Unlikely duo of Va. senators claim connections to Hamilton
Mar. 07, 2015
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — When Virginia Sen. Donald McEachin made an offhand comment during dinner about his distant relation to Alexander Hamilton, it drew a shocked reply from a colleague who also claims to be a descendant of the Founding Father: "Hold on. You're kidding me."
No kidding, McEachin — who is black — told Sen. Chap Petersen, who is white. Both lawmakers are Democrats and already were friends before learning they may share a common lineage. But Petersen drew quizzical looks a few days later when he referred during a Senate floor speech to a kinship with McEachin.
Proving the relationship with certainty is difficult, but the story is a study in historical irony, family lore and racial pride.
Hamilton — the arch-nemesis of Thomas Jefferson, who hated Hamilton's idea of a strong central government — was famously killed in a duel with Jefferson's vice president, Aaron Burr.
The saga of his connection to two 21st-century lawmakers goes back to his birth around 1755 on Nevis, an island in what was then the British West Indies. His parents were not married to each other — an inconvenient biographical detail that came back to haunt him as an adult.
Hamilton's father deserted the family and his mother died when he was around 11, leaving him orphaned and penniless. He spent time on two other Caribbean islands, St. Kitts and St. Croix, before emigrating to New York.
McEachin's maternal grandfather, an Episcopalian minister named Aston Hamilton, was born and grew up on St. Kitts before emigrating to Virginia as a young man in the early 20th century.
The shared last name and geographical proximity were no coincidence, McEachin's mother used to tell him: They were related to Alexander Hamilton.
"It was discussed with certainty and pride in my family," McEachin said.
That belief reflected a widespread and long-held presumption in the Caribbean and the African-American community that Hamilton had African blood. The noted African-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois referred to him as "our own Hamilton."
Some theorize that Hamilton's mother was part African, while others claim he fathered a mixed-race son in the West Indies. Neither theory is far-fetched, but impossible to prove all the same, according to Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow.
The belief that Hamilton was biracial "probably arose from the incontestable truth that many, if not most, illegitimate children in the West Indies bore mixed blood," Chernow has written.
There, just as in the American South, sexual liaisons between slaves and their white owners were commonplace.
McEachin, of Henrico County, acknowledges that he can't prove a family link to Hamilton, but he isn't ready to give up on the legend.
"He may have been reluctant to divulge his African ancestry" in an era when slavery was legal and even free blacks had few rights , McEachin said. "If he covered up his past, who could blame him?"
Hamilton left his past far behind, becoming a trusted aide to Gen. George Washington, a military hero at the battle of Yorktown, an ardent proponent of the Constitution and the young nation's first treasury secretary.
His ascent was aided in no small part by his marriage to Elizabeth Schuyler, a daughter of one of New York's wealthiest and most prominent families.
Petersen, of Fairfax, descends from the Schuyler family tree through his mother. The name Schuyler has been given to many in Petersen's family, including his sister, named for Hamilton's wife.
And Petersen is proud to have descended from such stock.
"Hamilton was a great man who came from nothing and succeeded on the basis of his ability and desire," Petersen said. "It's a very American story."