From 1630 until the Anti-Rent Movement of the 1840s, most of what is now Albany and Rensselaer Counties, along with parts of Columbia and Greene Counties, was part of the estate of the van Rensselaer family. They leased the land, but did not generally sell it.
Running north-south through Albany County is the Helderberg Escarpment, a vertical limestone cliff hundreds of feet high (Thatcher Park forms a part of this geologic feature) that separates the Hudson Valley lands in the eastern part of the county from the lands to the west, above the cliffs. Because the land above was difficult to reach, and the soils poorer, that area was settled somewhat later by Europeans.
Jeremias van Rensselaer, the eldest son of Kiliaen van Rensselaer and Maria van Cortlandt, became the Patroon (the Third Lord of the Rensselaerswijck Manor), when he came of age in 1726; until he reached maturity the manor was largely governed by his guardians. When Jeremias died in 1745, his brother Stephen van Rensselaer I became Patroon but he himself died just two years later, leaving management of the Manor to his mother and his brother-in-law, Abraham Ten Broeck.
Both his son, Stephen Van Rensselaer II, and later his grandson, Stephen Van Rensselaer III, both inherited the Manor upon the deaths of their fathers when they were each only five years old, leaving the control of the estate in the hands of their guardians until they came of age. The Manor was more loosely run under these guardians.
About 1740, near the end of Jeremias’ life, the earliest homesteaders arrived above the escarpment from the west in what became Schoharie County, already thickly fairly settled by Palatines and others. By 1765 there were enough settlers above the escarpment to establish a Dutch Reformed Church. It was built near the center of the most populated area, a couple of miles west of what is now the hamlet of Berne, and a few miles east of the Schoharie town line.
John Bleeker made a map of the van Rensselaer’s patroonship, Rensselaerswijck, in 1767. He gave the name of each farmer and the location of their farms, but the map shows a few scattered farms without names above the escarpment. (Most of the evidence of these farms is believed to have been destroyed during the 1911 New York State Library Fire; the earliest van Rensselaer leases above the escarpment in the New York Archives are dated 1774.)
The van Rensselaer family were so very wealthy, there was little incentive for the guardians to track down these homesteaders, survey their lands, and make them sign leases. Additionally, when a lease was signed for undeveloped land in other parts of the Manor, a homesteader was to be given seven years occupancy in order to clear the trees, and construct fences and buildings before the first rent was due; thus there was no hurry to get leases signed before improvements had been completed.
For these reasons, I believe that the earliest settlers above the Helderberg Escarpment may have been squatters, who held no leases from the Manor. Even without leases, it was more beneficial to the Manor to have the land in the Helderbergs inhabited and being developed. When the leases were later established, these improved lots would be more valuable.
A 1787 map of van Rensselaer leases by William Cockburn confirms the idea. The map shows regularly squared 160-acre lots. Some are vacant, and others leased to various farmers. It also shows several irregularly shaped lots – the acreage of earliest settlers above the Helderberg escarpment.
Illustration: Above, Detail of John Bleeker’s 1767 map of the van Rensselaer’s patroonship, showing unidentified farms above the Helderberg escarpment; and a detail from the 1787 map of van Rensselaer leases showing irregular lots above the Heldergberg escarpment by William Cockburn.