Van Cortlandt House

The first of the Van Cortlandts to own property in this area was Jacobus Van Cortlandt, a wealthy New York City merchant and two-time mayor of New York City. He began purchasing small farms in the area from local colonists in the late 1600s while retaining his residence in lower Manhattan.  Enslaved people and a local overseer kept up the property here until Frederick Van Cortlandt, Jacobus’ son, had this house built in 1749.

There are no surviving records that reveal the identities of the builders. However, the enslaved people held on the plantation by Frederick Van Cortlandt surely played a role in its construction. Both Jacobus Van Cortlandt and his son Frederick were involved in slave trading as a part of their business as merchants. The wills of Jacobus and Frederick Van Cortlandt both reference enslaved Africans as property in addition to enslaved “Indians,” such as a man named Cesar. Enslaving local Native Americans was illegal in New York but Native Americans enslaved in different parts of America were brought to the colonies in the northeast.

But from 1748 to at least 1821 it was also home to a series of enslaved servants who performed the work of keeping up the house. According to surviving records, most of these enslaved servants were African with the exception of one man identified as Indian.

A black and white photo of a house.

Van Cortlandt House in 1880. Photo courtesy of Van Cortlandt House Museum.

Built before plumbing, the enslaved servants were responsible for bringing fresh water to the house in addition to carrying out waste. In winter, heat was provided by the building’s several fireplaces and the enslaved servants chopped trees, stacked wood, and maintained the fires that made the house livable. Other duties performed by enslaved servants included preparing food in a separate kitchen, cleaning, and caring for the sick and elderly. In 1821 Augustus Van Cortlandt manumitted, or set free, an enslaved Black servant named Dinah “in consideration of the great care and attention she paid my deceased affectionate wife during her last illness.”  

Other enslaved servants were not as fortunate, such as an enslaved African man named Sam, who was held by Frederick Van Cortlandt. In 1741, Sam narrowly escaped a death-sentence after confessing to participating in a plot to violently overthrow the colonial government. He was exiled to the Island of Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean as punishment. Others involved in the plot were tortured to death.

A 1994 architectural analysis determined that enslaved servants lived in the attic in an unheated room. When slavery was abolished in New York in 1827, the Van Cortlandt’s home was maintained by low-paid servant staff who were mostly immigrants from Ireland.

In the 1880s the Van Cortlandt family sold their estate to the City of New York for use as a park. Since 1896, The National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of New York have operated the house as a museum through a license agreement with the City of New York. The house is a museum that is open for self-guided tours.

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