Retracing Alexander Hamilton’s Steps Through the Remnants of Revolutionary New York

Miniature of Alexander Hamilton, attributed to Charles Shirreff, c.1790. (Wikimedia Commons)

When Alexander Hamilton arrived in New York in the early 1770s, the city was already the one of the largest in the colonies, second only to Philadelphia. Yet Manhattan’s 25,000 residents inhabited just a small portion of the island which stretched from the Battery to well below today’s 14th street. The rest was sparsely-inhabited farmland, estates, and wilderness.

A view of New York from the north west drawn in the mid-1770s, about the time Alexander Hamilton came to the city. (New York Public Library)

Over the intervening centuries, New York City expanded into a sprawling metropolis. The farmland was filled with skyscrapers, the estates laid over with bustling streets, and the wilderness illuminated with neon signs. Hidden among the steel and concrete are, however, a few remnants of the New York Hamilton would have known. These traces of the city’s earliest days offer an extraordinary glimpse into its history and breathe life into its distant past. ”They talk very loud, very fast, and all together. . . . If they ask you a question, before you can utter three words of your answer, they will break out upon you again and talk away,” wrote John Adams of the New Yorkers he encountered in 1774.[1]

St. Paul’s Chapel
In either late 1773 or early 1774, Hamilton enrolled in King’s College, which was rechristened Columbia College after the Revolutionary War. Although today Columbia is a massive complex of university buildings in West Harlem, back when Hamilton attended, the college was a simple three-story building situated in an area that is now bordered by West Broadway, Murray, Barclay and Church streets. Students in 1774 would have enjoyed an unobstructed view of the river from their pastoral campus, leading one visitor to dub the location the “most beautiful site for a college in the world.”[2]

Today, this area bears little resemblance to the idyllic green landscape that would have been familiar to Hamilton. The college’s former location is now located in the hub of the city’s financial center and in the shadow of its tallest building. However, Manhattan’s ultra-modern Financial District also houses some of the city’s oldest relics, given that it is the part of the island that was first colonized by Europeans. In fact, not far from the original location of King’s College, on the city’s most famous street, is a building that has changed quite little since Hamilton was a student.

St. Paul’s Chapel has continually served parishioners in the same spot on Fulton and Broadway since 1766. The chapel miraculously survived the Great Fire of 1776 that destroyed many of the city’s oldest buildings, including the original Trinity Church located a bit further down Broadway. Two centuries later, St. Paul’s had another near brush with destruction during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It was practically the only building in the vicinity to survive and served as a shelter for rescue workers.[3]

Although the tiny chapel is now surrounded by towering skyscrapers, during the Revolution it would have stood on the outskirts of the city, with only empty land and the river to its rear. In 1775, Hamilton and several other students from King’s College joined up with a local militia company dubbed the “Hearts of the Oak” as a response to the battles at Concord and Lexington. Each morning the young volunteers would drill in St. Paul’s churchyard before attending class.

St. Paul’s Chapel is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Manhattan. (All photos courtesy of Gina Dimuro)

St. Paul’s churchyard is one of the oldest that has been in continual use in the entire country. Its most ancient tombstone dates all the way back to 1704, while another bearing the name George I. Eacker, connects the location to Hamilton in another, more tragic way. Eacker was buried here in 1804, just three years after fatally shooting Alexander’s son Phillip in a duel that eerily foreshadowed the Founding Father’s own.

Hamilton himself returned to the chapel long after his studies were over and when he had moved back to New York and was working as a lawyer. One such documented occasion was a Fourth of July celebration in 1789, during which Hamilton delivered a memorial speech in honor of General Nathanael Greene, perhaps from the same pulpit which still stands in the chapel today. “It is an observation as just as it is common that in those great revolutions which occasionally convulse society, human nature never fails to be brought forward in its brightest as well as in its blackest colors,” he said during his oration.

Although St. Paul’s Chapel has undergone several restorations and renovations over its 250-year lifespan, it still contains a few other important remnants of its earliest heritage. These other Revolutionary-era items include the altar rail and the personal pew of St. Paul’s most famous congregation member, George Washington.

The east side of the chapel also houses a monument dating back to 1776. It was built to honor the Revolutionary War general Richard Montgomery, who was killed in the 1775 Battle of Quebec, and is considered the first monument ever commissioned by the nascent United States.

The Bowling Green Fence
A bit further down Broadway is another hidden piece of eighteenth century history that hundreds of people pass by unknowingly each day.

The sprawling Bowling Green just south of King’s College had been a site of public gatherings since the Dutch first arrived in the seventeenth century. By the time Hamilton was a student, it had become a hotbed of patriotic activity. On July 9, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read out loud for the first time in Manhattan at nearby City Hall. Afterwards, a crowd swept up by patriotic enthusiasm and led by the Sons of Liberty rushed to the Bowling Green, where an equestrian statue of King George III stood not far from where the famous Wall Street Bull now crouches. The mob tore down the statue of the British king, but left the surrounding fence (which had been erected in 1771 with precisely the purpose of protecting the statue), relatively unharmed, apart from sawing off the small crowns that topped the posts.[4]

The statue was melted down centuries ago, but the fence still stands close to its original location. A closer inspection will even reveal the saw marks of the patriots on some of the posts.

Few people who pass by the Bowling Green fence realize it is almost 300 years old.

Broad Street
After the war’s end, the now-married Hamilton returned to New York to take up his first permanent residence in the United States. When the Hamiltons settled here, the neighborhood was the heart of New York’s financial and political activities. Its dominating feature today is the massive Stock Exchange Building, a testament to its historical and modern importance to American finance.

Hamilton, however, would be hard-pressed to recognize the area today. The Stock Exchange Building did not open until 1903; when it first came into being in 1792, the NYSE operated mostly on the street before finally moving to an indoor location in 1817.[5]

Broad Street also contains an impressive reminder of its past position as the nation’s capital. The current incarnation of Federal Hall stands on the same spot as the building where George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States in 1789. The original structure was, unfortunately, demolished in 1812 and the current one dates from 1842. Alexander and Liza Hamilton actually rented a house at 57/58 Broad Street in 1783, the remnants of which have long since disappeared, along with most of the street’s eighteenth century architecture. A bit further down Broad, however, is a building that Hamilton might find a bit more familiar.

Fraunces Tavern
The corner of Broad and Pearl streets has been occupied for nearly as long as the city itself. The original building where Fraunces Tavern now stands was built around 1719-1722.[6] It was bought by innkeeper Samuel Fraunces in 1762, who christened it the “Sign of Queen Charlotte” that same year. Despite taking a cannonball through the roof in 1775, the tavern survived the war and Great Fire more or less intact. Fraunces, a staunch patriot, knew George Washington personally and secretly passed the Continental general information he obtained while serving British officers during their occupation of New York City.

On December 4, 1783, George Washington gathered his Continental Army officers in the tavern’s “long room” and bade them farewell in an emotional speech. “With a heart full of love and gratitude,” the general said, “I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.” Although Hamilton had served as an officer as well as the general’s personal aid during the war, there is no written evidence that he attended, perhaps because he and Washington had had a bit of a falling out. Years later, Hamilton would return to the tavern for a different, yet particularly significant officers’ dinner.

In 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr both attended a dinner at Fraunces Tavern hosted by the Society of the Cincinnati, a (somewhat controversial) group of veteran Revolutionary War officers. According to John Trumbull, who was also in attendance, Burr “was silent, gloomy, sour, while Hamilton entered with glee into the gaiety of a convivial party.” Unbeknownst to the other guests, the two had reached the apex of their mutual dislike and the dinner was to be their last meeting before their deadly duel just a week later.

Fraunces Tavern suffered substantial damage from fires in 1832, 1837, and 1852, with the result that the proprietors rebuilt and added to the original structure. By 1900, the tavern (which by then would have been unrecognizable to Samuel Fraunces himself) had been slated for destruction in order to make room for newer buildings. Thanks to the intervention of several patriotic and historical preservation societies, the owners instead agreed to sell the property to the Sons of the Revolution of the State of New York. In 1905, Fraunces Tavern was restored to resemble its original colonial structure as best as could be guessed at by the architects, who were somewhat hampered by the fact that there were no contemporary illustrations of the original tavern available.

The tavern re-opened on December 4, 1907, the anniversary of Washington’s Farewell Address. Although the current structure contains few remnants of the original, the architects attempted to fill in the missing elements based on other colonial buildings from roughly the same region. The upper floors contain a replica of the famous long room. The tavern’s museum hosts multiple Revolutionary War-related events each year, including a reenactment of Washington’s Farewell address in the very spot where the original took place.

The upper floors of Fraunces Tavern contain replicas of the original eighteenth-century rooms.

Broad Street’s few remnants of eighteenth century architecture can actually be found right across the street from Fraunces Tavern. Although the Goldman Sachs building that sits at 85 Broad destroyed part of the historic Stone Street, its construction also revealed the foundations of a tavern that predates Fraunces. The Lovelace Tavern was built in 1641 and its foundations can still be viewed through some unique glass windows strategically placed on the street. The building’s plaza is also decorated with a recreation of an eighteenth century British map of the area that outlines nearby streets and landmarks, some of which are still there today.

The map at 85 Broad street is a nod to the building’s earlier history.

The Manhattan Well in Soho
Before their falling out, Hamilton and Burr found themselves working together in a strange footnote to their famous story.

In January of 1801, the body of a young woman named Elma Sands was found at the bottom of a well in an area known as Lispenard’s Meadow. Sands’s death was swiftly ruled a murder and fingers were quick to point at the man rumored to be her lover: Levi Weeks.

The case became a huge scandal in the city and public opinion (egged on by salacious newspaper headlines) was so set against Weeks that it seemed certain he would be found guilty. Weeks, however, had an extraordinary stroke of good luck. His defense team consisted of two of the best lawyers in New York: none other than Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton and Burr each had a vested interest in clearing Weeks’s name. Levi’s brother, Ezra, was the architect Hamilton had hired to build his new home in the north of the island and he had promised to cancel some of Hamilton’s debts in exchange for defending Levi. The well in which Sands’s body had been found belonged to the Manhattan Company, which had in turn been founded by Burr. Burr could not afford further negative publicity surrounding his company after a recent scandal.

Burr and Hamilton presented such a strong case in defense of Weeks that the jury only took five minutes to deliberate before declaring the young man not guilty. Elma Sands’s family were disgusted by the verdict, leading her sister Catherine to ominously rage at Hamilton, “If thee dies a natural death, I shall think there is no justice in heaven.”[7]

No one else was ever charged with the murder, but Hamilton and Burr both suspected the culprit had been another boarder who resided in the same house as Sands and Weeks. This same man would eventually be forced to flee the country after raping a thirteen-year-old girl before eventually being executed in his native England for strangling a woman.

The “Manhattan Well Tragedy” that had caused such an uproar in the city was soon forgotten. Most people have no knowledge about this strange episode in which Hamilton and Burr made a surprisingly successful team. Long after the case had faded from public memory, however, one important relic of the macabre story lingered on.

At the time of Elma Sands’s murder, Lispenard’s Meadow was a fairly isolated area well outside the city limits. Over the intervening centuries, it was built up and transformed into SoHo, now one of Manhattan’s trendiest neighborhoods. Eighteenth century residents of the island would be hard-pressed to recognize the area today, but somehow during all the construction and remodeling, the once-infamous well survived.

The once-infamous Manhattan Well still stands in its original location, although the surrounding area is unrecognizable.

For years, the well had remained hidden in the basement of the Manhattan Bistro at 129 Spring Street. Although most of the staff and clientele knew nothing about the location’s history, ghost stories abounded at the restaurant. The staff frequently recounted how glass bottles would fly across the room unaided in the direction male employees. Today, the well is located in the basement-level of the clothing store COS. The massive brick structure stands in stark contrast to the pristine modern design. Visitors are free to wander right up to the infamous well and touch the very layer of brick that once entombed poor Elma Sands.

Weehawken Dueling Ground
Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr’s long rivalry culminated with their infamous duel, for which they set out on the morning of July 11, 1804. They had selected a popular dueling ground across the Hudson in Weehawken for their final face-off. Although dueling was illegal in both New York and New Jersey at the time, the Weehawken location’s seclusion and accessibility from the river, combined with New Jersey’s leniency towards duelists, made it an ideal choice.

Although the actual spot where Hamilton and Burr faced off that July morning was destroyed by railroad tracks in 1870, the scene from over a century is still eerily vivid to visitors. Peering down the steep cliffsides, it’s easy to imagine that the greenery might conceal men on a deadly errand. The sun still reflects off the Hudson in the background, just as it did when Hamilton cast one last glance back towards the city he had made his home and “pointed out the beauties of the scenery and spoke of the future greatness of the city.”[8]

The city and the river were far from Hamilton’s view as he raised his pistol and fired into the air well above Burr’s head. Seconds later, he was fatally struck by a bullet from the vice president’s own weapon. The seriousness of the wound was immediately apparent and Hamilton just had timed to cry out “this is a mortal wound doctor” before sinking to the ground. His second and the doctor who had accompanied the duelists propped the lifeless Hamilton on a nearby boulder as they desperately tried to examine him.

The very boulder upon which Hamilton lay is still there today, albeit some distance from its original location. The first monument commemorating the duel appeared as early as 1806 on the same spot where Hamilton and Burr had stood. After the arrival of the railroad, it was moved higher up on the palisades. Today the site is marked by the boulder and a bust of Hamilton that dates from the 1930s. It stands proudly silhouetted against the river and the skyline that surely would have exceeded even Hamilton’s wildest expectations of grandeur.

The Weehawken Dueling Grounds Memorial stands only a short distance away from where the Hamilton-Burr duel actually took place.

Jane Street
After receiving his “mortal wound” at the hands of Burr in Weehawken, Hamilton was ferried back across the Hudson and taken to the house of William Bayard, in an area that’s part of today’s West Village. He breathed his last there the next afternoon, just after despairing, “If they break this union, they will break my heart.”[9]

Bayard’s house itself disappeared long ago, but a building at 80-82 Jane street, fairly near to the location where Hamilton died, bears a small plaque commemorating the site.

Trinity Church
On the morning of July 14, Hamilton’s impressive funeral procession made its solemn way through the streets of lower Manhattan that he had once happily traversed as a young student. He was laid to rest in the graveyard of Trinity Church on Broadway, where he had been a parishioner since moving back to New York.

The second Trinity Church was torn down in 1839, but the tomb of Hamilton still remains, right beside that of his beloved wife, Eliza. Hamilton’s son Philip and his sister-in-law Angelica rest in Trinity Churchyard as well, although the location of their graves is unknown.

Most of the graves in Trinity Churchyard are bare, the families of those who once visited having long since also departed. Hamilton’s grave, by contrast, is overflowing with flowers, coins, and wreaths left by reverent visitors. Although he died over two centuries ago, these tokens from modern admirers keep his memory very much alive.

Visitors still lay flowers at Hamilton’s grave.

Each year, local historical societies host memorial services in the churchyard on the anniversaries of Hamilton’s birth and death. The numerous organizations and visitors from all over the country are testaments to the tremendous importance and scope of Hamilton’s influence. Representatives from the island of Nevis and descendants of the Founding Father are often in attendance. They are joined by delegations from the Coast Guard (which Hamilton founded) and re-enactors from the Hearts of the Oak militia that used to drill nearby centuries ago.

The historic Hearts of the Oak militia pay tribute to Hamilton on the anniversary of his death.

While Hamilton lived, Trinity Church was among the tallest buildings in the entire city. Today, it is dwarfed by the surrounding skyscrapers that so powerfully demonstrate the might of Manhattan’s Financial District, which owes much of its existence to Hamilton and where his memory lives on, in both the structures of modern steel and centuries-old stone.

 

[1]David McCullough, John Adams (New York, Simon & Schuster, 2008).

[2]Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York, Penguin Group 2005).

[3]“St. Paul’s Chapel.” Trinity Wall Street, www.trinitywallstreet.org/about/stpaulschapel.

[4]“Bowling Green Fence,” Landmarks Preservation Commission s-media.nyc.gov/agencies/lpc/lp/0548.pdf.

[5]New York Songlines, www.nysonglines.com/.

[6]“History,” Fraunces Tavern Museum, SRNY Inc., 2019, www.frauncestavernmuseum.org/history/.

[7]McCoullough, John Adams, 606.

[8]Ibid., 700.

[9]Ibid., 708.

Written By
More from Gina Dimuro

Retracing Alexander Hamilton’s Steps Through the Remnants of Revolutionary New York

When Alexander Hamilton arrived in New York in the early 1770s, the...
Read More

5 Comments

  • Wonderful tribute to this most beloved of the Founding Fathers. Thank you for pointing out so many hidden gems of history.

  • Gina,

    It appears to me that Alexander Hamilton is buried above ground in that crypt. Is this true? Is the cemetery guarded 24/7? I ask because I am afraid that vandals might smash open the crypt, or slide the top of, or whatever they do. We had that happen up here in a small town in Canada….the coffins were of cement stacked on top on one another 3 high, inside a stone vault, yet vandals got in and smashed into the middle cement coffin.

  • I took a historic tour of that part of the city 2 years ago. I never knew all the history are in the parts of the city. Truly remarkable. Great write up.

  • Splendid article. I first learnt about the well at Federal Hall some 4 years ago in a talk organized by the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society, who by the way, are the ones responsible for the yearly commemorations of both Hamilton’s birthday and death at Trinity Church that you talk about.
    New York and New Jersey have gems hidden in plain sight that are usually overlooked, but never fail to amaze you the moment you start doing some research.

  • Wonderful tour of Hamilton’s New York.
    Since New Jersey was mentioned, there are several sites within one hour of NY that have valid links to Alexander. The Ford Mansion and Schuyler-Hamilton House (Morristown) and Liberty Hall & Boxwood Hall (Elizabeth) are worth exploring.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *