Henry Hamilton (governor)

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Governor Henry Hamilton

Henry Hamilton (c. 1734 – 29 September 1796) was an Anglo-Irish soldier and official of the British Empire. He was captured during the American War of Independence while serving as the Lieutenant Governor at the British post of Fort Detroit.

Early career

Henry was probably born in Dublin, Ireland, a younger son of Henry Hamilton, an Irish Member of Parliament. He was raised in County Cork, then started his military career during the French and Indian War, as a Captain in the 15th Regiment of Foot 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 War of Independence

In 1775, Hamilton was appointed Lieutenant Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs at Fort Detroit, one of five newly created lieutenant governorships in the recently expanded Province of Quebec. The American Revolutionary War was already underway by the time Hamilton arrived at Detroit to assume his duties. Hamilton was in a difficult position: as a civil official, Hamilton had few 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, acted as "town major" before Hamilton's arrival.[2]

Hamilton became adept at diplomacy with American Indians, establishing good relations with local Indian leaders. Hamilton, an amateur artist, 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."[3] When the war began, British officials initially determined not to enlist Indians as allies in the war effort, but in 1777 Hamilton received instructions to encourage Indian raids against the American frontier settlements of Virginia and Pennsylvania. This was a controversial policy because it was realized that civilian colonists would inevitably be killed in these raids. Hamilton attempted to limit civilian casualties by sending British officers and French-Canadian militia with the American Indian war parties. Nevertheless, hundreds of settlers in Kentucky and western Pennsylvania were killed and scalped by raiding parties during the war. In Detroit, Hamilton is alleged to have paid bounties for prisoners and scalps brought in by the Indians. He became hated by American settlers, who dubbed him the "Hair-buyer General", though he denied ever paying for scalps.

File:Vincennes 1779.jpg
Hamilton Surrenders to Clark

In 1778, Virginia forces under Colonel George Rogers Clark captured several undermanned British posts in the Illinois country, including Fort Sackville[4] at Vincennes. Hamilton set out from Detroit on 7 October 1778[5] to recapture the post, 600 miles away. His small force gathered Native American allies along the way, and entered Vincennes on 17 December 1778, capturing Fort Sackville and the American commandant, Captain Leonard Helm.[6] In February 1779, however, Colonel Clark returned to Vincennes in a surprise march, recapturing the outpost and taking Hamilton prisoner.

Because of his support of the Indian raids, the Virginians regarded Hamilton as a war criminal rather than a conventional prisoner of war.[citation needed] Clark sent Hamilton to Williamsburg, Virginia, where he was jailed and placed in irons by Governor Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia Executive Council from 16 June to 29 September, when he was released from chains. He rejected parole on the grounds that the terms of it violated his freedom of speech in restraining him from "saying any thing to the prejudice of the United States." [See "Order of Virginia Council Placing Henry Hamilton and Other in Irons," 16 June 1779, and Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1 October 1779, both in the Papers of Thomas Jefferson] Jefferson and the Council did not grant Hamilton parole until October 1780, when he was sent to New York to await his exchange, which was accomplished in March 1781. He then went immediately to London.

Later career

Hamilton returned to Canada in 1782, becoming Lieutenant-Governor, and later Deputy-Governor at Quebec. He went on to serve as Governor of Bermuda from 1785 to 1794, and of Dominica from 1794 until his death in 1796.[7] In March 1795, at age 61, Hamilton married 25-year-old Elizabeth Lee from Banbury, Oxfordshire, a daughter of Colonel Lee. They had one daughter, Mary Anne Pierpoint Hamilton, who died in 1871 unmarried and without children.[7] Hamilton died on the island of Antigua in 1796, while still Governor of Dominica.

Sackville Hamilton, his older brother, was a Privy Councillor and Under-Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.


  1. Derleth, August (1968). Vincennes: Portal to The West. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. p. 55. LCCN 68020537.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Fort Sackville was named in honor of George Germain, 1st Viscount Sackville. Ironically, Henry Hamilton had an older brother named Sackville Hamilton.
  5. Skaggs, 182
  6. Skaggs, 183
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Hamilton, Henry, d.1796. Henry Hamilton drawings of North American scenes and Native Americans: Guide". Cambridge: Harvard University. 2001. Retrieved 1 February 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Sheehan, Bernard W. "'The Famous Hair Buyer General': Henry Hamilton, George Rogers Clark, and the American Indian." Indiana Magazine of History 69 (March 1983): 1–28.
  • Skaggs, David Curtis, ed. (1977). The Old Northwest in the American Revolution. Madison, Wisconsin: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin. ISBN 0-87020-164-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • 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