The Livingston family was one of the most powerful influences in the affairs of the colony, the early statehood of New York, and the United States. In June 1673, Robert Livingston (1654-1728), a nineteen year old Protestant Scot who had lived and worked in the Netherlands, arrived in Charlestown, Massachusetts. He soon moved to Albany, New York, where his skills in English and Dutch led to a series of minor official posts. Alert to opportunity, he soon married a prominent widow, made two separate land purchases totaling 2500 acres, and confirmed a patent which formed a manor of 160,000 acres.
As first Lord of the Livingston Manor, Livingston's status and wealth advanced. His son Philip (1686-1749), the eldest to survive, became second Lord of the Manor. His next oldest son, Robert (1683-1775) received 13,000 acres of the manor in reward for discovering and preventing a rebellion among the family's slaves. This became the basis of the holdings of the Clermont line of the family, Robert's only child was named Robert Robert (1718-1775) and was referred to, as a result of later judicial office, as the Judge, to distinguish him from the many other Roberts in the family. Judge Robert Robert Livingston married an only child, Margaret Beekman, heir to the vast land holdings of Henry Beekman in Dutchess and Ulster counties. They had eleven children, only one of whom did not attain majority. These children, raised in the family's mansion, Clermont, overlooking the Hudson, and in New York City, built a series of houses along a sixteen mile stretch of the east bank of the Hudson, south of Clermont.
La Bergerie was one of the Livingston houses along the Hudson, built between 1811 and 1815 by John and Alida Livingston Armstrong. Alida Livingston Armstrong was the youngest daughter of Judge Robert R. and Margaret Beekinan Livingston. In her late teens and early twenties she expressed an interest in the active, fashionable life of New York city and she wrote of herself, "she finds that place to agree better with her than the hills of Clermont," (Alida Livingston to Nancy Sheaffe, 30 June (1780), New York Historical Society, New York, New York). In November 1780, she wrote to Miss Sheaffe, "The idea of a Cold disagreeable Voyage makes me tremble; But either that, or a solitary winter at Clermont!" But life at Clermont was not without its diversions.
"I was two nights ago made happy by my dear Nancy's letter without date, it found me -- shall I say disconsolate, for the departure of three amiable Friends and one little Angel. On Monday last we accompanied them as far as Rhinebeck, where we spent an agreeable day, & in the evening with cards & dancing, after a Fife and Violen. Your Friend Major Jackson my partner, by mutual consent we forgot the melancholy scene which the next day was to produce, & by that prudent determination our evening passed delightfully. And it has passed -- but not from my mind."
John Armstrong, Jr., the man who gained Alida Livingston's hand in marriage in 1789, was an acerbic man of position, ambition, and talent. Born in Pennsylvania in 1758, his father was known as the "Hero of Kitanning," an important engagement of the French and Indian Wars (1756-1763). While a student at Princeton, the Revolution began and Armstrong enlisted in the Army. He became an aide-de-camp to General Horatio Gates, a man for whom he held great affection and esteem. Armstrong left Gates to serve as Adjutant General of the Southern Army, became ill, and returned to serve with Gates.
In 1783 while quartered in Newburgh, New York, Armstrong, reportedly at the urging of Gates, wrote the "Newburgh letters," in which he urged the officers of the revolutionary army, whose salaries Congress could not pay, to take control of the government from the ineffectural Congress. At the time Washington called the letters scurrilous, but later indicated that he believed that Armstrong's intentions were honorable. After the war Armstrong returned to Pennsylvania where he served as a member of the Congress of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and also as its Adjutant General and Secretary of State. By 1789 he had met, courted and married Alida Livingston and moved to New York state.
Janet Livingston Montgomery had purchased the site of Montgomery Place and was awaiting a "proper" plan from Paris when she wrote her brother. Chancellor Robert Livingston, "My sisters are well except Alida, who still gives us a child every year and loses everyday her constitution -- Armstrong house is now completely filled with physical books, Doctors and Medicine. He now talks of building next to me." (Janet L. Montgomery to Robert R. Livingston, 29 May 1802, New york Historical Society)
La Bergerie was not Armstrong's first building venture. He wrote to his former commander and friend. General Horatio Gates, "I am bout to build the handsomest house ... upon the North River ... but I must reserve all I mean to say about the plan of this edifice for Mrs. Gates as she is a sister architect ... in an area, little larger than that of the house I now inhabit, I shall have more and better rooms."
Armstrong also wrote to Rufus King's agent when he learned King was thinking of settling in the area. Among available properties were two Armstrong had built for himself. The Meadows and Mill Hill. "... the grounds are Beautiful, the House is new built of the best materials, & in the best manner. The dining room & the drawing room, which communicate are 19 x 24' each, there is a small Library, pantry, & Hall, on the same floor and on the second floor four handsome bedrooms."
Armstrong's interest in landscape gardening indicates that Armstrong probably designed the plans for the grounds of Rokeby. The grounds of The Meadows, also an Armstrong design and later known as DeVeaux Park, were described by J.H. Smith as presenting "perhaps the finest aspects of English park scenery of any on the Hudson."
In 1801 Armstrong was elected to the Senate and moved his six children to Kingston for their education while he served in Washington. He was reelected to the Senate in 1803, but resigned in late 1804 to succeed his brother-in-law, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, as Minister to France. He lived in France through 1810, returning to America in 1811 to manage his estates and begin construction of La Bergerie. Building was interrupted in 1812 by Armstrong's commission as a Brigadier General in the preparations for the War of 1812. In the fall of 1812 he was nominated by President James Madison to be Secretary of War and was confirmed by the Senate early the next year. He resigned after criticism that he allowed the British to burn Washington. He retired from public life and devoted his attentions to completing La Bergerie. When the cottage the Armstrongs were living in burned in 1815, the family moved into the unfinished house "to the music of hammers and saws."
In 1818 the Armstrong's only daughter, Margaret Rebecca, married William Backhouse Astor. Alida Livingston Armstrong died in 1322 at sixty-one, and Margaret Astor became her father's hostess. The Astors spent summers at Rokeby and in 1836 Astor paid Armstrong $50,000 for title to Rokeby and its 728 acres. Because the Mudder Kill (a stream on the farm) Glenn reminded Margaret of the glen in Sir Walter Scott's poem, Rokeby, La Bergerie was renamed Rokeby. Armstrong spent his remaining winters with his son Henry Beekman Armstrong in Red Hook and returned to Rokeby in summer.
In 1848 Astor conveyed the southernmost portion of Rokeby to his son-in-law. Franklin H. Delano. To this 95-acre parcel he added an additional five acres in 1851, bringing the total gift to 100 acres. On this estate Astor's daughter, Laura, and her husband (who was a great-uncle of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) established their country seat, Steen Valetje, a large brick Tuscan style villa. In 1866 Astor conveyed the next most southern portion of Rokeby, a parcel of 142 acres, to his youngest son, Henry. Henry Astor built a brick dwelling on this land, but in 1873 conveyed the property to his sister Laura. In 1875 Franklin H. Delano doubled the size of his estate by buying the 254 acre Feller-Benner farm, immediately to the south.
The Astor's eldest child, Emily, born in 1819, married Sam Ward, Jr., brother of Julia Ward Howe, in 1838, and died the next year after giving birth to a daughter, Margaret Astor Ward, who was raised by her grandparents at Rokeby. In 1862 she married John Winthrop Chanler, a congressman elected during the Civil War; they had eleven children before her death in December 1875, after a chill contracted at her grandfather's funeral in November. John Winthrof Chanler died in 1877, thus leaving nine surviving children, aged 4 to 14, orphans. They remained at Rokeby, supervised by a cousin with a series of tutors and governesses.
The Chanlers achieved varying measures of fame beyond their status as wealthy Astor orphans; many retained their Rokeby and Dutchess county ties. John Armstrong Chanler acquired Orlot, the nearby river estate his father had taken after the death of his wife. Robert Winthrop Chanler, known as 'Sheriff Bob"of Dutchess County, was also a talented muralist whose work decorates Rokeby, Orlot and Callender House. Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler married John Jay Chapman in 1898 and hired architect Charles Platt to design Sylvania, the estate just north of Rokeby. Lewis Stuyvesant Chanler was a successful criminal lawyer and reform politician who was elected Lieutenant Governor of New York in 1906. He lost to Charles Evans Hughes in the gubernatorial election of 1908.
Margaret Livingston Chanler gained sole possession of Rokeby from her brothers and sisters in 1899 and established a dairy farm. Active in the woman's movement, she was influenced by her great-aunt, Julia Ward Howe, and founded the Women's Municipal League, a predecessor of the League of Women Voters. During the Spanish-American War, when two of her brothers became Rough Riders, she worked in hospitals and was called the "Angel of Puerto Rico." Subsequently, she was instrumental in the creation of the Women's Army Nursing Corps, in 1906 she married Richard Aldrich, music critic for The New York Times.