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HAMILTON, ALEXANDER, businessman, militia officer, jp, office holder, and judge; b. 3 July 1790 in Queenston (Ont.), son of Robert Hamilton* and Catherine Robertson, née Askin; m. 25 Jan. 1816 Hannah Owen Jarvis, daughter of William Jarvis*, in Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake), Upper Canada, and they had eight daughters and three sons; d. 19 Feb. 1839 in Queenston.

Alexander Hamilton attended school at Queenston and Niagara and was taken to Scotland in 1795 for further education. On his return, he worked for a short period in his father’s business, but he had only a desultory exposure to it before Robert Hamilton’s death in 1809. His father left the stock and facilities of his major enterprises of retailing, forwarding, and portaging around Niagara Falls to him and his brother George. As a result of changing economic circumstances in Upper Canada, these enterprises were already showing signs of decline at the time of Hamilton’s death. Because of the brothers’ inexperience and a complex will which virtually froze the assets of their father’s estate until a stepbrother, John*, had reached the age of majority in 1823, George and Alexander quickly ran down the once highly successful business. In 1811 they further complicated their situation by renting, along with their uncle Charles Askin, saw- and grist-mills in Canboro Township from Benjamin Canby. The following year Alexander and Charles purchased the operation, agreeing to pay £22,000 for it. With the outbreak of war, Hamilton abandoned all attempts to revive his father’s enterprises.

Hamilton saw extensive service in the War of 1812, particularly with small raiding and reconnoitring parties. He had become a captain under Major Thomas Merritt in the Niagara Light Dragoons on 1 May 1812 and later served under William Hamilton Merritt* in that unit and in the Provincial Light Dragoons. He was specifically mentioned by Major-General Roger Hale Sheaffe* in dispatches concerning the battle of Queenston Heights and was present at the retreat from Fort George (Niagara-on-the-Lake) in 1813 as well as at many of the other major engagements on the Niagara peninsula.

Hamilton emerged from the war burdened with the debts built up by him and his brothers before the war. He placed himself further in debt by borrowing almost £1,000 from his father’s estate and sinking it into an attempt to revitalize his milling concern at Canboro. Despite his attempts, the business collapsed in 1817 and he and Charles Askin were reduced to trying to sell their Canboro holdings in an attempt to meet its debts. For a time, however, Hamilton’s fortunes appeared to turn. In the winter of 1817–18 he was approached by William Smith (evidently a former member of a Detroit fur-trading concern), who had been offered a contract for the portaging of the North West Company’s goods at Niagara. The Montreal firms of the NWC were willing to lend money to Hamilton and Smith towards the purchase of facilities. These were expensive, however, and competition stiff, with three companies vying in the small and fragmented portaging trade at Niagara. Collapse for Hamilton and Smith came in 1821, when the NWC amalgamated with the Hudson’s Bay Company and ceased to use the lower Great Lakes route for shipments. Hamilton and Smith found themselves not only without trade but saddled with debts for the facilities they had purchased.

These debts exhausted what remained of Hamilton’s share of his father’s estate. He had already run through the monetary portion of it. To meet his part of the debts of Hamilton and Smith, he was forced to sign over his share of the lands so that by 1828 his patrimony was depleted.

After the War of 1812, Hamilton’s interests had turned increasingly from business to patronage, and he systematically applied for major posts in the Niagara District as they became vacant. In 1817 he received his first commission as a justice of the peace. His search for office was undoubtedly aided by the fact that, although he sympathized with the agitation stirred up by Robert Gourlay*, in its early stages, he was not vociferously pro-Gourlay, in contrast to several of his brothers. The prestige of his family name and continuing contacts were also important to Hamilton in gaining office. His correspondence indicates that he relied upon the intervention of his brother-in-law, Samuel Peters Jarvis*, and the Reverend John Strachan*. The latter had had a long association with the Hamilton family – it was Robert Hamilton who had arranged that he be brought from Scotland as a tutor for Richard Cartwright*’s children – and he accepted a position as an executor of Hamilton’s estate. Strachan’s admiration for Alexander’s “amiable manners and gentlemanly conduct” obviously served the younger Hamilton well. Among the more important positions he held, for various periods between 1821 and 1839, were postmaster and deputy collector of customs at Queenston, surrogate court judge, and sheriff of the Niagara District. By 1833 his fortunes were sufficiently restored to allow him to begin construction at Queenston of a mansion, Willowbank, which still stands.

Hamilton was a pillar of his community and was involved in many of Queenston’s interests: he acted, for example, as an early chairman of the Erie and Ontario Railroad Company and was a commissioner of the Niagara River Suspension Bridge Company. Both enterprises were essentially projects by which interests on the Niagara River, led by Queenston, attempted to compete with the Welland Canal and restore a flow of trade to the river-front.

In December 1837 Hamilton embarked with a body of volunteers to help in the defence of Toronto and was part of the force which met William Lyon Mackenzie*’s rebels. As sheriff of the Niagara District, Hamilton was charged by the provincial government with gathering information on seditious persons in that region, a task in which he was aided by such magistrates as George Rykert* of St Catharines. Hamilton took part in guarding the Niagara frontier and conducted an investigation of the Short Hills raid [see Linus Wilson Miller*]. When the executioner failed to appear to carry out the sentence of death on James Morreau, one of the leaders of the raid, Hamilton performed it himself on 30 July 1838, having arranged, as an “act of kindness,” that Morreau drop 18 feet before the rope snapped his neck. He was later complimented by the government for the “cool and firm manner” in which the execution was performed.

Bruce G. Wilson

AO, MU 1726. DPL, Burton Hist. Coll., John Askin papers, Charles Askin ledger, 1813–15; G. Hamilton to C. Askin, 11 Dec. 1817. MTRL, Alexander Wood papers, John Strachan to Wood, 13 June 1806. PAC, MG 19, A3, 19: 623–44, 6265–68, 6277; 38: 304–6; MG 24, D45, Alexander Hamilton to James Hamilton, 28 June 1821; I26, 1–2, 4, 6, 10–15, 64–65; RG 5, A1: 35123, 109369–74, 109742–45, 109931–32, 110292–94, 110419–24; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 428, 539, 668. Doc. hist. of campaign upon Niagara frontier (Cruikshank), 4: 72; 5: 138–39; 6: 178–81, 209. “Early records of St. Mark’s and St. Andrew’s churches, Niagara,” comp. Janet Carnochan, OH, 3 (1901): 38, 43, 48–49, 60, 75. John Askin papers (Quaife), 1: 539. “The Niagara frontier in 1837–38; papers from the Hamilton correspondence in the Canadian Archives . . . ,” ed. A. H. U. Colquhoun, Niagara Hist. Soc., [Pub.], no.29 (1916). “Reminiscences of American occupation of Niagara from 27th May to 10th Dec. 1813,” Niagara Hist. Soc., [Pub.], no.11 (n.d.): 27–28. StCatharines Journal, 21 Feb. 1839. Chadwick, Ontarian families, 1: 146. Read, Rising in western U.C., 150. B. G. Wilson, Enterprises of Robert Hamilton.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Bruce G. Wilson, “HAMILTON, ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed August 22, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hamilton_alexander_7E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hamilton_alexander_7E.html
Author of Article: Bruce G. Wilson
Title of Article: HAMILTON, ALEXANDER
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1988
Year of revision: 1988
Access Date: August 22, 2014