Honored Through The Ordeal: Crailo And The Colonial Wars

By Paul Stambach

The present day Crailo State Historic Site is what remains of the home and estate of the Hendrick Van Rensselaer family. By the early 18th century the house was the seat of Hendrick’s manor, a holding that consisted of 1,500 acres in what is currently the city of Rensselaer plus another 60,000 acres in and around the village of Claverack. [1] The Rensselaer city policies were originally called “Crailo” in the 17th century, though by the mid-18th century it came to be known as “Greenbush.”[2] The property consisted of flat alluvial farmlands, orchards, mills, a store, and ferry rights to Albany. [3] This branch of the Van Rensselaer family was prosperous, ambitious, and very much involved in the military and civic affairs of Albany County and the colony of New York.

From 1689 through 1763, France and England fought four wars that had international implications. The region that is now New York State was particularly affected by these conflicts due to its location on the border between the English colonies and the French stronghold in Canada. New York’s strategic importance was further enhanced by the fact its waterways were the primary fur trading routes; whoever controlled these waterways controlled the lucrative pelt trade as well as the ice-free port of Manhattan. The primary aim of the French war effort was to seize this riverine trade system. [4] As a result, local inhabitants had to be prepared to defend themselves from French and Indian raiding parties. Such were no small concern, as we should remember that, in America during the colonial wars, terrorizing the populace was accepted military practice for both sides and everyone had to live with and adapt to this terror. [5] Using terror as a military option is by no means a 20th century invention. The Van Rensselaer family adapted to the outbreaks of war by fortifying the house on their Crailo farm on numerous occasions. Crailo was fortified as early as1663 during the Esopus Indian Wars, [6] and again in 1675 during King Philip’s War when Captain Volkert Douw of the Albany County Militia was ordered to raise a stockade. [7] But the latest occasion for fortification at Crailo was during its most violent episode: in 1746 the house was strengthened with a stockade as well as, in all likelihood, its gunports after a raiding party of 80 French and Indians attacked Greenbush, killing up to five persons. During the attack one of the Van Rensselaer slaves beat to death one, possibly two, of the Indian marauders. [8] The inhabitants of Albany witnessed this assault from across the river but troops were unable to cross in time to defend Greenbush. We know at this time that John Van Rensselaer, Hendrick’s heir, was a Captain in the Albany County militia appointed by royal commission. John Van Rensselaer was reimbursed for paying the wages of eleven members of the militia posted at Crailo to do some work during the early summer of 1746. [9] It is thought that between nine and eleven gunports were installed in the house at the time. Two of the gunports are still in place in the front of Crailo and can be seen by today’s visitor. They are a grim reminder of the terror of that summer, 30 people were killed or captured, and of the methods used by the Van Rensselaers and their neighbors to cope.

The gun ports and fortifications are not Crailo’s only connection to a martial heritage. Because the manor was flat and directly across the river from Albany, the fields and farm buildings were used as encampments by provincial troops as early as 1694, with references to such encampments abounding throughout the colonial era. [10] In 1755, troops were lodged in Colonel John Van Rensselaer’s barn, with another 1,000 soldiers bivouacked on the grounds south of the house. [11] The Blodgett map of 1755 commemorating the battle of Lake George includes a drawing of “Mr. Van Ranslers House,” indicating its importance to the wartime landscape. [12] John Van Rensselaer entertained officers at dinner, with notables such as General Lyman and Seth Pomeroy joining his table. [13] It is nearly certain the Van Rensselaers were paid for the use of their fields, as we know for a fact, John Van Rensselaer was reimbursed in 1751 and 1754 (£250 and £275, respectively) for providing firewood and candles to the garrisons at Albany and Schenectady. [14] Whatever financial arrangements had been made, nevertheless, the Van Rensselaers should be given credit for allowing the large encampments on their manor. Samuel Morris wrote in June 1758, “ I arrived at Greenbush and here I found men as thick as trees." [15] The smell must have been terrible and the threat of disease dangerously real. As David McCullough writes in 1776 concerning the rebel encampments around Boston, “infectious filth was understood to be the killer…open latrines were the worst of it…excrement about the fields perniciously …the smell of the many camps was vile in the extreme.” McCullough also noted that part of why conditions became so aggravated was because “New England men were also adverse to washing their own clothes, considering that women’s work.” [16] Since the troops in Crailo’s fields in the 1690s, early 1700s, 1740s, ‘50s, and ‘60s were the New Englanders’ forefathers; conditions in Greenbush could hardly have been better than those of the Boston in 1776.

Indeed, on 8/17/1759, a “Col. Joseph Williams, in the hope of lessening “infections, steams, etc.” in his camp, “strictly forbid” his troops from “ going to stool in other places. [than latrines] near the encampment." [17] Aside from available space and finances, there were several other reasons why those New Englanders were kept confined to the east side of the river in the Van Rensselaer’s fields. For one, it was thought prudent to keep them away from Albany’s bars and taverns as well as French spies. Secondly, British officers had no desire to see any fraternization between their well-drilled regiments and the unruly colonials. Third and perhaps most important, there was no love lost between any of these groups. Already resentful of the quartering of British troops in their town, the Albany Dutch distrusted the New England Yankees. The mistrust was returned in equal measure, as the New Englanders thought the Albany Dutch (and Yorkers in general) to be greedy. Believing that the Albanians had prospered in the Montreal trade while Deerfield and other New England settlements were ravaged by French and Indian war parties during Queen Anne’s War, the New Englanders still harbored genuine resentment for the New Yorkers unofficial neutrality during that period. [18] Convinced that colonial avarice was greatly hampering their war efforts, the British were absolutely mortified by the self-serving colonists, no matter where they hailed from. [19]

Which all leads us to the tradition of “Yankee Doodle”—did the British medical officer Dr. Richard Shuckburgh truly sit on the well at Crailo in June of 1758 and compose some or all of the verses of the song to make fun of the provincial troops? The family claimed it to be true. [20] I believe all that can be safely said is that it is possible. All the elements of the tradition were in place: New England troops were encamped at Crailo in June of that year, while Dr. Shuckburgh was a real person, an assistant to Sir William Johnson and known to have been in the area at the time. [21] Of course, General Abercrombie and Lord Howe and their staffs were in Albany preparing for their campaign against Ft. Ticonderoga and it is quite possible that these officers crossed the river in order to review the provincial troops and their encampments. According to a Van Rensselaer descendent, her grandfather, Robert Van Rensselaer, said he was 17 years old at the time and was present when Dr. Shuckburgh composed the verses making fun of the New England troops. [22] This claim may in fact be accurate, as Robert was born at Crailo and was 17 or 18 in 1758, and it was one of Robert’s granddaughters who wrote about the family tradition. [23] All in all, it seems that the “Yankee Doodle” tradition at Crailo is as solid as any tradition associated with historic sites. Simply put, in my opinion, it can’t be proven or disproved.

It should also be noted that this same Robert Van Rensselaer (John’s son) became a Brigadier General of the Albany County Militia during the Revolution, and it was his command that checked John Johnson’s forces at Stone Arabia and Fort Klock in October of 1780, halting the combined British, Tory, and Indian raiding party terrorizing the Schoharie and Mohawk Valleys at that time. [24] Robert’s brother James was a Major in the Continental Army and served as aide to Generals Montgomery and Schuyler. [25] A cousin, Henry K. Van Rensselaer, was a Colonel in the Albany County Militia, and it was his command that helped slow Burgoyne’s troops in an action at Fort Anne on July 8, 1777, the day after Ticonderoga fell. [26] The Van Rensselaer military tradition was not confined to male relations either; Catherine was born at Crailo and married Philip Schuyler there in 1755, and of course he was one of four Major Generals serving under Washington during the initial years of the revolution. [27]

The Van Rensselaer family and their home were very much in the forefront of the military efforts of Albany County during the colonial wars and the American Revolution. This is why New York State established Crailo as a historic site in 1924. Today, it is an excellent museum of 17th and 18th century Dutch culture in the upper Hudson river valley. Many of the artifacts from the Fort Orange archeological dig in the early 1970s are on display, and museum staff will do a demonstration of colonial cooking techniques upon request. Finally the visitor can see the original walls and gun ports and perhaps walk the same ground as Lord Howe, General Abercrombie and “Yankee Doodle” once did. Crailo is a “must see” for any visitor to the area, and for any military history buff that wants to gain a better understanding of the logistics of 18th century warfare in America. As Samuel Adams Drake writes in his book The Border Wars of New England, “as they. [historic buildings] had been through the ordeal, so with good reason, they should share in the honor." [28]


1. Indenture, June 1, 1704, Kiliaen Van Rensselaer to Hendrick Van Rensselaer, Manuscripts and Special Collections: Miscellaneous Manuscripts, New York State Library.

2 Wilcoxen, Charlotte, “Crailo State Historic Site: Its Nomenclature—With a discussion of Certain Errors Surrounding It”, Appendix E of 17th Century Albany: A Dutch Profile, page 175, AIHA, Albany, New York, 1984. Also, see Paul Stambach and Ellen Miller, “Historic Structures Report on Crailo, 1977”, pgs. 3-4. located in the research files at the Crailo State Historic Site.

3. Will of Hendrick Van Rensselaer, Van Rensselaer-Fort Papers, New York Public Library.

4. Leach, Douglas Edward, Arms For Empire: A Military History of the British Colonies In North America, 1607-1763, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1973, pgs. 83-84; Sullivan, James, Flick, Alexander C., Hamilton, Milton W., Corey, Albert (eds.), The Papers of Sir William Johnson, in fourteen volumes, University of the State of New York, Albany, 1921-65, Vol. XI, pgs. 125-132.

5. O’Toole, Fintan, White Savage: William Johnson And The Invention of America, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2005, pgs. 79-82; Brumwell, Stephen, White Devil, DACAPO PRESS, 2005, pg. 48, 63, 111.

6. Van Laer, A. J. F., translator and editor, Correspondence of Jeremias Van Rensselaer, 1651-1674, Albany, 1932, pg. 326.

7. Van Laer, A. J. F., translator and editor, Minutes of the Court of Albany, Rensselaerswyck and Schenectady, 1675-1680, 3 Volumes, Albany, New York, 1922-1929, pgs. 39-40.

8. Dunn, Shirley W., “ Settlement Patterns in Rensselaerswyck: The Farm at Greenbush”, de Halve Maen, Fall, 2002, pg. 55; Huey, Paul, “Notes on the Indian War of 1745-1747”, 11/23/1987. A copy of these notes is in the files at the Crailo State Historic Site.

9. Parker, James, Votes and Proceedings of the General Assembly of The Colony of New York Begun Sept. 4, 1750,pg. 65. This publication is on microfilm at the University of Pennsylvania’s Library and was located by Paul Huey of NYS Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

10. Callaghan, E. B.,(ed), Documentary History of the State of New York, 4 Vols.(Albany, 1849-1850), V. 3, pgs. 727-728, 4: 196.

11. Johnson Papers, V. 1, pgs. 613, 623n.

12. Samuel Blodgett, “A Prospective-Plan of the Battle Near Lake George on the 9th of September 1755”, Drawing by Samuel Blodgett, engraving by Thomas Johnston, Boston, 1755, Maps Collection, Massachusetts Historical Society.

13. deForest, Louis Effingham, ed., “ The Journal and Papers of Seth Pomeroy”, Society of Colonial Wars in the State of New York, 1926, pg. 102.

14. Calendar of British Historical Manuscripts, pgs. 598 and 620.

15. Anderson, Fred, A Peoples Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War, University of North Carolina, 1984, pg. 74.

16. McCullough, David, 1776, Simon and Schuster, N.Y., 2005, pgs. 30 –31.

17. Anderson, A Peoples Army, pg. 98.

18. Bonomi, Patricia, A Factious People: Politics and Society In Colonial New York, Columbia University Press, 1971, pg. 49; Corbett, Theodore G., A Clash of Cultures on the Warpath of Nations: The Colonial Wars in the Hudson-Champlain Valley, Purple Mountain Press, Ltd., Fleischmanns, N. Y., 2002, pg. 71; Leach, Arms for Empire, pgs. 280-281.

19. Leach, Douglas Edward, Roots of Conflict: British Armed Forces and Colonial Americans, 1677-1763.

20. Sonneck, Oscar, Report on the Star-Spangled Banner, Hail Columbia, America and Yankee Doodle, Dover Publications Inc., New York, New York, 1972, pg. 154: 8/11/1924 Letter from Mrs. Susan DeLancey Van Rensselaer Strong to Mrs. Nash. A copy of the letter is in the research files at the Crailo Historic Site; Munsell, Joel, ed. , Annals of Albany, V. II, pgs. 227-228.

21. A 7/9/1999 letter from Huey to Stuart Murray explains that a Col. Charles Clinton writes in his journal that he “messed with Capn Gates Doctor Shakesbury” at Fort Herkimer on June 28, 1758. “ The Fort Ticonderoga Museum Bulletin” published Col. Clinton’s journal in 1992. A copy of Huey’s letter is in the research files at the Crailo State Historic Site.

22. Sonneck, pgs. 154-155.

23. Strong to Nash letter, pg. 2; Van Rensselaer, Florence, The Van Rensselaers in Holland and in America, The American Historical Co., Inc., New York, New York, 1956, pg. 77.

24. Roberts, James A., ed., New York in the Revolution as Colony and State, Weed-Parsons Printing Company, 1897, pgs. Xiii-xviii.

25. Gerlach, Don R., Proud Patriot:Philip Schuyler and the War of Independence, 1775-1783, Syracuse University Press, 1987, pg. 13.

26. Ketchum, Richard M., Saratoga, Henry Holt and Company, New York, New York, 1997, pgs. 227-228;Bird, Harrison, March to Saratoga: General Burgoyne and the American Campaign, 1777, pgs. 51-52, 54, 66.

27. Gerlach, pgs. 3,7; The Division for Historic Preservation, Bureau of Historic Sites, Schuyler Mansion: A Historic Structure Report,(State of New York, Office of Parks and Recreation, 1977), pgs. 2-3.

28. Drake, Sam Adams, The Border Wars of New England, Comer House Publishers, Williamstown, Mass., 1973, pgs. 2-3.