Henry Hamilton (governor)

Henry Hamilton

Portrait of Governor Henry Hamilton
Born c. 1734
Dublin, Leinster, Kingdom of Ireland, present-day Dublin, Leinster, Republic of Ireland
Died 29 September 1796 (aged 62)
Antigua, British North America, British Empire, present-day Antigua and Barbuda
Cause of death natural causes
Nationality British
Other names Hair Buyer, Hair-buyer General
Occupation soldier, army officer, governor
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Lee
Children Mary Anne Pierpoint Hamilton (daughter)
Parent(s) Henry Hamilton
Relatives Sackville Hamilton (brother)

Henry Hamilton (c. 1734 – 29 September 1796) was an Anglo-Irish soldier and government official of the British Empire. He was captured, during the American Revolutionary War, while serving as the Lieutenant Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs, at the British outpost of Fort Detroit.

Early life

Henry was probably born in Dublin, Leinster, Kingdom of Ireland, in present-day Dublin, Leinster, Republic of Ireland, a younger son of Henry Hamilton, an Irish Member of Parliament. Hamilton was raised in County Cork, Ireland.

Military career

Henry Hamilton started his military career, during the French and Indian War, as a Captain in the 15th Regiment of Foot in the 1758 attack on Louisbourg and the Battle of Quebec.[1] With the support of Governor General of British North America Guy Carleton, Hamilton rose to the rank of brigade major. In 1775, he sold his commission, leaving the British Army for a political career.

American Revolutionary War

Lieutenant Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs at Fort Detroit

In 1775, Henry Hamilton was appointed Lieutenant Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs at Fort Detroit, Province of Quebec, British North America, British Empire, now present-day Detroit, Michigan, one of five newly created lieutenant governorships in the recently expanded, eastern territory of Canada. The American Revolutionary War was already underway, by the time Governor Hamilton arrived to assume his government duties, in the Great Lakes region. Hamilton was in a difficult position: as a civil official, he had few British regular troops at his command, and the natives of the region—French Canadians and American Indians—were not all supporters of the British regime. Normand Macleod, a local fur trader and army officer, acted as the temporary "town major", a British government official, in command of a fortified town, before Hamilton's arrival.[2]

British-Native American war policies on the western frontier

Governor Henry Hamilton became adept at diplomacy with Native Americans, establishing good relations with local Indian leaders. Hamilton, an amateur artist, sketched portraits of many Native Americans while in Detroit, leaving what has been called the "earliest and largest collection of life portraits of Native Americans of the Upper Great Lakes."[3] When the war began, British officials initially determined not to enlist Indians as allies in the war effort, but in 1777 Hamilton received instructions to encourage Indian raids against the American frontier settlements of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky. This was a controversial policy, because it was realized, that Patriot American, civilian colonists would inevitably be killed in these raids. Hamilton attempted to limit civilian casualties by sending British Army officers and French-Canadian militia with the Native American war parties. Nevertheless, hundreds of settlers in Kentucky and western Pennsylvania were killed and scalped, by raiding parties, during the war. In Detroit, Hamilton is alleged to have paid bounties for prisoners and scalps brought in by the Indian warriors. He became hated by frontier American settlers, who dubbed him the "Hair-buyer General", though he denied ever paying for scalps.

Hamilton Surrenders to Clark

Arrival of George Rogers Clark and Illinois Regiment, Virginia State Forces in the Illinois Country

In 1778, Virginia State Forces, under Colonel George Rogers Clark captured several undermanned British posts, in the Illinois Country, including Fort Sackville[4] at Vincennes. Hamilton set out from Detroit on October 7, 1778[5] to recapture the British post, 600 miles away. His small force gathered Native American allies along the way, and entered Vincennes on December 17, 1778, capturing Fort Sackville and the American commandant, Captain Leonard Helm.[6] In February 1779, however, Colonel Clark returned to Vincennes in a surprise march, recapturing the outpost and taking Hamilton prisoner.

Defeat and prisoner of war of Virginia

Because of his support of the Indian raids, the Patriot frontier soldiers and white settlers regarded Governor Henry Hamilton as a war criminal, rather than a conventional prisoner of war. General George Rogers Clark sent Hamilton to the Virginia state capital in Williamsburg, where he was jailed and placed in irons, by the governor, Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia Executive Council and held, from June 16-September 29, 1779. Hamilton rejected his parole on the grounds, that the terms violated his freedom of speech, in restraining him from "saying anything to the prejudice of the United States." [See "Order of Virginia Council Placing Henry Hamilton and Other in Irons," 16 June 1779, and Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1 October 1779, both in the Papers of Thomas Jefferson] Governor Jefferson and the Virginia Council did not grant him parole, until October 1780, when he was sent to New York to await his prisoner exchange, which was accomplished in March 1781. Henry Hamilton then went immediately to London, England.

Later career as British royal governors

Henry Hamilton returned to Canada in 1782, becoming Lieutenant-Governor, and later Deputy-Governor of the Province of Quebec. He went on to serve as Governor of Bermuda, from 1785 to 1794, and Governor of Dominica, the present-day Commonwealth of Dominica, from 1794 until his death in 1796.[7] Sackville Hamilton, his older brother, was a Privy Councillor and Under-Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. In March 1795, at age 61, Hamilton married 25-year-old Elizabeth Lee from Banbury, Oxfordshire, a daughter of Colonel Lee. The Hamiltons had one daughter, Mary Anne Pierpoint Hamilton, who died in 1871 unmarried and without children.[7]


Henry Hamilton died on the island of Antigua, British North America, British Empire, now, present-day Antigua and Barbuda, on 29 September 1796, while still the British royal Governor of Dominica.


  1. Derleth, August (1968). Vincennes: Portal to The West. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. p. 55. LCCN 68020537.
  2. Macleod, Normand. Detroit to Fort sackville, 1778–1779, Detroit: Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library, 1778, pp. x–xiii
  3. "Henry Hamilton drawings of North American scenes and Native Americans: Guide". Cambridge: Houghton Library, Harvard College Library. 2009. Retrieved 8 March 2012.
  4. Fort Sackville, which was named in honor of George Germain, 1st Viscount Sackville. Ironically, Governor Hamilton had an older brother named Sackville Hamilton.
  5. Skaggs, 182
  6. Skaggs, 183
  7. 1 2 "Hamilton, Henry, d.1796. Henry Hamilton drawings of North American scenes and Native Americans: Guide.". Cambridge: Harvard University. 2001. Retrieved 1 February 2011.

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