The Hamilton House, built at the lower river landing of South Berwick, Maine, about 1785 by shipbuilder and West Indies merchant Jonathan Hamilton, became a museum owned by Historic New England. The house and grounds are maintained in the Colonial Revival style of their owners of 100 years ago, Mrs. Emily Tyson and her daughter, Elise Tyson Vaughan.
During the 1780s and 1790s, Hamilton generated over half the ship tonnage produced in Berwick, Maine (today in the town of South Berwick). In the words of historian Marie Donahue, "Though...Hamilton sprang from humble beginnings and had little formal education, he had a shrewd business head and an eye for a sharp deal."
Jonathan Hamilton was born in 1745 in the Pine Hill section of present-day Berwick. Beginning as a trader in salt fish in the 1760s, soon he owned forests in Lebanon, then bought mill rights in South Berwick both at Quamphegan and at the Chadbourne mill on the Great Works River. In privateering ventures he amassed a fortune that allowed him to expand his business into shipbuilding. On the island of Tobago in the West Indies Hamilton bought sugar plantations based on enslaved labor, and he traded their products. He is believed to have participated in the slave trade.
Hamilton put his Berwick mill products to use at his Salmon Falls River shipyard -- masts, spars, planks, barrel staves and shingles -- and built ships to carry them. He exported lumber, fish, beef and farm products all over the world. His store and warehouse at Pipe Stave Landing were well stocked with tea, sugar, coffee, molasses, rum, timber and shipbuilding tools.
In the 1780s, Hamilton bought a riverfront lot downstream in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in the busiest section of the port. It had a wharf and warehouse with access for his ships at the later location of the tugboat dock on Ceres Street. The store Long & Hamilton, with its door on Fore Street (now Market Street), became a ship chandlery and stocked molasses, rum, wine, tea and other liquors.
Customs records show 104 arrivals of Hamilton vessels in the port of Portsmouth, over half from the West Indies. Though Hamilton apparently never went to sea himself, he was closely involved with the management of his ships, which included:
-- After the American Revolution, his armed, 275-ton Berwick-built Cato sailed as a privateer.
-- Hamilton’s Polly sailed to the Orient in 1789.
-- His Two Sisters in 1801 went to St. Petersburg.
-- Others sailed for other ports in Europe, Newfoundland, and South America.
Of Hamilton’s 12 known ships, two were lost at sea, and three were captured and never returned. In 1794 Hamilton’s Berwick brig was captured by Algerian pirates.
At the time of Hamilton’s death, he owned six vessels. In 1802 they imported 2800 gallons molasses, 6900 pounds sugar, 5500 gallons rum, 18,000 pounds coffee, 7400 bushels salt, 11,500 gallons wine, and quantities of sail cloth.
Privateer of the Quasi-War
During 1790-1801, the United States was almost at war with France. Over 1000 merchantmen were commissioned to carry a small crew and light armament to protect American trade.
One of these privateer ships, the Cato, was built in Berwick in 1790 and owned by Jonathan Hamilton. It was his first ship, and was the first full-rigged, post-Revolutionary War ship built here. The Cato mounted six carriage guns with a crew of ten. Leaving Tobago late August 1798, she was chased by the French privateer Monsieur Dolittle. Cato’s captain swung his ship around with such bravado that the French ship retreated. Upon return to Portsmouth she saluted the town with guns as citizens lined the wharves and cheered.
Sugar and Rum from Tobago
In 1763, Great Britain established a colonial administration on the island of Tobago. Within two decades, 10,000 African slaves were imported to establish the island's sugar cane, cotton and indigo plantations.
Between 1789 and 1801, a John Hamilton is thought to have owned two sugar and rum plantations, Indian Walk and Riseland.
The Hamilton House
About 1788, Hamilton built the finest house in Berwick. In 1791 he became one of the founders of Berwick Academy. Over a century later, Sarah Orne Jewett made him and his estate the focus of her 1901 novel of the Colonial Revival, The Tory Lover. Jewett imagined how her character, Jonathan Hamilton, would have appeared during a fictional Hamilton House dinner in which John Paul Jones arrived by river as a guest.
"As for Colonel Hamilton, the host," she wrote, "a strong-looking, bright-colored man in the middle thirties, the softness of a suit of brown, and his own hair well dressed and powdered, did not lessen a certain hardness in his face, a grave determination, and maturity of appearance far beyond the due of his years. Hamilton had easily enough won the place of chief shipping merchant and prince of money-makers in that respectable group, and until these dark days of war almost every venture by land or sea had added to his fortunes. The noble house that he had built was still new enough to be the chief show and glory of a rich provincial neighborhood."
Historic New England welcomes visitors to the Hamilton House today.
(Summary by Wendy Pirsig from archives at the Counting House Museum. Sources include Historic New England and "Citizen, Merchant, Community Leader: A New Interpretation of Jonathan Hamilton" by Margaret Kugelman. This page was revised December 2020.)
The Hamilton House by Charles H. Woodbury