“Who needs surnames? They’re never our own anyway.” — Patricia MacPherson, Barbados Bound, by Linda Collison.
Today I’m hosting a guest blog, written by author Linda Collison. Linda’s most recent historical novel, Rhode Island Rendezvous (the fourth in her Patricia MacPherson adventure series), includes an intriguing true-life character–the mother of Alexander Hamilton, Rachel. Read on to find out how Linda discovered Rachel, a woman who faced great social adversity, raising America’s famous Alexander virtually alone.
Fifteen years ago my husband Bob and I made landfall on Nevis, via ferry from Basseterre, St. Kitts. At the time, I was writing what would soon be published as Star-Crossed (more recently republished as Barbados Bound – first of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series.) In exploring Nevis and the surrounding island of St. Christopher (St. Kitts), we experienced the somewhat sleepy, colorful atmosphere of the Present and uncovered traces of the island’s rich, tragic Past. I was seeing firsthand places I had researched, deeply imagined; places that served as the setting to my historical novel-in-progress. I walked along the very beach where my protagonist, Patricia, washed up, clinging to a wine cask, her ship having caught fire after hitting the reef.
Island of Nevis – (Wikimedia)
It was along Charlestown’s picturesque waterfront where Bob and I discovered the Museum of Nevis History, the stone house where Alexander Hamilton was born in 1757 (or possibly 1755).
Museum of Nevis History
The museum is actually a replica of the house Alexander Hamilton’s mother inherited, the original building having been long ago destroyed by an earthquake. The two-story Georgian-style house and the simple exhibits within stirred my imagination. Realizing the dates coincided with my novel-in-progress, I knew the boy Alexander would make an appearance in Patricia’s developing storyline.
The name Hamilton is familiar to Americans – if many have forgotten why. This “founding father” was never President of the United States. He served as an aide-de-camp to General Washington, then commanded an infantry battalion at Yorktown. He was the primary author of the Federalist Papers, a collection of articles, essays and letters that helped ensure the ratification of the United States Constitution. Hamilton was the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, helping to secure the new nation’s economy. He championed the first national bank, founded the U.S. Coast Guard, and introduced a bill to establish West Point Military Academy. Hamilton was also an early member of the New York Manumission Society which founded the African Free School and lobbied for a state law to abolish slavery in New York. If students of American history remember little else about Hamilton, they mostly remember he was killed by Vice President Aaron Burr in a duel (Weehawken, New Jersey; July 11, 1804).
What serendipity, I thought: finding Hamilton, ready to play a small part in my historical fiction adventure. But the more I learned about him, the more curious I became about Rachel, his mother. The old (sexist) saying, “Behind every successful man is a woman,” came to mind more than once. As I went through the museum, smelling the sea air and the damp volcanic rock that permeated the floors, the walls, every artifact, I wanted to know more about her forgotten life. I wanted to hear Rachel’s story.
Flash forward fifteen years to 2018. Hamilton – the acclaimed musical – is stirring up a fresh appreciation for America’s revolutionary history. This year Lin-Manuel Miranda’s re-imagined hip-hop musical will be performed in cities all across America. The name Hamilton is trending on social media – and who hasn’t heard of Miranda, the New York-born playwright? Miranda credits Ron Chernow’s biography, Alexander Hamilton, as his inspiration, and I too, found the book extremely valuable in my research of Rachel and the young Alexander. (Chernow, Alexander Hamilton. Penguin Books; 2004)
Without a doubt, Alexander Hamilton is a notable American; nearly every adult American knows his name and recognizes his face, even if they’re a little sketchy on the details of his life. Yet few have heard of Rachel, the woman who gave birth to and raised him. And like many women today, she assumed more than one last name during the course of her life. Born Faucette, married Lavien, lived with and assumed the name Hamilton. Only the name Rachel remained unchanged.
I am continually struck by the power of a surname — and by our patrimonial custom of giving children their father’s surname. James Hamilton was absent for much of Alexander’s life, did very little to provide for his family and may not have even been Alexander’s biological father. Yet his family name – Hamilton – that’s the name that’s remembered. The name of the woman who raised him has been largely forgotten.
Rachel was born on the Caribbean island of Nevis to an Englishwoman, Mary Uppington, and her French Huguenot husband, John Faucette. The Faucettes owned a small sugar plantation and at least seven slaves. They had seven children but only two – Anne and Rachel — survived. Her parents separated at some point. Anne married and when John Faucette died, the teenaged Rachel inherited all his property (Chernow; Alexander Hamilton).
Once Rachel had secured an inheritance, her mother wanted to find her a suitable match. On St. Croix, they were introduced to Johann Michael Lavien, the lucky man who eventually won her hand. Lavien was a small-time planter with pretensions, no doubt glad for the modest inheritance Rachel brought to the marriage. One child, Peter, was born of the union, which was otherwise a disaster.
Lavien denounced his wife as a “whore” and had her thrown in the Christiansted jail for the crime of adultery. Upon her release several months later, Rachel fled – first to St. Kitts, later to Nevis – leaving her first-born son Peter with his father. There she met James Hamilton, fourth son of a Scottish laird, who had connections but no money, no means, and no luck. He was a decent sort, serving as Rachel’s protector and common law husband, and giving Rachel’s out-of-wedlock sons his surname.
Christiansvaern, the Danish fort on St. Croix where Rachel was imprisoned for adultery. Courtesy of Wikicommons.
“James Hamilton had the manners of a gentleman but was a failed adventurer who had to continually be bailed out of bad business deals by his relatives,” Alexander Hamilton wrote.
After divorcing Rachel, Lavien remarried. Rachel returned to St. Croix with James, who had a business assignment in Christiansted. The couple planned to be legally married, having lived for many years on Nevis as man and wife by common law. But James and Rachel were denied a legal marriage; by Danish law Rachel could never marry again. After completing his business assignment, James Hamilton left St. Croix, never to return, leaving Rachel to raise James and Alexander the best she could.
Alexander had this to say in a letter he wrote to a relative, decades later: “You no doubt have understood that my father’s affairs at a very early day went to wreck, so as to have rendered his situation during the greatest part of his life far from eligible. This state of things occasioned a separation between him and me, when I was very young.” (The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. Ed. Harold C. Syrett et al. 27 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961-1987)
Rachel went into business on her own, running a store to provide for her sons James and Alexander. Among other qualities she instilled in Alexander were a love of books and a desire to learn.
Alexander ’s grandson, in his biography of Hamilton, described Rachel (whom he never knew personally), as “a woman of superior intellect, elevated sentiment, and unusual grace of person and manner. To her he was indebted for his genius.” (Hamilton, Life of Alexander Hamilton. Vol 1, p. 42).
Watch for more about Rachel and her son Alexander in book 4 of Linda Collison’s series.
For information about Linda Collison and her writing, including her excellent Young Adult books, visit her website: www.lindacollison.com