Black Wall Street businessman, Jeremiah G. Hamilton rode roughshod over his associates, treating legal requirements with all the disdain of a Cornelius Vanderbilt. Then, in the mid-1850s, he took on Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Cornelius Vanderbilt was “the first tycoon,” a self made-man who amassed a fortune running a fleet of steamships and even more money out of the railroad boom. He loved putting together the deal, delighted in the kill and breaking anyone who stood in his way. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century he was an economic colossus bestriding the New York City.
Jeremiah G Hamilton was Wall Street’s first black stock broker. Successful for sure, but loose change compare to Vanderbilt’s fortune.
In 1848, Vanderbilt grew even richer when gold was discovered in California. Scores of thousands of people set out for the west, the majority went by sea, via Nicaragua, in Cornelius Vanderbilt’s steamships.
Vanderbilt treated his steamship company, the Accessory Transit Company, like a personal plaything. He deliberately manipulated the stock price of the company to suit his own purposes, selling them at a high price, then buying them back cheaply.
A new political revolution in Nicaragua threatened upend his ambitions. The new government, hostile to Vanderbilt, issued a decree dissolving the Accessory Transit Company. But Vanderbilt simply ignored the decree and continued operating his steamships.
But stockholder Jeremiah Hamilton did ignore the decree but saw opportunity and seized it. In New York (where the company was listed on the stock exchange) he initiated legal proceedings against Vanderbilt, demanding the and Accessory Transit company be wound up, the creditors paid off, and the surplus distributed to shareholders such as himself.
Hamilton put his case to a New York Supreme Court judge, who, according to contemporary newspapers, overturned his application. His legal challenge had failed.
But did it? As Jeremiah Hamilton’s biographer Shane White has discovered, twenty years later, in the wake of Vanderbilt’s death, at least two writers canvassed the issue of “the Nicaragua transit business.” According to the New York Tribune, Vanderbilt had engaged in “a fierce struggle with Jeremiah Hamilton for control of the Nicaragua Transit Company.” Although Hamilton was “beaten on ‘the Street,’” he “took refuge in the courts, and an interminable litigation was the result.”
A front-page obituary of Vanderbilt in the National Republican stated: “There was only one man who ever fought the Commodore to the end, and that was Jeremiah Hamilton.” He explained: “Hamilton fought him in the courts until he got a settlement.”
He then recorded a remarkable admission: “the Commodore respected him [Hamilton],” although “he did not fear him because he never feared anybody.”
To discover more about this remarkable black businessman, Shane White’s Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street's First Black Millionaire.