By KJIRSTEN GUSTAVSON
The Livingstons were an extremely prominent family in early American history, but lots of people today have never heard of them. Here are seven facts you can whip out at a party to show that you know your American history:
1. Robert R. Livingston did not sign the Declaration of Independence (but he did help to write it)
Unless you follow Clermont's blog, (which we think you should!) Robert R. Livingston is probably the only Livingston you might have heard of. We often get inquiries about him as "The Livingston who signed the Declaration of Independence," but in reality he never did.
He was a valued member of the 2nd Continental Congress, and he was one of John Jay's best friends. He was part of the Committee of Five that drafted the Declaration of Independence (also including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Ben Franklin, and Roger Sherman), and some think that the Declaration's striking similarity to the Dutch Plakkaat van Verlatinge--which declared the Netherlands independent from Spain in 1581—may be due to Livingston's New York upbringing.
Robert's family were greatly influenced by their Dutch heritage: his great grandfather had emigrated from the Netherlands, he spoke Dutch fluently, and New York itself held onto many important Dutch traditions. The Plakkaat van Verlantinge was still being published in many Dutch publications while Robert was growing up, making it quite likely that he would have been familiar with it. Did his input shape the structure of Jefferson's now-hallowed document?
Unfortunately for posterity, Robert left Congress before the Declaration was officially signed. Torn between the need for strong federal government and the needs of New York State, Robert returned to Kingston, where he was just as active in trying to keep local order in the midst of a chaotic rebellion.
So which Livingston signed the Declaration of Independence? It was Robert's cousin Philip who got immortalized on this national treasure.
2. It wasn't just Robert R. Livingston who joined the American Revolution
It wasn't just Robert R. and Philip who were busy during the Revolution. Quite a bit of the family found one way or another to get involved. Robert's brother Henry Beekman Livingston was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Continental Army. Another brother, John, sold supplies to the army.
But it didn't just stop with Robert's immediate family. William Livingston, who came from the manor side of the family, represented New Jersey in the Continental Congress and was the state's first governor. A different Henry Livingston was also a Colonel in the Continental Army (which makes things really confusing when you're researching). Still another, John Henry Livingston from Poughkeepsie (who became a Reverend later on) is noted for drawing a confession out of a prisoner with no more than a deadpan apology that that the man would be killed in the morning.
The Livingstons were numerous and prominent in a time of upheaval so their descendants were eager to track their activities. While his might have been the most public and possibly the largest leadership role Robert R.'s contributions were part of a much wider family involvement.
3. A Livingston Exhibited with the Hudson River School Painters
While many members of Livingston family were artistic, only one, Montgomery Livingston, was totally obsessed with art. He was classically trained in Europe and returned to America in the late 1830s, eventually inheriting Chancellor Livingston's old mansion, New Clermont. He quickly filled the house with canvases, a printing press, and other art supplies.
While Montgomery may not have achieved the rock star notoriety of Thomas Cole or Frederick Church (who had residences nearby his own Hudson River home), he exhibited his paintings at the National Academy of Design, and a catalog of those works shows that he was traveling to many of the same places to generate his art: Mount Desert Island, the White Mountains, and a variety of Hudson River and Catskill destinations, as well as some Swiss scenes from his early travels.
His death at age 39 limited his overall output, and possibly played a part in limiting his fame as well. Nevertheless, Montgomery's work is still collected, and his White Mountains and Catskill Mountains scenes in particular seem to have generated a lasting legacy.
4. The Livingstons constructed dozens of Hudson River Valley mansions
Clermont may have been the heart and soul of the Livingston clan, but it was certainly not the only mansion they called home. Between both branches of the Livingstons, they owned some 900,000 acres of land at their peak, and over the generations, they divided that land up among their many children. Livingston family members can claim links to about three dozen mansions in the area, once leading to the nickname "Livingston Valley."
From the 18th century through the late 19th, romantic names like Rokeby, Oak Hill, Edgewater, and Wildercliff cropped up as each child inherited their piece of Livingston land to start their family on.
Even with all these other mansions around, Clermont remained the center of the Livingston family as the oldest mansion that anyone really liked. Sure Robert the First Lord built the first Livingston house where the Roeliff Jansen Kill flowed into the Hudson River. That house was little more than a trading post however. It was agreed that it was uncomfortable and unsuited to the life of a country gentleman, and it was torn down in the 18th century. An heir tried to build a newer, grander manor house, but his inheritance was not what he expected, and he had to stop after completing just the basement and first floor (that house was called "The Hermitage").
Clermont was loved and honored by its heirs, and they preserved it as a tribute to their family prowess, even while they updated it to fit their modern needs.
5. There are many Livingstons still alive today (and they're all over the world)
We get the question frequently—"Are there any Livingstons left alive today?" Yes! The Livingston family is widespread, and many of them maintain relationships with Clermont and our Friends group.
Clermont's last residents Honoria and Janet never had children, which might give the impression that this was the end of the Livingstons. But there are as many as three hundred that come to the Livingston Family Reunions every five years.
Janet and Honoria may have been the last Livingstons to reside at Clermont, but the generations in the 18th and early 19th centuries had many families of 7-10 children, and Honoria had many, many cousins, second cousins, and so on. Have you ever heard me reference the family genealogy? It is no less than two inches thick, and must weigh about seven or eight pounds.
Still other family members contact us periodically to clear up questions about their lineage or even to donate objects that relate to Clermont's history. In fall of 2014 we were visited by Katherine Livingston Timpson's great-grandson, who generously donated a small cache of photos and portraits. This gift gave us new insight into a portion of the family we knew little about after their 1905 move to England.
Yet another branch of the family contacted us long-distance from India, rekindling a relationship more than two hundred years after their Livingston ancestor fled New York because of Tory sentiments.
The prolific Livingston family left ancestors in many places all over the world, and almost all of them carry some part of the pride that lead Alice Livingston to designate Clermont a museum in the 1960s.
Kjirsten Gustavson is the curator of education at Clermont State Historic Site. This story originally appeared on www.clermontstatehistoricsite.blogspot.com. The historic site was home to seven generations of the prominent Livingston family and features a mansion, formal gardens, scenic views of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains and miles of hiking trails.