The Eighteenth Century
During the eighteenth century some elite women were still involved in business, but it was much more common that they engage in social affairs and domestic responsibilities. Instead of receiving commercial education, these wealthy young women would take dance and music classes alongside the typical reading and writing lessons. Servants would typically deal with domestic household tasks, but some elite women would occasionally sew clothing for their families, create needlework, or cook a meal. In an increasingly cosmopolitan and sophisticated society, a stress was put on public feminine conduct and gentility.
This does not mean that these women were not well educated; they just received a different sort of education that had been offered to the daughters of merchants in the past. These genteel women were well read and could engage in good conversation.
Not all wealthy women were confined to reading literature and sewing clothes for their families. Margaret Beekman Livingston and Janet Livingston Montgomery stand out as two women who found interests and pursued projects outside of the typical lifestyle of the extremely social eighteenth century.
Margaret Beekman Livingston
Margaret Beekman Livingston, born in 1724, was the daughter of Henry Beekman and Janet Livingston. Janet died shortly after giving birth, so Margaret was raised in Brooklyn with one of her aunts. In 1742, at the age of eighteen, Margaret was married to Judge Robert R. Livingston, her second cousin and son of Alida Schuyler Livingston and Robert, Lord of Livingston Manor. Robert R. Livingston lived on the Clermont estate, which had been built in 1730 on 13,000 acres of land that he had inherited from his father, Robert Livingston. Margaret and Robert (known as the Judge), spent their winters in a town house in New York City and their summers at Clermont with his parents. Over a span of twenty-two years, Margaret had six girls and five boys, ten of whom survived to adulthood. She was in charge of the education of her children and hired tutors or sent them to schools as needed. Besides tending to her children’s needs, Margaret was often left in charge of the estate while her husband was away, taking care of business and political affairs.
In 1775 Margaret’s father-in-law, father and husband all passed away within seven months of each other. With the death of these three men, title passed on to Margaret and she was named head of the Beekman patent and of Clermont. This left Margaret with great responsibility and large legal holdings. Instead of remarrying to ease the load of managing the massive estate, Margaret took on the responsibilities of sole proprietress of the Clermont estate.
During the thirty-three years that Robert and Margaret were married it is likely that she had been kept informed about the family business and estate management. However, managing the grand estate and its tenants was no small feat. Many women of her time would have found a new husband to help with the management. Margaret did not take this easy way out and handled everything she could on her own. She had to hire a lawyer to handle legal proceeding and contracts because the law prevented her from representing herself in some areas. Besides using a lawyer in some cases, Margaret remained very much in personal control of her estate, which is evident in letters and tenant books.
On October 15th, 1777 Margaret’s prowess was put to the test when she received word that the British planned to burn down her house at Clermont. The head of this regiment was English General John Vaughn who led forces up the Hudson Valley, towards Albany, and captured the land of rebellious families on the way. They came on the 19th of October and burned the house down to its foundation. There are many stories about what actually happened at this event, but none of them seem to be completely verified. One story says that she, her children and her servants frantically packed all that they could and hid the rest in surrounding outbuildings before they fled. Another says that she had been housing an English prisoner of war who offered to speak to Howe and send him away. In this story, Margaret refused to let him do so and insisted that her house be treated just as the houses of the other patriots. Even another says that while the family was fleeing over the hill above Clermont, that they could see the smoke of the house being burned down behind them.
Despite these marvelous stories, some facts are true. There are letters between Margaret and one of her sons that verifies she had fled to Salisbury, Connecticut on the 17th, two days before the burning of her house on the 19th. The stories, though, show how highly people held Margaret Beekman Livingston and what they believed she was capable of.
Before even a year had passed, Margaret was supervising the reconstruction of her mansion. Even though the Revolutionary War was still going on, she sent a petition to Governor George Clinton to ask for the exemption of skilled masons, carpenters, plasterers, etc. from military service so they could work on the rebuilding of her home. Margaret had close ties with Governor George Clinton because she had suggested his appointment when a number of the most influential New York Revolutionary leaders met to discuss who was the most qualified for the position. It was a tough decision and the answer was made clear when Margaret suggested George Clinton.
By 1782, the house was presentable enough to entertain General and Martha Washington. Margaret Beekman Livingston was able to maintain her household to the end of her days. It is said that in 1790, she had fifteen enslaved laborers, which was far higher than the average of three that other households in the area had. Throughout her years at the estate, Margaret’s name became synonymous with the estate and would sometimes be referred to “Mrs. Livingston’s Clermont” in historic drawings or letters. Many other women of the Hudson Valley in the eighteenth century have had their identities lost due to the overshadowing of their husbands, but Margaret was able to make a name for herself and keep her own identity.
Janet Livingston Montgomery
In 1802 Janet Livingston Montgomery, wife of Richard Montgomery and daughter of Margaret Beekman Livingston, bought the land that Montgomery Place lies on today. She was a fifty-nine year old widow when construction started for her Federal-style house at the end of a half mile-long lane. The estate was named Château de Montgomery, now Montgomery Place, to honor her deceased husband, a Revolutionary War hero, and to create an inheritance for her heirs.
Janet Livingston Montgomery grew up at Clermont with her six sisters, five brothers, and her parents, Margaret Beekman Livingston and Robert R. Livingston. Born on August 27, 1743, she was the oldest of their children; there was a 21-year age difference between her and her youngest brother, Edward. As Janet was growing up she spent a lot of time with both her maternal and paternal grandparents. While staying with her maternal grandparents, the Beekmans, she decided that she needed a place of her own so that she could entertain friends. So, she appropriated a small room in their house from one of their stewards who had used it for fifty years. She then repainted and refurnished the room and called it her sanctum sanctorum.
Seeing that Janet spent her childhood just a few miles up the Hudson River, she must have held the scenic area in high regard. On July 24th, 1773, Janet married Richard Montgomery and they moved into a small house in Rhinebeck. Montgomery bought some nearby land with plans to build a larger house for the two of them to live in. The couple remained childless despite Janet’s desire for a son. Richard said to her, “Be contented, Janet. Suppose we had a son, and he was a fool. Think of that!”
Just two short years after their marriage, Richard was commissioned Brigadier General in the Continental Army. He agreed to fight, but was disappointed to hear that he was serving in Canada instead of with Washington, as he had hoped. Richard was killed in battle against British-held Quebec on December 31, 1775 and his death ended this battle. He was immediately glorified as a national hero. Janet, still in Rhinebeck and now a childless widow, was left with the plans for their new house. She saw out the completion of this larger house, Grasmere, moved in, and remained there until 1804.
Sometime during the 1790’s, William Jones, Richard’s nephew, came from Ireland to join Janet in America. She grew very fond of him and treated him as if he were her own son. She decided that she would create an inheritance for him, so she purchased a sum of land amounting to 242-acres from John Van Benthuysen. Janet let William plan and work on the construction of the house, as she saw how happy it made him to be employed in such affairs.
Janet left her home at Grasmere and moved to her Château de Montgomery at the age of 61. Right from the start, she took charge of the estate. She furnished the entire mansion with the belongings from her previous house, brought a large century plant that only flowers at the end its one hundred year life that her mother had given her, and began planting and growing fruit trees and other nursery plants. She then created her very own business of orchards, gardens, nursery and greenhouse. She headed this commercial enterprise and successfully managed her household and the land.
Janet spent the remainder of her years at Montgomery Place. She worked hard to keep the house functioning and her business prosperous. She even joined with James McWilliam in a partnership to run a nursery. The nursery and orchards at Montgomery Place stretched from its gated entrance to the front entrance of the mansion, encompassing four to ten acres. She sold fruit trees, flowering shrubs, berry bushes, exotic plants, and garden seeds. Although she and McWilliams held equal ownership and responsibility of the business, Janet’s name was never mentioned in advertisements for their nursery. This could have been so that she could maintain her privacy, as most elite women did not involve themselves in business during this period of time.
Janet had a love for plants outside of the business and spent long days working on her own gardens and flowering areas. Her friends and family acknowledged her interest by sending her exotic plants such as mango trees, jasmine, and orange trees. She built a greenhouse to accommodate such rare and tender plants. In 1809, she wrote to her youngest brother, Edward, proclaiming, “If I have a pleasure, it is in cultivating my plants.” Even though she showed interest in and appreciated these plants, her land was primarily used for agricultural purposes.
Janet Livingston Montgomery and James McWilliam’s business grew beyond filling their neighbors’ orders for fruit trees and vegetable seeds to supplying farms with their stock. The business grew a large variety of plants, but fruit trees remained their highest seller. Today, Montgomery Place Orchards is a functioning orchard that has kept the tradition that Janet started over 200 years ago when she bought the land.
At the young age of 35, Edward, Janet’s nephew and sole heir passed away. She then decided that she would leave the estate to another one of her nephews, Lewis Livingston. He was Janet’s youngest brother, Edward Livingston’s son from his first marriage. Lewis, Edward, Edward’s second wife, Louise, and their daughter Cora, would often visit Montgomery Place. Lewis was one of Janet’s favorite visitors and she enjoyed his company very much. She even charged him with the task of organizing the transfer of her late husband, Richard Montgomery’s body back to the United States.
Even though it had been forty-three years since his death, his body was returned in 1818. Montgomery’s body was carried down the Hudson River on the Richmond and stopped in front of Montgomery Place where Janet stood alone, watching the long-awaited return of her beloved. When her companions came to find her, she had fainted, overcome with emotion of his return. A few years later, Lewis grew ill and another one of her heirs passed away.
Throughout her time at Montgomery Place, Janet entertained many friends and family. She enjoyed sharing what she loved with those whom she loved. One of her more frequent visitors was her brother, Edward Livingston, and his wife, Louise Davezak Livingston. Janet then settled that Edward would inherit the land for his family to use. Unlike her other heirs, Edward did not predecease Janet and he inherited Montgomery Place at her death in November of 1828.