Best of Wives, Best of Women
Eliza blushed. It was a beautiful letter.
Beyond the window of the front parlor of the Schuyler family home in Albany, the autumn leaves were crimson and gold, and now and then she could catch a glimpse of some small boat or another tacking back and forth, slowly beating its way against the river current. The lawns of the house ran down to the river, and in those days, the Hudson was a frontier highway.
It would be dark soon in the afternoons. Winter was coming. Never before had Eliza looked forward so eagerly to winter and its bitter chills. This year, December would bring Alexander.
Eliza and her mother were already busily planning the wedding. When the snows did come at last, Eliza knew already: they would exchange their vows in front of this window.
She touched the letter tenderly. Would it be too vain of her to read it again? At the Dutch church on Sunday mornings, where Eliza sat in the family pew with her parents, the minister warned against the sin of vanity. But no young woman in love could resist another look at such a letter:
I have told you and I told you truly that I love you too much. You engross my thoughts too intirely to allow me to think any thing else. You not only employ my mind all day, but you intrude on my sleep. I meet you in every dream—and when I wake I cannot close my eyes again for ruminating on your sweetness. ’Tis a pretty story indeed that I am to be thus monopolized, by a little nut-brown maid like you and from a statesman and soldier metamorphosed into a puny lover. I believe in my soul you are an inchantress; but I have tried in vain, if not to break, at least, to weaken the charm—you maintain your empire in spite of all my efforts—and after every new one I make to draw myself from my allegiance my partial heart still returns and clings to you with increased attachment. . . . I will not be delayed beyond November.
* * *
A nut-brown maid. It made Eliza smile to remember.
It was a reference to a popular folk song of that same title—“The Nut-Brown Maid”—revived in music books in the 1760s and 1770s. All last winter and into the spring at the camp in Morristown, she and Alexander had sung that old duet in Aunt Gertrude’s front parlor. Eliza had plucked out the notes of the ballad on the pianoforte. Alexander had brushed close to her as he turned the well-worn pages, using any excuse to be romantic.
Alexander, his voice rich and deep with feeling, had sung the part of the lowly knight, in love with a baron’s daughter. “Alone, a banished man” was the knight’s mournful refrain at the end of every stanza. When Alexander sang the words, there was weight and feeling. Eliza knew that Alexander felt alone in America and an outsider.
Her family’s embrace would change that. And so she had sung the part of the loyal nut-brown maid, whose refrain was “I love but you alone,” looking into his eyes so he would know how much she meant it.
Weren’t his long, poetic love letters another way of Alexander singing that same part in their ballad? The words were different but not the meaning. Over and over, Alexander, the outcast knight, wanted her reassurance. “I love but you alone” were the words he wanted.
Eliza always tried her best, but words were not her strength. Separated by war and not yet married, she and Alexander hadn’t seen each other in months. Eliza fiddled with the pen in front of her now. Busy voices and an industrious clatter drifted in from other quarters of the house. She should be helping her mother and her sister make the last of the preserves and put up the winter canning. Early October was a busy season for an agricultural plantation on the edge of the New York wilderness.
Alexander had complained, however sweetly, at the end of the letter before her, reminding her, “I ought at least to hear from you by every post and your last letter is as old as the middle of September,” and she couldn’t deny that she had put off writing. Each time she composed in her mind the first sentence, self-doubt gnawed at her, and she blushed again, thinking of how poorly she spelled and how awkward her expression was. She showed her love better in the little gifts of affection that she carefully embroidered and in tender gestures.
If there was any distance between them in this love affair, it was this. They were different people. Her heart was full now. But she could not seem to get beyond the first words of her letters. My dear Alexander . . .
* * *
In the years that followed, when children’s music lessons filled their home, when her spirited sister Peggy plucked Alexander away from his books and his writing and got him singing, they returned to that old ballad. It remained, too, in the spirit of their letters.
The nut-brown maid. It was their script, the love song at the heart of this complicated thing that was marriage. Sometimes, Eliza’s knight errant would laugh as he sang the words. Sometimes, in the years to come, he would have reason to be penitent.
The words of the song endured. When Alexander’s foes surrounded them and secrets pressed upon her, did Eliza sing softly to herself these words from the ballad: “If that ye were with enemies day and night, I would withstand, with bow in hand, to grieve them as I might, and you to save; as women have from death men many one: for, in my mind, of all mankind I love but you alone”?
The grateful knight’s reply was, Eliza knew, “Mine own dear love, I see the proof that ye be kind and true; of maid, of wife, in all my life, the best that ever I knew.”
Alexander in his letters made just a small revision to those words: “best of wives, best of women.”
Home on the Hudson, 1751–65
Eliza Schuyler was born on August 9, 1757, into a world unraveling.
What history now remembers as the French and Indian War swept all the settlers of New York’s Hudson River Valley up into it. Eliza and her family knew it only as hardship and chaos.
When Eliza was one day old, the French torched Sir William Johnson’s British encampment at Fort William Henry, north of the Schuyler family land patent in Saratoga, and France’s Huron allies scalped and murdered the unarmed retreating column and their families in a massacre that shook the Hudson Valley.
When Eliza was three months old, in November, French, Canadian, and Indian marauders attacked the outpost at German Flatts along the Mohawk River. Hatchets and arrows dispatched a dozen settlers. Those who could fled for the forests and did not stop running until the flames and the smoke of the burning settlement were far behind them. Those unlucky enough to be captured—more than half the village population—were frog-marched into the wilderness as slaves and war bounty. When wounded refugees made their way days later to Albany, telling terrible stories, the Schuylers turned a family barn into a makeshift hospital. Eliza’s mother, Kitty, and her paternal aunt, Gertrude, worked late into the night as volunteer nurses.
When Eliza was six months old, her father Philip’s childless uncle passed away, leaving Philip heir to a vast forest empire. Included in the legacy were two thousand hotly contested acres of Schuyler family lands in Saratoga, on the site of traditional Mohawk hunting grounds, where Eliza would pass much of her childhood.
* * *
A generation later, Eliza’s distant cousin James Fenimore Cooper would romanticize the story of this moment in history in his best-selling novel The Last of the Mohicans. For Eliza and her family in the late 1750s and 1760s, confrontations between the natives, their European neighbors to the north, and the valley’s settlers were the subjects of stories repeated anxiously from neighbor to neighbor at farmyard gates and in front of roaring winter fires, and there was nothing romantic about them.
The cultures had lived, sometimes more and sometimes less easily, cheek-by-jowl with each other for generations, but the fuse had already been lit that would lead to destruction and enmity. The explosive circumstances that followed would give shape to the largest contours of Eliza’s frontier girlhood.
One of the great explosions came the summer that Eliza turned one. The British army and the settlers, guided by the charismatic Brigadier General Lord Howe, waged a pitched battle against the French and the Indians at a small outpost further up the Hudson River at a strategic fort later known as Ticonderoga. Eliza’s father, Philip Schuyler, a proud and stern military man, stood at the ready, one among the more than fifteen thousand valley soldiers preparing to fight to breach the enemy’s defenses. When a French sniper picked off Lord Howe before the campaign started, things quickly went sideways for the settlers, and, even in the countryside in the 1750s, bad news traveled quickly.
When Eliza’s mother, Kitty Schuyler, saw a young post rider hurtling toward her on horseback with a message, her heart sank, and a hand rested for a long moment on her swollen, pregnant belly. She was already the mother of two small children, little Eliza and her older sister, two-year-old Angelica.
The sweaty letter was thrust into Kitty’s hands, and the sight of Philip’s handwriting made her jubilant. Dead men don’t write letters. It was the first thought that passed through the mind of any frontierswoman. But the rest of the news was heartbreaking. Even now, Philip was ferrying south by barge as quickly as he could some of the thousands who were dead and wounded. His wife, he knew, would organize the relief effort with as much intelligence as any general. Kitty Schuyler was not only a handsome and rich young woman, she had brains and courage. Swishing her satin skirts and ignoring her swollen ankles, she ordered a servant to look after the girls and directed the family slaves and farmhands down to the wharf on the river. When Philip’s boats arrived, they would be waiting for him with biers and doctors.
For nearly a week, the lamp in the Schuyler barn burned late into the night, while Kitty and the local ladies tended the soldiers, and, before the girls knew it, their father was gone to the front again. War commanded everyone’s attention. When Kitty’s labor pains started one day in late September, Philip was still far from home, fighting. In her mother-in-law’s best bedroom, Kitty held the hand of her sisterin-law Gertrude and listened to the firm and quiet words of Dr. Stringer.
On September 24, 1758, Kitty gave birth to her third daughter. The little girl’s name was Margarita, but she grew up being called Peggy. She was, from the beginning, the wildest, most high-spirited Schuyler daughter.
* * *
Kitty Schuyler was the wife of a soldier in the midst of a war, raising three small children in the home of her mother-in-law, and, at twenty-three-years old, she might have preferred to be dancing at assemblies. But the most frustrating part for the young housewife was the fact that—despite having borne three children in as many years of marriage and, tongues clucked in the neighborhood still, a hasty wedding to legitimize Angelica’s early arrival—she hardly saw her husband except in the bedroom.
Kitty Schuyler did not complain. She came from a long line of pragmatic and courageous women, each connected to each other in an intricate network of marriages, sisterhood, and cousinhood that gave them, over the generations, names like Schuyler, Livingston, Van Schaick, Van Cortlandt, Ten Broeck, De Lancey, and Van Rensselaer. These were the names of the most prominent Dutch entrepreneurial families in the New World, and they were bound by a culture and an ethos that did not permit retreat or grousing. Kitty’s mother, Engeltje—Angelica in English—came from the great country estate at Livingston Manor, along the river leading to New York City. But her father, Colonel John Van Rensselaer, was one of the heirs to the greatest estate of all, the million-acre fiefdom of Rensselaerwyck, which spread for hundreds of miles in all directions around Albany. Many of the Schuyler family properties were large tracts that had, over time, in marriage after marriage, been carved out, along with the city of Albany, from inside the Rensselaerwyck boundaries.
And so Kitty did not complain, but it was not easy being the young bride of an officer, with war in the countryside, and with three small children—and a mother-in-law—at home. Kitty had been one of the famous belles of Albany, the “morning star” in a firmament of local beauties, according to the young gentlemen and clucking town matrons, and her marriage to Philip Schuyler was a marriage of passion. She longed sometimes to cut loose just a little. So when Philip was posted to a command in Albany in autumn of 1758, just after Eliza’s first birthday, there was excitement and a celebration. At last Kitty could enjoy the company of her handsome husband for more than a short conjugal visit. At the Dutch Reformed Church in Albany on Sundays, where the family attended, the older matrons tutted over Philip and Kitty’s shameless habit of arriving late at church just so they could make a splashy entrance in their finery. They were an undeniably fashionable couple. And even the matrons had to confess that Kitty was a striking woman, with a figure that, despite a quick succession of children, was much admired.
For a year, the family luxuriated in domestic happiness, and Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy bounced on the knee of their father. But in the spring of 1761, Philip Schuyler was given a new posting, as quartermaster charged with managing accounts and supply chains. The posting would take him now across the Atlantic. When Philip set sail from the harbor in New York City aboard the General Wall destined for Britain on March 3, 1761, Kitty Schuyler once again was pregnant.
* * *
Philip Schuyler nearly didn’t make it home from this adventure across the Atlantic. A transatlantic journey meant a month at sea in the best of times, more if the weather and war were uncooperative, and well before the General Wall reached the halfway point in the voyage to London, somewhere in the vast emptiness south of Greenland, the captain of the ship grew feverish and perished.
Philip was long accustomed to boats and navigation. He’d run schooners up and down the Hudson River. He was a steady military officer of considerable experience by now, as well, and the officers onboard quickly nominated Major Schuyler as the new captain. His first test was a nightmarish encounter with a “ghost ship”—an abandoned and crippled slaver, whose fleeing crew had left behind their still-chained human cargo. Food supplies were short and options were few, and there is nothing heroic about Philip Schuyler’s decision. He ordered the enslaved men and women set free from their bonds and then cast off the line. The General Wall sailed away, leaving the survivors to their own devices.
Troubles did not stop there. French bounty hunters attacked the ship, and the General Wall was captured. As Philip Schuyler sat shackled in biting irons, contemplating the grim prospect of the plank, and perhaps considering more fully the plight of that “human cargo,” the privateers debated what to do with their prisoners. Luckily, Philip’s time at a French boarding school as a youngster now served him well, and he set about haggling over a fine ransom. Another warship, however, appeared on the horizon and engaged the General Wall in second harrowing sea battle. When the ship was recaptured by the British, Philip now had to persuade his own side that he was one of their agents and not an enemy French commander. By the time a sea-weary Major Schuyler and his crew arrived in the metropolis of London, the story of the epic misfortunes of the General Wall was being recounted in public houses and newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, and friends congratulated him “on your escape and arrival and extreme good fortune.”
His wife, Kitty, however, was not cheered by this harrowing story when it made its way back across the Atlantic to Albany. It terrified her to think of how near they had come to losing Philip, and he was even still on the other side of the ocean. What would happen on his return journey if this was the state of seafaring? Kitty was exhausted and exasperated for other reasons too. She and the children were living on North Pearl Street, in the village house of Philip’s widowed mother, Cornelia Schuyler, along with at least one of Philip’s brothers; his widowed sister, Gertrude; and Gertrude’s two saucy preteen children. The house was spacious by colonial standards, but colonial standards were not generous.
Her husband commiserated. And he did more than that. Before Philip departed, he’d given Kitty free rein to design and build a new family mansion. Kitty couldn’t see it completed fast enough. She ordered local masons to raise up a house of pale brick and planned long green lawns running down to the family’s private wharf on the Hudson River. She fussed over designs for a grand ballroom for the girls on the second floor and designed intricate marble chimneypieces.
Kitty also built the estate they called “the Pastures” to be a veritable fortress. She was no stranger to war. The walls were thickened to withstand attacks, and the doors fitted with brass locks and heavy brackets. In the years to come, Kitty’s foresight and those fortifications would save the lives of Eliza and her family on at least one very dramatic occasion.
Kitty’s construction budget was 1,400 pounds sterling—something on the order of $1.5 million in contemporary terms—and in the letters to Philip that drifted slowly across the Atlantic, she set him to the task of buying flocked wallpaper and expensive window curtains.
Privately, Kitty was also mourning. On July 29, 1761, as word of Philip’s adventures at sea were making their way back to New York, she gave birth to twins. The little boy, named John after his maternal grandfather and after a family friend, John Bradstreet, died at birth. The baby girl she christened Cornelia, after Philip’s mother. Philip would never meet his small daughter either. On August 29, a month after the infant’s birth, Kitty awoke to a dead baby. Angelica and Eliza were just old enough to remember later the loss of their baby sister.
When their father returned home at last in 1762, it was to a freshly completed family home, with pretty gardens and a bright-blue front parlor. Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy would spend their childhoods shuttling between here and the family wild lands in Saratoga. Behind the house and the barns of the Pastures rolled eighty acres of farmland and woods. Beyond the front gardens, large windows and a portico faced east to the sunrise and the Hudson River. Despite the damage done to Philip Schuyler’s health by the sea voyages, Kitty was again pregnant in no time.
* * *
One of Eliza’s childhood friends, Anne MacVicar, later left an account of growing up with the Schuyler girls and their cousins in Albany, and it is the story of a carefree and happy childhood, despite the conflicts and unsettled countryside around them. Anne, the daughter of a Scottish officer in the British army who had fought with Philip Schuyler in the battle at Ticonderoga, was eleven the year she met Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy, and for the next three years the girls were constant playmates.
The world Anne MacVicar describes was full of laughter and freedom. Those who met the Schuyler family remarked, almost to a one, on the easy intimacy and emotional warmth they extended to each other and to strangers. Eliza’s parents were not bohemians, not in the least. Philip and Kitty were disciplined people and moderately pious. The Schuyler family were members of the Dutch Reformed Church and certainly religious, although their Calvinism was of the sort that fostered entrepreneurship and independence rather than social restrictions, and Eliza’s family was more English than Dutch when it came to playing cards or dancing. Eliza and her sisters also grew up on the frontier, surrounded by a wilderness that began less than a day’s journey from Albany. The keenly class-conscious Sir William Johnson, a friend of their father and an outsize presence in the valley, kept his teenage daughters locked up in a wing of his house and ordered an eagle-eyed governess to watch them, as was common practice regarding young aristocratic women in fashionable London. Philip and Kitty Schuyler found the idea repugnant. The Schuyler girls were to be integrated into the complex and sometimes dangerous world of war and politics that went on around them.
It was a world that schooled a young Eliza in some hard realities. The death rate on the frontier was astonishingly high, and the Schuyler family was not spared those losses. Forty percent of children born in the 1760s died as infants or toddlers. A year after the death of the twins, Kitty gave birth again, to a long-awaited son and heir, whom they once again hopefully named John Bradstreet Schuyler. But the winter that year was particularly hard, with the first snows coming in early November, and the summer that followed was swampy, humid, and sickly. Between the biting cold and the summer putrid fevers, it was an unlucky year to be born, and this second John was no luckier than the first little John had been. He, too, died before his first birthday. By twenty-nine, Kitty Schuyler had given birth to six children and buried half of them.
Smallpox continued to plague the Mohawk and Hudson Valleys that year, as well. Sir William Johnson built a new, bespoke mansion, named Johnson Hall, and the family there was struck down with the disease, which left those fortunate enough to survive disfigured and disabled. By late summer, New York and Philadelphia were in the grip of the fearsome yellow fever. American cities were small during Eliza’s girlhood, and the horror of contagion at close quarters was a predominant factor. Then there were the unexceptional deaths, the ones that resulted from childhood diseases like mumps and measles, from carriage accidents and bucking horses, from pleasure boats tipped into swirling rivers, and from age. Eliza’s grandmother, Cornelia, died in 1762, the year Eliza turned five, and the body was laid out in black crepe in the front blue parlor. Eliza missed the warm scent of her grandmother.
Despite the loss and mourning that inevitably came with colonial life in America, Eliza and Anne both later remembered their childhoods as idyllic, pastoral. The children played on the rivers and in the forests, accompanied by Prince, Kitty’s most trusted African slave, to watch over them.
The constant presence of enslaved people must be noted as an historical fact, too, in Eliza’s girlhood story. The Schuyler family owned as many as a dozen slaves during the lifetime of Eliza’s parents, men and women born in the New World but whose bloodlines had their origins in Africa, the native peoples of North America, and, especially, Madagascar.
Cousins piled into canoes for summertime trips to harvest wild berries, and Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy learned from the local Indian girls who camped in the fields near their home, heading to and from summer council meetings each year, how to make willow baskets and string belts of brightly colored wampum from beads and shells to tell a story. Needlework was an essential part of a young girl’s education, and the Schuyler girls, like their parents and their aunts and uncles, all spoke at least bits and pieces of the Iroquois languages. They took lessons from a dancing master in Albany, learning the intricate steps of the minuet and how to rise and fall on the balls of their feet while turning in circles. From their mother, they learned to cut out patterns for clothes and how to preserve strawberries for winter. The girls read Shakespeare and the Bible aloud to their great-aunt, Margarita Schuyler, and learned to speak French, as well English and their family’s native Flemish; in the winter, when the river froze, the girls eagerly pulled on their warm fur muffs and the smart beaver caps that their father had ordered especially for all the children and went for skating parties and sleigh races.
Soon, that childhood would also include long, wild summers in what seemed to Eliza and her sisters a magical forest kingdom. The French and Indian War was behind them now, and, upon the death of Eliza’s grandmother Cornelia Schuyler, another sizable inheritance passed to the girls’ father, including more land in Saratoga and the money Philip would need to commercialize and develop it. Kitty gave birth at last to a healthy son, whom they again named John Bradstreet, the third infant to bear the name and the first survivor. Philip Schuyler already dreamed of the day he would leave his son and, in smaller shares, his daughters a great legacy in Saratoga.