Berne Local

Lack of Early Leases in the Helderbergs

by Hsrold H. Miller

As a result of the 1609 voyage by Henry Hudson up the river that bears his name, the adjacent land was claimed by the Dutch. In 1621 the property was granted to the Dutch West India Company. It imposed the Patroon system to attract settlers. A Patroon was given a large tract of land to sponsor settlers to colonize their land.

In 1629 Killaen Van Rensselaer was granted land to create the Manor of Rensselaerwyck. It incorporated most of the area in what are now Albany, Rensselaer, Greene, and Columbia counties. Fort Orange, (the city of Albany), just north of the Manor, became the center of the Dutch fur trade.

Dutch farmers sent over by Van Rensselaer leased the land but could not buy it. The property could be inherited; if sold, one-quarter of the sale price went to the Patroon. When in 1664 the English wrested control of the Dutch American colonies, they did not disturb the Patroon system.

In a few decades, both sides of the Hudson Valley were settled with Dutch families. Each January the tenant farmers went to the Van Rensselaer manor to pay their annual rent which was typically "four fat fowls," twenty-four bushels of wheat, and a day's service fixing manor roads. Releases of property to later individuals usually were documented with notes that it was the same land leased previously to the earlier tenant.

The Helderberg Escarpment is a rugged, vertical, limestone cliff hundreds of feet high, running north-south dividing Albany County into the Hudson Valley below the Escarpment and the Helderberg Plateau above it. Because of its inaccessibility and poor soil, for more than a hundred years after the settlement of the Valley, the land above the Escarpment and east of Schoharie Valley remained wilderness. The Helderberg Plateau contains what are now known as the Helderberg Hilltowns. These are the four Albany County towns of Rensselaerville, Berne, Knox, and Westerlo.

One would think that when the first farmers finally settled above the Escarpment, they would have been Dutch settlers going north or south around it and settling near its edge, but that is not the case. Instead, the first settlers were from the Palatinate region, along the upper stretches of the Rhine River, in what is now Germany. Some came from the adjoining Schoharie Valley to the west, which had been settled by Palatine German refugees starting in the autumn of 1711. The Palatinates understood the land in Schoharie had been given to them by the local Indians. Unfortunately. the land in Schoharie had already been sold by the British government to a few rich Dutch and British merchants. After a few years of conflict, the Palatine settlers were forced to buy or rent their land in the rich Schoharie Valley or move to land bought from the Indians and set aside for them by the state governments in Pennsylvania or the upper Mohawk Valley.

Newly arrived German speaking farmers perhaps already had relatives in Schoharie and were on their way to join them, or maybe they had heard about Schoharie from letters their former neighbors had written home to their families praising its fertile soil.

Records of the second half of the 18th Century leases in the Rensselaerwyck West Manor are in the N.Y.S. Archives. Those between the Patroon and his Helderberg tenants are recorded between 1769 and the 19th Century. The Archivist states that records of earlier leases were destroyed in 1911 by a fire in the N.Y.S Capitol building where the Archives were located in the basement.

Stephen Van Rensselaer II was born in 1742. He was 5-years-old when his father died. When he came of age, he took over management of the Manor. Starting in 1765 he sought to rehabilitate the Manor that had lacked active leadership since the death of his father. The earliest lease in the West Manor in the Archives was that same year. He tried to structure leaseholds, and rein in the loose land policies of his family in the past.

The earliest Van Rensselaer lease in the Archives that was clearly in the Helderbergs was that of Jacob Truax who rented a farm in 1769. Further contracts were suspended when Stephen Van Rensselaer II died six weeks later at twenty-seven-years old; he was one of the richest men in the region. While there are dozens of leases in the Archives between 1770 and 1771, all of them are below the Escarpment or in the East Manor across the Hudson River. In 1772, Catherine Van Rensselaer, his widow, and mother of the then ten-year-old new Patroon, Stephen Van Rensselaer III, decided to have some of the homesteads above the Escarpment surveyed with the intent of issuing leases and collecting rent. The next rental now in the Archives that was above the Escarpment was in the same year. Two leases may have been signed in 1774 by Jacob Weidman for land upon which he had constructed the first sawmill over twenty years earlier, and for the adjoining grist mill below the Fox Creek falls in what is now the hamlet of Berne. The following leases in the Archives are stained and imperfect copies:

"Jacob Witeman (Weidman) 1774 Sept. 12 th

To your _______________ for 127 acres of land at the Beaver Dam [now Berne] at the annual rent of 21__________________ winter wheat."

"Dec. 12th

To your _____________of this date for a grist mill at Beaver Dam ______________at annual rent_________winter wheat __________."


Weidman had built the mills just after 1750. The Archives also contain several leases for irregularly shaped lots that were issued on Sept. 12th, 1774, the same date as the earlier Weidman contract. Except for the 1769 rental to Truax earlier leases are not in the Archives; perhaps they were destroyed in the Capitol fire.

No lot numbers were assigned until the comprehensive survey by William Cockburn leading up to his making of the 1787 Van Rensselaer lease map. The purpose of the plan was both to show where leaseholders lived and, more importantly, to survey 160+/- acre vacant lots in the land to the south and east of the settled area in Beaver Dam.

The vacant lots are square rather than irregular like those of the earlier settlers. There were few, if any, leases above the Escarpment during the Revolutionary War. It was not until 1785, when Stephen Van Rensselaer III reached his 21st birthday, that leasing land in the Helderbergs became active again.

The 1787 Cockburn survey map in the Archives shows the kind of trees marking the corners of the square, vacant lots. There are no trees shown on the map on the irregular lots of the earlier homesteaders. Their leases may have been destroyed in the Capitol fire.

New standard leases were written by Alexander Hamilton. He married Elizabeth Schuyler, who was the daughter of Philip Schuyler and Catherine Van Rensselaer. Blank lines were left to fill in the details of specific rentals. The lease for Conrad Swart in Beaver Dam's Switzkill Valley in 1774 was presumably typical of these new leases; it says it was for land which was already in his possession. If there had been an earlier lease for the same farm, the contract would probably have said, "this being the same farm leased earlier in 17?? to _____________." Another thing that says the land was already improved is that the rent began immediately on January first of the following year. The leases on unimproved land typically gave the farmers 7 years to make improvements before the first rent became due.

There are no survey books, maps, leases, or account books in the Archives or elsewhere that have been found for any farms in the Helderbergs before 1769. While some may have been destroyed in the Capitol fire, surely not every historical record of every kind. Certainly some farmers would have had copies of their leases passed down to descendants or later owners.

Since there is no evidence of earlier leases, I believe Conrad Swart and other early Beaver Dam settlers had initially been squatters on land owned by the Van Rensselears. If they were not, they would have been on the 1767 survey map by Bleeker which showed the location of every leaseholder in Rensselearwyck Manor. Since Conrad Swart was already in possession of the land when his lease was signed, his survey was done before the 1787 map to clarify the land he was actually farming. The contract had no lot number because in 1774 there still had not been a systematic survey.

Stephen Van Rensselaer III, like his father, was only 5 when he became Patroon. His mother did her best to oversee her young son's Manor. Co-administrator of the estate was Abraham Ten Broeck, the husband of the young Van Rensselaer's aunt, Elizabeth Van Rensselaer. Ten Broeck was also one of Albany's richest men, and thus was too busy with his own affairs to be concerned with the young Patroons Manor. During that period, he was variously a member of New York's Provincial Convention, chairman of New York Committee of Safety, and Albany's mayor.

The 1787 Cockburn survey map shows George Ball to the south of Conrad Swart with a strip of land between the two farms. The explanation must be that Ball was also a squatter, and his irregularly shaped homestead was surveyed to determine the boundaries and acreage he was actually farming. Since no one was using the land between Swart and Ball, the 1787 map shows it as a separate, irregularly shaped, small lot.

Although there is no evidence of Helderberg leases before 1769, by 1765 there were enough settlers in what became the towns of Berne and Knox to establish a Reformed Church. It was built of logs near the center of the most populated area, a slight distance west of what is now the hamlet of Berne, and a few miles east of the Manor's line with what is now Schoharie County. Like Schoharie, the landowner had to approve all settlements.

Thus, there were many reasons why the Patroon issued no leases when the first farmers settled in the Helderbergs:

• The earliest homesteaders undoubtedly arrived about 1740 from the west in Schoharie.

• Other new arrivals decided to stay in the western part of the Manor to be close to Schoharie, which was already heavily populated.

• Settlers in Schoharie would have had to buy land or pay rent, while the property in Beaver Dam was apparently free.

• Stephen Van Rensselaer II became Patroon in 1763. Until he reached maturity, the Manor was primarily governed by his mother. Unfortunately, he was sickly, and when he died at 27, he was one of the richest men in the area. • His son, Stephen Van Rensselaer III, was also only five when he became Patroon, again leaving the land in the hands of his guardians. The family was so wealthy there was little incentive for them to track down the settlers in the Helderbergs and make them sign leases.

• When a rental contract was signed for raw land, it was usual for a new homesteader to be given seven years of occupancy to clear the trees and construct fences and buildings before the first rent was due. Thus, there was no hurry to get leases signed before improvements had been complete

• Even without contracts, it was more beneficial to the Manor to have the land in the Helderbergs lived on rather than vacant. Improved lands were more valuable than vacant lots.

• When the land was finally surveyed and leased instead of waiting the usual seven years to make improvements, payments began January of the next year  .

For these reasons, I believe that the earliest settlers above the Helderberg Escarpment were squatters in that they did not buy or rent the land from the Patroon owner. That explained their irregularly shaped lots and lack of leases before 1769, rather than that all evidence of earlier surveys, maps, and contracts had been destroyed in the 1911 Capitol fire which then held the NYS Archives.