Jeremiah Hamilton

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Jeremiah G. Hamilton
Born 1806/1807
Died May 1875
Occupation Broker
Spouse(s) Eliza Jane Hamilton (nee Morris)

Jeremiah G. Hamilton (sometimes Jerry Hamilton) was a Wall Street broker noted as "the only black millionaire in New York"[1] by James McCune Smith about a decade before the American Civil War. Hamilton was a shrewd financial agent, amassing a fortune of $2 million ($43 million today) by the time of his death in 1875. Although he was the subject of much newspaper coverage and his life provides a unique perspective on race in 19th century America, Hamilton is virtually absent from modern historical literature.[2]

Hamilton first came to prominence in 1828 after hiding out in a fishing boat for multiple days in the Port-au-Prince harbor in Haiti and eventually escaping the Haitian authorities. They had discovered he was transporting counterfeit coins to Haiti reportedly for a group of New York merchants; in absentia he was sentenced to be shot.[2] The ship he had chartered, the Ann Eliza Jane, was confiscated by the port officials; Hamilton claimed he had escaped with $5000 of the counterfeit coin.[3] Almost a decade later, after the 1835 Great Fire of New York destroyed most of the buildings on the southeast tip of Manhattan, Hamilton accrued about $5 million in 2013 dollars by "taking pitiless advantage of several of the fire victims' misfortunes".[2] His business practices were controversial; where most black entrepreneurs sold their goods to other blacks, "Hamilton cut a swath through the lily-white New York business world of the mid-1830s, a domain where his depredations soon earned him the nickname of "The Prince of Darkness". Others, with even less affection, simply called him "Nigger Hamilton".[2] Soon thereafter, he used about $7 million in 2013 dollars to buy up a substantial amount of land and property in modern-day Astoria and Poughkeepsie. Hamilton would go on to struggle with Cornelius Vanderbilt, the famous American industrialist, over control of the Nicaragua Transit Company.

Although he circulated among the financial elite and was himself very wealthy, Hamilton was also a victim of the racism against African-Americans so pervasive during his time. During the New York City draft riots in 1863, white men seeking to lynch Hamilton broke into his house, but were turned away with only liquor, cigars, and an old suit by his wife Eliza after she said her husband was not home.[4] Eliza Hamilton was white which made her marriage to Jeremiah taboo for the time.[2]

At the time of his death in May 1875, Jeremiah Hamilton was said by obituaries to be the richest black man in the United States. He is buried in his family lot in the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.[2]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Smith, James McCune (2006). "Letter from Communipaw". In John Stauffer. The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist. Oxford UP. ISBN 9780195309614. Compare Sam Ward with the only black millionaire in New York, I mean Jerry Hamilton; and it is plain that manhood is a 'nobler ideal' than money. The former has illustrated his people and his country, the other has fled from his identity, (to use the elegant phraseology of Ethiop,) like a dog with a tin kettle tied to his tail! There is, no doubt, dearest Ethiop, that in the language of Scripture, you are 'black, but comely.' 
  2. ^ a b c d e f White, Shane (July 25, 2013). "Gotham’s Only Black Millionaire". The New York Times. Retrieved July 27, 2013. 
  3. ^ "Hayti", Freedom's Journal, June 27, 1828, retrieved July 29, 2013 
  4. ^ Bernstein, Iver (4 January 1990). The New York City Draft Riots:Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War. Oxford University Press. p. 35. ISBN 978-0-19-992343-4. Retrieved 29 July 2013.