Alexander Hamilton is most often associated with three places: the Caribbean, where he was born and orphaned; New York City, where he spent most of his professional and political life; and Weehawken, N.J., where he was famously shot at the pistoled hand of Aaron Burr. Missing from that GPS-inspired biography, however, is another place that defined Hamilton as much as the others — the Hudson Valley.
From White Plains, where he fought alongside George Washington, to Albany, where he was wed, his children were baptized, and he was venerated in an enormously influential eulogy, and numerous spots in between, Hamilton spent a great deal of time all over the Valley.
“What a huge part it played in his life, his family,” says Nicole Scholet, president of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society. “In every period of his life, the Hudson Valley played a major role.”
It’s a story that begins in October 1776, as Washington’s troops flee Manhattan into what is now Westchester County. Hamilton, then a captain, tried to galvanize what Ron Chernow, in his musical-inspiring biography Alexander Hamilton, called a “slovenly, dejected bunch,” firing from the high ground of Chatterton’s Hill as the Redcoats splashed across the Bronx River. He wasn’t there long, though, and the even more dejected bunch retreated farther, to New Jersey.
Hamilton made his first visit to the city that would become his second home, Albany, in 1777. Washington made Hamilton, still in his early 20s, his aide-de-camp — essentially, chief of staff — and sent him there to ask Gen. Horatio Gates to borrow some troops. Hamilton covered 60 miles a day for five days on horse, “riding like a man possessed,” Chernow writes. He got to Albany on November 5, but, despite his already keen powers of persuasion, Hamilton found Gates difficult to convince; “I used every argument in my power to convince him of the propriety of the measure, but he was inflexible,” Hamilton wrote.
The trip was not a total loss, however; it was while on this mission that he probably first met and fell head over spurs for 20-year-old Elizabeth “Eliza” Schuyler, the wealthy, pedigreed, and well-connected daughter of Gen. Philip Schuyler. (“Hamilton is a gone man,” a colleague wrote.) On his return to Philadelphia, Hamilton wrote letters to Washington mentioning stops in Fishkill, New Windsor, Poughkeepsie, and Peekskill, where he nearly died from high fever and spent weeks recovering.
By the summer of ’78, Washington and Hamilton returned to White Plains and made their headquarters at the Jacob Purdy House, where they spent the next seven weeks. In 1779, Washington and Hamilton set up headquarters at the Thomas Ellison House, in New Windsor, to which they returned several times over the next few years. While there, Hamilton helped plan the taking of Stony Point on July 15, a critical battle in the war. They stayed at the captured fort the following two nights.
Hamilton also spent considerable time at the Van Wyck Homestead, the Dutch Colonial house on Route 9 in Fishkill that served as headquarters for the Fishkill supply depot. This important strategic military center was one of three major encampments for the Continental Army, along with Morristown, N.J. and Valley Forge. Hamilton, Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, and John Jay all made their way to the homestead frequently.
A Revolutionary Zelig, Hamilton had a way of being at interesting places at interesting times. In September 1780, he was at West Point to inspect its fortifications. Gen. Benedict Arnold was also at West Point, but Arnold had grown agitated and fled after reading a note handed to him; later that day, Hamilton and Washington learned that the note told Arnold that his co-conspirator, British Maj. John Andre, had been captured (in Tarrytown), with the military plans for West Point that Arnold was in the act of selling to the British stashed in his boot.
Hamilton was involved in the search for our most notorious traitor, and the incident helped spur his belief that West Point should become a permanent stronghold. Indeed, he as much as anyone pushed for the establishment of a national military academy there, going so far as to design the curriculum and budget for professor salaries. As Secretary of the Treasury, he authorized the purchase of the land, for $11,085, in 1790. “West Point was very important for him,” Scholet says. “He really cared about making that location something.” A decade later Thomas Jefferson, as President, signed the legislation establishing the Academy in 1802 — “and now he gets credit for it,” Scholet says, with a hint of lingering bitterness befitting a captain of Hamilton awareness.
Fresh from the Arnold debacle, Hamilton rode to Albany in November to get married. At the time, Chernow writes, Albany was “a rough-hewn town of four thousand inhabitants, about one-tenth of them slaves.” The Schuylers lived in a mansion south of the city that they called the Pastures, which then overlooked the bucolic Hudson River from a high bluff (and today overlooks the-opposite-of-bucolic I-787 and the industrial Port of Albany). The Hamiltons were married on Dec. 14, 1780, in one of the mansion’s parlors, and stayed through the holidays.
“With fairy-tale suddenness, the orphaned Hamilton had annexed a gigantic and prosperous clan,” Chernow writes. Family was as important to Hamilton as nation-building, and his Albany home is as integral to his story as his work. “These are national figures, but this is family that experienced birth, death, and squabbles,” says Diane Shewchuk, curator at the Albany Institute of History & Art, which is mounting a show called “The Schuyler Sisters and their Circle” from July 20 to December 29.
Then it was back to work. In January 1781 the couple headed to Washington’s HQ at the Ellison House in New Windsor, and in mid-April they rented their first home, a house on DePeyster’s Point, now known as Dennings Point, in Beacon. It was directly opposite Washington’s quarters, and Hamilton shuttled back and forth across the river in a small boat. While awaiting his next military assignment, Hamilton was out and about, debating politics at local taverns and writing extensively. In August, he got his orders: to Virginia, for the Siege of Yorktown.
Hamming It Up
After the war, Hamilton became perhaps the most powerful lawyer in New York City; but he did live at the Pastures for two years, and otherwise traveled up the Valley to try cases when courts were in session. “He spent quite a lot of time [at the Pastures],” says Molly Belmont, the Director of Marketing for Discover Albany at the time of this interview. “He studied for the bar exam in the library at Schuyler Mansion. His marriage and [children’s] baptism records are still at First Church,” on North Pearl Street. He probably wrote three of the Federalist Papers at Schuyler Mansion, says Heidi Hill, historic site manager for Crailo and Schuyler Mansion State Historic Sites.
But those who know Hamilton only from the musical don’t know the entire story — including the slaves that he helped the Schuylers buy and sell. Hill and other historians are pretty OK with these and other lapses in the play’s veracity. “We don’t feel the musical has to be an accurate portrayal of history,” Hill says. “People can come here [to Schuyler Mansion] and hear a fuller story.”
During this time, Hamilton helped shape the new government, writing many of the papers critical of the Articles of Confederation, including his first essay, Federalist No. 1, while on a sloop traveling up or down river in October 1787. Not content with just writing, he almost singlehandedly lobbied the New York delegation to ratify the new U.S. Constitution in July 1788 in Poughkeepsie. Most of the delegates were against it, but over six weeks of intense debate at the Dutchess County Courthouse, Hamilton spoke passionately and long — often for hours on end — and finally turned enough votes to approve the document and make New York the 11th United State.
Life was good for the Hamiltons, until a fateful dinner at the home of Judge John Tayler, on State Street in Albany. At that dinner, Hamilton and others said some nasty things —“despicable opinion” in the words of an eyewitness — about Aaron Burr, at that moment the Vice President under Jefferson who was running for Governor of New York. A guest at the dinner wrote about the comments in a letter, which somehow ended up being published in the New-York Evening Post. Burr challenged Hamilton to an “affair of honor,” as duels were called. On the History Channel’s list of all-time legendary duels, this one — where Hamilton comes out the loser, of course — takes the top spot.
After the July 11, 1804 duel, Hamilton was buried at Trinity Church in Manhattan; however, back in Albany’s First Church on North Pearl Street, mourners filled the pews to hear Hamilton’s friend, the Reverend Eliphalet Nott, from Albany’s Presbyterian Church, give a rousing and powerful eulogy denouncing dueling. Called “one of the most influential funeral sermons in American history,” it helped ultimately lead to a law that required state officials to take an anti-dueling oath.
Alexander Hamilton lost the duel but, unlike Burr, maintained his honor and, indeed, earned everlasting glory — not to mention a hit Broadway musical. And the Hudson Valley’s Hamiltonian tourist attractions have been welcoming bigger crowds of history and theater buffs ever since.