Jeremiah G. Hamilton – The Only Black Millionaire in New York

hamilton_c0-0-370-215_s800x466Jeremiah G. Hamilton (sometimes Jerry Hamilton) was a Wall Street broker noted as “the only black millionaire in New York” by James McCune Smith about a decade before the American Civil War. Hamilton was a shrewd financial agent, amassing a fortune of $2 million ($43 million today) by the time of his death in 1875. Although he was the subject of much newspaper coverage and his life provides a unique perspective on race in 19th century America, Hamilton is virtually absent from modern historical literature.

Hamilton first came to prominence in 1828 after hiding out in a fishing boat for multiple days in the Port-au-Prince harbor in Haiti and eventually escaping the Haitian authorities. They had discovered he was transporting counterfeit coins to Haiti reportedly for a group of New York merchants; in absentia he was sentenced to be shot. The ship he had chartered, the Ann Eliza Jane, was confiscated by the port officials; Hamilton claimed he had escaped with $5000 of the counterfeit coin. Almost a decade later, after the 1835 Great Fire of New York destroyed most of the buildings on the southeast tip of Manhattan, Hamilton accrued about $5 million in 2013 dollars by “taking pitiless advantage of several of the fire victims’ misfortunes”. His business practices were controversial; where most black entrepreneurs sold their goods to other blacks, “Hamilton cut a swath through the lily-white New York business world of the mid-1830s, a domain where his depredations soon earned him the nickname of “The Prince of Darkness”. Others, with even less affection, simply called him “Nigger Hamilton”. Soon thereafter, he used about $7 million in 2013 dollars to buy up a substantial amount of land and property in modern-day Astoria and Poughkeepsie. Hamilton would go on to struggle with Cornelius Vanderbilt, the famous American industrialist, over control of the Nicaragua Transit Company.

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