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History of the St Andrew's Society of the State of New York
Biographies: William Alexander (Earl of Stirling)


Fifth President
1761-1764.

William Alexander, who claimed to be the Earl of Stirling, was the son of James Alexander and Mary Sprott, the daughter of John Sprott, of Wigtown, Scotland, and widow of David Provoost, an early Colonial trader, who was long known as “Readv-Money Provoost,” on account of the large fortune he had acquired by smuggling.

James Alexander, the father of the Fifth President of the Society, had served as an officer of engineers in the army of the Pretender and was forced to flee from Scotland to America shortly after the rising of 1715. He first came to the City of New York, and in 1716 was appointed Surveyor-General of the provinces of New York and New Jersey. His scientific attainments were considerable, and desirous of broadening his career, he studied law, was admitted to practice, and became a prominent counsellor. He also filled for many years the office of Provincial Secretary.

William Alexander, his only son, was born in 1726 in the City of New York and died on the 15th January, 1783, at Albany, New York, from a violent attack of gout brought on by bodily and mental fatigue, a few days before the final cessation of hostilities in the War of the Revolution.

As a youth he became clerk to his mother, who even after her marriage with his father, continued to carry on her first husband’s business, and appears to have been a woman of exceptional energy and executive ability. The business was a thriving one, and he soon became her co-partner.

Owing to his father's influence in the Council of the Governor, Mr. Alexander secured a contract to supply' the Royal troops with clothing and provisions, and shortly after joined the commissariat department of the provincial army. Here his talents soon brought him to the favorable notice of General Shirley, the commander-in-chief, who made him his aide-de-camp and private secretary.

William Alexander in due course succeeded his father as surveyor-general, served as an officer in the French and Indian War, and eventually was chosen a member of the Provincial Council.

In 1756 he made a journey to England to testify in favor of General Shirley, who had been accused of neglect of duty, and appeared before the bar of the House of Commons in April, 1757, where his statement was of much service to his chief.

It was during his sojourn in the mother-country that he made claim to the titles and estates of the Earldom of Stirling, which had been in abeyance since the death of Henry Alexander, the fifth Earl, without issue, in 1739.

Large landed estates in Scotland and England as well as charter rights to extensive tracts of land in America, had been granted by the Crown to William Alexander, the first Earl of Stirling, and it is presumed that William Alexander, the American claimant, was actuated more by a desire to secure these valuable lands in America than to obtain the peerage. He employed as his agent, Mr. Andrew Stuart, a well-known writer to the Signet in Edinburgh, who sought out the evidence in support of the claim. From correspondence, still preserved, it is clear that William Alexander, during the course of these investigations (1759-1760), and up to the time of his service as next heir male by the jury, was not resolved whether to claim descent from a brother or from a son of the first Earl of Stirling.

His doubt was finally dispelled, chiefly upon the deposition of two old men, who affirmed his descent from John Alexander, “uncle of the first earl,” and a jury at Edinburgh on the 24th March, 1759, served him as heir male of Henry, fifth Earl of Stirling. It is thus evident that his actual knowledge of his claimed relationship to the Earls of Stirling was vague and contradictory.

The petition of his agent, Mr. Stuart, claiming the descent from John Alexander “of Gogar” and “of Middleton,” is also contradictory, as John Alexander “of Gogar” and John Alexander “of Middleton,” were separate persons, and, in the light of subsequent investigations the petition was found full of errors and unsubstantiated statements.

It might be, however, that his progenitor was John Alexander “in Middleton of Menstry,” son of Andrew Alexander of Menstry, great-great-grandfather of the first Earl. Absolute proof, however, is lacking.

Upon the service of the Edinburgh jury, Major Alexander at once assumed the title of Lord Stirling, and had his claim recognized by Mr. William Turnbull of East Hempstead, and Mr. William Phillips Lee of Binfield, nephews of the fifth earl, who negotiated with him in regard to their supposed rights to the American lands granted to the first Earl. A legal contract was drawn up and subscribed by them, under the terms of which they agreed to accept one-half the proceeds of these lands, the other half to go to Major William Alexander, as Earl of Stirling.

The formal service of a jury at Edinburgh, however, was not sufficient to establish his right to the peerage, and Major Alexander’s next step was to present a memorial to the King praying for recognition as the rightful peer. This petition was, on the 2nd May, 1760, referred to the House of Lords, and a second petition, in the same words, was referred again to the Lords on the 14th April, 1761. On the 10th March, 1762, the Lord’s Committee of Privileges resolved that Major Alexander had not established his claim, and further that he “be ordered not to presume to take upon himself the said title, honour and dignity, until his claim shall have been allowed in due course of law.”

Before this decision, Major Alexander had left London on the 24th July, 1761, and returned to New York, whither he was called upon the death of his mother. He had expended large sums of money to prove his claim to the title and estates, and somewhat embarrassed his fortune, and while in London had the rank and style of Earl of Stirling. Despite the drastic resolution of the House of Lords, Mr. Alexander, once in America, assumed and continued to use the title of “Lord Stirling” to which he had not the slightest legal right, and to the day of his death was addressed and signed himself as a Scottish Earl.

It is an interesting fact that one of the most celebrated trials in the history of the Scotch peerage springs from the claim in 1829 of Air. Humphreys Alexander to the Stirling titles and estates, in the course of which the American claimant’s evidence was thoroughly sifted and found lacking, and the ancient documents and muniments of title produced by the English claimant pronounced forgeries.

Major William Alexander actively championed the cause of the colonists in the agitations preliminary to the Revolutionary War, and upon the outbreak of hostilities was placed in command of the first regiment of militia raised under the authority of the Provincial Congress. He distinguished himself at the outset by capturing during January, 1776, in the Bay of New York, a British armed transport of three hundred tons, for which exploit he received the special thanks of Congress and was made a brigadier-general.

During the month of March, 1776, he was placed in chief command at New York City, which he proceeded to fortify, and a few months later went to New Jersey for the purpose of putting that colony in a state of defense. Returning to New York, he once more took supreme command of the City until the arrival of General Washington. His brigade was engaged in the Battle of Long Island on the 27th August, 1776, when he was taken prisoner, but soon exchanged and promoted to major-general in February, 1777. It was through his fidelity that Washington was made acquainted with the intrigues of General Conway in 1777.

Thereafter, his military career was more substantial than brilliant, but his ability for organization and extreme caution and foresight was of the greatest value to the Continental Army. He fought at the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown, and conducted the American retreat with discretion and skill. He was also present with his command at the Battle of Monmouth on the 28th June, 1778, and owing to the happy position of his batteries, was able to repulse the British troops with heavy loss when they attempted to turn his flank. During the New Jersey campaign he succeeded in surprising and capturing a detachment of British troops in 1779 at Powles Hook.

In 1781 he was appointed to the command at Albany, and here planned the order of battle for the expected attack of the British at Saratoga. This attack, however, never took place, owing to the surrender of the southern British army at Yorktown to General Washington.

He was one of the first governors of King’s (now Columbia) College, in the welfare of which institution he was keenly interested. He, furthermore, was a mathematician and astronomer of repute, and the author of the pamphlets, “The Conduct of Major-General Shirley Briefly Stated,” and “An Account of the Comet of June and July, 1770.”

Elected a member of Saint Andrew’s Society in 1761, he served as President from 1761-1764.

Notwithstanding a large landed estate and fortune inherited from his mother, General Alexander died in great poverty, leaving nothing to his wife and children except the certificates of the State of New Jersey for his military pay. All his lands in New Jersey and New York had been previously sacrificed at forced sales brought by his creditors.

He married Sarah Livingston, the daughter of Philip Livingston and Catherine Van Brugh, an alliance which placed him in close association and relationship with all the prominent Provincial and Colonial families, and was of the greatest aid to him in furthering his own career and interests. He had issue two daughters only, viz.: (1) Mary, born 1749, who married Robert Watts, and had five children; (2) Catherine, born 8th March, 1755, who married (1st) William Duer and had eight children, and who married (2d) William Xeilson, but had no issue by this marriage.

The portrait of William Alexander is reproduced from an admirable oil painting now in the possession of his lineal descendent, Dr. Robert Watts.


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