Clues to the early history of Canada’s postal service, which was begun right here in Queenston, now sit safely and securely in the Brock University library.
The Alexander Hamilton collection was recently donated to Brock and, following a successful application to have it designated historically significant by the Government of Canada, many of the documents and artifacts can now be viewed via an online exhibit.
David Sharron, head of archives and special collections at Brock, says the collection has been valued at almost $350,000. The documents and artifacts were all contained in a mailbag that was likely stored for years somewhere at the Willowbank Estate. Included in the collection are much of Alexander Hamilton’s correspondence and records during the time that he was Postmaster at Queenston, as well as some related to his role as Justice of the Peace, Collector of Customs, Surrogate Court Judge and Sheriff of the Niagara District.
“Anything that happened from 1800 to about 1839, when he passed away, couldn’t have happened without his influence,” says Sharron. “He had his finger in everything. The fact that these records survived almost 200 years and are now back in Niagara, it’s absolutely thrilling.”
The university acquired the Hamilton collection about a year ago through a private collector from the Toronto area. “Percy Band had a very good eye for postal history,” explains Sharron. “He did some work in the area, and in the 1940s he went to a garage sale and found an old sack of mail. He saw all the records inside, and he haggled the price down to 17 cents.”
Percy’s son Robert inherited his father’s collection. Sharron says Robert’s home was like a private museum of Canadiana. When Robert Band passed away in 2013, his nieces and nephews understood the importance of the documents and artifacts, and have been slowly finding suitable homes for its contents.
“We are very fortunate that this was associated with the Woodruff Family collection that we acquired about six years ago,” Sharron tells The Local. “When it came to the Alexander Hamilton collection, the family felt Brock was the perfect place for it. The records all stem from the Niagara area, and Brock can take good care of it.”
Alexander Hamilton was the son of Robert Hamilton, one of the most successful early merchants in Upper Canada. When Robert died in 1809, Alexander, still in his late teens, and his brother George inherited their father’s business holdings. Much of that fortune, however, disappeared during the War of 1812.
After serving under William Hamilton Merritt in the war, Alexander got busy rebuilding the family’s finances. Much of Alexander’s success in that endeavour came from the different roles he took in public life.
Hamilton built Willowbank between 1834 and 1836. After he passed away in 1839 at 48 years old, his wife Hannah raised their 10 children at the estate. The Hamilton family continued to live in the mansion until 1934, when it was sold to the Bright family, of winery renown.
Included in the collection are 11 postal ink stampers, three wax seal stamps and a fabric ink blotter. But it is in the documents that the true value of the collection is contained.
About 60 per cent of the documents relate to the early days of the postal system. “Everything spread from Niagara and went outwards,” says Sharron. “All international mail went to New York City, came up the Erie Canal to Lewiston, crossed over the river, and all the American mail was distributed through Queenston to the rest of Canada. That was the lifeline of communication with the United States, and even across the Atlantic.”
Sharron says Hamilton established a sorting “factory” here that would distribute the mail, and its location influenced the road system. “The faster they needed the mail to move, they built roads through Niagara so the mail could go quicker to where it needed to go.”
The rest of the collection includes business correspondence relating to some of the other roles Hamilton took on over his brief life. “There is a lot of correspondence with William Hamilton Merritt,” says Sharron. “There’s great detailed messages from Merritt, saying, “we are about to open up stocks in a new company, the Welland Canal Company, and we would like you to find good citizens who would support this.” He was reaching out at the early stages of building the canal.
Other notable names mentioned in the correspondence include the first Anglican Bishop of Toronto, John Strachan, Samuel Street, a member of the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada, and Justice of the Peace and Niagara businessman Thomas Clark.
On the subject of Hamilton’s personal life, or what it was like to live at Willowbank at the time, the collection sheds little light. It does, however, demonstrate how influential and significant the Niagara area was in the early days of the nation.
Sharron looks forward to a day when those interested in early Canadian history can get their hands on the documents. As well, with staff working from home during the pandemic, they have not been able to properly digitize the entirety of the collection. But he is hoping to celebrate the acquisition with the Willowbank School of the Restoration Arts as soon as possible.
When that time comes, all precautions are in place to maintain the condition of the documents. “Humidity and temperature controls are in place,” assures Sharron. “Security is top notch at Brock. When people come in there is a sign-in procedure. Light is another issue. Everything is kept in a dark room, cooled until someone asks for it. Then it goes out to a nice reading room, where someone can enjoy it.”
They will, most likely, have to peruse the collection in Brock’s facilities. “For another institution to borrow anything, we would first have to ask the federal government for permission,” continues Sharron. “We would have to ask for data to prove they can provide the same protection that we can. We’re very happy to work with anyone in the heritage community in Niagara. If we can’t give them the original, we would certainly work with Willowbank to get them quality digital or printed reproductions.”
The documents that have been digitized to this point can be seen in Brock’s online exhibit at https://exhibits.library.brocku.ca/s/alexander-hamilton/.