Broken Homes

Widows, Abandoned Wives, and Single Women

an excerpt from a chapter
The Other Revolutionaries
Stefan Bielinski

Jane Edgar was in dire straits. Since her husband's untimely death in September 1776, she had found it increasingly difficult to support her large family. In August of 1780, this Scottish-born widow penned a desperate letter to Governor Clinton. She explained that the Edgars had lived in Albany for more than twenty years. During that time, they had prospered - importing goods through David Edgar's brother, a Montreal merchant. But suffering the loss of her husband, cut off from previous sources of supply, and no longer able to survive by keeping boarders, she was still responsible for four children, a servant woman, and an old negro man. She asked the governor to permit them to relocate to Canada where she would be able to draw on the Edgar estate. Clinton was moved to grant her request. But two months later when she applied to the Albany Commissioners for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies for the actual pass, they refused - making her a casualty of one of the governor's political struggles. So the impoverished widow and her family struggled in wartime Albany - barely surviving until James Gregg Edgar became old enough to care for his mother until her death in 1800.

After Jacob Clement's death in 1759, widow Janet had carried on his frontier business which was based on good relations with Native American and British military clienteles. With the outbreak of the war, the now fifty-five-year-old widow was cut off from her main customers and found it difficult to maintain a stock of trade goods. Although a lifelong Southside resident, this Van Woert daughter was having trouble adjusting to business after the Indian trade. She also had betrayed a lack of empathy for the crusade for American liberties when, in 1777, she irritated the revolutionaries by refusing to accept inflated New York currency and thus was restricted to subsistence trading only. A year later, she was reported to the Commissioners on Conspiracies for questioning a sergeant about troop movements. Fearing further sanctions, she tried to escape to Canada - but was apprehended and hospitalized as she appeared to be "dangerously ill." Threatened with confiscation of her property, in 1779 she was given permission to go to Philadelphia to plead her case before the Continental Congress. Too ill to travel, a Tory merchant represented her instead.

For all practical purposes, Genevieve Masse was a widow. In 1765, her sixty-one-year-old husband went to England to press for validation of his frontier land claims. John Henry Lydius stayed too long. Trapped in Europe with the outbreak of the American war and too old to travel with the coming of peace, Lydius never returned - dying in England in 1791. The war found a now elderly Genevieve Lydius living in the family's landmark home with her adult bachelor sons, Balthazar and Martinus. Her daughter, now a Tory wife, often returned home for comfort and advice. After more than forty years in New York, this French-Indian woman who once charmed important visitors to the Lydius homes on State Street and in Fort Edward now found that some of those in Albany because of the war still harbored ill will toward her departed husband.

Catharina and Rachel Douw never married. These sisters were middle-aged when they inherited the Court Street family home in 1775. Well endowed by their father's estate, they were Albany mainstays and were asked to pay a larger share than most Albany widows although they were not active in business. Representative of a small but growing group of never-married householders, the Douw sisters managed to survive the war to see their status as individuals affirmed in the decades following independence.

Although none of them suffered the actual deaths of loved ones because of the war, the American Revolution brought scarcity and hardship into the lives of most Albany women. In addition to the traditional roles of mother and running a household, many city women were forced to take responsibility for a family business unit - to find the resources needed for their family's survival. Widows, abandoned wives, refugees, and spinsters - many Albany women had similar experiences. Seventy-one of the 616 households identified on the city assessment roll in March 1779 were headed by a woman. But these outstanding residents were only the most visible part of a much larger but more hidden group of old and young widows, Tory wives, refugees, abandoned spouses, the never-married, shut-in dependents, and the able native daughters who were left to sustain families by men who were caught up in the war and related activities. Most of them were thrust into new roles in dysfunctional households or expanded family economic units. At the same time, many of these women bore and raised babies, cared for the aged and infirm, and still found the strength to lend active support or opposition to the American cause. This paper will consider the impact of the war on some of the community's women and their families and also set the stage for beginning to understand how the American Revolution served as a catalyst for the redefinition of women's status in the new America.


At the onset of the war, most Albany households still reflected the nuclear pattern established at the founding of the community more than a century earlier. As in times past, a majority of the community's young adults married - typically during their early twenties. However, not one-in-three of these Albany natives would live the balance of their lives in the city as family marriage brokers made the best of available opportunities within a larger regional context. The limits of opportunity in an evolving community economy dictated that most Albany boys find their livelihoods in more rustic or remote settings. By the 1770s, this economic reality had decimated most of the original Albany families in the city setting - although the descendants of New Netherland flourished within the larger Hudson-Mohawk region. On the other hand, a significantly larger number of Albany girls remained in city homes as the wives of upwardly mobile newcomers who were seeking a toehold in the community. At the same time, such unions gave many marginalized traditional families a new economic life.

Throughout the war years, the mainline community birth rate remained strong with wives mostly being pregnant or nursing from the time of marriage until menopause. The resulting eight to ten live births in a typical matured marriage produced large families that appeared somewhat less susceptible to the winter epidemics that had plagued the community in earlier times. The families of Albany's newcomer population are more difficult to comprehend as their demographics were less well-grounded in the records of local churches. However, the many survivors testified that Euro-Albanian and migrant families were quite large as well. Despite the war, new families set up their own city households as in days past. Although often absent, Albany men were not far enough away to cause much disruption of the family cycle. The basic role of the mother/homemaker was by no means diminished because of the war. However, it did become much more complicated.

During the war years, almost a quarter of the community's families mourned the death of a husband or wife. As in the past, most young widowers remarried - needing a women to take charge of children and a city household where men were spending less of their work time than in earlier days. Since most of the second wives were in their twenties, these compound families continued to grow almost approaching single union households in size. On the other hand, by the 1770s a young widow granted the use of her husband's property as long as she did not remarry was somewhat less likely to do so than in days past - instead being able to take advantage of an unprecedented demand for housing space by taking-in a male boarder or by renting her husband's shop or other work space to make ends meet. By the 1770s, only a few remarried widows continued to bear children - a marked change from earlier times. Both men and women losing a spouse after their fiftieth birthday generally did not remarry - either maintaining a separate residence or else finding a new home among family members.

Traditional Albany homes were small - typically one or two stories high and built on lots measuring between fifteen and twenty-five feet facing the street and forty to eighty feet deep. Consequently, city rowhouses were no more than twenty by thirty. These dimensions left little room for extended family members or other extra people - although taking in a boarder or renting a front room to a storekeeper or tradesman was an often-encountered economic necessity. But by the mid-1770s, new residential construction and additions to existing city buildings began to envelop two or three city lots providing space for larger houses and allowing for more varied usage - an adaptation that often prevailed when the household lost its male head. With new residents looking for lodging and with so many more new people in the community because of the war, householders maximized the earning potential of their property by taking in boarders. Many of these new landlords were women.

More than ten percent of wartime Albany households were without formal patriarchs. Many others had male heads in name only. Large numbers of Albany's men and boys were drawn away from home as a consequence of the crusade for American liberties for the first time in the community's history. The absence of a man forced city women to step up to new responsibilities for an extended period of time. The variety of situations encountered in the city's women-headed households precludes explaining them with a single scenario. A more personal look at Albany's broken homes helps illuminate a complicated problem.

The seventy-one women identified as heads of households in March 1779 establishes a social baseline for beginning to examine this phenomenon. Except for Mary Speck, an African-ancestry householder with an extended family and ten non native widows of recent emigres, the women householders named on the March assessment roll represented traditional, long-time Albany families - although a number of them had absorbed an array of new members.

Most prominent were Albany's old widows. This group was numerous and many old widows still controlled substantial estates. Too old to carry on the businesses of their deceased husbands, these grandmothers were in the process of living out their days in homes provided in the bequests of husbands, fathers, and brothers. Some of them were particularly wealthy and most of them were able to take-in kin and other refugees set in motion by the American Revolution. Outstanding among Albany's dowagers was Margarita Schuyler Livingston. Born in 1682, she had been a widow since 1725. Since all of her children had found their futures beyond Albany, she had taken charge of a substantial local estate - the legacy of two of the community's most prosperous families. At the outbreak of the war, she was a 93 year-old lifelong resident who lived in one of her city buildings and collected rents on the others. These were quickly filled with her Canadian and downriver descendants who were returning home as refugees and to comfort their mother and grandmother in her last days.

Other older widows had similar experiences. Born in 1692, Margarita Cuyler had been a widow since the death of Dirck Ten Broeck in 1751. By that time, all five of her surviving daughters were raising their own families. Her two sons, Abraham and Dirck Ten Broeck, soon would come of age to play prominent, public parts in the crusade for American liberties. Fifteen years later, she had inherited considerable land from her father and still was the proprietor of a flour bolting house operating north of her Market Street home. At the outbreak of the war, Margarita was eighty-three and in declining health - the ongoing concern of her sons and three Albany resident daughters. The anti-British convictions of the other daughters who had been living in Montreal and New York City, brought them to their mother's bedside during her final years. Forced to leave Canada, Catharina - the wife of John Livingston and grandmother in her own right, brought her family to the safety of her mother's house. The other daughter, Christina, had spent most of her adult life in New York - the wife of Declaration of Independence signer Philip Livingston. After Livingston's death in 1778, Christina also returned home with her refugee children and their children as well.

The assessment rolls for 1779 reveal that at least one older widow lived on every Albany street. Too old for active participation, these householders were fortunate to draw on inherited resources and to rely family networks for protection. Most of them represented established Albany families. During a time of great change, these matriarchs were social landmarks - visible testimonies of the city's traditional past. The Bleeckers had been Pearl Street mainstays for almost a hundred years. In 1728, Nicholas Bleecker, Jr. married Margarita Roseboom, a not-so-distant cousin. After seven children, Bleecker died in 1751 leaving the widow with a comfortable Pearl Street rowhouse, an adjoining residence, and the substantial estate of a successful frontier trader and landholder. By 1776, she was seventy years old and living alongside her married sons, who had become senior members of Albany's revolutionary leadership. Her youngest, Nicholas Bleecker, never married and lived under family care until his early death in 1787. Shortly after her fiftieth birthday in 1771, Anna Margarita Ten Eyck married for the first time when she became the second wife of John Barclay. Although he was a son of Albany's first Anglican priest, her brothers and nephews were closely connected to the crusade for American liberties. Barclay followed the Ten Eyck tradition - was elected to the Albany committee, served as its chairman, and was appointed mayor of Albany in 1778. Within a year, however, he was dead leaving a childless Anna Margarita to administer and partition their substantial estates. Widow Anna Beekman raised her family in a country house across the river in Rensselaerswyck. Sixty-three and now childless at the outbreak of the war, she moved into a comfortable home on the South side of Albany where she boarded a high-profile French merchant - also drawing on several family estates and passing her last years in the company of her older brother, widower Isaac Swits. Sixty-five-year old Maria Gerritse cared for a sickly Wessel Van Schaick through the war years before her husband's death in 1783. She administered a substantial estate - supervising a domestic workforce of slaves and bankrolling her married children until her death in 1797. Daughter and heir of an Albany shipwright, Rachel Bogert already was middle-aged when she wed alderman Volkert A. Douw in 1752. After his death in 1768, the fifty-three-year-old widow was permitted to remain in their North End home, operate his still house, and utilize her husband's other property as long as she did not remarry. The onset of the war found her sharing those holdings and helping to raise the growing family of her only son, Andries Douw - a city merchant and active committee member. Their Market Street neighbor was the recently widowed Maria (probably Margaret) Cuyler Ten Broeck, a septegenarian who shared the landmark home with the large and growing family of her only son, stalwart revolutionary John C. Ten Broeck.

The marriage of Susanna Bradt to yeoman Hendrick Hallenbeck in 1718 produced thirteen children. On his death in 1766, his estate encompassing several city blocks on the Southside was bequeathed to his "beloved wife." The war found seventy-eight year old Susanna living in the family home above South Pearl Street and overlooking the homes of her eight adult children which had been built on the Hallenbeck property. Her sons and grandsons were active supporters of the crusade for American liberties in the field and on the homefront. Matriarch of a large family, she lived until she was ninety. Judith Martin Hilton bore ten children before the death of her husband, a Southside wampum-maker and city retainer, in 1763. This aging daughter of a one-time English garrison soldier was left the small home -- sharing it and relying on her emerging children for sustenance and support throughout the war years.

These were the most fortunate of the city's older widows -- able to survive the war by living off inheritances, bequests, and other family resources. Others passed their final years as the historically silent, shut-in denizens of the homes of their children and grandchildren.

The war found a large community of middle-aged widows still needing to earn a living to support a fixed family of children and older dependents. Most prominent among them was widow Jannetje Cuyler. She had returned home after the early death of Abraham Cuyler - who had been sent to Manhattan to represent family business interests during the 1740s. Fifty-six years old in 1775, this Beekman daughter had settled into Cuyler's upper State Street house and prospered by trading in common commodities ranging from cloth to cut nails. City assessment rolls testify to her success in business as she was taxed as a prosperous merchant. As she had bankrolled many local people over the years, she was asked and agreed several times to contribute and subscribe to the crusade for American liberties. Her daughter had married rising attorney and Revolutionary artivist Leonard Gansevoort. During the war and for years after, they lived together in Gansevoort's lower State Street town house where Jannet Cuyler continued to trade until the 1790s.

Unlike wealthy widow Cuyler, most middle-aged women householders got by filling vacuums created by the pressing of service economy men into the war effort beyond Albany. Martha Vernor had operated a Southside tavern since the mid-1760s. Moving up to Pearl Street and joined by her bachelor son, committee member James, "Widow Vernor's" was a popular meeting and gathering place for the city's revolutionaries throughout the war years. Innkeeper Benjamin Hilton died just before the outbreak of the war leaving Mary Price and several almost-grown children to run his Southside tavern. However, their eldest Albany-born son had become an overt loyalist whose public demonstrations made it impossible for "Hilton's" to remain open in Albany's pervading anti-British climate. With young Benjamin soon arrested and incarcerated, widow Mary survived by keeping lodgers, binding out their slaves, and calling on her brother, revolutionary stalwart John Price, for support. After the death of former alderman Ryckert Hansen in 1766, his widow forty-nine-year-old Catharina Ten Broeck, began petitioning the city fathers for the right to operate one of the crossriver ferries. In 1770, she was given a one-year contract for the Greenbush ferry in partnership with trader and innkeeper's son, Thomas Lotteridge. Needing to support some of her still-dependant children, that potentially lucrative contract was extended several times during the war years as she shared the new ferry house in the South pastures with the Lotteridges. Because the ferry was an important avenue of access to and from Albany, its operations were closely monitored by the Albany committee.

Like Jane Edgar and Mary Hilton, Mary Foster lost her husband just after the outbreak of hostilities. She survived by keeping boarders and even added an additional lot to her upper State Street property in 1779. Irish Margaret Burke also was a recent widow but not before James Burke had annoyed the Albany committee by refusing to part with his stock of tinsmith's tools and supplies. Nevertheless, his widow was permitted to run his Southside dramshop to support her teen-aged children. After only two children, Catharina Vandenbergh Van Hoesen lost her husband in 1749. Left with a modest riverside home, she survived the war by performing needlework for local merchants and domestic chores for the city council. She shared space with her maiden sister Volkie and the family of older brother Wilhelmus Vandenbergh - taking in boarders for additional income. After losing her German-born husband in 1782, middle-aged Anna Kugler continued to bake breads in his North end oven.

Some middle-aged widows found refuge under a family umbrella. In 1775, widow Sara Cooper Van Benthuysen was the fifty-three-year-old matriarch of a large family living in a small home on lower Hudson Street. During this time, her sons emerged to acquire adjoining property and lend support to their aging mother. German-born Charlotte Roff married Albany newcomer William Regal in 1765. After six years as a baker and city constable, Regal left Albany. A few years later a childless Charlotte Regal was declared a widow. She lived out her days in a small hillside home near that of her brother, skipper John Roff. With few exceptions, the only non native women to marry into the Albany community were matched with the children of non New Netherland immigrants. During the 1750s, newcomer Hannah Ferrel married William Fryer - the son of a garrison soldier-turned weaver. English people, the growth of their family was checked by his death a decade later. With little visible means, Hannah Fryer was able to raise her daughters in a modest Southside home, bolstered by wheat and other charities granted by the city government. Maria Bradt Hansen's nine children were born between 1743 and 1757. Her shoemaker husband died a year later -- leaving her to survive by teaching her family how to prepare hides at her Foxes Creek tanning pit. The war found Maria Hansen's adult sons living in their mother's modest North End home, raising new families, serving in the militia, and contributing traditional leather-working skills to the cause. Widow of a Scottish trader, a childless Hallie Halliday, survived the war by moving in with her bachelor brother, militia officier John Scott. Not so fortunate was widow Catherine Groesbeck. Still carrying her fourth child on the death of her husband, a Rensselaerswyck shipwright in 1746, she was left with scant resources with which to raise now four small children. Moving into a modest home along the Foxes Creek flats, the war found her in her mid-fifties and struggling to survive on a diminished inheritance and the support of her grown sons.

The war made its most severe impact on younger widows with small children. In earlier times, these women would have remarried as soon as possible as most of their husbands had not yet endowed their family's futures. But during the war years, re-marriage was a lower priority for pre-occupied family brokers. Those left with a home proved more able to get by.

The pre-mature death of Yankee trader Augustus Bostwick left Jane Anne Doty with a small Southside house and a large family to raise on her own. She survived the war by taking-in washing for Bostwick's associate John Price and other substantial merchants. Thirty-year-old Janet Van Allen inherited substantial holdings when her husband Abraham Lyle died in 1766. Further endowed by her now deceased parents, she was able to avoid a quick remarriage and raise her family while taking-in her bachelor brothers - sloopers Barent and John Van Allen. By the end of the war, her children were gone and she had been absorbed within the adult household of her brothers - where she lived for many years.

Without resources, younger widows fell back on family networks. When a dying James Gourlay made his will in October 1772, he excluded his "putative wife" Anna Schuyler and renounced her son who grew up named James Gourlay as "none of my begetting." Reeling from that rebuff, the twenty-eight-year-old widow took her baby and found refuge in the Pearl Street household of her brother Dirck - not remarrying, helping raise a young Schuyler family, and living the next twenty-five years as a historically silent dependant. A number of Albany women were cast in similar roles.

Although not technically widows, a second major group suddenly found themselves on their own because their Tory husbands had been removed or blocked by the revolutionaries or else they had been willfully abandoned. Genevieve Masse Lydius was one of a number of Albany women who lost their men permanently because of the struggle. Although her departed husband was never an Albany favorite and the loyalty of her erratic sons aroused some suspicion, this Canadian-born outsider had spent most of the last thirty years winning over her Albany neighbors and thus was able to retain the city residence and other property. Personal contacts among French speakers and native peoples made her family useful to the Albany patriots who were anxious to develop linkages with the North. Despite the lingering antipathy Lydius's shady real estate trading and questionable loyalty had incurred among Albany and New England revolutionaries, this charming woman touched compassionate chords and so her final years were spared the antagonisms visited on other Tory wives. Her daughter, Catharina, had married Tory Hendrick Cuyler - whose frequent confinements sent her to mother for comfort and to the Albany committee for mercy. Cuyler family resources helped sustain the Lydius household throughout the troubled times.

Eva Jay was thirty-eight when she wed Reverend Harry Munro in 1766. With their new-born son, she followed Munro to Albany where he had been installed as rector of St. Peter's Anglican Church. The Munros moved into the new Albany parsonage and she often accompanied her husband to minister to the Mohawks. But by mid-1775, her trips to the Caughnawaga mission were more to see a husband who was less comfortable in Albany's charged and increasingly anti-British climate. At the outbreak of hostilities, the Scottish-born Munro had been identified as a Tory and within a year was imprisoned. In 1777, he escaped to the British in New York never to return. With the chapel closed and with most St. Peter's parishioners under suspicion themselves, the fragile and aging Eva found little comfort in Albany - even though she was the older sister of revolutionary leader John Jay. She lived out the war with the Jay family in rural Westchester Couty - returning to Albany in 1779 to beg that her departed husband's name not be included in the Act of Attainder - which would deprive her of his property.

Twenty-eight-year-old Catharina Ten Broeck had married former British artilleryman and ordnance clerk George Wray in 1765. His background and her family connections enabled Wray to acquire extensive real estate in both Albany and rural settings. Although based in Albany, Wray often was in the Indian country trading and repairing guns. He maintained his ties to the British service through Sir William Johnson and as a contractor at several frontier outposts. At the outbreak of the war, he was identified as a British adherent and fled to New York. In 1776, Catharina sought permission to join him. But her request was denied by the Albany committee - repudiating the Tory Wray and ruling that his Albany-born wife belonged at home. Over the next three years, she continued to press for a pass. She found Governor Clinton an ally as he favored sending all Tory wives to the British to be rid of them. But her family and Albany revolutionaries and others disagreed. Twice, she was turned back by the army while sailing down to New York. By 1780, her husband had settled permanently on his property at Fort Ann - although several times Wray stole back to Albany to visit his children. Already accustomed to living on her own, Catharina would inherit half of her merchant father's estate on the death of her aged mother. In the meantime, she moved with her young daughter into the new house of Dr. Samuel Stringer where she shared quarters with widow Vanderheyden - Stringer's mother-in-law. Abandoned by Wray - who started a new family in Washington County, Catharina Ten Broeck was among a number of Albany-born women whose marriages were casualties of the war.

Daughter of an Albany mayor, twenty-two-year-old Margarita Cuyler's future seemed secured when she moved to Manhattan to marry rising importer Isaac Low in 1760. Although initially an anti-British activist, Low later broke with the revolutionaries, was arrested, and passed most of the war in occupied New York City. Although Margarita had accompanied her husband to Philadelphia as a delegate to the First Continental Congress, by the Fall of 1775 she had taken their children to the safety of her native Albany. By that time, both Isaac Low and Margarita's Cuyler brothers had been identified as royal adherents. But it was Margarita who felt the consequences of their loyalism in October 1775 when Continental soldiers from Connecticut broke into her home and assaulted both her and her daughter. The Albany revolutionaries were outraged and demanded that the assailants be punished. Protected after that by the Albany committee, Margarita Low lived tenuously in her substantial State Street home. However, her assets were heavily taxed and she was even called "Widow" Low because her husband had been condemned to death for treason by the New York State legislature in 1779. By the end of the war, however, the family had been reunited in New York -- leaving for England with the British evacuation. After Isaac Low's death in 1791, Margarita returned to America -- dying in Albany in 1802.

Like the case of Margarita Low, the marriages of another group of Albany wives were bent but not broken due to the fact that their husband's were Tories or British supporters. For the most part, they relied on family connections to maintain their homes and to make it possible for their husband's to return at the end of the war. Mary Brouwer became the second wife of soldier-turned-importer John Munro in 1760. Over the next decade, the couple had four more children and prospered through Munro's British connections. By 1776, this obvious Tory was imprisoned by the committee and later sent to the British. Commissioned an officer in the King's Royal Regiment, he was condemned for raiding frontier settlements. However, his Schenectady-born wife and children stayed behind -- living off his property in Albany and on the Battenkill. Frequent letters and surprise visits testify that she was cut-off but not abandoned, surviving the war in eastern New York and then joining her husband in Ontario where she died in 1800. A number of other erstwhile Albany Tory wives waited out the war on farms in the Hoosick Valley.

Still other Tory wives were Albany natives who stayed behind while their husbands were imprisoned, had fled, or were banished from the community. Although some of these loyalists played active rolls in opposition to the crusade for American liberties, their spouses were able to survive the war in Albany by falling back on family support networks. Understanding that the separation might not be permanent, none of these women was acknowledged on the city assessment rolls. Chief among them was Jannet Glen, an Albany native and the wife of Albany's last royalist mayor, Abraham C. Cuyler. The most obvious and repugnant Albany-born Tory, Cuyler was banished to Connecticut even before the Declaration of Independence. Brazenly returning home to visit his family, he was apprehended, sent to the Tory prison at Fishkill, and his house was sequestered and used as an annex to the hospital. Cuyler escaped to the British in New York but still was reported in Albany to visit his wife and children who were defamed by their neighbors even though they had moved under the protection of her family - the Albany Glens. Finally able to join her husband in New York, Jannet and Abraham Cuyler returned to Albany after the war but were rebuffed by both new and Albany people. Without recourse, Janet Glen Cuyler bid her family goodbye and followed her husband into exile in Canada.

Almost unprecedented in colonial times, the 1779 assessment roll identified a number of women householders who were not mothers and who had never married. These visible spinsters provide public testimony to a practice that recently had become a more widespread means of preserving the integrity of family estates. Notwithstanding the marriage of Alexander Hamilton to the daughter of Philip Schuyler, at the same time many of the previously promising (or most talented) newcomers had begun to bring their own women or were marrying the daughters of their New England, Scottish, or German countrymen - thus subverting a formerly successful means of reversing distressed family fortunes. The war served as a complicating factor in this as women were called on to make conscious decisions about their futures. The stories of this small group of Albany spinsters help illustrate the phenomenon.

Nine children were born to Captain Petrus Douw and Anna Van Rensselaer between 1718 and 1736. All nine survived to reach marriage age. Although the marriage had united two of Albany's most prosperous families, it was understood that family resources could not establish nine new households. Some of these Douw children would not be permitted to marry. The oldest son, Volkert P. Douw, wed Anna De Peyster and succeeded to his father's positions of prominence. Five daughters became the brides of Gerardus and John M. Beekman, brothers Harman and Johannes Gansevoort, and Dr. Henry Van Dyck. Of the remaining three children, thirty-two year old Hendrick, the only other boy, died in 1756. The two remaining daughters, Catherine, the second eldest and Rachel the youngest, never married - growing from girls to women in the home of their parents. With the death of their father in 1775, the Douw sisters now fifty-one and forty-four respectively, were able to take control of his Market Street house and other assets. As the sisters and aunts of prominent Albany revolutionaries, Catherine and Rachel Douw contributed substantial shares in support of city operations. Except for Rachel's ill-fated petition to accompany sister Margarita Van Dyck to visit her husband who had been banished to New York, they passed the war visibly undisturbed. Well endowed, their six slaves and additional property provided ample resources to sustain them until their deaths in the 1800s. note

Schenectady-born Hester and Susan Ryckman lived most of their adult lives in the Albany house kept by their brother - a merchant and frontier trader. Never marrying, they were middle-aged at the outbreak of the war. Their Court street corner home now represented the only stable city center for a once-prominent New Netherland family as their brothers and other Ryckmans only recently had returned to Albany after some time on the frontier. Several times during the war years, the large and still-growing families of Gerrit and Peter Ryckman boarded with Hester and Susan even though these Ryckman men were prominent members of Albany's revolutionary and municipal governments.

On the death of old Thomas Sharp in 1773, Anna and Ariantie (Jane) - his unmarried middle-aged daughters were left the Southside family home and other assets. They were expected to care for their ne'er-do-well brother, Jacobus - who at that time was in jail. By the middle of the war, their younger sister Maria, the wife of Tory John Monier, had moved in as well. Now in their fifties, childless, and with Jacobus Sharp to perform services and contribute occasional income, the Sharp sisters never married - thus retaining their father's estate while that branch of the family passed from city rolls with their deaths two decades later. Catherine Fryer was the only daughter of a former English soldier who settled his family near the foot of Gallows Hill in 1720. On Isaac Fryer's death in 1755, the estate went to his widow - leaving three sons to establish themselves in Albany service enterprises. By the mid-1760s, middle-aged Catherine Fryer had taken over for her aged mother. A decade later, she was alone in the upper Hudson Street homestead. Permitted to live there until she married, instead Catherine remained single - subsidized by her younger brother and neighbor, Isaac Fryer.


This group of widows, abandoned wives, and single women were only the most historically obvious part of an Albany-based wartime female population that numbered more than two thousand. The static but substantial resources of the city's dowagers provided resources and refuge for extended family members. Middle-aged widows did the same while contributing vital services to the community economy. Immigrant widows did their best to survive the war -- balancing foreign heritages with the need to insure the futures of their children in their new homes. Daughters of the early Albany mainline, Tory wives clung to their roots added complicating dimensions to the community story. And independent city spinsters appeared as a new element in the Albany social mosaic. All of these women-acting-as-men filled a functional void in a community whose men were enveloped by the demands of a war that they had started to gain access to America's resources, new opportunities, and new ways of doing things. As in the past, mothers were the backbone of Albany society. The war had caused only some interruption of the community's powerful birth pyramid. But the war took sons away -- accelerating the depletion of family resources even more than before. Mothers, sisters, daughters, and nieces provided both leadership and support for a domestic community that was less able to rely on men and boys than in days past. Their stories are important but understated themes of the other chapters of the Other Revolutionaries on soldiers, the homefront, newcomers and opportunists, Afro-Albanians, and the non supporters because understanding the evolution of the home is a vital tool for explaining the transformation of American society during the era of the American Revolution.


Petrus Douw (2164) served in the provincial assembly and built "Wolvenhook," the family estate on Van Rensselaer land across the Hudson. Anna Van Rensselaer Douw (5059). Catherine Douw 1724-1811 (2067) headed the spinster household. Rachel Douw 1736-1806 (2168). The eldest daughter of Petrus and Anna Douw, Magdalena 1718-96 (90), married Harmen Gansevoort. Volkert P. Douw 1720-1801 (2234) was mayor of the city during the 1760s. Hendrick Douw 1722-56 (2084) never married. Maria 1725-59 (2161) wed Johannes Gansevoort in 1750. Margarita 1722-c.1800 (2156) was the wife of disaffected physician Henry Van Dyck. Anna (2060) married Gerardus Beekman. Elizabeth (2077) became the second wife of John M. Beekman. These men were prominent participants in the Revolutionary struggle and are profiled elsewhere in "The Other Revolutionaries."

Home | Site Index | Navigation | Email | New York State Museum

first posted: 1/02; more material added 3/13/05; re-cast and revised 1/2/13