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“Angelica! Eliza! And Peggy! The Schuyler sisters!”
Unless you have been living under a rock (and given the way 2020 has gone, who would blame you?) you will have heard of the Hamilton musical. The musical tells the story of Alexander Hamilton’s rise from orphan to founding father. In it we meet the Schuyler sisters, Angelica, Eliza and Peggy. But, who were they really? Did Angelica really ‘want to take a bite’ out of Alexander, was Eliza the ‘best of wives’ and did Peggy really confide in him? These are the questions this post explores.
Warning: I will not be throwing away my shot to make MANY Hamilton references.
First, who were the Schyler family?
The sisters were born to General Phillip Schyler (1732-1804) and his wife Catherine Van Renssalaer (1734-1803). The couple were married in 1755 and had fifteen children, eight of which survived into adulthood. The America they were born into was a tense one with the country heading towards the American Revolution, but their family’s wealth meant they grew up in comfort, with their time being spent between Albany and at the family summer home at Old Saratoga. They attended the Reformed Dutch Church and other members would mutter about Phillip and Catherine arriving late to make a “…splashy entrance in their finery.” When Phillip was away fighting, Catherine would run the house, care for her children, and having turned their barn into a makeshift field hospital, she along with other local women would nurse injured soldiers, even when she was heavily pregnant. No wonder their daughters were such strong women.
“…the oldest and the wittiest”
Angelica was the oldest of Phillip and Catherine’s children, born on the 20th of February, 1756. Angelica was described as “…a flirt and obsessed with the social graces and accomplishments that would make her a fine lady.” Owing to their father’s position, the Schuyler family home was often used for war councils and meetings, and in 1776 she met John Barker Church, who was there on the orders of the Continental Congress to audit army supplies.
John was a British born merchant who made his fortune supplying the American and French armies during the war. Despite her father’s distrust of John, Angelica was quickly taken with him. The cause of Phillip’s distrust is debated; some sources suggest he had fled England and travelled to America to escape his creditors after his business failed, other sources suggest he fled England after killing a man during a duel. Despite her father’s distrust, the two eloped and married in 1777.
In 1783, the couple, along with their two children, Phillip born in 1778 and Catherine, born in 1779 left America for Paris, where John became the U.S. envoy to the French government. Angelica who “…never failed to enchant the famous, intelligent men she met…” befriended Benjamin Franklin who at the time was America’s Minister to France, and developed lasting friendships with Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette. After a brief visit home to America in 1785, Angelica and her family returned to Europe, this time settling in London. Angelica had a “fashionable social circle” which included the Prince of Wales, the future King George IV, Charles James Fox, playwright Richard Brinsley, and was a friend and sponsor to the artist John Trumbull, whose works included some of the most famous portraits of the American Revolutionary War era.
In 1778, they purchased a country house in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, and John served as a member of parliament between 1790 and 1796. In 1789, Angelica travelled back to the U.S to attend the inauguration of George Washington.
In the May of 1797, they travelled to America for a visit, before returning to New York permanently in 1799. They began constructing a thirty room mansion called Belvidere which was initially to be their summer home but became their permanent home in 1810 when they moved in despite the house only being partially complete.
Angelica died likely of tuberculosis on the 13th of March, 1814, aged 58, with her sister Eliza at her side. She was buried in Trinity Churchyard in lower Manhattan, near her brother in law Alexander. After the death of his wife and a strained financial situation, John moved back to England, where he died in 1818.
“Angelica tried to take a bite of me…”-Helpless, Hamilton.
We are lucky that there are surviving letters written by Angelica, including those with Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and George Washiniton, held in the Library of Congress and other archives. The affection between Angelica and Alexander Hamilton is not just a plot point in the Hamilton musical, Ron Chernow, who wrote the biography of Hamilton used as the source material for the musical wrote; “the attraction between Hamilton and Angelica was so potent and obvious that many people assumed they were lovers. At the very least, theirs was a friendship of unusual ardor.” In 1794, whilst still living in London, Angelica wrote a letter to her sister Eliza, in which she wrote, “…your Husband, for I love him very much and if you were as generous as the old Romans, you would lend him to me for a little while.” Whilst some take this as proof Angelica was in love with her brother in law, to others it is merely, “a joke between sisters rather than evidence of an actual affair.”
“The best of wives, the best of women.”
Elizabeth ‘Eliza’ Schyler was the second child of Phillip and Catherine, she was born on August 9th, 1757. Tilar J. Mezzeo describes Eliza as “The classic middle sister and peacemaker” a “…quiet force who kept the three sisters together.” Eliza’s upbringing instilled in her a strong unwavering faith that she would remain throughout her life, and has been described as having a “…strong character.” As a girl, she accompanied her father to a meeting of the Six Nations, she was chosen to accompany him as he had no son of the right age to take and she was an experienced and competent horse woman and was known to be somewhat of a ‘tomboy’.
In the February of 1870, Elizabeth was staying with her aunt, Gertrude Schyler Cochran in New Jersey, whilst there she met Alexander Hamilton, who was stationed in Morristown, it’s said that “… after returning home from meeting her, Hamilton was so excited he forgot the password to enter army headquarters,” and another aide said that Hailiton was “a gone man” so maybe it wasn’t only Eliza’s heat that went ‘BOOM’. It was at the same time Eliza met and formed a friendship with Martha Washington. Eliza and Alexander’s relationship grew quickly, when he had to leave Morristown to negotiate a prisoner exchange, they continued their courtship through letters, including talk of a “secret wedding” in at least one letter. By the time Hamilton returned to Morristown, Phillip Schyler had arrived in his capacity as representative of the Continental Congress. Despite Alexander’s low social standing, Phillip approved of the relationship between the soldier and his daughter, as “…he had a feeling that Hamilton would go far.” When Alexander asked for the generals blessing to propose to Eliza, Philip told him that before he could give permission, his wife Catherine would also have to approve, “if she consents to Comply with your and her daughters wishes…” then he would also give his blessing. Both parents gave their blessings and by early April the couple were officially engaged.
When the army decamped in June 1780, Alexander went with them. In September, 1780 Eliza learned that Major John André, the head of the British Secret Service, had been captured in a foiled plot concocted by General Benedict Arnold to surrender the fort of West Point to the British. Eliza had met André, when he was held at the Schuyler mansion in Albany as a prisoner of war in 1775. At seventeen, some suggest that Eliza “…might have had a juvenile crush on the young British officer who had once sketched for her.” Alexander, although jealous, promised Eliza that he would treat André fairly and even pleaded with Washington to “…grant André’s last wish of execution by firing squad but to no avail.” After two months apart, the two were married at the Schuyler mansion on the 14th of December, 1780. They had a brief honeymoon at Eliza’s childhood home, the Pastures before Alexander returned to military service in early January 1781.
Eliza joined her husband New Windsor, where Washington’s army was stationed, and rekindled her friendship with Martha Washington as they “entertained their husbands’ fellow officers”.When Washington and Hamilton had “a falling-out” the couple left and moved into the Schuyler family home in Albany, before moving to their own home across the river from the New Windsor headquarters. As well as ‘creating a home for them’ Eliza aided Alexander with his political writing, parts of Alexander’s 31-page letter to Robert Morris are in Eliza’s handwriting. Having discovered she was pregnant with her first child, Eliza moved back to her parents’ house in Albany, and Phillip, named for her father, was born on the 22nd of January, 1782. Whilst the couple were apart they exchanged letters, Alexander would write “…telling her not to worry for his safety,” and confided military secrets, including the lead-up to the Battle of Yorktown. After Yorktown, the couple remained in Albany for two years, before moving to New York City late in 1783. The following year, on the 25th of September, Eliza gave birth to a daughter named, Angelica, after her older sister who was living in Europe at the time.
In 1787, Eliza sat for the portrait below, done by Ralph Earl, who was being held in debtors’ prison. Alexander, having heard of Earl’s predicament asked if Eliza would be willing to sit for him, thus allowing Earl to make some money and eventually buy his way from prison.
Although she had three children of her own to care for and was pregnant with a fourth, in 1787 they took in the young children of Alexander’s friend Colonel Edward Antill, after the death of his wife’s, then when he died in 1789, Francis remained with the Hamiltons for a further eight years. James Alexander Hamilton, later wrote that Francis “was educated and treated in all respects as [the Hamiltons’] own daughter.” As well as raising their children, Eliza had a full social calendar, she later recalled, “I had little of private life in those days” her ‘social duties’ increased with Alexander’s appointment to Treasury Secretary in 1789. As well as raising their five children, running the house, managing multiple moves between New York, Philadelphia, and Albany, and keeping up with social engagements, Eliza assisted her husband in his political career,
Serving as intermediary between him and his publisher when he was writing The Federalist Papers.
Eliza would copy out portions of his defense of the Bank of the United States.
She stayed up with him, so he could read Washington’s Farewell Address out loud to her as he wrote it.
In November 1794, Eliza suffered a miscarriage whilst the family were in Philadelphia, historians suggest the cause of the miscarriage was the stress of her “youngest child falling extremely ill as well as of her worries over Hamilton’s absence during his armed suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion.” Hearing what had happened, Alexander resigned from public office and resumed his law practice in New York, closer to his family,
“You forfeit all rights to my heart. You forfeit your place in our bed. You’ll sleep in your office instead, with only memories of when you were mine. I hope that you burn.” -Burn, Hamilton.
In 1797, a journalist named James T. calendar published the story of Alexander’s affair with Maria Reynolds, initially Eliza did not believe them, we know this thanks to a letter written by John Church to Alexander in July 1797 “it makes not the least Impression on her, only that she considers the whole Knot of those opposed to you to be [Scoundrels].” That was to change with the release of what has become known as the Reynolds Pamphlet. The Reynolds Pamphlet was published by Alexander on the 25th of August, 1797, in it he admitted to the year long affair between him and Maria Reynolds and that he paid money to her husband, James Reynolds to keep the affair quiet. As Ron Chernow writes, “Hamilton’s strategy was simple: he was prepared to sacrifice his private reputation to preserve his public honour.” Whether he discussed this with Eliza before publishing is debated, but Eliza who was pregnant with her sixth child left her husband and travelled to New York to stay with her parents. She returned to the family home in September 1797 and the two reconciled, Eliza gave birth to their seventh child, a daughter named Eliza in November, 1799.
Tragedy struck the family in November, 1801, when their eldest son Philip, who was just nineteen was killed in a duel with George Eacker. After being shot on the duelling field, he was taken to his aunt Angelica’s house, where he died with both of his parents next to him. He was buried in Trinity church in an unmarked grave near the churchyard, likely because duelling was frowned upon. Their last child, born the following year, he was named Philip in honour of his late brother.
In 1802, Alexander commissioned John McComb Jr. to construct the Hamilton family home, named “Hamilton Grange, after Alexander’s father’s home in Scotland.” Despite Alexander’s affair and the loss of Phillip, their marriage was warm and caring, in 1803, when Eliza attended her mother’s funeral alone, Alexander wrote;
“I am anxious to hear of your arrival at Albany and shall be glad to be informed that your father and all of you are composed. I pray you to exert yourself and I repeat my exhortation thjat you will bear in mind it is your business to comfort and not to distress.”
In July, 1804, Alexander took part in the infamous duel with Aaron Burr. Before taking part in the duel, Alexander wrote to Eliza, telling her:
“The consolations of Religion, my beloved, can alone support you; and these you have a right to enjoy. Fly to the bosom of your God and be comforted. With my last idea; I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world. Adieu best of wives and best of Women. Embrace all my darling Children for me.”
Alexander Hamilton died on July 12th, 1804, with Eliza and all seven of his surviving children by his side, his funeral took place two days later, on the 14th of July, he was buried with military honours, Eliza, however, did not attend Alexander’s funeral, Tilar J. Mazzeo writes “She knew she would collapse in grief long before she ever reached the churchyard.” Whilst much of that grief was for the loss of her husband, in the years before his death she had lost her oldest child, her mother, her sister Peggy, and her brother John. Eliza turned to her family for comfort, especially her father and sister Angelica. After a few months she felt steady enough to return to New York and she and her children resumed attending church on a Sunday and visiting Alexander’s grave after the service.
With her husband dead, Eliza was left to care for their children, who ranged in ages from two to twenty, including Angelica who had suffered a mental breakdown after the death of her brother Phillip which left her in a state of “eternal childhood, furthermore, by August she was becoming aware of the “appalling state of her finances.” Alexander had left her with little savings and had a large mortgage on The Grange. Alexander’s friends rallied around her, and led by John Church, thirty-five men donated “income-producing land in Pennsylvania” but even with her father’s offer to send all the meat and butter the family could want, it was not enough for her to run her beloved home The Grange. Grief and financial woes would once again find Eliza in November, 1804 when her father Phillip died. Some of her siblings felt that as their father had helped Eliza after the death of Alexander, that money should be taken from her share of the inheritance. Whatever inheritance she might receive would not be enough to save her home and so The Grange was sold at public auction. The family discontent over inheritance saw Eliza at odds with some of her siblings and at the centre of gossip, Angelica stayed loyal and the two sisters were best friends until Angelico’s death in 1814, leaving Eliza “to bury another part of her heart there in Trinity graveyard.” In 1836 Eliza was able to collect Alexander’s military pension which along with the rents from the farmland she received in her fathers will provided enough for her to survive.
In 1806, Eliza, along with several other women including Joanna Bethune, founded the Orphan Asylum Society, and from 1821 to 1848 when she left New York for Washington, D.C. Eliza served as the first directress, and “raised funds, collected needed goods, and oversaw the care and education of over 700 children.” As well as her work for the orphanage, Eliza defended Alexander against his critics and worked to preserve his legacy by;
Supporting his claim of authorship of George Washington’s Farewell Address.
Requesting an apology from James Monroe over his accusations of financial improprieties during his affair with Maria Reynolds.
In 1846 she successfully petitioned Congress to buy and publish Alexander writings.
She re-organized all of Alexander’s letters, papers, and writings with the help of her son, John.
Helped John, publish his work ‘History of the Republic of the United States America, as Traced in the Writings of Alexander Hamilton and his Contemporaries’. Which set the bar for future biographies of Alexander.
Eliza wore a small package around her neck containing the pieces of a sonnet that Alexander wrote for her during the early days of their courtship. Although in her nineties, Eliza remained dedicated to charity work and helped Dolley Madison and Louisa Adams raise money to build the Washington Monument.
By 1846, Eliza was suffering from short-term memory loss but was able to vividly remember her husband. Eliza died in Washington, D.C. on the 9th of November 1854, at aged ninety-seven. Eliza was buried near her husband in the graveyard of Trinity Church, New York City.
Margarita “Peggy” Schyler was born on the 19th of September, 1758. She was the third of Phillip and Catherine’s children, Tilat J. Mazzeo described her as “…the wildest, most high-spirited Schuyler daughter.”
There is little written about Peggy, but a family legend tells that her quick thinking and bravery saved three several people including her infant sister and Angelica and Eliza who were both pregnant at the time.
“On the 7th of August, 1781, a group of Tories and Native Americans forced their way into the Schuyler Mansion in Albany, searching for Philip Schuyler, whom they intended to make a prisoner of war. Family members and guests, including Eliza and Angelica, who were both pregnant, ran upstairs to hide, but soon realized they had left Philip and Catharine Schuyler’s newborn daughter Catharine downstairs. Peggy went downstairs to get the baby, but was threatened by one of the Native Americans, who asked where Philip was. Thinking quickly, Peggy replied that Schuyler had ‘gone to alarm the town’. Fearing capture, the raiders fled, but one threw a tomahawk at Peggy, who was running upstairs with the child. The tomahawk left a cut mark in the banister, which the Schuyler family supposedly left in place as a memento.”
It is unclear if this is true as the details appear in published works in the 1830s but no mention of it is found in the writings of the time, nor in the letters of Philip Schuyler or of the Loyalists, who led the raid.
In June 1783, Peggy who was now twenty-five years old married Stephen Van Rensselaer III, a distant cousin, who was six years her junior. Just as her eldest sister had, Peggy eloped. The Van Rensselaers were one of the richest and most politically influential families in New York and their marriage caused some debate as some felt he was too young to be married, whilst others saw his marriage to Peggy as “helpful to his future career.” When he turned twenty-one Stephen assumed responsibility as lord of Van Rensselaer Manor. as his father had died when he was only five years old. The couple had three children, but only Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, survived into adulthood.
In 1799, Peggy became ill with gout, her condition worsened during the winter of 1800–01, and she died on the 14th of March, 1801. Peggy was originally buried in the family plot at the Van Rensselaer estate, but was later reinterred at Albany Rural Cemetery.
“Peggy confides in me.” – Hamilton.
Alexander, who was in Albany for legal business when Peggy’s health declined, visited his sister in law. The two had been corresponding since Alexander and Eliza began courting in 1780 and formed a strong friendship, “Hamilton visited her bedside often and kept Eliza posted on developments.” Alexander was the one to write to Eliza with the news of her sisters passing; “On Saturday, my dear Eliza, your sister took leave of her sufferings and friends, I trust, to find repose and happiness in a better country.’”
The Schuyler sisters were all strong women who had families, faced loss and financial woes and yet, through it all their bond as sisters never faltered.