Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Alexander Bampfield Henderson: "Lone Lord of the Isle"

Recently I have published a couple of postings to the Historic Pelham Blog regarding Alexander Henderson, a late 18th century owner of the island off the shore of Pelham that later became known as Hunter's Island. See:

Friday, March 31, 2006: Text of 1804 Will of Alexander Henderson, Owner of the Island Later Known as Hunter's Island

Friday, February 24, 2006: Notice of Settlement of the Estate of Alexander Henderson of Pelham in 1805

Today's Historic Pelham Blog Posting transcribes the text of an entry about the life of Alexander Bampfield Henderson published in J. Thomas Scharf's History of Westchester County published in 1886. The account includes information about how the subsequent owner of Henderson's Island, John Hunter, began to assemble his amazing art collection in the grand mansion that he built on the island previously owned by Alexander Henderson. That entry reads as follows:

""Long remembered among these who, at the close of the last century, sought a home in old Pelham, was a man of large fortune, an educated gentlemen [sic], a bachelor just touching the border of middle life, of whom, as it seems, only one memorial can now be found, and that the marble slab at the head of his grave, hinting briefly at the beginning and ending of his life-story. A single sentence utters its whole message, thus, - In memory of Alexander Bampfield Henderson, Esq., a native of Charleston, in South Carolina, but late of the town of Pelham and county of Westchester, who departed this life 26th December, 1804, aged 47 years.

On a bright summer's day, about ten years ago, in a solitary walk among the tombs of the old French Burial Ground, my attention was arrested by the inscription here copied. Although I had never seen the man, nor been his contemporary, I felt myself closely related and greatly indebted to him. For I was familiar with the story that from his beautiful residence, separated by Pelham Creek from the land estate of my grandparent, William Bailey [sic], he daily used to walk across the causeway and bridge to our homestead and relieve the loneliness of 'Bachelor Hall,' in the sympathetic enjoyment of our family life. Such was his habitude, indeed, during the most important period of my mother's history, her later school days. His private library, a true index of his cherished tastes, was one of the best, at the time, outside of the metropolis; and it greatly intensified his enjoyment of it, often recognizing in my mother, née Anne Bayley, a keen appreciation of books, to minister to her intellectual development by placing at her command the freshest productions of English literature, rendering her familiar with the standard works of Essayists and Poets, with most of those English classics, indeed, that would be found in the choicest home library at the close of the Eighteenth Century. Thus, working 'better than he knew,' he was providing the main topics of interest that ruled the course of our household talk throughout my school days, and was qualifying my mother to become, not professionally, but incidentally and really, the attractive companion and educator of her five children. Her grateful allusions to him made his name familiar to our ears; and often curious fancy would invest with the golden haze of romance the unwritten history of this 'Lone Lord of the Isle.' Rumor had sometimes whispered that, in his experience, the glow of youthful hope had been dimmed by the death of a first love, for whose vacant place no substitute could be found on earth.

In this connection it remains to be said, however, that, whether this suggestion were true or not, a few well-remembered facts, outlining his life course, were recently rehearsed to me by Elbert Roosevelt, Esq., whose life long residence in Pelham, near the Island, suggest [sic] a series of memories related to the whole vicinity, extending over two-thirds of a century. These conversational statements supply what was lacking to give a desired unity to the story.

Mr. Henderson, born in South Carolina, was of Scotch origin; was educated at the University of Edinburgh, and then took rank as a Surgeon in the English Army. Thus he was brought into communication with the British Ambassador in India, and was by him introduced to the Court of the reigning Prince, who engaged the Surgeon's professional services in behalf of his favorite wife, then seriously ill. The treatment was a success, and the delighted Prince honored Mr. Henderson, in his own way, by the presentation of a beautiful Circassian slave girl, about thirteen year of age. This present the Army Surgeon did not bring away with him from India; 'but, after establishing his home at the Island, said Mr. Roosevelt, 'he commissioned your father (Captain James Hague, of Pelham, commanding a ship in the India trade) to look after this princely gift, and bring with him the young Circassian as a passenger on his return voyage from Calcutta. With her, accordingly, Captain Hague sought an interview, but found her so well pleased with her position in the household of a British officer that she could not be induced to leave her new protector. Nevertheless, the Captain was accompanied with an Indian lad, the Surgeon's protégé, who was welcomed, treated as an adopted son, and bore the name of William Henderson. The lad survived the retired Surgeon eight years, and was buried by his side in the old French Burial Ground at New Rochelle. The two graves are surrounded by a well-wrought iron fence, and the smaller marble headstone bears this brief inscription: 'In memory of William Henderson, who died January 19, 1812, in the 25th year of his age.'

In his last sickness the young man was most kindly attended by Dr. Rogers, through whose influence or advice he bequeathed the sum of twelve hundred dollars, appropriated to the erection of a town house, 'for the use and convenience' of the people of New Rochelle. With the recognition of this gift the townspeople of our time generally associate the name of the owner of the Island Home; it is, however, the East India youth's memorial.

Henderson's Island, beautiful for situation, distinguished by its homestead, so greatly enriched by the best of home libraries in Pelham, became well known as Hunter's Island, more distinguished than ever by its new palatial mansion, with the best private art gallery in the United States. The propriety of this characterization by the use of the superlative degree was, probably, undisputed by any rival during the first two decades of this century. We may safely say that no one of the earlier generations of the Pells, or of the Huguenots, however aspiring, would have dreamed of such a possibility for a family home within the bounds of the manorial grant so recently chartered by an English king in troublous times, and then so thoroughly impoverished by the Revolutionary War. Under what conditions could it have seemed possible that some of the choicest treasures of ancient Italian galleries could be transferred to a secluded little island, fifteen miles from the city of New York, the purchase of a young American?

The explanation, as received from Mr. Hunter personally, was this: At the the [sic] time of his graduating from Columbia College, twenty-one years of age, it so happened that he came into full possession of his property. A friend and fellow-student, traveling in Europe while Napoleon was campaigning in Italy, wrote earnestly, reminding him that, on account of insecurity, art treasures were offered for sale at great sacrifice, and that an opportunity to indulge cherished tastes had now arrived, the like of which had not been known before and might never come again. 'My answer was prompt,' said Mr. Hunter, 'availing myself of his service, with faith in his judgment and discretion.' . . ."

Source: Old Pelham and New Rochelle by Rev. William Hague in Scharf, J. Thomas, History of Westchester County, New York, Including Morrisania, Kings Bridge, and West Farms, Which Have Been Annexed to New York City, Vol. I, pp. 711-12 (Philadelphia, PA: L. E. Preston & Co. 1886).

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