Theodosia Burr Alston
(1783-1813) was the daughter of the controversial U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr
She was born in Albany, New York
but was raised mostly in New York City
. Her education was very closely supervised by her father who stressed mental discipline. This type of tutoring was very rarely given to girls of Theodosia's generation. In addition to the more conventional subjects such as French, music, and dancing, the young "Theo" began to study arithmetic, Latin, Greek, and English composition. She applied herself to English in the form of letters to Aaron Burr, which were returned to her promptly, with the inclusion of detailed criticism.
When Theodosia was eleven her mother died. After this event her father closely supervised his daughter's social education. Specifically this included training in an appreciation of the arts and the intangibles of relating to other people. By the age of fourteen Theodosia began to serve as hostess at Richmond Hill. This was Aaron Burr's stately home in what is now Greenwich Village. Once when Burr was away in 1797 his daughter presided over a dinner for Joseph Brant, Chief of the Six Nations. On this occasion she invited Dr. Hosack, Dr. Bard, and the Bishop of New York, among other notables.
On February 2 1801 she married Joseph Alston, a wealthy land owner and politician from South Carolina. They honeymooned at Niagara Falls, the first recorded couple to do so. Alston was governor of South Carolina and possessed a large rice plantation. It has been conjectured that there was more than romance involved in this union. Aaron Burr agonized intensely and daily about money matters, particularly as to how he would hold on to the Richmond Hill estate. It is thought that his daughter's tie to a member of the southern gentry might relieve him of some of his financial burdens. The marriage to Alston meant that Theodosia would become prominent in South Carolina social circles. Her letters to her father indicated that she had formed an affectionate alliance with Joseph. The couple's son, Aaron Burr Alston, was born in 1802.
Following the baby's birth Theodosia's health became fragile. She made trips to Saratoga, New York and Ballston Spa in an effort to restore her health. She also visited her father and accompanied him to Ohio in the summer of 1806, along with her son. There Aaron met with an Irishman, Harman Blennerhassett, who had an island estate in the Ohio River in what is now West Virginia. The two men made plans to form a western empire, which was later joined by General James Wilkinson. Burr and Wilkinson meant to separate Louisiana and parts of the western United States from America, with Burr becoming a kinglike figure, ruling from Mexico.
Trial of Aaron Burr
In the spring of 1807 Aaron Burr was arrested for treason. During his trial in Richmond, Virginia
, Theodosia was with him, providing comfort and support. He was acquitted of the charges against him but left for Europe, where he remained for a period of four years. While he was in exile, Theo acted as his agent in America, raising money, which she sent to her father, and transmitting messages. Theodosia wrote letters to Secretary of State Albert Gallatin
and to Dolley Madison
in an effort to secure a smooth return for Aaron. He returned to New York in July 1812 but his daughter could not quickly join him. Her son had succumbed to a fever and died on June 30 and the anguish involved nearly killed Theodosia. She had to wait until December before she could make the journey. With her husband unable to accompany her, her father sent Timothy Green, an old friend, to accompany her on the trip north. Green possessed some medical knowledge.
On December 30 1812 Theodosia sailed aboard the schooner Patriot from Georgetown, South Carolina. The Patriot was a famously fast sailer, which had originally been built as a pilot boat, and had served as a privateer during the War of 1812, when it was commissioned by the United States government to prey on English shipping. She had been refitted in December in Georgetown, her guns dismounted and hidden below decks. Her name was painted out and any indication of recent activity was entirely erased. The schooner's Captain, Overstocks, desired to make a rapid run to New York with his cargo, and it is likely that she was laden with the proceeds from her raids.
The Patriot and all those on board were never heard of again.
Following the Patriot's
disappearance rumours immediately arose. The Patriot
had been captured by the pirates Dominique You
or "The Bloody Babe
"; or something had occurred near Cape Hatteras
, notorious for its wreckers
Her father refused to credit any of the rumours of her possible capture, believing that she had died, but the rumours persisted long after his death and after around 1850 more substantial "explanations" of the mystery surfaced, usually alleging to be from the deathbed confessions of sailors and executed criminals.
- One story which was considered somewhat plausible was that the Patriot had fallen prey to the wreckers known as the Carolina "bankers". The bankers populated the sandbank islands near Nags Head, North Carolina, pirating wrecks and murdering both passengers and crews. When the sea did not serve up wrecks for their plunder, they lured ships onto the shoals. On stormy nights the bankers would hobble a horse, tie a lantern around the animal's neck, and walk it up and down the beach. Sailors at sea could not distinguish the bobbing light they saw from that of a ship which was anchored securely. Often they steered toward shore to find shelter. Instead they became wrecked on the banks, after which their crews and passengers were murdered. In relation to this, a Mr. J.A. Elliott of Norfolk, Virginia made a statement in 1910 that in the early part of 1813, the dead body of a young woman "with every indication of refinement" had been washed ashore at Cape Charles, and had been buried on her finder's farm.
- Writing in the Charleston News and Courier, Foster Haley claimed that documents he had discovered in the State archives in Mobile, Alabama, said that the Patriot had been captured by a pirate vessel captained by John Howard Payne and that every person on board had been murdered by the pirates including "a woman who was obviously a noblewoman or a lady of high birth". However, Haley never identified or cited the documents he had supposedly found.
- The most romantic legend concerning Theodosia's fate involves piracy and a Karankawa Indian chief on the Texas Gulf Coast. The earliest American settlers to the Gulf Coast testified of a Karankawa warrior wearing a gold locket inscribed "Theodosia." He had claimed that after a terrible storm, he found a ship wrecked at the mouth of the San Bernard River. Hearing a faint cry, he boarded the hulk and found a white woman, naked except for the gold locket, chained to a bulkhead by her ankle. The woman fainted on seeing the Karankawa warrior, and he managed to pull her free and carry her to the shore. When she revived she told him that she was the daughter of a great chief of the white men, who was misunderstood by his people and had to leave his country. She gave him the locket and told him that if he ever met white men he was to show them the locket and tell them the story, and then died in his arms.
- A popular (though very improbable) local story in Alexandria, Virginia, suggests that Theodosia Burr Alston may have been the Mysterious Female Stranger who died in Alexandria at Gadsby's Tavern on October 14, 1816. She was buried in St. Paul's Cemetery with a gravestone inscription that begins: "To the memory of a / FEMALE STRANGER / whose mortal sufferings terminated / on the 14th day of October 1816 / Aged 23 years and 8 months."
Portrayals in Fiction
Theodosia Burr is the subject of Anya Seton
's first novel, My Theodosia
- Dictionary of American Biography Base Set, Theodosia Burr, American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936, Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Michigan: Thomson Gale. 2006.
- Fleming Thomas, Duel, Basic Books, September 2000.
- Lauber Patricia,The Nags Head Portrait, in Famous Sea Mysteries, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1962, Pages 20-39.