Where to Retrace Hamilton’s Act 1 in National Parks
They are more than beautiful dunes, breath-taking canyons, and towering mountains. They protect the dwellings of ancient civilizations and the places where science and innovation propelled our world forward. They honor the trailblazing revolutionaries who shaped our history. National parks are all of this and so much more.
Many of the more than 400 units of the National Park System are preserved because they served as the stage for pivotal events in history. National parks are places where we can learn about stories that are revisited and immortalized on-screen, in books, and even in musicals.
Enter: “Hamilton: An American Musical.”
Inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography about America’s first Secretary of Treasury, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” took the world by storm after its Broadway premiere in 2015. The musical quickly permeated through popular culture, inspiring a dedicated fanbase of “Hamilfans” to better acquaint themselves with the story of this “Founding Father without a father.”
Miranda’s record-breaking musical distills Chernow’s over 800-page biography into nearly three hours of thrilling stage spectacle. Each brilliant line is steeped in history (albeit with some creative license taken) and chock-full of references to places now protected by the National Park Service. We’re looking at the settings of the action in Act 1 of “Hamilton” and the parks that preserve their stories today – from Hamilton’s humble beginnings to those of our country’s history. #FindYourPark – o como siempre decimos: #EncuentraTuParque – and join the #HamFam by exploring the real-life “room[s] where it happened,” now protected and preserved by the National Park Service.
Hamilton’s Humble Beginnings in the Caribbean
Alexander Hamilton’s mother, Rachel Faucette, traveled to the Caribbean island of St. Croix to visit her sister in 1745. Soon after arriving, Faucette’s mother arranged for her to marry Johan Michael Lavien – a much older, wealthy local merchant and planter. Faucette was sixteen when she married, and a year later, she gave birth to Peter Lavien.
The marriage deteriorated within five years, and Faucette left the home that she shared with her husband and son. Enraged by his wife’s betrayal, Lavien demanded Faucette be jailed under Danish law to teach her a lesson. She was incarcerated in a small cell for months at Fort Christiansvaern, now part of Christiansted National Historic Site. Upon her release, instead of returning to Lavien a reformed, dutiful wife, Faucette fled St. Croix for St. Kitts, where she met James Hamilton.
Faucette and Hamilton had two sons together out of wedlock, James and Alexander, and in 1765, the Hamiltons returned to St. Croix. The following year, when Alexander Hamilton was ten years old, his father abandoned the family, leaving Faucette to raise the boys on her own in the town of Christiansted. Three years later, when Alexander was just 13, he and his mother became very ill, likely due to yellow fever, and, as the song goes, “Alex got better, but his mother went quick.”
To understand Alexander Hamilton’s tragic formative years, you must explore this history of this unit of the National Park Service in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Christiansted National Historic Site tells the stories of the Danish-era colonization of the islands, the trade, commerce, and agriculture that fueled its economy, and the humble beginnings of our nation’s first Secretary of Treasury.
Hamilton as George Washington’s Right Hand Man
From the moment Hamilton was commissioned as an artillery captain in the Continental Army in 1776, he became a rising star. Hamilton’s bravery in the battles of Trenton and Princeton, coupled with his undeniable “skill with the quill,” led to the opportunity of a lifetime.
In March of 1777, General George Washington invited Hamilton to join his military family as an aide-de-camp. Hamilton’s historic promotion to lieutenant-colonel, reflected in the line from “Right Hand Man” “I need someone like you to lighten the load,” spurred a more-than-30-year bond between the two.
At Valley Forge National Historical Park, where the Continental Army spent their 1777-1778 winter encampment, you can explore the Isaac Potts House that served as Washington’s headquarters. From within those walls, Hamilton penned letters to Congress detailing the army’s “severe shortages of food and clothing.”
The lack of supplies, hunger, and disease wreaked havoc through the camp, killing nearly 2,000 people. The desperation experienced is captured in the song “Stay Alive:” “we have resorted to eating our horses.”
Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler’s Meet-Cute in Morristown
During the 1779-80 winter encampment in Morristown, New Jersey, the Continental Army endured the coldest winter on record. As the soldiers hunkered down in their encampments at Jockey Hollow, Washington took over the Ford Mansion with his wife, Martha, five aides-de-camp, including Hamilton, and eighteen servants.
In addition to hosting visiting dignitaries and diplomats, General Washington and his wife hosted dinners, military reviews, and dances at the Ford Mansion. Though Hamilton and Elizabeth “Eliza” Schuyler had briefly met in Albany a few years prior, the two reconnected during one such party hosted by the Washingtons.
Visiting Morristown National Historical Park today, you can explore the mansion where these parties took place and imagine Eliza trying to catch Hamilton’s “eye from the side of the ballroom.” Hamilton and Eliza were married in December of 1780. Learn more about Morristown National Historical Park’s revolutionary story and the 1779-80 winter encampment here.
Hamilton in Command at the Battle of Yorktown
In the fall of 1781, the last major battle of the Revolutionary War unfolded in Yorktown. After Hamilton spent years of longing for a field command position, Washington finally relented and appointed him commander of a light infantry battalion. During the siege of Yorktown in October 1781, the “ragtag volunteer army in need of a shower” captured British redoubts (enclosed forts) nine and ten; the latter overtaken under Hamilton’s leadership.
The song “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” depicts the surrender of Cornwallis’ British forces: “after a week of fighting, a young man in a red coat stands on a parapet / we lower our guns as he frantically waves a white handkerchief.”
Yorktown Battlefield is now preserved as part of Colonial National Historical Park, which includes Moore House – where negotiations between Allied troops and British representatives took place and where the Articles of Capitulations were drafted, bringing the seven-year war to an end.
Hamilton Goes Non-Stop in Philadelphia
In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the young country’s federal government struggled with commerce, taxation, war pensions, and an inability to enforce laws under the Articles of Confederation. “The colony’s economy’s increasingly stalling,” Hamilton sings in “Non-Stop,” setting the stage for what would transpire in Philadelphia.
Hamilton was one of three New York delegates “chosen for the Constitutional Convention” that met in the old Philadelphia State House – now part of Independence Hall National Historical Park – in 1787. When they first assembled in May of that year, their goal was to revise the Articles of Confederation, but by mid-June it became clear that a new direction was needed.
As the idea of redesigning the government took hold during the convention, debates unfolded as to what a strong central government could look like. On June 18, 1787, Hamilton stood up and talked “for six hours, the convention is listless,” stating his case for an elective monarchy. Though the new form of government that Hamilton proposed did not ultimately gain traction, his participation in the process did not end there.
After months of debates and compromises, the delegates signed the new Constitution, but it still needed to be ratified by the states. Hamilton went on to become one of the most ardent advocates for the Constitution, joining forces with James Madison and John Jay to write a series of articles promoting the new frame of government in what are now called the “Federalist Papers.” As the song describes, “in the end, they wrote 85 essays in the span of six months,” Hamilton writing 51 of them.
An Intermission after Hamilton’s Act 1
The historical references in the first act of “Hamilton: An American Musical” go beyond the five national parks shared here. While these parks set the stage for the action depicted in the show’s first half, songs also reference events commemorated in other national parks. For example, as General George Washington remembers in “History Has Its Eye on You:” “I led my men straight into a massacre. / I witnessed their deaths firsthand,” he alludes to the defeat suffered at what is now Fort Necessity National Battlefield – the location of the opening action of the French and Indian War in 1754.
This rich well of historical references is part of the appeal of the broadway hit to history and national park buffs alike. “Hamilton: An American Musical” animates the story of a forgotten Founding Father through song, just as national parks bring to life the settings where history unfolded. “Hamilton” and national parks connect us, through music and place, to the people who shaped the course of our nation when it was, like Hamilton in the first act, “young, scrappy, and hungry."
If you’re looking for the parks referenced in Act 2 of “Hamilton,” you’re just going to have to “wait for it” - check back soon!