Witnessing an Appraisal: The Oldest Known Alexander Hamilton Document

© Posted on November 6, 2017, by Michael E. Newton.

On page 1 of volume 1 of The Papers of Alexander Hamilton and in the corresponding entry of Founders Online there appears the “Probate Court Transaction on Estate of Rachel Lavien [St. Croix, February 19, 1768].” This document, which was discovered by H. U. Ramsing and first shared in an essay published in 1939, mentions in a section dated February 22, 1768, that Alexander Hamilton was one of the sons of the recently deceased Rachel Lavien. The editors of The Papers of Alexander Hamilton note, “Although this is not strictly an H document, it is printed here because it is the first extant document in which H is mentioned.” (To correct one misunderstanding regarding this document, the “probate court transaction” was recorded in November 1769 and is almost entirely a compilation of records originally written elsewhere. Perhaps I will blog about the original records another time.)

As the editors noted, the above record of February 1768 is “not strictly an H document.” A stricter definition of a Hamilton document would only include documents written, drafted, or signed by Hamilton, or accurate copies of such documents if the originals have been lost, precise contemporary records of his verbal statements such as legal testimony, and letters written to him. According to this definition, the oldest Hamilton document in The Papers of Alexander Hamilton or anywhere else is a letter he wrote to his friend Edward “Ned” Stevens on November 11, 1769 (The Papers of Alexander Hamilton 1:4 and Founders Online).

One other “document” must be added to the list of oldest known Hamilton documents. Back in 1858, George Bancroft claimed, “The first written trace of his [Hamilton’s] existence is in 1766, when his name appears as witness to a legal paper executed in the Danish island of Santa Cruz [St. Croix].” In 1899, Henry Cabot Lodge added, “The character of his signature is of more importance than the fact of his affixing it to a deed. I have carefully examined an exact tracing of this signature. The handwriting is obviously Hamilton’s.” However, this document and even Lodge’s “exact tracing” have been lost. Accordingly, we cannot be certain that this “legal paper” was in fact from 1766 or that it was our Alexander Hamilton who signed it. (I have found a ship captain named Alexander Hamilton visiting St. Croix in 1766.) Accordingly, this missing “legal paper” cannot be considered a Hamilton document (and thus the editors of The Papers of Alexander Hamilton chose not to include it in their work).

In sum, there are, or have been, three different documents that could be considered the oldest known Alexander Hamilton document. The oldest is from 1766, but the document has apparently not been seen for well over a century and we cannot be certain it is a Hamilton document or that the date given is correct. The second is from February 22, 1768, but this is not strictly a Hamilton document because it merely mentions Hamilton in passing and he had nothing to do with writing it. The third is Hamilton’s letter to Edward Stevens of November 11, 1769.

With this in mind…

On April 22, 1767, “an appraisal of the effects belonging to Master William Pond Deceased, late of Munserate [Monserrat],” was conducted “at the request of the honourable Dealing Court” of Christiansted, St. Croix. The original document has not been found, but on that same day a copy of the appraisal was entered into the official records of Christiansted.

Two men conducted the appraisal and two men acted as witnesses. All four signed the original document, and their signatures were copied into the official record. One of the two witnesses is recorded as “Allexander Hamilthon.”

So how do we know if this is our Alexander Hamilton? Like the document itself, the signatures are copies rather than originals, so we cannot compare this signature to known Hamilton signatures (as I recently did for a case currently before the United States District Court regarding the foreign emoluments clause of the Constitution and some Hamilton documents: see here, here, and here). Moreover, both Alexander and Hamilton are misspelled if this is our Hamilton. Furthermore, there were other men named Alexander Hamilton who occasionally visited St. Croix, as mentioned earlier. Maybe this was a different Alexander Hamilton, or even some guy with the completely different name of Allexander Hamilthon.

First, regarding the spelling of the name in this record. The name “Alexander” is often found in the Danish West Indian records as “Allexander” and the suffix “ton” often appears as “thon” or “thun.” In records regarding our Alexander Hamilton, his first name is occasionally spelled “Allexander” and his last name “Hamilthon.” So this “Allexander Hamilthon” is merely a Danish alternative spelling of the more common Alexander Hamilton. But this still could be a different Alexander Hamilton.

Perhaps in your excitement at seeing “Allexander Hamilthon” you did not notice who else signed the appraisal. (When I first saw this record, I also initially failed to notice the other signatures.) The signature immediately above Hamilthon’s reads “David Beckman” or “David Beekman” (his name is often found with both spellings). For those who don’t immediately recognize that name, David Beekman was one of Alexander Hamilton’s employers on St. Croix.

Thus, we have Alexander Hamilton and David Beekman serving as witnesses together and jointly signing the same document on April 22, 1767. By himself, we could not be certain this was our Alexander Hamilton, but appearing alongside a known associate there can be no doubt that this is our Alexander Hamilton! (If you are not one hundred percent convinced yet, wait until next week. In fact, I was only ninety-something percent certain this was our Hamilton until I found more, which will be shared in the next blog post.)

That makes this appraisal of April 22, 1767, the oldest known Alexander Hamilton document. It is older than the letter Hamilton wrote to Edward Stevens in November 1769 and older than the mere mention of Alexander Hamilton in February 1768, as found in the probate record. It is not as old as the supposed 1766 document, but that record is missing and cannot be considered a Hamilton document without further evidence that it was signed by our Alexander Hamilton and that the date is correct.

So again, this appraisal of April 22, 1767, witnessed and signed by Alexander Hamilton along with David Beekman, is now the oldest known Alexander Hamilton document.

To be continued next week…

© Feel free to incorporate these new findings in your writings. Please cite this blog post when doing so.

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Introducing Discovering Hamilton

© Posted on October 30, 2017, by Michael E. Newton.

For the past two years, since publication of Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years, I have spent countless hours, days, weeks, and months doing research in the vast archives of the Rigsarkivet (Danish National Archives), US National Archives, and UK National Archives searching through the records of St. Croix, Nevis, St. Kitts, and other West Indian islands. This time consuming task has paid off as I have discovered many new and exciting facts about Alexander Hamilton, his family, friends, and colleagues.

This extensive research has been conducted and continues with publication of a new book in mind. The research, however, is taking much longer than planned and much remains to be done. Seeing that publication of a book containing these new findings is still some time away and wanting to share these new discoveries with the public, I am starting this blog.

Sharing these exciting new discoveries in a blog instead of or in addition to writing about them in a Hamilton biography has a number of advantages. A blog allows me to communicate these new discoveries in greater depth. In a Hamilton biography, each discovery can only be presented in the context of the main narrative or perhaps in greater but still limited detail in an endnote. In a blog, however, the full story of each discovery can be shared. The information itself, images of the original manuscripts, transcripts and/or translations, analysis, context, and implications can be detailed in a blog but not in a biography. What may be a one-sentence revelation in a biography can be many paragraphs of useful and interesting information in a blog. This is especially relevant for discoveries only tangentially related to Alexander Hamilton. For example, new information discovered about another Founding Father might merit one sentence, a single phrase, or an endnote in a Hamilton biography but can be written about in full detail in a blog, which will be incredibly interesting to the general reader and absolutely invaluable to those researching and writing about that person. Thus, in addition to revealing these new discoveries sooner rather than later, this blog will present the information in greater depth and in a different context than would be possible in a Hamilton biography.

My plan is to blog once each week, with possible exceptions for holidays and research trips. The nature of the blog posts will vary from week to week. Some may present a single new discovery that tells a complete story. But many, perhaps most, of the posts will not be of this nature. In many instances, I have found references to the same people and sometimes the same event in various volumes and only by combining these disparate sources can one piece together the complete story. These longer, more complicated narratives involving multiple new discoveries will most likely be posted over a series of week so as not to overwhelm either the author or the reader. In contrast, I will also be sharing discoveries that reveal only a fraction of a larger story. It is possible that the full story will never be discovered because the details were never recorded or those records have been lost or destroyed. Alternatively, perhaps more information will be found in the future and the full story revealed. Although these new discoveries are incomplete, I will gladly present them as is and hope that more information will be discovered in the future, whether by me or someone else.

As exciting as launching this new blog is for me (and hopefully for you), I hesitated for a number of reasons. First, as I explained above, my research remains incomplete and I might still find more information pertinent to these new discoveries. Obviously, I prefer having the whole story before presenting it, but I decided that I already have enough to share and there was no reason to wait for information that might never be found. Of greater concern is that a blog provides the author with less legal and real protection than a book. A number of prominent historians advised me not to share my new discoveries until a book was ready for publication because someone might take these new discoveries, put them in a book, and claim them as their own. (However, equally prominent historians encouraged me to pursue this project. Regardless of which side they were on, each of these historians provided me useful suggestions, and I thank them all for their advice.)

Since I decided to go ahead with this blog despite the above concerns, some measures are being put in place to prevent others from taking credit for these new discoveries and to make it more difficult for anyone to “steal” them. I will not be providing citations for the new discoveries that will be presented. As a historian, I believe strongly in accurate and useful citations. In fact, I have more than 200 pages of endnotes in Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years to prove that! But it’s just so easy to copy someone’s work from a blog and paste it into another blog or even a book. To maintain some “ownership” over these discoveries until my own book is published, I will not be citing the original sources on this blog. In most cases, however, I will share images of the sources, which will serve as verification of the findings (and will be interesting exhibits for the reader). These, however, will be watermarked, again so no one can “steal” them and take the credit for themselves. Additionally, as a warning to anyone who might “steal” my work, each blog post will be submitted to Internet Archive’s WayBackMachine to provide third-party proof of the contents of each post and the date of publication.

Despite the above restrictions and warnings, historians, biographers, bloggers, and other authors are free to incorporate these new findings in their works IF AND ONLY IF they cite the blog post in which the discovery is presented (including the URL). In fact, I encourage the sharing of the new discoveries presented in this blog, as it is my goal to spread accurate information about Alexander Hamilton and thereby correct the errors, lies, distortions, and myths that are told about him.

Together, we will learn more about Alexander Hamilton, his family, friends, and colleagues than anyone before us has ever known. I look forward to sharing this adventure with you…

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