On Route 9, just south of the village of Kinderhook in Columbia County, a sign proudly proclaims it as the birthplace and home of Martin Van Buren, the eighth U.S. President. Next to that is a purple-and-gold sign for the local Elks lodge.
Right across the street sits an unassuming two-story red brick house with dormer windows. While locals know it as the Tory House, there isn’t a sign. But this house has its own story to tell about early New York, one of a family among many thousands that picked the losing side in the Revolutionary War and ended up years later losing that home to the victors in a practice that was to be banned in the U.S. Constitution.
That family was named van Alstyne, one of the many families with Dutch roots that settled in the region during the 18th century to farm. The family had three sons _ Abraham, the oldest; Peter, the middle son; and John, the youngest. By the time that the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Peter had built his family the red brick house in Kinderhook on land that he and his brothers had inherited as teenagers two decades earlier when their father died.
Earlier this summer, that house – still used as a residence more than two centuries later – was named to the State and National Registers of Historic Places because of the story of Peter Sander van Alstyne and his family. The narrative of this post is based on research for that nomination submitted on behalf of State Parks by the late Ruth Piwonka, a former member of the Historic Preservation Division at State Parks, and a later Parks consultant and historian for Kinderhook.
Peter Sander Van Alstyne was 32 years old in 1775, already a successful farmer, married and with a young family. A local judge appointed by the Colonial government, he found himself caught up in the conflict the following year when a group of town members come to his home to forcefully tell him that his office, resting on royal authority, no longer had authority to settle disputes over debts. That same year, the beleaguered judge was chosen to be a member of the Albany Committee on Correspondence, a kind of shadow authority created by patriot supporters. But as a supporter of British authority (known as Tory, or a Loyalist), van Alstyne was not to last long on the committee, and he and more than a dozen other suspected Loyalists in that body were soon ordered arrested and imprisoned in 1776.
Many New Yorkers felt as van Alstyne did about their loyalty to England. Some studies estimate that about half of the state’s 200,000 residents held Loyalist sentiments, giving New York the highest percentage of Loyalists among the 13 colonies. Like van Alstyne, many New Yorkers took up arms to oppose what they saw as an an “unnatural” rebellion against the legitimate government.
Van Alstyne was released from jail in early 1777, but after being forced by threats to leave his home, he headed north to join British forces in Canada, and by summer was marching with British General John Burgoyne’s army from Lake Champlain in a bid to capture Albany as part of a strategic plan to split the rebellious colonies in two. His Kinderhook home was being used as a staging point for Loyalists and military supplies in the event that Albany fell.
But that moment was not to come, and van Alstyne was there when Burgoyne’s forces were defeated at the Battle of Saratoga that September, a battle that marked a turning point in the American Revolution and convinced the French to support the rebels.
By 1778, van Alstyne had gone to New York City and Long Island, which were under British control, to command sailors who fought in small boats called bateaux. His armed opposition to the Revolution by this point had put his life at risk. Continental troops stationed near his Kinderhook home were trying to catch him, and had captured some of his associates, some of whom were put to death as traitors. By October 1779, van Alstyne had been formally indicted as an “enemy of the state” by New York authorities under what was called the Forfeiture Act. As the war neared an end, New York officials in early 1783 ordered him stripped of his lands, his livestock, and his home, where his brother John’s family was living.
On Sept. 8, 1783, only five days after the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War, van Alstyne and his family, along with many other displaced Loyalists from Columbia, Rockland, Orange, Ulster, Westchester, and Dutchess counties, as well as some of the troops from Major Robert Rogers, of the famed Rogers’ Rangers backcountry unit, set sail for British-controlled Canada, according to a 1901 account published by Columbia University.
Settling on the northern shore of Lake Ontario near Quinte Bay, van Alstyne received a government land grant of 1,200 acres and became a prominent member of the community, being appointed a judge and later winning election to the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada. He died in 1800, at age 57.
The former Kinderhook resident was among thousands of New York Loyalists, perhaps as many as 35,000 people, who left the state during and after the Revolutionary War for refuge in British dominions including Canada, according to the 1901 Columbia University account. That came from a total state population of about 200,000, so the forced migration represented about one in every six New Yorkers.
The 1901 account from Columbia University estimated that during the war, there were “at least 15,000 New York Loyalists serving in the Brish army and navy, and at least 8,500 Loyalist militia, making a total in that state of 23,500 Loyalist troops. This was more than any other colony furnished, and perhaps as many as were raised by all others combined.”
The legacy of these Loyalists who left New York can be found in the historic structures along the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario. Said State Parks historic researcher William Krattinger, “I focus quite a bit on the built and architectural environment and have seen examples of Dutch-framed barns and houses erected in Ontario, undoubtedly erected by builders from the Hudson, Mohawk and Schoharie valleys who were banished to the north after the Revolution. These New Yorkers brought their material culture with them.”
Two years after van Alstyne’s death, New York State officials passed a law in 1802 to renew its still incomplete efforts to confiscate a list of Loyalist properties – a list that included van Alstyne’s Kinderhook home. Offering a bonus to anyone who pointed out forfeited property that had still not been seized, the law described those who had forfeited that property for opposing the Revolution as “attainted.” This concept originates from English criminal law, in which those condemned for a serious capital crime against the state lost not only their life, but also their property, the ability to bequeath property to their descendants, and any hereditary titles.
New York’s bid to seize and sell off remaining Loyalist property two decades after the end of the war came even though the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1789, specifically prohibits “bills of attainder” passed by legislatures to condemn those deemed state enemies and seize their property.
Here the trail of what happened to van Alstyne’s red brick house grows cold. A clear title to prove who owned the home after van Alstyne lost ownership appears in the public record only starting in the 1850s, although records of forfeiture and sale for other Loyalist properties in Columbia County do exist.
The fate of this home represents just one family’s part of the larger story of how the end of the Revolutionary War meant exile and loss for thousands of New Yorkers who had sided with England, and how the fallout of that time continued for years until the Revolution could truly considered to be ended.
Cover Shot _ Peter Sander Van Alstyne house, Kinderhook. All photos NYS Parks unless otherwise credited.
Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, New York State Parks
Learn more about the Loyalist experience in New York State, using these sources:
A New York Public Library blog post on the 1802 list of Loyalist property to be confiscated in New York State.
A 1901 study into Loyalism in New York State by Alexander Clarence Flick, published by Columbia University Press.
An account by the National Library of Scotland into the lives of two New York Loyalists.
A NYS Parks Blog post about Hudson Valley Loyalist Frederick Philipse III, one of the richest men in Colonial New York whose home is now Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site in Yonkers, Westchester County.