1954), 166-76. Although substantial, that work is marred by many unfortunate errors. Also interesting are the references to him in Arnold J. F. Van Laer's translated edition entitled: Correspondence of Maria Van Rensselaer, 1669-1689 (Albany, 1933).

Anna Van Wely (c. 1601-1670): She bore eight Van Rensselaer children before her husband died in 1643. Her wedding ring was brought to America by youngest son, Nicholas. It was used eight generations later when Kiliaen Van Rensselaer married Dorothy Manson on November 23, 1905. The ring is now in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Van Rensselaer's frustrations and this controversy is closely chronicled in Leder, "Unorthodox Domine" (cited above).

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first posted: 3/15/01; last revised 4/13/09