With her mother “captivated by the glitter” of Lavien, the 16-year-old Rachel quickly found herself pressed into “a hated marriage” that would cast the rest of her life in misery. The union, unhappy from the start, bore a son before she left the home around 1750. A furious Lavien accused her of adultery and invoked Danish law to have her thrown into a cell at Fort Christiansvaern, the thick-wall stronghold that served as both military post and prison for the town of Christiansted.
Completed in 1749, Fort Christiansvaern is a national historic site today, an impenetrable yellow structure overlooking the glittering turquoise waters of Gallows Bay. I repressed a shiver as I wandered alone through its labyrinth of whitewashed rooms. Though primarily used as military barracks and storage, the fort also served as the colony’s prison for runaway slaves and criminals. In the west wing, I paused inside a cell to examine a small exhibition devoted to Hamilton and his family. Here in this cramped space, Rachel Lavien spent several squalid months, with only a narrow window offering paltry light and air, and a slivered view of the water.
I shook off the claustrophobia with a stroll through the sleepy, sunbaked center of historic Christiansted, on the north shore of the island. With its cobblestone streets and 18th-century Danish-style architecture, the town seemed almost forgotten by time — especially when contrasted with the strip malls and beach resorts scattered across the rest of St. Croix’s tropical landscape.
In 1765, abandoned by James Hamilton, Rachel moved with their two sons to 34 Company Street where the three scratched out a meager subsistence operating a small dry goods store that sold provisions like rice, flour and salted fish. Though the home has long since disappeared, replaced by the garden of a Catholic church — a structure at 23 Company Street, where the family briefly resided in…