Schenectady

Van Curler descendants coming to Schenectady for reunion, quest to learn about city’s founder

This painting by Edwin Becker shows Arent Van Curler dealing with the Mohawk Indians back in 1661. The image has been on an interior wall in the building at 251 State St. (now NY BizLab) in downtown Schenectady since Becker painted it in 1960 to help celebrate the 300th anniversary of Schenectady's founding.
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This painting by Edwin Becker shows Arent Van Curler dealing with the Mohawk Indians back in 1661. The image has been on an interior wall in the building at 251 State St. (now NY BizLab) in downtown Schenectady since Becker painted it in 1960 to help celebrate the 300th anniversary of Schenectady's founding.

For those individuals who enjoy history but don’t really dig into the details, the book on Arent Van Curler is pretty simple: Founder of Schenectady, and held in high esteem by just about everyone, including the Mohawk Indians.

Trying to paint a clearer and more precise picture of the man, however, involves a lot of work. That’s what a group of around 25 to 30 Van Curlers from around the country will be looking to do when they meet for a family reunion in the Van Curler Room at SUNY Schenectady Tuesday at 11 a.m.

The group, many of them from the Midwest, will listen to a short presentation on Arent Van Curler and then head across State Street and down Washington Avenue where they will visit the Schenectady County Historical Society’s house museum and library before taking a walking tour of the Stockade neighborhood.

It was Van Curler and 14 other “proprietors” who journeyed from Albany to what is now Schenectady in 1662 to settle the “Great Flats” by the Mohawk River, purchasing the land from the Mohawks. It was the chief accomplishment of many achieved by Van Curler before his death by drowning in Lake Champlain in 1667, and to many historians he and Sir William Johnson, who came along a century later, remain the two most important Colonial-era figures in upstate New York history.

“The Indians liked Van Curler, and, like most white men, he took advantage of the situation,” said Schenectady’s Dave Cornelius, native educator at the Tribes Hill Heritage Center and a descendant of the Mohawks and Mohicans. “But I would argue he was more even-handed than Johnson. Van Curler was an adventurer and Johnson was more of a profiteer. They were both incredibly popular with the Indians, and like Johnson, Van Curler blended in very well with them. They trusted him.”

Jason Van Curler, who lives in Lyon, Michigan, near Detroit, is one of the organizers of the family get-together and eager to learn as much as he can about Schenectady’s founder. He says he is no historian and certainly not an expert on any aspect of New York’s early history.

“I heard a few things about Arent Van Curler when I was a kid, but as the internet grew I got more familiar with him,” said Van Curler, whose immediate family and the others visiting Schenectady this week can trace their line back to Arent’s father, Hendrick Van Curler. “We think we’re actually descended from one of his brothers in The Netherlands, but the more I learned about Arent the more curious I became. We’re all really looking forward to coming and seeing Schenectady.”

Van Curler said his family has had a few reunions in the past but none were focused on Arent Van Curler like this week’s event. The group had planned on getting together in June of 2020 but that visit was cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic. SUNY Schenectady President Steady Moono is happy to hear the group is finally making the trip.

“We are pleased to welcome members of the Van Curler family from various parts of the country to campus for a special reunion, as they gather to learn more about their family history and deep roots in Schenectady,” Moono said in a statement released by the college. “Our main classroom building, Elston Hall, was once the grand Hotel Van Curler, and there are other landmarks in the city that bear the Van Curler name and hold a significant place in the city’s history. We are delighted that the Van Curlers have chosen to visit Schenectady and for the SUNY Schenectady campus to be a stop on their tour of the area.”

Along with learning more about Arent’s role as Schenectady’s founder, the Van Curlers will also look into his time in Albany as Kilian Van Rennselaer’s agent at Rensselaerwyck, the first major Dutch patroonship in upstate New York. Reunion attendees will also delve deeper into Van Curler’s personal life, such as his intimate relationships with women other than his wife, Antonia Slaghboom.

That marriage never produced any children, and 19th century historian Jonathan Pearson, in his major work on Schenectady history, “A History of the Schenectady Patent in the Dutch and English Times,” writes that “Van Curler probably had no children.” That conclusion, however, is incorrect. Present-day historians have plenty of evidence that suggests Van Curler fathered one illegitimate son with a Dutch woman and had at least one daughter with a Mohawk woman.

While Pearson may have been dealing with the sensibilities of 19th century America in his cursory summation of Van Curler’s personal life, the New World of the 17th century wasn’t so easily shocked by such matters.

Schenectady attorney John Gearing, author of “Schenectady Genesis, Volume II, The Making of a Dutch City,” said the mores of Van Curler’s time in colonial New York were much less stringent than you might think.

“In the diary of Sir William Johnson’s brother, there’s a letter that notes how the Dutch culture here did not attach much shame to out-of-wedlock pregnancies,” said Gearing. “There’s a passage that says something like, ‘it is not minded if a Dutch girl gets with child before her marriage.’ I think there is something about being on the frontier, particularly one where there is a great distance between that frontier and a person’s native country, that causes a loosening of old social norms.”

Van Curler’s personal history is not unique. Close interaction and marriage between the early Dutch and English with the native population was quite common throughout the 17th century. In Schenectady, some historians have suggested it was one of the reasons overall relations between the city’s early settlers and the Mohawks was almost always congenial.

And regardless of Van Curler’s personal behavior, his official conduct was almost always admired. While Van Rensselaer, an older cousin to Arent, did find fault in some of his activities – in one letter he chastised the much younger Arent for drinking too much – Van Curler and his dealings with the Indians as well as other colonists is universally praised.

In his landmark 1991 book, “Mohawk Frontier: The Dutch Community of Schenectady, N.Y., 1661-1710,” Thomas Burke writes of Van Curler: “His political and familial connections within New Netherland were impeccable, and his influence with the Iroquois has been compared to that of Sir William Johnson in the 1700s.”

Alexander de Tracy Prouville, the governor of New France in Quebec, wrote to Van Curler in 1667; “If you feel inclined to come hither this summer, as you gave me to expect, you shall be entertained with all my power, having great esteem for you, though I am not acquainted with your person.”

And Charlotte Wilcoxen, an expert in Dutch history and former research associate at the Albany Institute of History and Art, said of Van Curler in 1979; “it is not unreasonable to suggest that he was the first European to be unreservedly loved and trusted by the Indians.”

Regarding his drowning in Lake Champlain in 1667 while on his way to Quebec, some Mohawks of that time said Van Curler fell overboard and died because he didn’t show the proper respect to a sacred Indian section of the lake where a spirit called the “Underwater Grandfather” lived. Some of the Dutch, meanwhile, were suspicious of the Mohawks that made the trip with Van Curler, thinking they might have had an evil hand in the tragedy.

For Charles Gehring of the New Netherland Institute in Albany, that latter theory holds no water.

“The story goes that he refused to placate water spirits with tobacco near a small island,” said Gehring. “A storm suddenly came up and overturned his canoe. But I can’t imagine the Mohawks pushed Van Curler into the lake. Years after his death the Mohawks honored his name by referring to all New York provincial governors as Cora or Corlaar. The Mohawks revered him, and I have no reason to think otherwise.”

All of the Van Curler story, says Jason Van Curler, will be of interest to his family.

“We’re looking forward to visiting the area where it all happened,” he said. “I’ve been to Buffalo, but I haven’t seen anything of upstate New York, and I’ll be happy just to see what the Hotel Van Curler looked like, and anything else connected to the name. We’re not a Smith or Jones, so we enjoy looking into all the history associated with Van Curler.”

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