Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Alexander Hamilton’s Lighthouse

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse marking the shoals which have become known as the "graveyard of ships," is often referred to as Hamilton's lighthouse. (The current lighthouse is the second built at the site.) The story goes that when the teen-aged Alexander Hamilton was sent from St. Croix to the North American colonies to pursue an education in the summer of 1772, he sailed on the Thunderbolt, which caught fire off Cape Hatteras and very nearly sank. Young Alexander was said to have helped fight the fire. The ship is said to have come perilously close to drifting onto the deadly Diamond Shoals. Years later, in 1802, as Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton recalled his brush with death and supported building a lighthouse on Cape Hatteras.

That is the story anyway. Is any of it true? Hard to say. As the Secretary of the Treasury, the first lighthouse authorized by the Department of the Treasury was not the Hatteras lighthouse but the Boston light as well as several other lighthouses in New England. That may not challenge the story, but it complicates it.

Likewise, the ship named Thunderbolt may not have been the ship on which Hamilton arrived in Boston. A ship of that name shows up in the ledgers that the young Hamilton maintained for his uncle, but may or may not have ever left the Caribbean. The only record of the two ships arriving in the period when Hamilton is said to have arrived are listed only by their captain's name and not by the ship's in the shipping records.

While it is possible that the story about Hamilton and the Hatteras light has an element of truth, at least one author suggests that is is nothing more than legend.  Kevin Duffus, author of The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate , includes a footnote in book, The Lost Light—A Civil War Mystery:

"An urban legend has been perpetuated for more than 50 years that the first lighthouse on Cape Hatteras had been the idea of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, ever since he had been a teenager. The story goes that Hamilton conceived the lighthouse following a near-death experience when his ship, Thunderbolt, caught fire and nearly foundered off Hatteras. Hamilton scholars today, including Yale historian, Joanne Freeman, author of Hamilton Writings, have found no evidence of the Hatteras accident. The myth was fabricated by a popular writer who began his book by admitting that he was not a historian and his book was not a history, yet successive writers accepted his fantasy as fact. Hamilton did not initiate the idea for a lighthouse at the Cape, but without question, as Secretary of the Treasury he paid for it."

On the other hand, the source for this assertion was a blog for which I have no real confirmation.  If anyone has any better documented information, I would love to see it.

Original Page: http://www.oldsaltblog.com/2017/05/alexander-hamiltons-lighthouse/

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