Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Extraordinary Hamilton Family

by Tom Castaldi

The Hamilton Family appeared in the northern Indiana frontier village of Fort Wayne in the early 1820s and soon began to emerge as one of the most extraordinary families in the community.  The original homestead occupied a vast area south of Lewis Street stretching across the three blocks between Calhoun and Lafayette streets.  After the Civil War, the family built a grand mansion and carriage house on the eastern end of the property and enclosed the area with fences and hedgerows.

Despite this physical separation from the daily bustle of Fort Wayne, by the end of the nineteenth century the Hamiltons had become one of the premier families of Fort Wayne.  From their position of wealth and privilege nearly every member of this remarkable family left the confines of the homestead to make outstanding contributions to the community, nation and even, on occasion, the world.

Allen Hamilton (1798-1864), the patriarch of the clan, came to the United States as an impoverished Irishman in 1817 and settled in the wilderness village of Fort Wayne in 1823.  Almost immediately he was elected the county’s first sheriff.  He made the family fortune, however, through a variety of typical pioneer enterprises, from milling grain and fur trading to land speculation.  It was in this last, especially as the executor of the will of the Chief of the Miami Indians, Pechewa (Jean Baptiste de Richardville), that Allen Hamilton established his family as the wealthiest in Northern Indiana.  For generations to come, the family would benefit from this substantial patrimony.

As one of the foremost citizens of the community, Hamilton recruited the town’s first schoolteachers, two New York women named Susan Man and Aleda Hubbard.  In 1828 Allen married the extraordinary Emerine Jane Holman (1810-1889), a southern Indiana woman whose father, Jesse Lynch Holman, was a judge on the Indiana Supreme Court, a United States District judge and one of the founders of both Franklin College and Indiana University.  Her brother, William Steele Holman, was a Democratic congressman for thirty-two years.  Emerine was the Matriarch of the Hamilton Homestead, an enclosed three square-block area Hamilton Homestead where at one time as many as seventeen cousins lived with their three sets of parents.

One of the distinguishing features of the mansion complex was the thousands of volumes of rare and contemporary books that filled the shelves of several libraries.  Emerine was a passionate reader who often lost herself in her books.  Her children and grandchildren remembered being enthralled by her stories and poems.  She was an introspective but generous woman with a great sense of responsibility.   Typically, she gave away as much as one-fifth of her yearly income to the public and needy causes and she paid special attention to the small African American community in Fort Wayne.  She also gave to the American Women Suffrage Association and counted among her friends and occasional house guests Susan B. Anthony and Frances Willard.  She was the founder of the first public library in Fort Wayne, which dedicated its first reading room in her memory.  The children of Allen and Emerine, especially, continued their parents’ devotion to study and achievement.

Andrew Holman (1834-1895), who succeeded his father as head of the clan in 1864, was an avid rare book collector (amassing more than 6,000 volumes, then the largest library of any kind in the city) and served two terms in Congress (1875-1879).  His brother, Montgomery, attended Princeton but left early to enlist in the Union Army during the Civil War.  After the war, he led a Bohemian life in Germany where he met and married Gertrude Pond, a kindred spirit and daughter of a Wall Street broker.

Once settled back in Fort Wayne, Montgomery became involved in banking and politics; but he also took an intense interest in the education of children.  He and Gertrude disapproved of the standard public school curriculum and chose to educate their children at home, stressing language, literature, and history and encouraging them to learn by reading on their own, including pursuing research questions in the family’s ample library.  One friend recalls that it was not uncommon to come upon the Hamilton children all in a circle outdoors heartily enjoying themselves reading Dante’s Divine Comedy aloud in the original Italian.

Gertrude had a profound impact on the many young cousins who grew up and were educated in the Hamilton Homestead.  She fostered the notions of personal ambition and achievement through learning.  Her daughter, Dr. Alice Hamilton, later recalled her mother’s admonition: “There are two kinds of people, the ones who say ‘Somebody ought to do something about it, but why should it be I?’ and those who say ‘Somebody ought to do something about it, then why not I?'"

In this atmosphere young Hamiltons such as the sisters Alice, Edith and Norah and their cousins Agnes and Allen grew and matured into extraordinary people.  Norah (1873-1945) was an artist.  She had worked in Paris with James McNeil Whistler (whose father had been born at the original log garrison of Fort Wayne, which his father had built in the days of the Indian wars.)   She also pioneered in art education for immigrant children at Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago.

Norah’s sister, Edith (1867-1963), was the most precocious of them all.  A passionate reader, she graduated from Bryn Mawr College and studied classical literature in Germany at the turn of the last century.  She became headmistress of Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore and developed it into a rigorous college preparatory school for women before her retirement in 1922.  It was after she retired that Edith became an internationally recognized scholar in Greek civilization and culture.  Her works on ancient Greece are still required readings in many universities today, an achievement for which she was awarded by the people of Greece the only honorary Athenian citizenship ever granted an American.

Sister Alice (1869-1970) went to Fort Wayne College of Medicine before attending the University of Michigan School of Medicine, from which she graduated with an MD in 1893.  Alice, driven by her desire to reach out and help others less fortunate than she, joined the settlement house movement at Hull House in Chicago and worked among the immigrant neighborhoods for many years. 

Her profession, however, took her into the new field of industrial medicine, and there her meticulous skills as a scientist combined with her rare abilities to negotiate and convince made her a formidable force in changing the American factory setting to one more healthful for American workers.  In view of this, she was invited to become the first woman on Harvard’s Medical School faculty to be a specialist in the field of industrial toxicology.

Her activities also extended far beyond the classroom and laboratory.  Always deeply committed to the primacy of personal freedoms, she became an active part in the movement for American neutrality in World War I and an ardent anti-fascist.  After World War II she was a fervent opponent of Senator John McCarthy; in the 1960s. While in her nineties, she actively opposed the Vietnam War.  She died in 1970 at the age of 101.  The last project on which she was working was the problem of disposing nuclear waste. 

Their cousin, Agnes (1868-1961) was a life-long friend of Alice.  She also became intensely involved in Fort Wayne social reform issues at the turn of the century and into the 1930s.  She worked daily with immigrant mill workers in the Nebraska Neighborhood in a community center she called “The Noon Rest,” and she was the first president of the Fort Wayne branch of the YWCA.  She spent the final decades of her life serving others at the “The Lighthouse” the Presbyterian settlement house in   Philadelphia.

Her cousin Allen (1868-1960) became a physician and an outspoken advocate for women’s suffrage and then women’s rights in sex-segregated professions.  His own wife, Marian Walker, was a practicing physician and mother, a dual role for women to which even most activists did not ascribe very readily early in the twentieth century.  Among the later generations one of the outstanding members was Holman Hamilton (1910-1980) who became an award-winning history professor at the University of Kentucky.

Throughout the Hamilton family’s extraordinary career, the thread that tied the members together over the generations and gave them all-purpose was education.  It was this above all else that was shared, relished, cherished and used by each in a world which they strove to make a difference.

Originally published in Fort Wayne Magazine, “Along the Heritage Trail” with Tom Castaldi – March 2005, No. 10, pp. 40-41

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