The hurricane — probably at least a Category 3 in St. Croix, according to a leading weather historian — prompted a teenage Alexander Hamilton to write an evocative description published in a local newspaper. Impressed by his essay, leaders of the Caribbean island took up a collection to send him to the American Colonies for formal education.
The rest is history, memorably reworked in the landmark musical “Hamilton.” Debuting on Broadway in 2015, the production garnered massive acclaim, including 11 Tony Awards. A filmed version of the stage play has been streaming on Disney Plus since July.
It was Hamilton’s skill at transmuting the horror of a hurricane experience into a life-changing narrative that inspired the musical’s creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda. As Miranda recalled in a 2015 interview in Vogue, he was reading the biography “Alexander Hamilton” when he came upon author Ron Chernow’s account of the incident.
“I was like, This is an album — no, this is a show,” Miranda said. “How has no one done this? It was the fact that Hamilton wrote his way off the island where he grew up. That’s the hip-hop narrative.”
The story of the pivotal hurricane is captured in a stanza of the musical’s opening number, “Alexander Hamilton”:
Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned/Our man saw his future drip, dripping down the drain/Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain/And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain
In the second act, when Hamilton is enmeshed in an affair-driven scandal, the storm reappears as both memory and metaphor in the song “Hurricane”:
When I was seventeen a hurricane/Destroyed my town/I didn’t drown/I couldn’t seem to die/I wrote my way out
The island where it happened
Hamilton’s own hurricane description was dated Sept. 6, 1772, though not published until Oct. 3 in St. Croix’s first newspaper, the Royal Danish American Gazette (founded just two years earlier).
Chernow said the likely go-between was Hugh Knox, a minister at the church that Hamilton attended as well as a part-time journalist at the Gazette. Knox penned this brief introduction:
The following letter was written the week after the late Hurricane, by a Youth of this Island, to his Father; the copy of it fell by accident into the hands of a gentleman, who, being pleased with it himself, shewed it to others to whom it gave equal satisfaction, and who all agreed that it might not prove unentertaining to the Publick.
While most of Hamilton’s letter addresses the storm as an urgent call for spiritual awakening, he didn’t hold back in portraying the fury of the storm itself:
It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place. The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about it in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels. A great part of the buildings throughout the Island are levelled to the ground, almost all the rest very much shattered; several persons killed and numbers utterly ruined; whole families running about the streets, unknowing where to find a place of shelter; the sick exposed to the keeness of water and air without a bed to lie upon, or a dry covering to their bodies; and our harbours entirely bare. In a word, misery, in all its most hideous shapes, spread over the whole face of the country.
When read with a modern eye, Hamilton’s writings offer a few clues on the meteorology behind this storm:
* He clearly conveys the passage of a hurricane’s calm eye, with fierce winds on either side:
It began about dusk, at North, and raged very violently till ten o’clock. Then ensued a sudden and unexpected interval, which lasted about an hour. Meanwhile the wind was shifting round to the South West point, from whence it returned with redoubled fury and continued so ’till near three o’clock in the morning.
The evolution of wind shifts indicates a hurricane moving roughly from southeast to northwest, which is consistent with the most common tracks through the Lesser Antilles.
* The mention of “almost perpetual lightning” suggests at least some period of intense thunderstorms, most likely within rain bands and/or wrapped around the hurricane’s inner core.
* Hamilton notes that “the rain was surprizingly salt” (sic). Hurricanes can loft huge amounts of sea spray, some of which would be expected to sweep onshore during an intense landfall.
A broader picture of Hamilton’s hurricane
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s official hurricane database (HURDAT) extends back to 1851. Before that, no official record exists of hurricane strength and track, but this hasn’t stopped a few intrepid analysts from drawing their own conclusions.
Michael Chenoweth, an independent scholar and climate historian, is one of the most avid researchers into Atlantic hurricanes from centuries past.
Now working on a 500-year history of North American tropical cyclones, Chenoweth has published multiple peer-reviewed papers. One study by Chenoweth and Dmitry Divine analyzed the tropical cyclone history of the Lesser Antilles from 1690 to 2007. When clustered by decade, their analysis suggests the stretch from 1772 to 1781 — including the Hamilton hurricane — is tied for the busiest.
The Atlantic was exceptionally active on the day of the St. Croix landfall (Aug. 31, 1772), Chenoweth said. Four hurricanes were apparently in progress. One of those ended up striking the present-day Mississippi and Alabama coastlines, then known as “West Florida”, according to a 1776 account by Bernard Romans in “A Concise Natural History of East and West Florida.”
This storm was often confused with the St. Croix hurricane, noted legendary weather writer David Ludlum in his 1963 book “Early American Hurricanes 1492-1870.” Given the apparent timing of each landfall, Ludlum said, “it is obviously impossible they are one and the same.”
As for the St. Croix storm, there is much more to go by than Hamilton’s account, according to Chenoweth.
“Hamilton’s prose style and succinct summarization of what the storm was like and its effects certainly got noticed,” Chenoweth said. But “the track of the hurricane through the islands meant that he was just one of many writers who got a chance to describe the hurricane effects at each of their locations.”
Based on these accounts, Chenoweth estimates that the storm took a classic west-northwest course across the northern Leeward Islands into the Greater Antilles, one that led to multiple apparent landfalls. In Antigua, the British Royal Navy reported a wind switch consistent with an eye passage at English Harbour on the night of Aug. 30, with a calm period lasting for 45 minutes. The next morning, a similar wind shift was reported at Basseterre, St. Kitts, with a calm, sunny period lasting just under an hour.
After St. Croix was struck, wind shifts consistent with landfalls were noted at St. Thomas several hours later and at San Juan, Puerto Rico, during the overnight hours.
Based on the locations and durations of the apparent eye passages, Chenoweth deduced that the hurricane was moving at roughly 6 mph on the night of Aug. 30, then accelerated to about 13 mph as it approached St. Croix and continued on to Puerto Rico.
“The track would suggest that the storm made a jog to the northwest as it passed over St. Croix but soon turned westward and apparently made a landfall in northeast Puerto Rico,” Chenoweth said.
Damage reported in St. Kitts, Antigua, St. Thomas and St. Croix was consistent with a major hurricane, according to Chenoweth. He backs up that conclusion with barometric pressure readings. A drop of 1.6 inches of mercury was reported at St. Thomas, implying a central pressure in the storm of about 28.40 inches (about 962 millibars). The length of calm and the apparent storm motion suggest a smaller-than-average eye, Chenoweth said. Taking such factors into account, this would correspond with a peak wind of about 121 mph (105 knots), in the Category 3 range.
The storm was probably stronger when it hit St. Croix, and stronger still the night before. Chenoweth estimated the eye was only 4 to 5 miles wide during its slow passage over Antigua and St. Kitts. An observer in Antigua reported a sea-level pressure reading of 27.2 inches. With these factors in mind, Chenoweth said he believes peak winds in Antigua could have been anywhere from 121 to 156 mph (105 to 136 knots), spanning the range from Category 3 to high-end Category 4.
All things considered, the Hamilton hurricane ranks as one of the five strongest Atlantic storms in Chenoweth’s database to make an island landfall before the 1900s. It’s a fitting status for a hurricane whose reverberations continue to ring out in story and song today.
Bob Henson is a meteorologist and journalist based in Boulder, Colo. His books include “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change” and “Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology.”