What We’re Reading: The Fort Wayne Hamilton Family

Sue Slick, Collection Information Specialist

We’ve begun easing back into on-site work in our offices at the museum, but while still working from home I got reacquainted with the Internet Archive. This not-for-profit resource provides free access to thousands of digitized books and other materials–a great tonic for library withdrawal while physical libraries are still acclimating to their new normal.

Since I’m kind of obsessed with them and their impact on the museum’s history, I searched the Internet Archive for my favorite influential, quietly colorful, and somewhat eccentric Fort Wayne family, the Hamilton family. As you probably already know, the Hamilton women had a strong supporting role in FWMoA’s founding, and I was excited to find a couple of good “reads” on them: Edith Hamilton: An Intimate Portrait by Doris Fielding Reid, 1967; Exploring the Dangerous Trades by Alice Hamilton, 1943; and Alice Hamilton: A Life in Letters by Barbara Sicherman, 2003.

I admit I have a sense of gratitude to this remarkable family for the Fort Wayne Art School, where I studied around the time the school was absorbed by Indiana University. The Hamilton women were stalwart champions of the school when it was young, and saved it from going under more than once. They even provided a building for the school on their property from 1892-1902. I wish I could wander down to that carriage house for a chat with the cousins and their scrappy painting teacher, William Forsyth, but, sadly, without a time machine, that is not to be. For now, I will share what I’ve learned about them–more than a century later. Bear with me here, as this is a complicated tale.

An 1885 map of Fort Wayne. Circled is the location of the Hamilton estate.
Detail from an 1885 map of Fort Wayne showing the location of the Hamilton estate. Image courtesy of the Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society.

It was Irish immigrant, Allen (1798-1864), who laid the groundwork for the good deeds of his offspring. He was the first member of the Hamilton family to arrive in Fort Wayne (1823). In 1827 he married Emerine Holman (1810-1889), a judges daughter, from Aurora, Indiana. They made their first home in the old Fort Wayne garrison after the military vacated it. The fort housed several residences and retail outfits for a time in the newly platted city. Allen, entrepreneurial and with a talent for business, soon made a fortune in fur-trading, land speculation, and banking through his connections to Miami Chief Richardville. He became prosperous enough to establish a lavish homestead, a great leap form life in the rustic fort. The Hamilton compound occupied three-square blocks on the south edge of downtown Fort Wayne. At its height, the homestead included three elegant homes that housed Allen and his wife and their two sons, along with their daughters-in-law and their children. It remained until the early 1900s–some three decades after its founder’s passing. After his death in 1864, Allen’s fortune continued to support some two-dozen family members pus employees and the running of the households and their grounds. But, Allen’s sons, Montgomery and Holman, engaged in law, banking, politics, and business lacked their father’s Midas touch and the dwindling funds eventually necessitated the sale of the land to the city for the new Fort Wayne High School built in 1903. (Fun Fact: The Fort Wayne Art School and Museum’s first board meeting, after its re-consolidation, was held in the auditorium of the high school on March 4th, 1922).

Though the family was not much involved in Fort Wayne society, the Hamilton women were active, and even daring, participating in the women’s suffrage and temperance movements, providing charitable aid to the poor, nurturing community arts, churches, libraries, the YWCA, learning programs, and child-rearing. Their matriarch, Emerine, though reserved and somewhat distant, was a beloved figure and courageously progressive for her time. Her friend, Susan B. Anthony, often stayed with her when she was in the city. Emerine’s granddaughters carried her independent traits and traditions on in their own private and professional lives. They were members of the third generation–the cousins born and raised on the family homestead who numbered about a dozen–a community in themselves. The kids were schooled and tutored at home, much of their learning was self-directed and drew on the thousands of books collected across the family libraries. When the cousins weren’t reading and memorizing or reciting texts and poetry, they were encouraged to be outdoors where they invented their own games, found adventure, and had the run of the houses, outbuildings, orchard, and grounds. In some ways their lives were quite insulated, but the world of learning was always at their fingertips; and, in their tight bonds with each other, they did not lack for company. These bonds between the cousins endured for the rest of their lives.

Montgomery and Gertrude encouraged their girls and son to think critically, to study thoroughly, and to be prepared to defend their arguments. They were immersed in German, French, Greek, and Latin; religous texts; classics; poetry and some popular literature. Gertrude, like Emerine, supported women’s rights, instilling in her daughters a sense of self-direction and duty, encouraging them to follow their aspirations apart from marriage and motherhood. She was indignantly critical of systemic racism and police brutality in a day when lynching was still too common. It is no wonder that her children would go on to careers that championed and protected the underserved and vulnerable in society.

One of Gertrude’s daughters was Dr. Alice Hamilton (1869-1970), a pioneer in the field of public and industrial health and Harvard’s first female faculty member! She was, in some ways, like Dr. Anthony Fauci in her day: she was internationally known and respected for her courage, honesty, and devotion to improving the health of all, especially the downtrodden and the laborers who were subject to the dangers and toxins of the unregulated workplace. She was a dedicated member of the Hull House settlement community in Chicago founded by her friend, Jane Addams.

Alice’s three sisters also arrived at fame and accomplishment in their chosen fields. Edith (1867-1963), the “natural storyteller”, was a classics scholar, educator, and prolific author. Her fame stretched far beyond Fort Wayne. Among her many awards and accolades included, in 1957, at the age of 90, was the recognition by Athens for her life’s work in Greek scholarship. She was invited to Athens and given the Gold Cross of the Legion of Benefaction by King Paul of Greece. She was also made an honorary citizen of Athens. Norah Hamilton (1873-1945), their father’s favorite, was the artist in the family. Though all the girls were taught to sketch and paint, Norah pursued art seriously, even studying with James McNeil Whistler in Paris and at the Art Students League in New York. Her earliest training was in Fort Wayne at the art school when it was in its infancy, and where she would later teach. She was a teenager when William Forsyth came to town to teach painting and sketching, and would have benefited from attending his classes on the grounds of her own home–the school occupied her Aunt Marnie’s carriage house from 1892-1902. Norah illustrated books by her sister, Alice, and Jane Addams. Margaret Hamilton, 1871-1969, the “stable, quite, thoughtful one”, became an educator and the first headmistress of Bryn Mawr prep school for girls.

An etching, in black, shows a woman with a paper in her hands. Her head is slightly bowed as she looks down, reading the paper. She appears to be laying down, though only her head to waist is drawn.
Norah Hamilton, American, 1873-1945. My Charwoman in New York. Charcoal. Donor unknown, 1965.63. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Not all the young Hamilton women went off into the world, however, which ultimately had an enormous impact on our city’s history. Their cousins, Katherine Hamilton (1863-1932), Agnes Hamilton (1868-1961), and Jesse Hamilton (1865-1960), the daughters of Andrew Holman and Phoebe Hamilton, were kept on the homestead by their more conservative father. All three had artistic aspirations and talents, but it wasn’t until their father died that Agnes and Jessie were allowed to pursue them. Together, they attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia from 1898 to 1900 where they studied under Cecilia Beaux. Neither continued in serious art study: Agnes became a social workers and eventually returned to Philadelphia to direct the Lighthouse settlement home while Jessie stayed in Fort Wayne and joined her sister, Katherine, in caring for their mother until her death in 1932. Phoebe outlived her daughter, Katherine, who died that same year. Katherine, the brilliant one who was denied her wish to study at Bryn Mawr with her cousins and Jessie, the artist, are the sisters who nurtured the nascent art school, recruited the teachers, and took on teaching duties when funds were scarce. They also made sure a location was found when the carriage house was sold with the estate. These sisters, as young adults, also sat on the early Board of Control of the school. Katherine’s name appears as a member of the board until her death at age 68. It seems that because they stayed home, the art school had a stronger foundation than if they had pursued their dreams and left Fort Wayne. Certainly, many other prominent local citizens contributed greatly (our museum grew out of the school under the guidance of Theodore Thieme in the 1920s), but these Hamilton women were integral to the school’s founding and survival.

A remarkable family that left its mark far and wide, five cousins left home and changed the world while two stayed in Fort Wayne, just a few blocks from our museum, changed their hometown.

The Fort Wayne Museum of Art holds several works by Norah, Jessie, and their second cousin, James Montgomery Hamilton.

A landscape shows trees and a lake. The lake extends off the front of the composition, and thick and thin trees are dispersed in the background. To the right is a stand of thin trees. No animals are present.
Jessie Hamilton, American, 1865-1960. Landscape. Etching. James Hamilton Collection, 1941.29. Photo courtesy of FMWoA.

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