Building Bridges to Hamilton's Birthplace
As winter weather rolls across Upstate New York, a report on a recent trip to a Caribbean island may spark envy, but read on. Director and Curator of Special Collections and Archives Christian Goodwillie and Photography and Digital Imagery Specialist Marianita Peaslee visited Nevis, Alexander Hamilton’s birthplace, with three students – Skylar Havens ’20, Samantha “Sam” Wilkerson ’22, and Kayley Boddy ’22 – last month to begin the process of preserving historical documents.
The trip had its origins in 2016 when Christian began working with officials in Nevis on digitizing their historical records. After three exploratory and service trips by students, faculty, and Goodwillie and a visit by the St. Kitts and Nevis’ Ambassador to the Organization of American States Everson Hull to campus, Goodwillie arranged this trip to begin the process.
Selecting manuscripts that were the oldest and most at risk of total disintegration, the group digitized 16 large-bound volumes during their stay. According to Goodwillie, among the most exciting manuscripts in the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society archives were the minutes and correspondence of the Nevis Council during the ancillary naval conflict to the American Revolution that was fought between the English and French in the Caribbean prior to the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
In addition to images, there were letters from the Comte de Grasse, Commander of the French Naval force that assisted George Washington (and Alexander Hamilton) in defeating Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, by the parallel naval engagement called the Battle of the Chesapeake. This victory forced the British to lobby for terms of surrender.
It was a bit surreal to stand where the British had once stood [Brimstone Hill Fortress], looking out over the same beautiful sea and knowing that I was contributing to the preservation of this island's history.
The digitization process offered students additional, more personal, links with history, as Sam Wilkerson explains. “The most memorable part of the trip happened for me when I was photographing one of the manuscripts. When I turned one of the pages, there was a very clear fingerprint in the bottom corner. It was strange to think about the fact that another person made that print over 300 years ago, and then there I was, over 300 years later, photographing it.
“I’ve never been a huge history person, so for me, it was the little things like that that really gave me an appreciation for the project and for the fact that I had the privilege of working on it. … After going on the trip I definitely want to take some history classes.”
Likewise, the trips to local sites and those on neighboring St. Kitts added to the profound connections the students experienced with those whose documents they were handling. “It was a bit surreal to stand where the British had once stood [Brimstone Hill Fortress], looking out over the same beautiful sea and knowing that I was contributing to the preservation of this island's history,” Kayley Boddy reflected. “I really felt like I was a part of living history in that moment. …I learned more than I ever imagined about Alexander Hamilton’s birthplace and about the history of Nevis, really.
“Every moment was a learning experience, whether it was learning to piece together a leaf of a baptismal record, dipping our toes into Nevis’ hot spring baths, or passing by one of the island’s old sugar mills or rum distilleries and learning its story. As a potential classics studies major, handling the island's historical documents and touring their historical landmarks made me truly appreciate the rich, intertwined history that every country in this world has contributed to. It made me more excited to dig into the history of the ancient world and find how it has affected our lives today.”
A highlight of the trip was the island’s celebration of Alexander Hamilton’s birthday. The singing of Happy Birthday was live-streamed to members of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society who were also celebrating at Hamilton’s gravesite in Manhattan. The Nevis group was joined by Nevisian Minister of Culture Honorable Eric R. Evelyn who had met with them earlier in the week.
“We were made wonderfully welcome by Minister of Culture Honorable Eric R. Evelyn, as well as Pauline Ngunjiri, director of the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society, and Gail Dore, the society’s archivist,” said Goodwillie. “We digitized the most historically important manuscripts in the collection, as well as early baptismal registers that are in high demand by genealogists. I am very pleased with what we accomplished on Nevis, and the Hamilton students did a great job.”
Alumnus Johannes Burlin ’87 learned about the possibility of this trip, and he was pleased to underwrite this experience that offered students a connection with the college’s namesake and a perspective on history not often attainable.
The digitized documents are currently being edited and processed. Eventually, they will be available to the public in a digital collection hosted by Hamilton as a joint enterprise of Hamilton College and the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society.