It’s a Mystery — The Intended “John Hamilton” Headstone
Now resting quietly in the front garden of the O’Reilly House museum, an aura of mystery imbues the intended headstone of John Hamilton. But just who was John Hamilton?
Discovering the Headstone
Like every headstone, it no doubt harbours the memory of the person whose name has been inscribed on its front. The date and year he departed this life—18th January, 1826— and maybe a few poignant words about his life and past offer but a hint of who he was to his family, friends and the people who knew him. Below is the only writing that could be determined from the headstone (Source: Barry Gaulton).
January 18th 1826 Aoc ____
________ and liberal for
____ mons of death he ___
interested ___ generous piety worth
________ For he made Jesus ____
heir in the persons of the suffering
of Placentia Bay without distinction
Creed or Country
May Mercy from his God be he____
act to truly Christian and _____
Although the headstone was intended for a John Hamilton, the identity of this person remains a mystery. Of course, there are a few hints regarding his identity. Barry Gaulton and Matthew Carter, the two archaeologists who did an archaeological survey where the headstone was initially found, offered a suggestion or two of John Hamilton’s identity.
Trying to Put It all Together
As the story goes, the stone was made in Waterford Ireland by a Smyth. This was inscribed into the corners of the headstone. I was informed that “Andrew and Thomas Smyth” once ran “Stonemason Waterside” in Waterford, Ireland and this was found in the Pigot Directory. At the time, the Pigot Directory listed information regarding all major professions, nobility, gentry, clergy, trades and occupations including taverns and public houses. Now long gone, this was likely where the headstone was made.
Apparently, the headstone was sent from Ireland to Placentia as ballast on one of the ships owned by Roger F. Sweetman, a fish merchant who was part of a long-standing firm in Placentia.
Something occurred along the way and instead of being used as the headstone for the said John Hamilton, it found a lasting place of rest as the doorstep for Blenheim House, the home of Roger F. Sweetman.
Who Was John Hamilton?
If we’re wondering who was this John Hamilton, there are a few worthy avenues to follow. For instance, there was a Captain John Hamilton of the 40th Regiment whose name appears in the Placentia area history. Of course, on its own, this path leads to its own set of questions.
This John Hamilton appears to have been the son of Otho Hamilton, the Lieutenant Governor of Placentia from 1744 to 1764 (the latter date is uncertain) and brother to another Otho Hamilton who was also of the 40th Regiment and sister Grizel Hamilton.
Although the year of death that appears on the headstone would not correspond with this particular individual, there is reference to yet another John Hamilton in the military. He may be the person who is remembered on the headstone.
His name was discovered in a letter from a “Lieutenant John Hamilton.” Who was this John Hamilton? We learn that Captain John Hamilton was actually married three times. His first wife, Martha Shirreff Hamilton, died before bearing children. However, his second and third wives, Mary Handfield and Ann Moore, did give birth to children. With Mary Handfield, he had three children, their names being Otho, William and Thomas (see page 16 of Lt.-Col. Otho Hamilton of Olivestob). With Ann Moore, his third wife, he apparently had a John. And it’s a John Hamilton’s letter I discovered at The Rooms in St. John’s. He signs his name as John Hamilton Junior and also refers to his Uncle Richard Dawson. This was in fact the husband of Captain John Hamilton’s sister, Grizel.
Lieutenant John Hamilton
Moreover, he refers to “succeeding to the Lieutenancy vacant by Lieut Hudson’s removal.” For what it’s worth, in Lt.-Col. Otho Hamilton of Olivestob), there is reference to another John Hamilton, “who received his Ensign’s commission in the 40th, on the 28th of June, 1755, and his Lieutenancy, the 28th of February, 1 761, and who also disappears from the army list as an officer of the 40th in 1766. Whether he was a son of the John Hamilton, naval officer, or who he was we cannot now tell.”
Taking this into account together with the letter I discovered, this lieutenant does appear to be the son of Captain John Hamilton. Unfortunately, the dates do not match with the Wikipedia article. It stated that John was only born in 1779 which would be twenty years prior to the letter I found at The Rooms. The letter was clearly written when he was already an adult. However, there’s no reference given by the Wikipedia article to allow verification of the information. Is it therefore correct?
As well, his year of lieutenancy stated in the Olivestob document (1761) does not correspond to the letter (1759). Although, in the letter, he does note how they “have heard nothing of it neither have we heard who is our present Lieut. Col. Nor nothing regarding our Regiment.” So, it is entirely possibly it took a couple of years to finalise.
Any Other John Hamiltons?
Needless to say, there are a lot of unanswered questions, particularly, whether this John Hamilton could even be the intended owner of the headstone. While exploring these John Hamiltons from Scotland, at the same time, there are Hamiltons right here in Newfoundland.
Many of these Hamiltons settled on islands such as Isle Valen and Oderin in Placentia Bay. Plus, it is known that many from around the region found work with the Sweetmans, thus allowing the family to have the means to purchase a headstone from Ireland. Undoubtedly, there are no shortage of avenues to investigate.
While the memories that bring life to John Hamilton are still faint, in time and with additional research, they will become more audible and the words carved on the stone, will equally grow in meaning.