Lock of George Washington’s hair found in college library

A lock of George Washington’s hair has been discovered in an 18th century almanac in the library of Union College in Schenectady, New York. Archivist Daniel Michelson found a red leather-bound volume of the Gaines Universal Register or American and British Kalendar for the year 1793 nestled in the stacks on the third floor of the library and gave it to librarian John Myers to catalogue. The almanac is inscribed “Philip Schuyler’s a present from his friend Mr. Philip Ten Eycke New York April 20, 1793.”

Schuyler was a member of a very prominent New York family that figured largely in the Revolutionary era and beyond, so the fact that the book belonged to him made it an important object. Myers carefully turned each pages of the book and found annotations from Philip Jeremiah Schuyler including instructions on how to “preserve beef for summer’s use.” Then, inside an envelope stuffed into the accordion folder affixed to the book’s cover, Myers discovered strands of grey hair bound in a single white thread. The envelope was labelled “Washington’s hair, L.S.S. & (scratched out) GBS from James A. Hamilton given him by his mother, Aug. 10, 1871.”

Philip Jeremiah Schuyler was the son of General Philip John Schuyler who fought in the Revolutionary War and was elected to the Continental Congress, the New York State Senate and the Senate of the United States. He is considered one of the founders of Union College. General Schuyler was a personal friend of George Washington’s and served under him in the Revolutionary War. His daughter, Philip Jeremiah’s sister, Eliza was married to Alexander Hamilton. The James A. Hamilton who wrote the note on the envelope identifying the hair as George Washington’s was their third son.

Alexander and Eliza were close friends of George and Martha Washington. It’s likely that Martha gave them the lock of hair after George’s death in 1799 as a memento, a common practice at the time, all the more so for prominent citizens mourned by many friends and indeed the whole country.

“In an era when people frequently exchanged hair as a keepsake, it’s quite probable that Martha had given Eliza some of George’s hair, which in turn was given to their son, James, who later distributed it, strand by strand, as a precious memento to close friends and family members,” said Susan Holloway Scott, an independent scholar and author of the recent historical novel “I Eliza Hamilton.”

Officials with the Schuyler Mansion, a state historic site in Albany, believe that James Hamilton gave the lock of Washington’s hair to his granddaughters, Louisa Lee Schuyler and Georgina Schuyler, whose initials are on the envelope discovered at Union. The mansion displays another few strands of Washington’s hair in a locket kept under glass.

A lack of documentation on clear custody of the material found in Union’s archives or DNA testing makes it difficult to verify that the strands of hair are Washington’s. The handwriting believed to be James Hamilton’s on the envelope is similar to Hamilton’s handwriting that accompanies strands of Washington’s hair held by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

DNA testing is not possible as the hairs have been exposed to too many hands and potential contaminants to allow for accurate results. They’re also cut, not pulled from the root as Martha was not a monster. Union College has no record of the book entering its collection, so there’s no clear line of ownership history that could help solidify the claim. However, the Schuylers had such a strong connection to the college and the hair itself is very similar to other strands that are confirmed to have been George Washington’s.

India Spartz, head of Union College library’s Special Collections and Archives, is currently conserving the hair bundle, the almanac and an 1804 letter to 1804 Philip Jeremiah Schuyler that was also found inside the accordion folder. The group will be exhibited at an undetermined point in the future.

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8 Comments »

Comment by dearieme
2018-02-20 08:26:16

DNA testing is not possible … there’s no clear line of ownership history”. Don’t worry: there’s a couple of thousand years worth of success for saintly relics with far less evidence than that to back them up.

 
Comment by Alice
2018-02-20 09:18:29

I grew up near Schenectady, and thought you might like to know how to pronounce it! It is, of course, Native American (Mohawk) filtered through Dutch, and I’ve been told it means “beyond the pines”. It’s pronounced “ska neck tah dee”. Having once heard someone pronounce it “shy ann ka taddy”, I try to get the right way out there! :) We have loads of Native via Dutch in the Mohawk Valley, like Caughnawaga, Canajoharie and Schoharie, none of which are pronounced how they are spelled.

 
Comment by mike
2018-02-20 16:23:45

Alice –

Have you forgotten Skaneateles that nobody can pronounce. My Mom called it Skinny Alice.

 
Comment by Cato
2018-02-20 17:25:36

The correct pronounciation is of course “Alicecaneatitall” – btw “Istanbul (Not Constantinople) ..and even old New York” :boogie: ♩ ♪ ♫ ♬

‘Nieuw Nederland’, the 17th-century colony of the Dutch Republic, is confusingly referred to in Latin as ‘Novum Belgium’, while a place that was once referred to as ‘Batavia’ is somewhere completely else.

There is yet another ‘Amsterdam’ and a ‘Rotterdam’ can be found almost next to Schenectady, moreover, names like ‘Schuyler’ and ‘Ten Eycke’ do sound likewise all Dutch to me.

 
Comment by dearieme
2018-02-20 19:20:39

The motto of South Cambridgeshire District Council, England, is Niet Zonder Arbyt. Old Dutch, I believe. They even stamp it on their wheelie bins.

 
Comment by Scott Glen Young
2018-02-22 13:12:29

Niet Zonder Abbyt = Nothing Withut Work. A very Dutch maxim indeed.

 
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2018-02-24 21:04:51

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Comment by Alice
2018-02-25 18:51:59

My gram always called it Skeeny-atlas. So many interesting names.

One time, my dad went to a Mohawk reservation up in Ontario and found they had the same local accent as we did, hundreds of miles away. Pronounced things the same way. I thought that was cool. :)

 
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