The Women of the House
Jean Zimmerman
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Buy *The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty* by Jean Zimmerman online

The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty
Jean Zimmerman
Mariner Books
400 pages
August 2007
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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The colorful brochure about Philipse Manor Hall maintained by the New York State Parks Department in Yonkers describes its ownership and inheritance through the men of the house. Author Jean Zimmerman has brought balance to the history by her well-researched tracing of the dynasty of women who dominated the house.

Margaret Hardenbroeck came from the Netherlands to New Amsterdam (later new York City) as a “she-merchant,” a proud self-proclamation of her strength of character and independent status as a trader. This could designate anything from a woman selling vegetables in a market stall to someone like Margaret who could direct a ship to far-off ports and control the goods – furs, sugar, even slaves - it carried. Margaret was known as a canny debt collector, a 17th-century repo-woman, and on that she built a personal fortune. A widow when she arrived, she soon married a carpenter named Frederick Philipse, destined, like his wife, to rise far above his station in life. She took pains to protect her own property from the onerous marriage laws of the time, through which a woman could lose everything but her dowry on her husband’s death. In fact, Margaret brought far more wealth to the marriage than did her husband, and she wanted to maintain her freedom to trade. One of the couple’s first purchases was a 300-acre tract in Westchester where Margaret, then engaged in a profitable fur business, oversaw the building of an “incomparably grand” country estate, meant to impress passersby on the Hudson River. It was known as Philipsburg, or Philipse Manor.

Zimmerman, who found the old manor house on its “postage-stamp lawn” (when once its grounds encompassed all of Westchester County) a source of fascination. She delved deeply into the feminine side of the home’s history, revealing that for four generations the women who ruled behind the scenes at Philipse Manor Hall were autonomous, free-thinking females.

The female line began with Margaret and ended with Mary Philipse Morris, a great beauty whose suitors included the young George Washington, whom she met when he passed through New York during the Indian wars. “…Compared with some of the other eligible men she encountered in the same parlor, Washington came off less well.” Mary was wed in 1758 to Captain Robert Morris, a British soldier whose loyalty to the Crown would inevitably cause suffering for the family. For a time, one of the Philipse’s homesteads, Mount Morris, was occupied by Mary’s rejected suitor, then-General Washington, who “paced the grounds behind the house…or ascended the balcony, spyglass to somber eye, taking in the stupendous panorama that encompassed so many landmarks of New York.”

After the war, Loyalists were forced to retreat to England, and the Morris and Philipse holdings were forfeit to the victors in the war. Most of their furnishings and gew-gaws were sold off. As for Philipse Manor Hall, it now “stands perfectly empty, inhabited only by light and ghosts,” and perhaps among those ghosts is the shade of Margaret Hardenbroeck, who often “leaned against the doorframe and smoked her long-stemmed pipe.”

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2006

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