Women’s History Month: Local Museums Celebrate Martha Washington, Catheryna Rombout Brett, and Janet Livingston Montgomery
Ladies first: In honor of Women’s History Month, we celebrate the contributions of a diverse trio of Valley females
(page 2 of 4)
Working woman: The Madam Brett Homestead in Beacon, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1709. Items that belonged to Catheryna Brett are on display there
Catheryna Rombout Brett
Catheryna Rombout Brett (1687-1764) was the first European woman to settle in the Hudson Highlands, establishing her Beacon home in 1709 — less than 100 years after Henry Hudson discovered the area.
Brett’s father, Francis Rombout, was a prosperous fur trader and prominent citizen in New Amsterdam (aka New York City). Rombout purchased 85,000 acres of Valley land from the Wappinger Indians, about one-third of which was left to his daughter, Catheryna (pronounced Katrina) when she was four years old. Twelve years later, Catheryna married British naval officer Roger Brett. Five years after that, the couple — along with their children and slaves — moved to the “land in the Wappins” (as her father referred to it).
The Bretts hired a Long Island architect to build a Dutch-style house. That home, now known as the Madam Brett Homestead, remained in the family over the next seven generations — nearly 250 years.
Tragically, Catheryna became a widow when Roger Brett drowned after being knocked off his sailing sloop by the boom. Undaunted, she remained in the wilderness, raised three sons, and ran several successful business ventures — including the gristmill at the mouth of the Fishkill Creek. She legally defended her boundaries and managed her estate personally — no easy feat in the early 18th century. “After her husband died, many people encroached upon her property and even hired natives to scare her off her land,” says Lorraine MacAulay, curator of the homestead. “But she was friendly with the natives. She met in the woods with local judges to look over the surveys and confirm her boundaries. And she rode her property lines every day.”
Brett is buried under the pulpit of the First Reformed Church of Fishkill, which she helped to found. In 1800, her great-granddaughter, Alice Schenck Teller, bought and remodeled the house, and it became known as the Teller Mansion. It stayed in the Teller family until 1954 when it was nearly demolished and replaced by a supermarket. In the nick of time, the Melzingah chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution bought it and turned it into a museum.
Brett should be remembered as the “First Lady of the Hudson Highlands,” MacAulay says. “She was educated, successful in marriage and — as a single mother — successful in business. She is a good role model.”
Visiting Madam Brett Homestead:
Maintained by the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Madam Brett Homestead sits on the nearly six acres that remain from Catheryna Brett’s original inheritance of more than 28,000 acres. The home features hand-hewn cedar shingles, sloped dormers, Dutch doors, and a native stone foundation. Original furnishings include a significant collection of China-trade porcelain; original Georgian, Empire, and Victorian furniture; early dolls, textiles, and tools; a punch bowl presented by Lafayette; and original items belonging to Catheryna Brett.
Open houses are held from 1-4 p.m. on the second Saturday of the month, Apr.-Dec. Allow 45 minutes for a tour. $5, $2 students