Alexander Hamilton Continues to Get His Due, This Time On The Island of His Birth

Hamilton has never been bigger thanks to the overwhelming success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s showstopping Broadway play. Thomas Jefferson, once the favorite founding father, had to step aside just as John Adams, and George Washington did. There’s little documentation about Hamilton’s life before he came to America. But we do know he was born on the island of Nevis, in the British West Indies, to a woman who’d already run from an abusive husband with one child, to move in with James Hamilton, where she’d have two more sons, James and Alexander. They moved from Nevis to Sint Eustatius and then to Saint Croix where his mother passed away, leaving the young boys to fend for themselves. With an ambition that already started to grow in the young Alexander*, he was encouraged by his boss and mentor to go to America for an education and to enroll in what is now Columbia University. (* His actual birth year has not been established, he may have been 11 or closer to 15 or 16.) 

After graduation, he was primed to join the colonists to protest the taxes and business regulations thrust upon them by England. He moved up the ranks, proving himself in the battles of Long Island, White Plains, and Trenton, and caught the attention of the commander of the continental army, George Washington, who made him his assistant and trusted advisor. It was Hamilton who convinced the New York delegation to ratify the U.S. Constitution and later served as the country’s first secretary of the treasury; he is the only non-president to have his image on a US dollar bill. It was Hamilton who suggested to the Philadelphia congress that it was crucial to create an ongoing source of revenue for the emerging nation to be strong and resilient. Upon Washington’s eventual election as President, Hamilton was appointed the first secretary of the treasury.

Hamilton’s roots in New York City run deep.  He married into New York royalty: the Schuyler family of Albany and spent a good part of his service time headquartered with Washington at various places along the Hudson River. After the war, he established a private law practice in Manhattan, and with an interest in politics growing, served as New York State delegate. He first lived in Hamilton Heights, located in the northmost part of the West Harlem area, just north of Manhattanville and Morningside Heights. He later built an estate in Harlem called The Grange and is buried at the Trinity Church cemetery with a statue of him in Central Park, and another in the Museum of American Finance. One also stands in New London, CT as Hamilton’s request in 1790 for a small fleet to protect the goods coming in and out of the colonies would turn into the U.S. Coast Guard. 

As the new nation began to collect candidates for elected office, Aaron Burr – Jefferson’s VP at the time — and Hamilton found themselves at the center of a political controversy: Burr accused Hamilton of defaming him in a newspaper article which would prevent him from remaining on the ticket with Jefferson.  It was Burr’s idea for the duel, hoping that winning it would boost his reputation, with Hamilton agreeing to save his own political career. The duel took place on July 11th, 1804, in Weehawken, New Jersey, where Hamilton was mortally wounded, dying the next day. 

Although New York was a prominent part of Hamilton’s life, another island also wants to keep his legacy alive. Only six miles by eight, Nevis is preparing to celebrate the dedication of its first statue which has already arrived by cargo ship and remains under wraps until its installation and final reveal later this month.  Plans call for a grand dedication and week-long celebration which will feature Hamilton-themed activities. An entire website has been dedicated to Hamilton’s life story – hamiltonstatue.com – which shares his early years, his later success, and the meaning behind the statue, deemed “the only statue on the island and showcases Nevis’ most famous native son who went on to become an American founding father.” The site will also provide details of the week’s events, and travel details for anyone interested in attending, whether fans of Hamilton, or of being in the middle of the Caribbean Sea sipping rum punch.

Johanna Porr Yaun

Johanna Porr Yaun, a member of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society, and who in her day job is Orange County New York’s full-time historian, was the perfect person chosen to be a part of the statue dedication. “This trip,” she says, “connects the two places of importance in Alexander Hamilton’s life. He was born and raised in what we call now ‘the Hamilton Triangle’ which consists of Nevis, Sint Eustatius, and St. Croix. He made his mark there and was also influenced greatly by the economics of Atlantic trade and by seeing the brutally of slavery firsthand. He then lived his entire adult life as a New Yorker. In the 18th century the state was culturally and economically connected to the Caribbean through trade, it’s impossible to understand the Revolutionary War or the history of New York without searching out those connections. Bringing the Caribbean into context through a popular historical character like Hamilton gives you a starting point to unlocking this largely unknown story of the Revolutionary War as a world war.”

Johanna Porr Yaun

Prior to her work for Orange County, she worked at Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh, NY and found herself touring the founder of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society. “In 2010, Rand Scholet went on one of my tours and we hit it off and became lifelong friends and collaborators. I started attending his annual ‘Celebrate Hamilton’ event series.” Now a member of the AHA, she and a few of her colleagues were given a preview of Miranda’s show, to get their feedback. “The Hamilton musical is a work of genius,” says Yaun. “It sparked an interest in U.S. History for a generation of young people. It might have taken some artistic license but for anyone who wants to move beyond that pure entertainment, it opened the conversation that they can continue in historic sites, classrooms or on field trips like the one we are planning to Nevis.”  However brilliant Miranda’s play was, Nevis is only referred as a “forgotten spot in the Caribbean,” which irks the local people. To counter this omission, the statue’s unveiling event is tagged on social media as #NotAForgottenSpot.

Visit HamiltonStatue.com for more details.

Photos of Johanna Porr Yaun by Douglas Yaun

About MJ Hanley-Goff (128 Articles)
MJ Hanley-Goff has been contributing to Woman Around Town since its inception in 2009. She began her career at Newsday in the early 90’s and has continued writing professionally for other New York publications like the Times Herald-Record, Orange Magazine, and Hudson Valley magazine. Former editor of Hudson Valley Parent magazine, she also contributed stories to AAA’s Car & Travel, and Tri-County Woman. After completing her novel and a self-help book, she created MJWRITES, INC. to offer writing workshops and book coaching to first time authors, and college essay writing help to students. MJ is thrilled and honored to write for WAT for the amazing adventures it offers, like reviewing concerts, people, authors, events, and tourist attractions in New York, and around the world. “I enjoy drawing attention to the off-the-beaten path kinds of stories,” she says. “It’s great big world out there, with so many talented and creative artists, doers, and thinkers.”