Philipsburg Manor, The Early Years



When Adolph Philipse inherited the Upper Mills in 1702, Philipsburg Manor was not yet ten years old. The manor was officially established in 1693, the year King William III and Queen Mary of Great Britain granted Frederick Philipse a royal charter confirming his earlier land acquisitions in Westchester County. The manor totaled more than 50,000 acres.

Upper Mills
Philipsburg Manor, Upper Mills, artist unknown, probably New
York, c. 1850, oil on canvas.

By granting patents for huge manors to a few individuals in the colony, the British government sought to ensure that the landholder would become responsible for encouraging settlement, thereby increasing the colony’s productivity and revenues for the Crown. In exchange for a nominal annual rent, Frederick Philipse gained uncontestable ownership and control over his lands. He could, for example, make sure that his gristmill on the Pocantico River was the only one available by not allowing tenants to construct others.

Frederick’s ability to purchase and develop such extensive lands in prime locations along the Hudson with the sanction of the British Crown rested in part on his earlier economic and political successes under both Dutch and English rule. Frederick Philipse came to New Amsterdam (Manhattan Island) around 1653 and served as a master carpenter for the Dutch West India Company. By 1658 he had begun buying furs from middlemen in Beverwyck (Albany), and trading the beaver pelt for wines and brandy with Manhattan residents. In 1662 he married Margaret Hardenbroeck (died c. 1690), a wealthy widow who was a merchant in her own right and a member of a well-connected family of traders from Amsterdam. Hardenbroeck’s trade network and business acumen made her a valuable partner to Philipse, and together they made a formidable economic force.

The Philipse-Hardenbroeck enterprise survived the change from Dutch to English rule, and by the late 1660s their commercial activities included a lively shipping trade using their own ships. Shipping records reveal a staggering array of finished goods imported from Europe by the Philipses, traded in exchange for a wide variety of furs and hides as well as timber, barrel staves, and other New York resources.

The Philipses’ early forays into land acquisition were made in partnership with others, and here begins the story of Philipsburg Manor proper. In 1672, in partnership with two English merchants, Frederick Philipse bought land in Yonkers. The property with its mills, farmland, woodland, and access to the Hudson was no doubt growing in value as New York’s economy began to diversify, with wheat and other agricultural commodities complementing its profits from the fur trade. These commodities not only supplied the export trade but also fed the growing urban population of Manhattan. By 1685 Philipse bought out his Yonkers partners.

Between 1680 and 1686, Frederick Philipse bought seven parcels from “native proprietors” — Wekquaesgeek and Sint Sink Indians. The Wekquaesgeeks, like other River Indians as they were know, used the lands closest to the river banks seasonally, cultivating crops and gathering fish and shellfish. Two Wekquaesgeek villages were located within the parcels bought by Philipse, but the Wekquaesgeek leaders decided to sell their land in exchange for more valuable items, such as European textiles and clothing, guns, tools, and utensils. Philipse could easily supply these commodities.

Patent Holdings
Early eighteenth-century manors of the Hudson Valley.

By 1686 Frederick Philipse owned the entire swath of land from Spuyten Duyvil to the Croton River. The land on both sides of the Pocantico River that would become the Upper Mills was included in the first parcel Frederick bought in 1680. One of the first steps required to make his new purchase worth the investment was the damming of the Pocantico River in order to power mills. Once the dam was built, construction of the mills, millhouse, and wharf followed as well as the building of a house and outbuildings.

This flurry of development coincided with noticeably large quantities of building materials coming to New York as cargo on Philipse’s ships—not only millstones, but hundreds of thousands of bricks, cases of window glass and window lead, walnut planks, and iron firebacks that may have made their way to the building site on the Pocantico. Perhaps more importantly, the development of the northern portion of the manor also coincided with the family’s entrance into the slave trade.

In 1684, the crew of the Philipse ship, The Charles, exchanged New York furs at Amsterdam for muskets, textiles, shackles, and casks. After clearing English customs, the Charles made its way to the west coast of central Africa. The Charles, sailed for Angola, stopping along the coast to supply the ship with food and water before reaching its ultimate destination near the mouth of the Congo River. At Soyo, in present-day Angola, 146 captives—probably prisoners of war from battles that raged in the region in the late seventeenth century—were taken on board. By the time the Charles arrived at Barbados in April, 1685, eighteen captives on board had died and fourteen more were so ill that they died soon after reaching port. This loss of life during the Middle Passage would be repeated countless times during the transatlantic slave trade as a result of the horrific conditions that characterized these journeys.

On Philipse’s behalf, 105 of the captive men, women, and children were sold in Barbados, where sugar plantations with their brutally high mortality rates claimed the labor—and lives—of enormous numbers of Africans. Eight of the remaining nine, were received by Frederick’s son Adolph. Though the Philipses may well have owned or used slaves prior to entering the transatlantic slave trade itself, these eight probably formed the earliest group of Africans to live at the Upper Mills, and their B’Kongo culture may have been an important influence on the enslaved community that developed there. The Philipses participated in the slave trade for several decades, bringing hundreds of individuals from West Africa and Madagascar to the Americas; most were sold in the West Indies, though some were sold directly in New York. At the time of Frederick Philipse’s death in 1702, more than twenty slaves were part of the estate he bequeathed to his heirs.

It is clear from these numbers that by 1700 the Philipse family enterprise had fully embraced landownership, and all its economic potential, alongside their mercantile activities. In addition to the enslaved Africans on the manor, approximately thirty Euro-American families had settled on manor lands as tenants by the time of Frederick’s death in 1702. The tenants were of diverse origin but shared in common the need to clear land of trees and stones, cultivate grain crops, plant orchards, tend livestock, fence fields, and build necessary structures. They paid their rent to Frederick Philipse primarily in wheat, and used the Philipses’ mills to grind their grains. The Upper Mills complex on the Pocantico became the social and economic center of the northern part of the manor. The various people connected to the Upper Mills—the elite Philipses, the middling tenant farmers, and the enslaved Africans—mirrored the social hierarchy of the colony.

When Frederick died, he left the Upper Mills and northern portion of the manor, along with sixteen enslaved people, went to his son Adolph Philipse. Frederick had been an extraordinary entrepreneur, to recognizing the business opportunities inherent in the colonial structure under the Dutch West India Company and, later, under the British Crown. He skirted the law when possible and understood the advantages of owning and controlling not just one but many aspects of a business operation. He owned not only wheat-growing lands but also the gristmills and the ships in which the wheat was processed and transported, and claimed ownership over some of the people who labored at the wheat production. When Adolph inherited his portion of the manor from his father, he was poised for success, and it was Adolph who would fully exploit the potential of, and benefit most from, Philipsburg Manor, Upper Mills.

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