“Hamilton’s General Agency and Intelligence Office” was opposite the Cataract House. During this time period, the Underground Railroad was in full swing in Niagara. It is only conjecture at this point, but this sort of operation may have provided the perfect front for operating in the runaway slave business. It’s location opposite the Cataract House and the fact that it was the sort of place that African Americans would naturally approach if they were in need of “situations” made it seem possible that it could have been a spot for runaways to seek assistance.
Throughout the years, the Hamilton’s were well known and respected members of the community. They had several children including: Catherine, Lewis and Henry. Henry was a photographer and news dealer. He operated “Hamilton’s Photographic Portraits” on Main Street in the later 1880’s.
One of the most fascinating family connections came through Mrs. Hamilton’s sister, Dorothy Condol. Dorothy Condol was married (also in Geneva) to William Bell Fossett. By 1860 the Fossett’s were in Niagara Falls—and William, like L.H.F., was a waiter (according to the census). There may be other family connections between William Bell Fossett and L.H.F. Hamilton as Hamilton’s mother’s surname was “Bell” and Fossett’s middle name was also “Bell.” Another similarity involves the fact that they both resided in Washington, D.C., in their early years. Connections have not been substantiated at this point in time.
There are just a few more interesting facts concerning William, though. Especially concerning his background. First of all, William Fossett may have been the grandson of Thomas Jefferson. Born at Monticello in 1821, he was the son of Joseph Fossett and Edith Hern. Joseph was the son of Mary Hemings (Sally Hemings’ sister) and perhaps Thomas Jefferson or a white carpenter named William Fossett (however no proof of his existence has been made). They were the slaves of Thomas Jefferson. When Thomas Jefferson became president, he removed to the White House and took William’s mother away from her husband in order to learn French cooking. Joseph escaped from Monticello at one point and ended up at the White House in order to be with his children who were deathly ill. He was severely punished for running away. Joseph was eventually made free by a codicil of the will of Thomas Jefferson in 1827 and so were most of the children. All of the other slaves belonging to Jefferson were sold to pay off his exorbitant debts. It is generally believed that those slaves set free in Jefferson’s will were of his own blood.
It is also believed, by historians from Monticello, that Underground Railroad activity may have led William Fossett to Niagara Falls. Fossett was in Niagara Falls as early as 1854. He may have been a waiter at the Cataract House. It was said that he had worked as a caterer with his brother until he had been “given charge of a hotel at Niagara Falls.” Of course, their cooking skills were most likely gleaned from their mother, who had brought French cooking to America through Thomas Jefferson.
Both William and his brother, Peter, were extremely active in the Underground Railroad—mainly in Cincinnati—after the period in Niagara Falls. It is possible that “many a time” the brothers may have hidden a fugitive in some secret location until they could be taken on to Levi Coffin or to John Van Zandt’s station. Detailed records do not exist to tell of their time in Niagara, but it is possible (and probable) that William and his wife, Dorothy, may have been quite active in the Underground Railroad here in Niagara Falls, alongside, the Hamiltons.
In the end, L.H.F. and Clarissa took much of the story of their role in the Underground Railroad to their graves. L. H. F. died on May 14, 1903. He was 79 years old. Clarissa died on January 6, 1915. She was 90 years old. They rest not too far from some other active participants in the Underground Railroad…but their stories will be for another day.