Extent: 1 box, 45 oversize folders
The De Lancey Family Papers collection consists of 141 objects documenting the lives of the De Lanceys, a wealthy and prominent colonial family that resided in Manhattan and Westchester County. Objects include correspondence; legal, financial, and business documents; military commissions and orders; genealogical material; and a broad range of oversize real estate documents. The collection provides a rich and deep source of information about the personal and political lives of New York City–region Loyalists before, during, and after the Revolutionary War.
A brief discussion of the historical context of the De Lancey Family Papers collection is critical to deciphering the connections within and among the collection’s series. The majority of the items date from the early-1700s to the mid-1800s and originate from the New York City region, primarily the settlements in and around Manhattan and Westchester County. This period, encompassing the Colonial, Revolutionary, and early National years, was one of volatility, conflict, and incessant change in the area.
After the British seized New York City from the Dutch in 1664, the region’s population soared and diversified as immigration grew and slaves were brought over from Africa. The atmosphere in the city became a potent stew of rapidly increasing prosperity, racial conflict, and rising frustration with British rule. The French and Indian War (1754-1763) increased tensions as the two European powers struggled to gain control over the vast colonial territory of North America. In 1765, in an attempt to recover some of the losses sustained in the French and Indian War, the British moved to impose the Stamp Act on the American colonists, throwing New York City into turmoil as residents both protested the tax and anticipated the coming unrest. A sense of restlessness and unease permeated the city, building slowly until word finally came of the dispute at Lexington and Concord in 1775—long-simmering resentments had finally erupted into outright armed conflict and the war was on. From 1776 until the passing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 the British occupied the islands of Manhattan, Staten Island, and western Long Island, ruling with unrelenting military law and imposing rigid regulations on the densely packed area. Continental troops remained in the vicinity as well during these seven years, first in New Jersey and later north of the city, and residents of the entire region weathered the strain of close proximity to two large and voluble armies in a standoff, each operating with the emotional intensity of youth and a deeply held sense of moral imperative.
The De Lancey family members were Loyalists who remained faithful to the British during the war. Key to understanding the milieu in which the family existed is the fact that, contrary to public declarations from leaders on both sides of the conflict, in many areas there was little definitive separation between those who pledged allegiance to the revolutionary cause and those who renounced it. They lived in intimate relation to their supposed enemies; differences in opinion existed even within families. With food and fuel scarce, ideological boundaries were blurred and military lines crossed as Patriots and Loyalists breached both to visit with family and friends and do business in the thriving black markets. For Loyalists, reasons for remaining true to the crown varied in accordance with economic, racial, and regional contexts. While some Loyalists, such as the De Lanceys, were members of the wealthy privileged elite with obvious interests in maintaining the status quo, many were not. Some were poor and feared losing what modicum of protection the British provided. Some were slaves who had been promised freedom if they crossed military lines to side with the British. Many were refugees from surrounding colonies who flowed into the city to join with British forces out of a sense of duty or, in some cases, to seek respite from the violence being perpetrated in rural areas by Patriots who demanded uncompromising loyalty to the revolutionary cause. Regardless of the reasoning, rarely were their decisions unadulterated by socioeconomic concerns and familial bonds.
The early postwar years in the New York City region were a blur of debate, political jockeying, and transformation as the young nation (and city) sought to establish stable political and economic systems. After the British departed in defeat, estates and property that had been confiscated in the name of independence were suddenly up for grabs. Patriots and Loyalists alike raced to claim (or reclaim) lands. In 1779, New York had enacted the anti-Loyalist Act of Attainder, requiring “the forfeiture of real and personal estate” of 59 prominent Loyalists, who were then to be considered enemies of the state—the Act also banished those named from the state entirely. Several eminent De Lanceys were among those named in the Act, the immediate effect of which was to virtually decimate some of the large Loyalist estates in Westchester and Suffolk Counties. In the war’s aftermath, Loyalist families were often violently attacked, their families uprooted and their possessions plundered; formerly prosperous members of the Colonial elite now found themselves run out of town, humiliated.
By the early-mid 1800s, relative stasis had resumed in the region, but the area had seen a remarkable in- and outflux of inhabitants and continued to experience significant change as interests clashed and power consolidated and shifted. It is against this backdrop of displacement, divided loyalties, and political instability that the objects in this collection are set.
Scope and Content
The De Lancey Family Papers collection consists of 141 objects documenting the lives of the De Lancey family, one of the New York City region’s most wealthy and successful Colonial families. Residing primarily in and around Manhattan and Westchester County, the De Lanceys rose to prominence in commercial, legal, political, and military realms region-wide. The collection’s objects date from the early Colonial through the Civil War years and include correspondence; legal, financial, and business documents; military commissions and orders; genealogical material; invitations and programs; and a broad range of oversize real estate documents. Subject matter of the bulk of the material sheds light on real estate in Westchester County, military issues, and the business/mercantile dealings of the De Lancey extended family, most of whom were Loyalists who remained faithful to the crown during the Revolutionary War. Historically significant items such as a 1775 letter describing the Battle of Bunker Hill from Oliver De Lancey, Jr., to his father, Brigadier General Oliver De Lancey, Sr., and several pieces discussing the military movements of the French and Indian War, are included. Other notable items include 11 slave bills of sale, several manumission documents, programs and invitations for historical commemorations such as the 100th Anniversary of Washington’s inauguration, and one of the earliest-known impressions of the Seal of the City of New York. Letters from famed novelist James Fenimore Cooper to William Heathcote De Lancey are also included.
Series I: De Lancey Family Members (undated, 1686-1893)
Sub-Series A. Stephen (Etienne) De Lancey (1686-1766)
Sub-Series B. James De Lancey (undated, 1736-1761)
Sub-Series C. Oliver De Lancey, Sr. (1750-1783)
Sub-Series D. Susannah De Lancey (1770-1778)
Sub-Series E. Stephen De Lancey (1763-1779)
Sub-Series F. John Peter De Lancey (1789-1828)
Sub-Series G. John (Jack) De Lancey (1781-1791)
Sub-Series H. James De Lancey (1805-1834)
Sub-Series I. William Heathcote De Lancey (1816-1839)
Sub-Series J. Edward Floyd De Lancey (1889-1893)
Series II: Related Family Papers (undated, 1659-1840)
Sub-Series A. Genealogies (undated, 1840)
Sub-Series B. Real Estate Documents (1722-1785)
Sub-Series C. Other Papers (undated, 1659-circa 1810)