William S. Hamilton, Pioneer in the Old Northwest

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Polhill, Norman
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Western Illinois University
In 1958, while preparing a unit on local history for my American history class at Elmwood Community High School, Elmwood, Illinois, in Peoria County, I noted a reference to William S. Hamilton in early Peoria records and a statement that he was the son of Alexander Hamilton. I was cursorily attracted by the detail but did not pursue further research on the matter. A year later, when I began to consider possible projects for the master's thesis, I decided to explore the Black Hawk War subject. Dr. Hicken advised me that the Black Hawk War had been rather thoroughly filtered and sifted by many writers, and he recommended that I seek an original topic from my locale in northwestern Illinois. During my browsing in the Black Hawk War materials, I had seen the name of William S. Hamilton again. I was intrigued by the possibility that this was the same person mentioned in the Peoria records. Finally, in 1962, after an interruption in my graduate studies, I again encountered a mention of William S. Hamilton in material on the Illinois and Michigan Canal which I consulted in preparing a term paper for Dr. Hicken in Illinois history. When research proved the Hamilton of Peoria, of the Black Hawk War, and of the Illinois and Michigan Canal to be one and the same, I determined to trace the steps of the son of Alexander Hamilton. I had always preferred the study of a person to that of a period or a movement, and I felt certain that no one had undertaken the task of contributing to the truth that is history the account of William S. Hamilton's life; he had not even been accorded an article of his own in Dictionary of American Biography. In the fall of 1962 Dr. Bodine approved the subject and assigned me to Dr. Burton for the formal study. I began immediately to pursue the bits of information previously uncovered and shortly discovered that a biography of William S. Hamilton had been written by Sylvan J. Muldoon in 1930. Thoroughly discouraged, I secured a copy of the book through the Illinois State Library. Muldoon's book, Alexander Hamilton's Pioneer Son, the Life and Times of Colonel William Stephen Hamilton, 1797-1850, skirts Hamilton's Illinois activities and is not, on the whole, a scholarly work even though Muldoon devoted considerable time to it. Dr. Burton and I agreed that the gaps and the undocumented statements in the Muldoon biography provided me with sufficient working opportunity, so the thesis topic remained generally unchanged. on Hamilton's life in Illinois. I began at once to concentrate The Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield proved a valuable source of materials, and its staff members, particularly Miss Flint, Mr. Weatherbee, and Mrs. Schultz, provided experienced guidance. Thus I was launched. I sent letters to nearly every place in the United States where Hamilton had had any association, however slight. The results were not rewarding. The New York State Library and the New York Public Library could contribute nothing. Mr. Jay Monaghan, Wyles consultant, informed me that the Wyles collection in Santa Barbara {University of California) had nothing, and his personal information was only that he was aware of Hamilton's obscurity. Mr. Harold C. Syrett, editor of The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, Butler Library, Columbia University, informed me that the library could find no letters written by Alexander Hamilton to or about William Stephen Hamilton. Even a letter from one of the living descendants of Alexander Hamilton, the Rev. Alexander Hamilton of Kennebunkport, Maine, could not provide me with valuable information. The General Reference and Bibliography Division of the Library of Congress directed me to the National Archives and Records Service which was able to supply me with some United States Military Academy, Volunteer Militia, and surveying information. I became convinced that the bulk of my information must come from the area in the West where William S. Hamilton had been active. The Missouri record is scanty, but valuable information did come from the State Historical Society Libraries in St. Louis and Columbia. A trip to the state capital to inspect the Land Office records proved disappointing. In Illinois, besides the assistance of the State Historical Library, the State Archives, especially through Miss McCree and Mr. Temple, provided much information and help. The Sangamon and Peoria County records were very rewarding. The Peoria Public Library had considerable material of value, and Mrs. Hilderbrand took a personal interest in the study. The Newberry Library and the Chicago Historical Society Library were useful for their very complete holdings. The Galena Public Library supplied several rare volumes, and the Dixon Public Library with an excellent local history room served as my workshop during the winter and spring of 1964. The personal libraries of Judge George C. Dixon and Rep. C. K. Willett and their knowledge of the history of Dixon and of northern Illinois proved very helpful. Mrs. Pease, of the Illinois History Survey in Urbana, provided encouragement as well as assistance in the time spent there. The State Historical Society of Wisconsin bas far more Hamilton material than any other repository. The Cyrus Woodman Collection accounts for most of the items. The staff of the Society in Madison were extremely cooperative. The California State Library in Sacramento furnished a complete record of their Hamilton materials and made a trip, which I could not have managed to arrange, unnecessary. As far as the overt record is concerned, I am convinced that I have traced the life of William S. Hamilton. The documentation, although lamentably scanty, is conclusive as to his movements, his activities, and even to some degree his personal relationships and standing as viewed by his contemporaries. Yet the book on Hamilton is not closed. I cannot, as Muldoon seemingly could, say that as a result of the study I know a man.