Biography of William B. Van Rensselaer


WILLIAM Bayard Van Rensselaer, one of the few living descendants of the Van Rensselaer family in Albany, was born in this city on the 4th of October, 1856. He is a son of Bayard Van Rensselaer and Laura Reynolds, both natives of Albany. His father died in 1859, but his mother is still living. His ancestry which is well known to the students of our early history is a remarkable one, of which we have only time and space here to give a passing notice. His great-grandfather, Hon. Stephen Van Rensselaer, was a man of high character and left a noble record behind him. His services in the history of our city, state and nation command admiration. He was born in the city of New York, in 1764, and was the fifth in lineal descent from the first ancestor of the family in America. His father was Stephen Van Rensselaer, who built the present manor house in Albany, as hereinafter referred to. His mother was Catharine, daughter of Philip Livingston, one of the signers of the declaration of independence. Gen. Ten Broeck, his uncle, had the management of his estate until he reached the age of twenty-one. He attended school in Albany and at the Kingston academy, where he was a classmate of old Abraham Van Vechten, afterward a distinguished lawyer of Albany. The young students became fast friends through life. Stephen Van Rensselaer first entered Princeton College, but on account of the troubles incident to the revolutionary period in the history of New Jersey, he went to Harvard College, where he graduated in 1782 at the age of nineteen. The following year he married Margaret, daughter of Gen. Philip J. Schuyler, who died in 1801, leaving a son, Stephen. His second wife was a daughter of Judge Patterson, of New Jersey, of the United States Supreme Court. Old Stephen Van Rensselaer held many important and responsible offices, being member of the assembly in 1789, 1808, 1810 and 1816; state senator from 1791 to 1795; lieutenant governor of the state from 1795 to 1801; a colonel of the state cavalry in the war of 1812, performing efficient service on the Canadian frontier; member of congress from 1822 to 1829; chancellor of the university in 1835; for twenty-two years a canal commissioner and for fifteen years president of the board. The manor house at the head of Broadway, built in 1765, was his residence, and here he died on the 26th of January, 1839.

His son Stephen married Harriet Bayard of New York. They lived in the house now known as St. Peter’s hospital, until his father Stephen died, and then he enlarged the manor house by adding the wings on each side, moved into it after the repairs, in 1844, and continued to live there until his death in 1868.

Old Killian Van Rensselaer, the original ancestor of the family name of whom we have any account, was a merchant of Amsterdam, Holland, who about the year 1630 availed himself of the privileges offered by the assembly of the XIX, and commissioners of the states-general, passed in 1629, by which all members of the West India Company, who planted a colony of fifty souls over fifteen years of age, were to be acknowledged patroons of the New Netherlands. Kilhan further perfected his title to the lands thus granted by purchasing the same from the Indians. These purchases embraced a large territory, extending from Baeren Island to Cohoes Falls, and from the Hudson River twenty-four miles back upon both sides, Fort Orange only being reserved by the West India Company. It is not certain whether he ever came to see his new lands along the banks of the Hudson. If he did, it was only on a brief visit. He died in 1648, and his son Johannes succeeded him in the control of his large estates here. It is moreover uncertain whether Johannes Van Rensselaer himself ever looked upon the then dense forests of Greenbush or the rising, wooded hills where now stands the city of Albany. It is believed by many that he actually came here, and in 1642 built the old mansion at Greenbush, which still stands as a curious relic of bye gone ages. It was first called the Crailo, and used as a fort. In 1740 an addition was made to the building. It is worth while for any one to visit this old mansion, built the very year in which the thunders of Cromwell’s guns and those of Charles the First were beginning to shake England in a terrible civil war, and which has survived the many civil and political conflicts and revolutions of the world since that period.

Killian Van Rensselaer’s two grandsons, both named Killian, respectively the sons of his sons Johannes and Jeremiah, are known to have come to America and to have settled here; and probably their uncle, John Baptiste Van Rensselaer, came also. The English patents to this family are given to these two Killians, the grandsons of the elder Killian, in trust for their grandfather. By the later patents it is recited that Killian, the son of Johannes, died without issue, and the grant was confirmed to Killian, the son of Jeremiah, in trust for Killian, his grandfather. After the death of Killian, the grandfather, Jeremiah’s son, Killian, bought out the interest of all the other heirs in this property and became the sole owner thereof; his eldest son was Jeremias, who died unmarried, and the property went to the second son, Stephen, whose eldest son, Stephen, became the seventh patroon, or lord of the manor, and died in 1769, just after completion of the present manor house on North Broadway. This latter Stephen was the great-great-grand-father of the present William Bayard Van Rensselaer.

William Bayard Van Rensselaer, the subject of our memoir, is the direct lineal descendent of these patroons, and had not the laws of the state of New York broken up and prohibited the entailing of property, he would be the patroon and owner of this vast property comprising all of the present Albany county and the principal part of Rensselaer county. In early boyhood he attended the Normal school and the Albany Boys’ academy. With a view of seeking advantages of a continuous course of instruction he was sent to a boarding school at Catskill, where he was a pupil for two years. There he not only pursued his studies with diligence and with a genuine love for books, but was particularly delighted with the bold, inspiring, natural scenery around him. And while his youthful intellectual powers were properly developed his slight, physical frame was strengthened by the healthful influences of rural life. At the close of this two years’ study he exchanged the grand views of the neighboring Catskill Mountains for those of the granite hills of New Hampshire. In 1869, when a boy of thirteen, he became a student of St. Paul’s school, New Hampshire, an institution designed for larger boys, at that time having about fifty pupils, but since grown to over three hundred, including at present a number of Albany boys. There for six years he made a steady and successful progress in ascending the hill of science. When those six years of study had passed away, our young student, now nineteen years of age, was well prepared to enter college. And in 1875 we find him a freshman in Harvard University, then as now under the presidency of Charles Elliot, where on completing the regular course of four years he graduated in 1879. After this he attended the Harvard Law School for one year, enjoying the able instruction of Langdell, president of the law school.

Mr. Van Rensselaer, naturally inclined to the study of legal science, had early determined to make it a life-long pursuit. But before completing his legal studies, an agreeable social event occurred in his life. In the fall of 1880 he married Miss Louisa G. Lane, the amiable and accomplished daughter of Prof. Lane of Harvard University, whose acquaintance he had made while at college. Returning to Albany shortly after his marriage, he continued his law studies in the office of Messrs. Marcus T. and Leonard G. Hun; and was admitted to the bar in the autumn of 1882. And thus after a continuous student life of nearly twenty years he finished his preparatory studies, and opened an office for the general practice of law in the Hun building, corner of North Pearl street and Maiden Lane.

A circumstance happened about this time which turned his attention from the more active duties of a general counselor, and concentrated his services in the line of real estate property. In 1881, on the death of Charles Van Zandt, long the agent of the property of the late Stephen Van Rensselaer, he was appointed as the most suitable person to take charge of the estate. His knowledge and experience in laws governing real estate matters are extensive, and his judgment upon such matters is recognized to be sound and safe.

In the fall of 1885, at his suggestion, the numerous heirs of the Stephen Van Rensselaer estate conveyed their interests in the property to the Van Rensselaer Land Company, Albany. Of this recently organized company Mr. Van Rensselaer was made treasurer and general manager, and in this capacity he still acts with great discretion, faithfulness and ability, and with a perfect familiarity with the numerous and often complicated questions which come before him.

Mr. Van Rensselaer has already taken an active part in the business, financial, commercial and literary affairs of his native city, and has shown himself to be a careful, judicious and capable man in his public as well as private trusts. He is a director in the New York State National bank; a trustee of the Albany Savings bank; a director of the Cohoes Company, a company incorporated in 1823, and which supplies all the factories of Cohoes with their water power. He is one of the original members of the Fort Orange club, in whose prosperity he has taken a deep interest. He is also a member of the University club, the Reform club, and the Holland society, all of New York City.

It may fairly be said that to the enterprise of Mr. Van Rensselaer are largely due all the improvements that are in progress in the northern part of the city of Albany, such as good drainage and pavements, as well as the new bridges to be built over the Erie canal at Albany – improvements which are much needed and which will be appreciated by our citizens when completed. In politics, Mr. Van Rensselaer is an independent, voting for the men who, he believes, will best perform the duties of the offices for which they are candidates. He is a member of All Saints’ Cathedral congregation, and much interested in the building of the new and beautiful cathedral on Elk, La Fayette and Swan streets in this city.

A man of refined tastes and of extensive reading in general literature, Mr. Van Rensselaer gives his influence and his material support towards whatever is elevating and ennobling in social, moral and intellectual life. And this he does without ostentation, exhibiting the leading characteristics of a true manhood. A man of public spirit, and having the strongest feelings of attachment for his native city, he is ever interested in all public matters concerning the same, and always ready to assist in any movement that will tend to make the city more attractive or to increase its importance as a business and commercial center.

In the recent centennial celebration of the city of Albany he acted well his part in making it a grand success. He was an active member of the general committee, and of the sub-committee that gave the historical parade which will long be remembered as one of the most imposing features of that occasion. Exhibiting those qualities both of the head and the heart, which fit a man to become useful in society, as well as sound and successful in official or professional duties, he has already gained, at the comparatively early age of thirty-four, a worthy name among the rising representative young men of our old Dutch city.

Van Rensselaer,


Noted living Albanians and state officials , A series of biographical sketches. 1891.

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