Peter Van Schaack was born in Kinderhook in March of 1747. In 1765, although he had not yet completed college, he married Elizabeth Cruger, the daughter of a wealthy New York City merchant. After graduating first in his class at Kings (Columbia) College, where he formed friendships with John Jay, Gouverneur Morris and other powerful men of his time, he worked in law offices in both Albany and New York City. Van Schaack was admitted to the bar in 1769 and developed a lucrative practice in NYC. In 1774, he was appointed to the first organized body in the colony of New York that opposed measures taken by the British Parliament - events that resulted in the Revolutionary War.
In 1775, as tension between Britain and the Colonies heightened and personal tragedy continued to strike his family, Van Schaack moved his family to the Kinderhook, NY. He stayed at the home of his brother David which still stands next to the building that now serves as the bed & breakfast known as The Van Schaack House.
His wife and eldest son were in poor health. He had already lost four children and the eldest son died shortly after the move. Van Schaack chose to remain neutral as the War approach. This decision was caused in part by his desire to seek medical care in NYC (then under British rule) for his wife and in London for himself. Van Schaack had lost sight in one eye and feared complete blindness. His requests were denied. His wife passed in 1777.
Despite his neutrality, he never obstructed the acts of the patriots.
In June of 1778, Van Schaack received permission to visit England from New York Governor George Clinton. Shortly after permission was granted, Van Schaack was asked to take an oath declaring New York to be a free and independent state. He refused. His property was then subjected to double taxes and he was banished - a jail cell awaiting his return for what was considered treason. He set sail for England and remained there until June of 1785.
While in England, Van Schaack traveled extensively and was a frequent visitor to debates held in the House of Lords and Commons. He had such access thanks to his brother-in-law, Henry Cruger, who was a member of Parliament. Van Schaack wrote at great length about those debates, England's beauty, and the arts. His letters to his children were filled with advice about education - and his feeling that the English were wrong in their treatment of the American colonies.
In 1784, an act was passed by the Legislature, restoring Peter Van Schaack, and three other men, "all their rights, privileges and immunities, as citizens" upon taking the oath of allegiance as prescribed by law.
He returned to Kinderhook in 1785, building this dwelling.
Van Schaack was readmitted
to the bar in 1786 and resumed practice in Kinderhook. His eyesight failed
and he relinquished his professional duties. He began training law students
- receiving only a few at a time. These students were considered the elite,
the privileged. This tuteledge enabled The Van Schaack House to lay claim
the first law school in New York State.
On April 27, 1789, he married Elizabeth Van Allen of Kinderhook. Poor health continued to mar his family. His eldest surviving son from his first marriage died in 1797 at the age of 29 and a son from his second marriage died in 1811 - only 20 years old. Elizabeth died in 1813.
In 1826, Columbia College conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Laws. Samuel Jones and DeWitt Clinton were similarly honored at the same time.
Van Schaack, who fathered
18 children, was a great scholar. His knowledge of law was
profound and he was fluent in Latin. His wrote with great elegance on several topics, but his legal documents are still heralded for their clarity and style.
Peter Van Schaack, despite ailments that would have killed a lesser man, lived in Kinderhook until his passing on September 17, 1832.
The Van Schaack House
-- elegant accommodations for those visiting the unspoiled
landscape of Columbia County -- has entertained many distinguished guests over time. John Jay, Gouverneur Morris, Judge Benson, Aaron Burr, Martin Van Buren, Washington Irving and others have all at one time or another enjoyed the comforts this grand mansion provides.