Happy Birthday, Baby Caty!
March 4, 2018
Today in 1781, the Schuylers’ fifteenth and final baby was born—Catharine (Caty) Van Rensselaer Schuyler. Among the now famous Schuylers, Caty has her own degree of celebrity for two reasons: 1.) General George Washington was her godfather. AND 2.) she was the baby in the cradle, left behind downstairs, when 20 Loyalist and British soldiers stormed the Schuyler Mansion to kidnap Philip and everyone else rushed upstairs for safety. Our Peggy (who was Caty’s godmother as well as sister) realized the infant was lying in the middle of desperate fighting and vulnerable to being hauled away for ransom—or killed! Peggy made the courageous dash back into the fray to scoop up Caty and save her life.
I think Caty also claims a dollop of fame because her birth symbolizes—to me anyway!—the day-to-day bravery of child-bearing during the Revolution. When Caty came into the world, her sister Angelica was already 25-years-old, pregnant for the third time and the mother of two young children. Caty’s mother, Catherine was 47-years-old. I can’t help but marvel at the fact that from the age of 21 to 47, Catharine was either pregnant or recovering from giving birth and caring for small infants. Already a grandmother, she was pregnant with Caty when Eliza and Hamilton married. She lost three babies in infancy and four during childbirth (triplets and a twin), and while Catherine and Philip seemed particularly doting parents to all their children, I think there was a particular tenderness for this last child.
Such fertility and length of child birthing and rearing was the norm in the 18th century. Wives of that era typically gave birth once every other year. Families averaged seven children, and during the Revolutionary War half the American population was under the age of 16. Caring for children, then, was the primary occupation for women, including older sisters, like Peggy, who was 23-years-old when Caty was born. Big sisters would tend, teach, and play with younger siblings even after marrying and having their own children.
It also wasn’t that unusual during Colonial times for brides to be already pregnant when they married. Philip Schuyler was called back from the French and Indian War in 1755 with some haste for his wedding. It seems Catharine was already four months pregnant with Angelica. It is clear that Philip (who affectionately called her “Sweet Kitty” or “My Dear Love” in his letters) was quite smitten with his wife of 50+ years. Born to a land-wealthy Dutch aristocratic family, the young Catharine was renowned for her beauty and a sweet, self-contained temperament. She was described as “a lady of great beauty, shape, and gentility” and “delicate but perfect in form and feature, graceful in her movements, and winning in her deportment.”
While she would have been expected to remain in bed for three to four weeks to recover from childbirth, given the events of history and the huge responsibilities of running the Schuyler properties, I doubt that Catharine did. For instance, 257 years ago yesterday, Philip sailed to England to take care of business interests for his mentor and friend, British General John Bradstreet, under whom he’d served in the French and Indian War. Philip was gone for 20 long months, not returning to NY until Nov 20th, 1762. During his absence, Catharine oversaw the building of theirgrand Albany mansion, with three young daughters in tow (the famed Schuyler trio all under the age of 5!) She was also pregnant with twins. (The boy died in childbirth and the girl twin, Cornelia, perished six months later, never met by her father.) Catharine even dared to travel wilderness roads to Ticonderoga in 1775 when her husband was leading a Patriot expedition into Canada and suddenly struck down with “violent fluxes” and gout. Catharine was six-months pregnant when she made that dangerous trek.
Later in life, while hosting a constant parade of visiting statesmen, military leaders, and foreign dignitaries, Catharine could be described as somewhat formidable. “A big Dutchwoman, with a rather serious disposition” said one French nobleman officer dismissively. Ha! I would be too! By that point, Catharine had faced a great many dangers and hardships that I suspect might have made her matter-of-fact and less naïve or impressed by political reputation and European titles. Her first language also was Dutch—which was the case with half of Albany’s residents at the time. And it is possible Catherine was only literate in it. She definitely would not have spoken French as did her daughters Angelica and Peggy.
Baby Caty grew up to be a romantic runaway like Angelica and was the last of four Schuyler children to elope! Her older sisters had definitely set the precedent. Cornelia had run off with Washington Morton in 1797, possibly helped by the first eloper Angelica (17-years-her-elder), who had just returned from Europe. (Cornelia was married by the same judge as Angelica.) And just as with Angelica, Philip reconciled with the wayward Cornelia quickly, even though he never particularly cared for her husband. So when Caty eloped four years later, she could be pretty confident that Philip would quickly forgive her as well. In 1803, Caty eloped with attorney Samuel Bayard Malcolm shortly after her mother died. Philip would accept Malcolm into the Schuyler fold before he passed away himself in 1804.
Caty gave birth to five children during her two marriages. (After Malcolm died, Caty married her first cousin James Cochran, son of one of my favorite “characters,” Uncle Johnny, the Army Surgeon-General.) Below she is portrayed with one of them.