After Vice President Aaron Burr killed Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804, Hamilton’s widow, Elizabeth Schuyler “Eliza” Hamilton, had to find a way to go on without her beloved husband. One of the ways she found solace—and honored his memory—was to found two institutions in New York that supported lower-income children.
The Hamilton Free School, established in northern Manhattan (not far from where the couple had lived) offered education to students of families who couldn’t afford private education for their children. She also became a founder of the Orphan Asylum Society, the city’s first private orphanage, which built a Greenwich Village facility that provided a home for hundreds of children.
By focusing on children, Eliza found connection to her late husband’s legacy. Hamilton grew up as an orphan from the Caribbean and was able to come to America to study when benefactors paid his way.
Eliza Forced to Move Downtown Following Hamilton's Death
After her husband’s death, Eliza Hamilton remained for a time in The Grange, the clapboard two-and-a-half-story home located on what is now W. 143rd Street just east of Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem, where she was surrounded by gardens filled with tulips, hyacinths, lilies and roses, according to historian Jonathan Gill. But at the time of Hamilton’s death, he still had a mortgage and owed money to the builders, and his wife struggled under the weight of all that debt.
The following year, a group of her husband’s deep-pocketed friends bought the house and property from Eliza for $30,500 and promptly sold it back to her for $15,000, so that she would have money to take care of herself and her family. Even so, according to Gill, Eliza eventually became unable to afford the estate’s upkeep, and in 1813, she was forced to sell it and move to humbler quarters downtown.
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Despite the move, Eliza retained a connection to people who lived a few miles away from her old home. In those days, the still-isolated area didn’t have any free public schools, and paying tuition at a private academy was too much for parents to afford, according to Don Rice, president of the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum Alliance, a community institution that has helped to preserve the history of the area.
Eliza, who had to struggle to pay for her own children’s education after her husband’s death, could empathize. She “made huge sacrifices to send the children to school in town and to keep them at home with her,” Tilar J. Mazzeo, author of the 2019 biography Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton, explains.
“Eliza Hamilton wanted to find a way to honor Hamilton's memory, in the place where their last home had been together,” says Mazzeo.
Eliza was also driven by her faith. As biographer Ron Chernow has written, the deeply religious widow also “believed passionately that all children should be literate in order to study the Bible.”
Hamilton Free School Established in Northern Manhattan
According to documents unearthed in the early 1900s by the New-York Historical Society, Eliza started out by finding a small house near Fort Washington, the Revolutionary War fort that was located at the intersection of present-day Fort Washington Avenue and W. 183rd Street, to be repurposed as a schoolhouse. But the number of students quickly grew, that improvised setup wasn’t adequate.
The widow couldn’t afford a bigger place, but a group of wealthier women in the area decided to help. In March 1818, the group petitioned the New York State Legislature to incorporate a free school, and asked for $400 to build a new school building. Legislators approved the application and the school received some annual city funding.
Eliza Hamilton and her benefactors moved quickly, and by the end of May, they’d already built a one-room, 1,050-square-foot schoolhouse with a slanted roof—big enough for 40 to 60 students—around what is now Broadway between W. 187th and W. 189th streets.
On the Hamilton Free School’s shoestring budget, it could afford just one teacher, who also doubled as the school’s janitor, according to the reminiscences of William Herbert Flitner, who attended the school in the 1840s. “All of the scholars came from the locality between High Bridge and Kingsbridge,” he recalled many years later.
Flitner recalled that the school provided students with textbooks, and that they studied arithmetic by doing calculations on slates. Spelling was taught from Webster’s Elementary Spelling Book, a popular text of the time.
It’s unlikely that Eliza was involved on a day-to-day basis, according to Mazzeo. However, “We know that Mrs. Hamilton did regularly visit the school and give out awards on prize days, so she remained involved with the school's central mission and with celebrating its achievements.”
Eliza was giving much of her time to her other big project—helping to found the city’s first private orphanage in lower Manhattan.
Orphan Asylum Society Rises in Downtown Manhattan
In 1806, Isabella Graham and Sarah Hoffman, two other widows and social activists with whom Eliza had become friends, approached her for help. According to Mazzeo, Hoffman had discovered five children weeping over the body of their dead mother in a slum tenement, which led them to realize the need for an orphanage in the city.
Eliza and the other women arranged to rent a small two-story house on Raisin Street in Greenwich village and hired a married couple to care for the young residents. In March of that year, they formally founded the Orphan Asylum Society, and recruited other women to the cause.
In the first year, the society took in 20 children but had to turn away nine times as many, according to Mazzeo. Eliza and the other activists soon set out to raise $25,000 to build a bigger facility on a donated parcel on Bank Street in Greenwich Village. Eliza personally went out and solicited donations, and with the help of $10,000 provided by state legislators, the cornerstone was laid for a three-story orphanage in July 1807.
When Eliza Hamilton died in November 1854 at age 97, the uptown school was still in existence, but it clearly had seen better days. As the New York Herald reported in 1856, the one-room school was antiquated and so dilapidated that it was “unfit for use,” though it still had a student body of 60 to 70 children.
The following year, according to another newspaper account in the New York Tribune, the school building was destroyed in a fire. After public schools finally were built nearby, the Hamilton Free School’s trustees converted it into the neighborhood’s first lending library, and it later evolved into the Dyckman Institute, an educational advocacy group. Eventually, Eliza Hamilton’s school evolved into a scholarship fund that helps students from Washington Heights and Inwood attend Columbia University.
The Orphan Asylum Society, meanwhile, evolved into Graham Windham, a private nonprofit social services agency that provides parenting support and mental and behavioral health treatment for 5,000 children and families each year. It also operates a school for at-risk youth.
As Mazzeo notes, Eliza “was simply passionate about children's welfare, and where she saw problems she tried to find solutions.”
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