by Michael Brewster
The explosive popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash Hamilton has catapulted the Philip Schuyler family from the dusty pages of history into the spotlight. Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy have their roles in Alexander Hamilton’s life dramatized in the musical, and when my teenage daughter became a fan, I took the opportunity to find some historical connections, thinking a family trip could be planned. While most of the Hamilton-related sites are in New York and Philadelphia, one is right here in Upstate New York, so we incorporated a stop into our Spring Break plans.
Situated upon a hill in the City of Albany, New York, the Schuyler Mansion, now a State Historic Site, was once the seat of a tremendous amount of power and joins Sir William Johnson’s Johnson Hall as one of Upstate’s quasi-baronial seats. The brick structure was constructed from 1761-3. In 1917 it passed into New York State’s hands, and has been open to the public since.
Philip Schuyler, the man
Philip Schuyler (1733-1804), born into a wealthy family, rose further from being the son of Dutch-speaking landowners to the rank of Major General during the Revolutionary War. His father Johannes Schuyler, Jr. (1697–1741) died when Philip was eight, so he went to live with the Van Cortlandts, his mother’s family, down the Hudson in New Rochelle, New York. There, he was tutored in the classics and mathematics and also spent time on trade expeditions, meeting with Haudenosaunee leaders and learning the Mohawk language. In 1755, he joined the British Army in the French & Indian War, and that September married Catherine Van Renssalaer, the daughter of a another wealthy Dutch-American family. They would go on to have eight children survive into adulthood and oversee thousands of acres of land in the Saratoga region.
In 1761, Philip began construction of his showcase mansion on an 80-acre tract that included extensive gardens and orchards. The house itself was the first building travelers would see as they came north up the Hudson River, and its splendor reflected the Schuylers’ status. The mansion itself served as both a public space for entertaining guests and a private refuge for family and close friends.
Leading up to the Revolutionary War, Philip rose in prominence under his mentor John Bradstreet. Bradstreet and Schuyler were both active in politics and could be seen as a rival team to Sir William Johnson and his son John, who operated west of Albany in the Mohawk Valley. The Johnsons had extremely close ties to the Mohawk Nation, and Philip Schuyler cultivated relationships with the Oneida Nation further west. In a twist of fate, William Johnson and John Bradstreet both died in 1774, and with the advent of the American Revolution in 1775, Schuyler joined with the Patriots. During the post-Revolutionary period, Schuyler stood as trusted friend to the Oneidas (who had supported the Patriots), even though he ultimately betrayed that trust and worked to divest them of their lands. Schuyler personally gained hundreds of thousands of acres of former Haudenosaunee land while the Oneidas, who supported the Patriots, ended up losing their entire Nation.
The Schuyler Mansion
At the time of our tour, the house was undergoing some renovations in preparation for its 100th Anniversary as a State Historic Site, so some of the rooms were less “staged” and dressed than usual. Ian, our tour guide, used this as an opportunity to talk about the behind-the-scenes activities of running a house museum. The site offers several tours, one for school groups and another for non-school groups of 10-35 adults. Their focus tour “When Alexander Hamilton Called Albany Home” is available by reservation (because of renovations, please call for tour availability), is the one we took and was quite interesting, though perhaps a bit detailed for non-Hamilton-fan youth.
We met in the Visitor’s Center and Ian led the 10 of us through the house. Most of the focus was on the first floor, where the family’s public and private entertaining took place. The house does not have a kitchen or restrooms, as those were located in now-demolished outbuildings. The Schuylers kept slaves and the tour includes how slaves functioned in the household, which was both illuminating and disturbing. Alexander Hamilton’s role in procuring slaves was discussed, a topic which, according to several critics, is glossed over in the musical. Ian also took the time after the tour to discuss Philip Schulyler’s role in dispossessing the Haudenosaunee of their lands, one of my personal research interests. Other questions that popped up about which furnishings and household items were original to the family and house as well as how faithfully the renovations were to the period. Overall, I cannot imagine a more informative tour, given the general nature of our group and time constraints.
Philip and Catherine Schuyler raised their family in the house, and they hosted the wedding of their daughter Elizabeth to Alexander Hamilton in 1780. Hamilton spent much time in the house during the rest of the Revolutionary War and immediately afterward when he studied law. His rival, Aaron Burr, also studied law there, taking advantage of Philip’s large library. Other famous guests included Benjamin Franklin, Marquis de Lafayette, and British General John Burgoyne, who served house arrest after his surrender at Saratoga. The house and lands were sold after Philip’s 1804 death, and the house’s subsequent history included time as an orphanage. In 1917, New York State acquired the house and the current renovations are the fruits of the efforts by museum staff to secure grants to keep the house in great shape for the future.
Resources and Additional Reading
Hamilton: An American Musical
Schuyler’s role in the Battle of Saratoga
Schuyler Mansion Facebook and Twitter
Schuyler Mansion Blog
Born and raised in Central NY, Michael Brewster has traveled the US extensively, but is most at home in the Finger Lakes. The beauty and history of Upstate NY continue to marvel and fascinate him. He enjoys local food, beer and live music. Find him on Twitter @brewcuse