Who is Jeremiah Hamilton?
Hamilton isn’t known by many. His name is rarely mentioned in Wall Street history books. Yet, it was Hamilton that became Wall Street’s first black millionaire in the mid 1800s. Hamilton has no surviving image, literally unrecognizable by any physical feature, except for the characteristics that can be derived from stories of his legend. A successful broker by day and due to his skin color, a mere second class citizen by night. Jeremiah Hamilton conducted business with white people, and excelled during a time that was filled with hatred toward people of color. Stories of his life detail a businessman of aggressive and at times unethical nature. However, some may argue that he most likely wouldn’t have survived if he didn’t have this certain bravado about him. So who was Jeremiah Hamilton? Why haven’t you heard his name before? And how is it that the first black millionaire is absent from history?
As Shane White, author of The Prince of Darkness states, “There is no known image of Hamilton. Not an oil painting, a sketch, not even a photograph. He almost certainly did have photographs taken, and quite likely commissioned a painting, but if any likenesses have survived they are probably catalogued under ‘miscellaneous’ or as ‘subject unknown.”
The information in this writing is based on text from Shane White’s book, The Prince of Darkness, which details the life of Jeremiah Hamilton and from the website jeremiahhamilton.org.
Jeremiah Hamilton was born in the early 1800s. His birth immediately adds to the complexity of his character, as newspapers originally believed he was born in Virginia, only to later have his death certificate reveal that he was born in the West Indies.
In Hamilton’s early 20s, he started his business endeavors by running a counterfeit trade operation. He transported counterfeit coins from New York into Haiti. His operation didn’t last long as authorities were later tipped off, forcing Hamilton to flee Haiti to New York. Hamilton had no choice but to leave by ship as his crimes were considered punishable by death in Haiti.
Jeremiah Hamilton found success in a different way than most black entrepreneurs during his time in New York. Successful black entrepreneurs during the 1800s typically excelled in business by working within their black communities. However, Hamilton pushed through the divide and was able to work with white investors as their broker. Hamilton first began to amass his wealth during The Great Fire of 1835 in New York. 700 plus buildings were lost near and around Wall Street during this tragic event. Victims of the fire lost most of their belongings, and to add to their hardship, Hamilton pocketed their previously invested money for his own good. The money Hamilton took from his clients, remember there was no regulation in place during this time, was then invested heavily into the real estate boom in New York that followed The Great Fire of 1835. Hamilton’s net worth began to grow mightily.
Hamilton’s business ventures were viewed with an asterisk during his career. He would later endure more controversial business dealings as it is also believed that he would over insure ships only to later be accused of sinking the very same ships in order to pocket the proceeds.
It’s safe to say Hamilton had questionable business ethics, but what about the ethics of others toward him? Hamilton was forced to deal with the hardships of being a black business man throughout his entire career. Jeremiah Hamilton became a target for others on Wall Street due to the color of skin. He was viewed as weak, and in turn, white competitors sought to take advantage of him, but he always paid on his debt and investments on time. In 1845, the New Board secondary market, claimed to ban any member that dealt with Hamilton because he was colored and therefore his money ‘was not the same’. Hamilton never stepped down for a challenge throughout his career, including when dealing with Cornelius Vanderbilt, a railroad tycoon during the 1800s (who later amassed the largest fortune in the United States during his lifetime). Hamilton took on Vanderbilt over control of the Accessory Trust Company. Vanderbilt, one of the wealthiest white men of the time, stated that he respected Hamilton. This statement carried weight in the 1800s coming from a white business tycoon to a black counterpart.
Hamilton broke another societal norm outside of being the only black broker on Wall Street and the only black millionaire during the 1840s and 1850s. He also married Eliza Morris, a white woman. The thought of a black man marrying a white woman was taboo for the time. Jeremiah and Eliza continued to break norms as they raised a family with several biracial children.
Jeremiah Hamilton’s business dealings may have been unethical, to say the least (keeping in mind the limited regulation put in place during the 1800s). His rash and aggressive nature detailed in his business dealings was most likely necessary to survive. Respect was hard to come by as a member of Wall Street society for anyone, let alone a person of color. Hamilton had to deal with the societal pressures of racism. Jeremiah Hamilton found a way to break into white culture and found a way to become the first black millionaire. In 1875, he died as the richest black man in the United States. One of his obituaries read, “the notorious colored capitalist identified with commercial enterprises in this city.” His wealth in 1875 totaled $2 million or over $250 million in today’s dollars. Hamilton is buried today at the Green-wood Cemetery located in Brooklyn, New York.
Jeremiah Hamilton’s story should be known.
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