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The St. Croix Epidemic of 1771–72 and Its Effect on Alexander Hamilton’s Life

Given the poor understanding of human diseases and the lack of proper medicine, epidemics were common occurrences in the eighteenth century. The hot, humid weather of the West Indies promoted insect-borne diseases and weakened the bodies of men, thus making epidemics of yellow fever, malaria, and other diseases nearly annual events.

Nicholas Cruger

On October 15, 1771, Nicholas Cruger left St. Croix for New York “by reason of a very ill state of health.”[1] Details of Cruger’s illness are not given in any known record, but it is possible that his ill health was part of a larger epidemic that was hitting St. Croix.

Nicholas Cruger put Alexander Hamilton in charge of his mercantile company until he recovered and returned to St. Croix. Thus, if Cruger’s illness was part of a larger epidemic, it is to this that Hamilton owed a significant share of his meteoric ascent.

Alexander Hamilton

Less than three weeks after Cruger’s departure, Alexander Hamilton fell ill. On November 4, 1771, Hamilton wrote to Nicholas Cruger, “I am so unwell that it is with difficulty I make out to write these few lines.” [2] Subsequent letters show that Hamilton recovered from this illness within a few days.[3]

Bertram Pieter de Nully

In the same letter of November 4 to Nicholas Cruger, Alexander Hamilton reported that “the Major,” presumably Major Bertram Pieter de Nully, the father of Cruger’s fiancée, “lies so ill that no one expects he’ll live till night.”[4]

Indeed, Bertram Pieter de Nully was so ill that he and his wife made out a new joint will just two days prior to Hamilton’s letter.

Bertram Pieter de Nully joint will

Bertram Pieter de Nully joint will

Within three days of Hamilton’s letter, by the seventh of November, Bertram Pieter de Nully had passed away and the probate court had taken up his estate.

Bertram Pieter de Nully probate

Johannes van Veen

Later that month, in a letter to Nicholas Cruger written on November 27, Alexander Hamilton informed his boss that “Mr. Van Vain is upon the brink of eternity.”[5]

Johannes van Veen[6] died within a week and was buried on December 5, 1771.

Johannes van Veen burial

“I have lost 4 percent of my friends”

Nicholas Cruger returned to St. Croix in March 1772. He was instantly struck by the toll the apparent epidemic had taken on the island. “It has been sickly since I left this [place],” Cruger reported to his brother. “I have lost 4 percent of my friends.” Cruger concluded that if he had not returned when he did, it would have seemed like he was “an inhabitant of another world.” In another letter, Cruger reported that one of his friends, “Poor Peter,” was still sick and “can’t get rid of his fever.” But in general, Cruger found that the epidemic had ended and those friends who survived were “all well.”

Nicholas Cruger to John Harris Cruger, March 19, 1772

Nicholas Cruger to John Harris Cruger, March 19, 1772

Nicholas Cruger to John Rengger, March 11, 1772

An Epidemic?

There is, in fact, no evidence that St. Croix had been hit by an epidemic. It is possible that each person who became ill or died contracted a different illness and it was just happenstance that St. Croix was so “sickly” during this five month period. However, when one considers that Nicholas Cruger was “very ill,” Alexander Hamilton was “so unwell,” Bertram Pieter de Nully was “so ill” that he died, Johannes van Veen died after an apparent illness, “poor Peter” caught a “fever” he couldn’t get rid of, and Nicholas Cruger lost four percent of his friends, it is logical to assume that there was “a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time,” which is the very definition of an epidemic.

Endnotes

[1] Alexander Hamilton to Tileman Cruger, November 16, 1771 in The Papers of Alexander Hamilton 1:12–14.

[2] Alexander Hamilton to Nicholas Cruger, November 4, 1771, in The Papers of Alexander Hamilton 1:10–11.

[3] For instance, see Alexander Hamilton to Nicholas Cruger, November 12, 1771, in The Papers of Alexander Hamilton 1:11–12, in which Hamilton made no comment about his health, apparently having fully recovered.

[4] Alexander Hamilton to Nicholas Cruger, November 4, 1771, in The Papers of Alexander Hamilton 1:10–11. The editors of The Papers of Alexander Hamilton mistakenly thought that “this may refer to the Mr. Van Vain, who, H later wrote, was on ‘the brink of eternity.’”

[5] Alexander Hamilton to Nicholas Cruger, November 27, 1771, in The Papers of Alexander Hamilton 1:16–17.

[6] His name is spelled many different ways in the various records, but his original signature reads Johannes van Veen.

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Copyright

© Posted on July 9, 2018, by Michael E. Newton. Please cite this blog post when writing about these new discoveries.

Announcement

Due to this week’s Celebrate Hamilton events organized by the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society, which includes my presentation on July 13, there will be no blog post next week. But I look forward to seeing many of you at the various Hamilton events later this week.

Upcoming Presentation

Alexander Hamilton: Son of a Whore?

Alexander Hamilton: Son of a Whore?

For more details and to RSVP, visit http://discoveringhamilton.com/alexander-hamilton-son-of-a-whore/

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