Hamilton, Jeff (1840–1941)

By: Jean C. Davis

Type: Biography

Published: January 1, 1995

Jeff Hamilton, son of Abner Hamilton, was born a slave on the Singleton Gibson plantation in Kentucky on April 16, 1840. The Gibsons moved to Fort Bend County, Texas, in 1843. There Mr. Gibson was killed, and his widow married James McKell, a heavy drinker and gambler, known to mistreat the slaves. Sometime after the marriage McKell settled in Trinity County. Hamilton was taken from his mother in October 1853 to sell at auction in Huntsville so McKell could pay a whiskey bill. Senator Sam Houston was in town that day, noticed the crying child, and purchased him.

Houston took Hamilton to his home, where he was a playmate of the Houston children, a personal bodyguard and valet of Sam Houston, and had a close, loving relationship with the family. Hamilton was a driver for Houston during his two campaigns for governor. He learned not only reading, writing, and arithmetic but also had lessons on religion and responsibility with the Houston family. When Houston was elected governor of Texas in 1859, he appointed Hamilton as his office boy. Hamilton met many important historical figures during this period in his life and attended many important events. He was with Houston when the governor refused to take the oath to join the Confederacy. When Houston freed his slaves in October 1862, Hamilton remained with the family. He was Houston's personal body servant and was with him at the time of his death. Afterward, Hamilton moved with the Houston family to Independence, Texas, and remained with them until Mrs. Houston died. In Independence Hamilton helped the Houstons and worked as a janitor at Baylor College from 1889 to 1903. When the female college (now Mary Hardin-Baylor University) moved to Belton, Hamilton moved there too.

Throughout his life Hamilton remained an honorary member of the Houston family and attended all their reunions and special family events. He located his mother following the Civil War. She recognized him by a burn scar on his left leg. She also showed him an old Bible her mistress in Kentucky had given her; from annotations in it he learned his date of birth and father's name. Hamilton married Sarah Maxey, and they had eleven children. During his later life he was honored throughout the United States for his association with leading historical figures of his lifetime. He spoke at many historical events, especially during the Texas Centennial, and was widely interviewed about his life as a slave and his life with the Houston family. Hamilton revered the Houston family until his death, on April 3, 1941, in Belton. He was buried in the East Belton Cemetery. Two Texas historical markers honor him, one at his gravesite and one on the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor campus in Belton.

Lenoir Hunt, "My Master:" The Inside Story of Sam Houston and His Time, by Jeff Hamilton as told to Lenoir Hunt (Dallas: Manfred Van Nort, 1940). Andrew Webster Jackson, A Sure Foundation and a Sketch of Negro Life in Texas (Houston, 1940). Marion Karl Wisehart, Sam Houston (Washington: Luce, 1962).
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Civil Rights, Segregation, and Slavery
Time Periods:
  • Antebellum Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Jean C. Davis, “Hamilton, Jeff,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 27, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/hamilton-jeff.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 1, 1995

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: