Henry Hamilton (colonial administrator)

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Henry Hamilton
Bornc. 1734
Dublin, Ireland
Died (aged 62)
Other namesHair Buyer, Hair-buyer General
Occupation(s)Soldier, army officer, governor
SpouseElizabeth Lee
ChildrenMary Anne Pierpoint Hamilton (daughter)
RelativesSackville Hamilton (brother)
Frederick Hamilton (uncle)
Gustavus Hamilton (uncle)
Gustavus Hamilton, 1st Viscount Boyne (grandfather)
Signature of Henry Hamilton (c. 1734 – 1796).png

Henry Hamilton (c. 1734 – 29 September 1796) was an Anglo-Irish military officer and later government official of the British Empire. He served in North America as Lieutenant Governor of the Province of Quebec and later as Deputy Governor after the American Revolutionary War. He later served as Governor of Bermuda and lastly, as Governor of Dominica, where he died in office.

In 1779, Hamilton was captured during the Revolutionary War by rebel forces at Fort Sackville in present-day Indiana, while serving as the Lieutenant Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs, at the British outpost of Fort Detroit. He was transported to Virginia, where he was held by Governor Thomas Jefferson's rebel government until October 1780. He was sent to New York and gained freedom in a prisoner exchange in 1781, being allowed to depart for London, England.

Early life[edit]

Henry was probably born in Dublin, Ireland, a younger son of Henry Hamilton, an Irish Member of Parliament, and his wife.

Hamilton was raised in County Cork, Ireland. His older brother Sackville Hamilton later served as a Privy Councillor and Under-Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. His direct paternal great-great grandfather was Claud Hamilton, 1st Lord Paisley.

Military career[edit]

As was typical of younger sons, Henry Hamilton entered the military. During the French and Indian War in North America, part of the Seven Years' War between Britain and France, he served as a Captain in the 15th Regiment of Foot. They fought in the 1758 attack on Louisbourg and the Battle of Quebec.[1] With the support of Governor General of British North America Guy Carleton, Hamilton rose to the rank of brigade major. In 1775, he sold his commission, leaving the British Army for a political career.

American Revolutionary War[edit]

Lieutenant Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs at Fort Detroit[edit]

In 1775, Henry Hamilton was appointed as Lieutenant Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs at Fort Detroit, Province of Quebec (it then extended from the Atlantic to this area), British North America. (The fort site is now within the borders of Detroit, Michigan).

This was one of five newly created lieutenant governorships in the recently expanded eastern territory of Canada. When Governor Hamilton reached his base at Fort Detroit to assume his government duties in the Great Lakes region, the American Revolutionary War was already underway. Hamilton was in a difficult position: as a civil official, he had few British regular troops at his command, and the natives of the region—French Canadians and American Indians—were not all supporters of the British regime. Normand Macleod, a local fur trader and army officer, acted as the temporary "town major", a British government official in command of a fortified town, before Hamilton's arrival.[2]

British war policies on the western frontier[edit]

Governor Henry Hamilton became adept at diplomacy with Native Americans, establishing good relations with local Indian leaders of the Huron and Ottawa tribes. An amateur artist, Hamilton also sketched portraits of many Native Americans while in Detroit, leaving what has been called the "earliest and largest collection of life portraits of Native Americans of the Upper Great Lakes." This is now held by Houghton Library at Harvard University.[3]

At the beginning of the war, British policy encouraged neutrality among the Native American leaders. But in 1777 Hamilton received instructions to encourage Indian raids against the American frontier settlements in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky.

This was a controversial policy, because he and other officials realized that American Loyalists would inevitably be killed in these raids. Hamilton tried to limit civilian casualties by sending British Army officers and French-Canadian militia alongside the Native American war parties. Despite this, the Indian tribal warriors carried out their own customs during the raids, resulting in hundreds of women and children in Kentucky and western Pennsylvania being killed and ritually scalped during the war. This, as feared, led to an increase in anti-British feelings in the region. According to an early 20th-century local history, the frontier Americans accused Hamilton of paying bounties for prisoners and scalps brought in by the Indian warriors, calling him the "Hair-buyer General".[4][5] Hamilton denied ever paying for scalps.

Hamilton surrendering to Clark in the Siege of Fort Vincennes

George Rogers Clark and Illinois Regiment, Virginia state forces in the Illinois Country[edit]

In 1778, Patriot Colonel George Rogers Clark, commanding Virginia state forces, captured several undermanned British posts in the Illinois Country, including Fort Sackville[6] at Vincennes (then in Virginia-claimed land, now in present-day Indiana). Hamilton led an armed party from Detroit on 7 October 1778[7] to recapture the British post, 600 miles away. His small force gathered Indian warriors along the way, and entered Vincennes on 17 December 1778. They captured Fort Sackville and the American commandant, Captain Leonard Helm.[8] In February 1779, however, Colonel Clark returned to Vincennes in a surprise march, recapturing the outpost and taking Hamilton prisoner.

Defeat and prisoner in Virginia[edit]

General George Rogers Clark sent Hamilton to the Virginia state capital in Williamsburg, where he was jailed and placed in irons by order of Governor Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia Executive Council. Hamilton was held from 16 June – 29 September 1779. Hamilton rejected an offer of parole on the grounds that the terms violated his freedom of speech, in restraining him from "saying anything to the prejudice of the United States." Jefferson refused to treat Hamilton and other British prisoners as prisoners-of-war and handled them as would have handled escaped slaves; putting them in irons for 18 months in Williamsburg and Chesterfield. Governor Jefferson did not release Hamilton until October 1780, and only after George Washington during several months had entreated him to accept his parole. Hamilton was sent to New York to await a prisoner exchange. This took place in March 1781. He immediately sailed to London, England on a British ship.

Later career as British royal governor[edit]

Henry Hamilton was reassigned to Canada in 1782 under an appointment as Lieutenant-Governor, and later Deputy-Governor of the Province of Quebec. He administered during the transition in the postwar years as the Crown granted thousands of acres of land, mostly in what became Upper Canada, to Loyalists as compensation for their losses in the former Thirteen Colonies and as payment to soldiers.

After a few years, Hamilton was reassigned as royal Governor of Bermuda, serving from 1785 to 1794. He then departed Bermuda on HMS Scorpion (stopping enroute at Antigua on 4 December 1794) to serve as Governor of Dominica, the present-day Commonwealth of Dominica, from 1794 until his death in office in 1796.[9] In March 1795, at age 61, Hamilton married 25-year-old Elizabeth Lee from Banbury, Oxfordshire, a daughter of Colonel Lee. The Hamiltons had one daughter together, Mary Anne Pierpoint Hamilton. She died in 1871, unmarried and without children.[9]


Hamilton died in office on the island of Antigua, British North America, now Antigua and Barbuda, on 29 September 1796.

Among his papers, Hamilton had kept a journal from 1778-1779 as Lieutenant Governor at Fort Detroit during the American Revolution; this was published for the first time posthumously in 1951 in a history that addressed his and George Rogers Clark's roles in the war.[10]

In popular culture[edit]

US author Winston Churchill wrote an epic historical novel in 1904 called The Crossing covering a man's life in the old Northwest from the Revolution to the Burr Conspiracy. The first part is about the protagonist marching as a drummer boy with George Rogers Clark and the highlight is the capture of Vincennes from Hamilton. There is much information about Hamilton's activities and his reputation among the local backwoodsmen, based on research from original documents.


  1. ^ Derleth, August (1968). Vincennes: Portal to The West. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. p. 55. LCCN 68020537.
  2. ^ Macleod, Normand. Detroit to Fort Sackville, 1778–1779, Detroit: Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library, 1778, pp. x–xiii
  3. ^ "Henry Hamilton drawings of North American scenes and Native Americans: Guide". Cambridge: Houghton Library, Harvard College Library. 2009. Retrieved 8 March 2012.
  4. ^ Greene, George E. (1911). History of Old Vincennes and Knox County, Indiana, Volume 1. S.J. Clarke Publishing Company. p. 182. Retrieved 10 December 2016.
  5. ^ Brown, Zachary (1 September 2016). "The Rhetoric and Practice of Scalping". Journal of the American Revolution. Retrieved 19 October 2021.
  6. ^ Fort Sackville was named in honor of George Germain, 1st Viscount Sackville.
  7. ^ Skaggs, 182
  8. ^ Skaggs, 183
  9. ^ a b "Hamilton, Henry, d.1796. Henry Hamilton drawings of North American scenes and Native Americans: Guide". Cambridge: Harvard University. 2001. Retrieved 1 February 2011.
  10. ^ Barnhart, John D. Henry Hamilton and George Rogers Clark in the American Revolution, with the Unpublished Journal of Lieut. Governor Henry Hamilton. Crawfordville, Indiana: Banta, 1951

External links[edit]