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Uncommon Sense

By Erin Kramer · February 28, 2023

A Record of Colonialism's Paradoxes

WMQ 8 min read

by Erin Kramer (Trinity University)

Erin Kramer is the author of “Coraler’s House: Diplomatic Spaces, Lineages, and Memory in the New York Borderlands” (William and Mary Quarterly, October 2022)

In the acknowledgements to my recent WMQ article, I thanked a long list of scholars who were kind enough to read drafts of my essay as I struggled through it over several years. I often joke with them that the version they read is indistinguishable from the published piece, and one of the anonymous peer reviewers even noted that the essay I submitted for the second round of review was essentially a new article. These dramatic revisions reflect a tectonic shift in my methodology that upended my interpretation of the contours of Haudenosaunee-Dutch relationships in seventeenth-century Albany.

The article, in essence, explains how Albany came to be known as “Corlaer’s house,” a name that combined the memory of Arent van Curler with a Haudenosaunee political understanding of place, history, and the obligations of alliance. This version of Albany’s story was only faintly imaginable to me when I embarked on my archival research almost a decade ago. Like most academic historians, I built on the foundations of existing scholarship and followed where the documents led me, until, deep into the process of revision, I realized that the documents were telling an incomplete story.   

My first glimpses of Corlaer’s house came through the eyes of the Van Rensselaer family. In 2013, I was fortunate enough—thanks to the support of Charly Gehring of the New Netherland Institute—to get permission to work with some of the most fragile documents in the New York State Library collections: the Van Rensselaer Manor Papers. I had come to Albany to understand why that place had held such authority in early America, and the first clues I encountered came not from official colonial records but from family papers, personal correspondence, and a protracted inheritance dispute.

One document that figures only minimally in my article lingered with me as I pieced together stories of Albany as a diplomatic space. Titled “The Case of the Colonie of Rensselaerswijck,” the papers, singed and burnt in the 1911 state capitol fire, served as a sort of cover letter that laid out the Van Rensselaer family’s claims to the entirety of Albany and its environs, with a series of deeds appended. The Van Rensselaer family appealed their cause to James, the Duke of York, in 1678, hoping that he would grant them ownership of the town. Though their legal case was legitimate in a colonial system and their documentation clear, I couldn’t help but gasp at the audacity of a Dutch family asking an English colonial authority to grant them possession of an entire town that had grown and functioned as a sovereign space for decades. Perhaps even more surprisingly, James ruled in their favor, though New York’s leadership refused to enact his order.

“The Case of the Colonie of Rensselaerswijck” encapsulates the absurdities of land ownership as a central feature of settler colonialism in early America. The notion of a family attempting to possess a sizeable town was almost laughable in its brazenness, but their deeds legitimized on paper what would have been impossible in practice, and they had a well-documented claim of dispossession. Yet, what seems shocking in this context, settlers and government entities enacted countless times against Indigenous peoples. The Van Rensselaer family certainly saw themselves as victims of the same processes of colonial overreach and dispossession that defined early America. Their losses were not the same as those of Indigenous nations, however, and it would be a grave mistake to conflate the two. The Van Rensselaers lost out on potential revenue from rents and land sales; settlers violently displaced Indigenous peoples from their homelands.

Though “The Case of the Colonie of Rensselaerswijck” first laid bare to me how the Van Rensselaer family’s history shaped a wider narrative of a colonial space, I could not fully understand why Albany and why Albany became “Corlaer’s house” rather than Rensselaerswijck until I began to read Haudenosaunee scholarship. The answers lie in Haudenosaunee political thought, in the Two Row Wampum, and the Kayeneren:kowa (Great Way/Law of Peace). I realized late that approaching a colonial space from a settler perspective would only reproduce settler narratives.

The seventeenth-century Van Rensselaer family may have seen “The Case of the Colonie of Rensselaerswijck” as a compendium of their victimization, but I now see it as a record of colonialism’s paradoxes. All the paperwork that they so carefully compiled and preserved meant nothing when colonial governments refused to enforce its orders. Furthermore—enforced or not—by their very existence these laws wrought consequences. The colonial paperwork of possession has real, tangible, terrible consequences for those whose communities are bound up in the land, which has life and history that cannot be captured in deeds or estates, in surveys or inheritances.

I embarked on my examination of colonial Albany by learning Dutch so that I could read the colonial records. The singed and tattered “Case of the Colonie of Rensselaerswijck” haunts me because my encounter with it is an indictment of my historical practice. I, too, fell for the allure of colonial paperwork.

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