Stewards of the Jay Estate in Rye
10,000+ BC - 1661
Seventy-five percent of the acreage in Rye has been determined to be archaeologically sensitive with many Indigenous and pre-contact sites. In fact, the presence of Indigenous people’s activities in Rye has long been noted in numerous locations where implements and bones were unearthed, including an “ancient Indian burial ground,” on the site of the present Playland Ice Casino together with discoveries of artifacts along the shoreline, and pottery, skeletons and relics along Milton Road, the Cowles property, Disbrow Park and the Blind Brook.
So it is not surprising that shell middens, tools, pottery and evidence of several camp sites and shelters have also been documented at the Jay Estate and Marshlands Conservancy (which was part of the Jay Estate until 1966). This rare archaeological sensitivity is one of the reasons why in 1993, the National Park Service recognized the Boston Post Road Historic District as a National Historic Landmark (counting the Jay Estate, Marshlands Conservancy, Rye Golf Club, Lounsbury and the Jay Cemetery as 5 integral properties).* This entire 286 acre American treasure has cultural importance relative to the Middle Woodland, Late Woodland, Late Archaic and periods of historic significance of 3000-4999 BC, 1000-2999 BC, 1499-1000 AD, 1749-1500 AD and more.
The cultural materials associated with their presence – countless projectile points (arrowheads), chert flakes, pottery shards, and nutting stones (stones with indents in the middle used for crushing nuts) – were found through supervised shovel tests and excavations as recently as 2020. These compelling discoveries help us visualize Indigenous life and traditions. Imagine walking down the same trail to the waters of Milton Harbor (in what is now the Marshlands Conservancy) to fish. Conjure what it might have been like to harvest crops or hunt deer. Imagine the annual burning of the meadow which renewed the soil and kept the viewshed open.
*Findings have been made through archaeological digs conducted by John Pfeiffer, the late Bruce Byland and most recently, Dr. Eugene Boesch and submitted to the NY State Cultural Resource Information System (CRIS).
1661 - 1745
On November 8, 1661, what we call the Jay Estate today together with the surrounding acreage of the Boston Post Road Historic District, the Greenhaven neighborhood and beyond, were purchased by John Budd from Indigenous residents for “eightie pounds sterling.” The tract was originally called Appawamis (sp) by members of the local tribe including Wiechquaesgeck sachems named Shanarock, Rawmaquae, Rackeatte, Pawwaytaliau, Mawmatoe, Howinse and their families who spoke the Mohican language. It was renamed Budd’s Neck.
Budd’s Neck was divided by John Budd in his will, dated October 15, 1669, between his sons, John and Joseph. Joseph, known as “Captain Budd,” obtained a patent in 1720 for the land purchased by his father. Joseph’s son, also John, inherited the estate on Budd’s Neck, which he sold in 1745, principally to Peter Jay but there were others.
JHC believes that the Jay family bought and may have rehabilitated the Budd’s main dwelling and ancillary buildings like the Barlow Lane farmhouse putting the date of some of those structures earlier than 1745.
1745 - 1783
Peter Jay, French Huguenot Merchant and Gentleman Moves to Rye
Peter Jay was the only son of French Huguenot emigrant, Auguste Jay, and Anna Maricka Bayard. A successful merchant, he married Mary Van Cortlandt. The Van Cortlandts were some of the largest enslavers in New York. To escape the ongoing threat of a smallpox epidemic in New York City that killed one of his children and blinded two others, Peter Jay leased then bought 250 acres of land and its messuages (dwelling house, outbuildings, orchards and more) in Rye on March 26, 1745 from John Budd 4th. The Jay family holdings in Rye eventually grew to over 400 acres and include Pine Island, Henn Island and Marees Neck.
Peter’s infant son John Jay was 3 months old when the family moved to Westchester in 1746. It is likely that Peter added on to an existing farmhouse bought of the Budds which was surrounded by barns and gardens. He enslaved as many as 9 people to manage the plantation and to help care for three children, two of whom are blind. Known names of these servants are Old Mary, Zilpha, Plato and Peter. Several may be interred on the Jay farm in “the old burying ground.”
As a prominent member of the small Rye community, Peter also secured the charter for Christ’s Church where the family worshiped.
The 3/4 mile view to the Long Island Sound through the open meadow is one that would have existed during John Jay’s boyhood. John returned to the family estate frequently as a refuge throughout his life. As a young student at Kings College, he returned to Rye by horseback fortnightly to be with his parents, brothers and sisters. When the Stamp Act compelled him and many other lawyers to strike in defiance of British law, he lived in Rye from 1765 to 1766, and immersed himself in re-reading the classics.
During the Revolutionary War, John Jay’s parents, siblings and servants left Rye and moved to Fishkill for safety while John Jay was “beyond seas.” Both of John Jay’s parents died before he returned home.
1784 - 1813
"Blind Peter" Jay and John Jay Manage the Family Seat Together
Upon Peter Jay’s death, his vast estate was passed down to his sons in severalty. Through primogeniture, “Blind Peter” took on the majority of the Rye home’s stewardship with assistance from his younger brother John who owned a portion of the land. (“I am the owner of one undivided half part of a lot of land containing by estimation seventy acres, in the township of Rye adjacent to the farm of Peter Jay and occupied by him.” – John Jay, October 1, 1798)
Living with John Jay’s brother Peter at Rye were his wife Mary Duycinck, her niece Euphemia “Effy”, a brother Augustus, an older sister Eve and her son Peter Jay Munro, a sister Anna Maricka (also blind) and several enslaved people including Hannah, Dinah, Caesar, Sylvia and Pete. Another brother Frederick “Fady” shared the home.
The “Family Seat” in Rye is where John celebrated America’s new independence with his family upon his return from France in 1784 having helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris that ends war with Great Britain. According to friend and fellow peacemaker John Adams, “Our worthy friend, Mr. Jay returns to his country like a bee to his hive, with both legs loaded with merit and honor.”
John, his wife Sarah “Sally” van Brugh Livingston and their children also passed considerable time in Rye during the summer months and holidays. John Jay engaged the assistance of Captain Samuel Lyons as early as 1784 to help manage the Rye farm.
Being with family at his home was of the utmost importance to Jay as evidenced in a letter to his father-in-law, William Livingston, Governor of New Jersey.
“Having never from choice, and seldom from necessity (except during the war) been absent from Rye and Christmas, I purpose to take Peter with me and to pass that day and a few succeeding ones there.” – December 22, 1788.
While Jay travelled, Sarah frequently stayed with his family in Rye for company finding the fresh air improves here frail health and constitution. Sarah Livingston Jay died on May 28, 1802, just a few short months after having joined John at their retirement home in Bedford in December 1801. Their two youngest children William and Sarah Louisa were 12 and 10 at the time of her death.
John Jay established the Jay Family Burying Ground during this period. This appears to be different from an “old burying ground” on the property that was likely set aside for enslaved servants. Ancestral remains of the Jays and Sarah’s, were moved from two vaults at St. Mark’s on the Bowery and re-interred in Rye on October 28, 1807.
1813 - 1822
John Jay Inherits Entire Property After the Death of his Oldest Brother.
“Blind Peter” died in 1813 and John Jay inherited the remainder of the Rye estate outright. He asked his son Peter Augustus Jay to help maintain the farm while Blind Peter’s widow, Mary and her enslaved servants – Sylvia, Peter and Caesar Valentine still lived there.
Notable visitors to the Rye home included James Fenimore Cooper who drew ideas for his characters from the Jay household and also used the waterfront setting for his first successful novel The Spy (1821). He gave the Jay home its name “The Locusts.”
Ironically a storm known as the great Great September Gale toppled the old locust trees behind the main house just before Cooper’s tale is published. Peter Augustus Jay, having received the land from his father on September 16, 1822, replanted elm trees in place of the locusts – the elms survived well into the 20th century before succumbing to Dutch elm disease.
1822 - 1836
John Jay Formally Deeds the Ancestral Homestead to Peter Augustus Jay.
On September 16, 1822, John Jay formally deeded the property to Peter Augustus Jay. Peter Augustus had already been making his own strategic purchase of land adjacent to the ancestral homestead.
Father and son conferred on plantings and changes to the landscape. Dry laid stone ha-ha walls in a Palladian design were installed to frame the meadows and viewway. Peter Augustus and his wife Mary Rutherfurd Clarkson discussed enhancements to the gardens together and planted the “finest” selection of vegetables. In 1833, Mary Rutherfurd surprised her husband by having a rough summer house built near the water.
They had paid servants who helped maintain the buildings and grounds and entertain large groups of friends and family. Known servants on the property included Caesar Valentine, a man enslaved by Peter’s aunt and uncle and manumitted in 1824. As of 1830 there were 5 African Americans, 3 women and two men, living on the site, all free. New research has shown that Caesar had a son in 1807 also named Caesar Valentine. It is believed one of the women on the census was his wife.
Notable visitors to the home include artist Samuel F. B. Morse
1836 - 1843
Peter Augustus Jay Commissions the Current Greek Revival Mansion.
Like many other Westchester homes barraged by both British fire and battered by New England troops during the war, “The Locusts,” was badly damaged. In fall of 1836, Peter Augustus contracted to take it down and have the current Greek Revival mansion built – the new structure was completed in 1838. His wife Mary Rutherfurd Clarkson was equally involved in the planning. The couple had 8 children.
The builder, Edwin Bishop salvaged structural elements – doors, chestnut timbers, shutters and hardware from “The Locusts” to incorporate into the new house. The rear veranda facing Long Island Sound was made the exact same length of the porch of the first home where John Jay celebrated the end of the Revolutionary War.
The 1838 Drawing Room has Minard Lafever and Asher Benjamin inspired details with gold leafed cornices and floor to ceiling windows. Countless elm trees enhanced the grounds at this time. An area of the mansion was designated Caesar’s pantry. The estate was managed by Giles Green and his family.
Sadly, like Sarah Livingston Jay before her, Mary Rutherfurd Clarkson Jay did not live long enough to enjoy the home and gardens she and her husband had planned. Following a trip recommended to improve her health, she died on the island of Funchal in Madeira on Christmas Eve, 1838.
Despite this great tragedy, Peter Augustus Jay and his children enjoyed their country retreat throughout the seasons. A bedroom overlooking the front drive was set aside for Sarah Livingston Jay’s sister Judith Watkins.
Caesar stayed at the property and was left a lifetime stipend in Peter Augustus Jay’s will.
In 1841, reference is made to an an old burying ground for servants where there are “graves with no recording stone so that even their names have perished & they are twice dead.”
1843 - 1891
Dr. John Clarkson Jay, NYYC Co-Founder and Conchologist
Peter Augustus Jay died in 1843 and his son John Clarkson Jay a noted conchologist inherits the Rye estate. He and his wife Laura Prime reconfigured the mansion’s circular center hall staircase; he filled one space with his vast mollusk collection and library and called it “The Shell Room.” JC Jay had a small cottage built on “Cherry Hill” facing the Sound in 1849 according to plans by Alexander Jackson Davis – the structure resembled one made in 1844 for fellow New York Yacht Club founder, John Cox Stevens.
Caesar Valentine, died in 1847 and was buried somewhere on the Jay farm.
John Clarkson Jay renamed the estate “Alansten” sometime before 1858. The family occupies the house during the Civil War. After the war, John Foshay leased some of the land from the Jays but also helped to manage it. When their eldest son Rev. Peter Augustus Jay died in 1875, John Clarkson and Laura Prime Jay invited his widow Julia Post and 4 children to live with them and their three single daughters, Cornelia, Alice and Sarah.
Dr. Jay’s 4 grandchildren – Pierre, Mary, Laura and John – were the last generation of Jays to live at the estate.
1891 - 1904
John Clarskon Jay, Jr. and Pierre Jay Manage the Jay Estate
The property stayed in the Jay family through 1904, 159 years of continuous ownership. After Dr. Jay’s death, the property was rented and offered for sale between 1891 and 1904. Notable lessees included Junius Spencer Morgan II, James Talcott and Mr. and Mrs. David Percy Morgan (Edith Parsons Morgan was the daughter of next door neighbor John E. Parsons)
JC Jay’s granddaughter, landscape architect Mary Rutherfurd Jay redesigned some portion of the gardens and created the 100 foot long arbor trained with grapes and roses that visually and physically connects the core home area with a path through the meadows to the Sound.
September 1904 - July 1905
Henry Ives Cobb, Architect and John Jay Realty Co. Plan to Subdivide the Estate
Chicago architect Henry Ives Cobb purchased the 450 acre estate anonymously as part of a syndicate with James J. Fine and George Lowerre – they named their partnership the John Jay Realty Co. Cobb planned to keep the mansion as his own country home and develop the surrounding land for “handsome houses” but his residency was brief.
1905 - 1911
Warner La Montagnie Van Norden and Grace Talcott Purchase and Expand the Jay Estate.
Warner La Montagnie Van Norden and his wife Grace Talcott hired architect, Franke A. Rooke, to make renovations to their new country abode. They spent time there with their young son John. As is the practice of other Gilded Age couples, the two arranged to have intricate wood paneling imported from Europe and installed. A Library replaced what was once a first floor bedroom and a Reception Room was also configured. A new pantry with enameled brick walls and mosaic tile floors was added as well as a billiards room and gymnasium on the lower level.
Rooke, architect of the Claremont Riding Academy, also designed a new Classical Revival Carriage House and Zebra Barn for the Van Nordens in 1906-7. The couple imported and housed rare Grevy zebras and other exotic animals in these structures, again a practice not atypical of their era or social stature. They had kennels and raised prize French bulldogs.
1911 - 1935
Edgar Palmer Buys the Jay Estate.
Princeton philanthropist Edgar Palmer and his wife Zilph Hayes bought the Jay estate and enjoyed its water access. Both avid sailors, the Palmers owned a constellation of yachts throughout their life including 2 famous three-masted schooners, each named Guinevere (and each donated for patrol duty in World Wars I and II). Zilph was the first flag member (female member) of American Yacht Club across the harbor where husband Edgar became Commodore. She and her brother James Hayes raced Sonder class boats.
The Palmers created a veritable family compound contracting architect Aymar Embury II to build homes for Zilph’s two siblings, James Hayes and Helen Hayes Watson. The 1916 Indoor Tennis House was constructed during Palmer’s ownership. Brinley and Holbrook surveys point to a reconfiguration of the grounds including the addition of apple and peach orchards along with numerous vegetable gardens and more formal parterre plantings. The grounds were beautifully maintained by John Connor. The Van Norden kennels were adapted for new breeds including chow-chows.
Palmer used the meadow as an airstrip during frequent trips to Princeton, New Jersey while he oversaw several capital projects there including the construction of Palmer Stadium named for his father and Palmer Square.
The Van Norden Carriage House was rehabilitated into a garage and Harvey E. Thomas was the family’s chauffeur.
The name Alansten was again used for the property. Edgar and Zilph’s daughter Zilph was born in 1912 and shared an interest in photography with her father. A servant’s room in between the first and second floor was remodeled as a darkroom with a zinc sink for processing negatives.
1935 - 1966
Zilph Palmer Receives Jay Estate from Her Father.
Zilph Palmer received the Jay Estate from her father in 1935. She married Walter B. Devereux in 1940; he was a Princeton graduate like her father and brother. Their wedding reception took place at the Jay Estate. They had exquisite gardens maintained by their gardener John Ryan. Flowers from the gardens were frequently used for the National Horse Show of which Devereux was President.
A swimming pool was constructed in the middle room of the sunken gardens in 1947. The AJ Davis cottage which succumbed to the ravages of carpenter bees was taken down and replaced with a pool house in 1957.
Zilph Palmer Donates 23 Acres to United Methodist Church and 120 to Westchester
Zilph Palmer Devereux donated a 23-acre upland parcel of her Rye estate to the Annual Conference of the Methodist Church. This discrete park is what’s known today as the Jay Estate.
An additional 120 acres of wooded meadowlands and salt marshes with frontage on Long Island Sound was donated to Westchester County in 1967. It was initially suggested that the conservancy be named the Devereux Reservation but the land was ultimately dedicated as Marshlands Park in 1972 as a wildlife preserve.
It was Mrs. Devereux’ intention that neither of these two separate parcels of land ever be commercially developed.
Her intentions continue to be honored.