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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Founding Father's Frontier Son

Most Americans probably know Alexander Hamilton only as the face on the $10 bill. But as a young assistant to George Washington and later, as a defender of a strong Constitution and as Secretary of the Treasury, he helped create our nation. Despite his revolutionary politics, he was a New York aristocrat who hob-nobbed with heads of state and wore powdered wigs and fine brocade.

His son William (1797-1850), in contrast, dropped out of West Point, turned his back on East Coast fame and finery, and headed for the wilderness. He arrived in Illinois in 1817, where he worked as a surveyor and was elected to the legislature. Ten years later, he joined the wave of miners flowing into the lead region around Galena.

Lead Region Leader

"Uncle Billy" Hamilton, as he was known, staked a claim in Wisconsin about 30 miles from Mineral Point. He named it Wiota, and built a pair of log cabins side-by-side. Here he operated a successful smelting business, opened a general store and a school, and ran for office. In 1837 he relocated to Muscoda on the Wisconsin River, which he vainly hoped would grow into an important river town.

Juliette Kinzie, who visited Hamilton in 1831, called the local miners "the roughest-looking set of men I ever beheld, and their language was as uncouth as their persons." They looked to her like a gang of criminals. But they respected Hamilton.

Although he retained his education and his manners – he had brought part of his father's library west with him, including a set of Voltaire printed in Paris – at heart Hamilton was a man of the people. He led the miners in militia units during the Winnebago War of 1827 and the Black Hawk War of 1832.

"He was indifferent to the conventionalities of life," recalled a friend, "and paid no attention to the claims of society. Slovenly and careless in his dress, he was yet cleanly in his person, and the gentleman always shone out from under his somewhat uncouth garb. Under all this exterior he wore a golden heart."

Gold Rush Speculator

Although moderately successful as a lead miner and smelter, Hamilton never succeeded in politics or business. In 1846 his friend Cyrus Woodman said that, ""He is naturally a smart man, but has frittered away the best part of his life and will never do anything worthy of himself."

When California gold fever swept through Wisconsin in 1849, Hamilton decided to take his mining and engineering experience to the Pacific Coast and start over. Like thousands of other miners, he headed for the gold fields. Unlike most of them, he amassed a few thousand dollars in a few months.

But he disliked life in the Sierra Nevada mining camps, He told a California friend that he "had rather have been hung in the 'Lead Mines' than to have lived in this miserable hole."'

So he moved down into Sacramento and used his earnings to open a store. Shortly afterwards, however, he contracted cholera and died in the fall of 1850.

The remains of Alexander Hamilton's son were thrown into an unmarked grave along with dozens of other epidemic victims. Three decades later a friend erected a gravestone, and the section of the cemetery where he is buried was named Hamilton Square.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on July 6, 2012
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