The Mysterious Disappearance of Theodosia Burr

Theodosia Burr Alston c. 1802 (source)

Theodosia Burr Alston by John Vanderlyn c. 1802 (source)

Theodosia Burr is yet another accomplished woman obscured by her famous, or in this case infamous, father, US Vice President Aaron Burr, of Hamilton vs. Burr duel fame. Very well-educated and politically astute due to a close relationship with her father, Theodosia was set to make a difference when she married wealthy South Carolina landowner Joseph Alston, but she never had the chance. At the age of 29, she set sail for New York from South Carolina and was never seen again.

Theodosia was the daughter of Aaron Burr and his wife Theodosia Bartow Prevost, a widow and ten years Burr’s senior. Born on June 21, 1783, she was the only surviving child of the marriage. Burr adored his daughter and having read Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, he decided to give her an excellent education.

Under Burr’s direction, Theodosia studied the traditional subjects for a young woman – music, dancing, and horseback riding – but also those typically reserved for boys. She studied French, Latin, Greek, and the classics, as well as arithmetic, natural science, and English composition. Theodosia was an exceptional student and was by some considered the most well-educated American woman of her generation.

When her mother died of cancer, she was eleven years old and Burr also took on her social education. By the age of 14 she began to manage the household and serve as the hostess for her father at their home, Richmond Hill, in present-day Greenwich Village. Burr even trusted her to entertain renowned Mohawk chieftain Joseph Brant who arrived one day in Burr’s absence with a letter of introduction.

“This will be handed to you by Colonel Brant, the celebrated Indian Chief… He is a man of education…. Receive him with respect and hospitality.” 

Over time, Theodosia became not only Burr’s pupil, but his primary and most trusted confidant. They wrote thousands of letters over her short life and she stood by him through all of his mistakes and misfortunes. The least of these being the debt he accumulated through excessive entertaining. Some even speculate that Theodosia’s marriage may have been an attempt to help aleviate this pressure.

Aaron Burr c. 1802 by John Vanderlyn (source)

Aaron Burr c. 1802 by John Vanderlyn (source)

In 1801, Theodosia married Joseph Alston, a wealthy South Carolina plantation owner and future Governor of South Carolina. Joseph may have been motivated to marry Theodosia in part to moderate his aristocratic status and make him more appealing to Republican voters. Regardless of their motivations, Theodosia’s letters to her father indicate that they had an affectionate relationship. They spent their honeymoon in Niagara Falls, beginning an American tradition.

In 1802 the couple had a son, Aaron Burr Alston, and from 1802 to 1812, Theodosia was a busy woman. Her husband began his political ascent beginning with election to the South Carolina House of Representatives, becoming Speaker of the House in 1805, and finally being elected Governor in 1812 by the General Assembly.

Also during this time, Burr had two crises. The first in 1804, was his decision to challenge Alexander Hamilton to a duel. The duel took place in New Jersey, and Hamilton after being shot was taken back to his home in New York where he died. Although dueling was illegal in both New York and New Jersey, and Burr was charged with multiple crimes, including murder, he was never tried. For a time he stayed with Theodosia in South Carolina, but eventually returned to Washington, DC to complete his term as Vice President.

In 1807, Burr desperately needed his most loyal supporter when he was indicted for treason. The charge was that Burr was gathering forces and planned to create an independent country including 40,000 acres in Texas territory, leased to him by the Spanish Crown, and parts of Mexico. Of course, he would be the leader of this new nation, and some suggest that he had been grooming Theodosia to be his successor. Historians disagree on Burr’s actual intentions, and we will probably never know, but he was acquitted of all charges.

After the trial, Burr went to Europe where he spent four years. During this time, Theodosia was his agent in the US where she raised money for his support and acted as a go between hoping to smooth his return to the country. When he finally returned in July of 1812, the joyful reunion that they anticipated was never to occur.

In June, just before her father’s return, Theodosia’s son died of a fever. Her health had been poor since his birth and his death almost killed her. In addition, the War of 1812 began in June and her husband as Governor was head of the state militia and couldn’t accompany her to see her father. It was December before Theodosia felt she could make the trip.

Burr sent an old family friend with some medical knowledge, Timothy Green, to accompany her. The schooner, Patriot, which had been used as a privateer during the war, was refitted to erase any evidence of its recent activity, and the captain was prepared to make a fast run to New York City. On December 31, 1812, Theodosia, Green, and Theodosia’s maid sailed from Georgetown, South Carolina. The passengers and crew were never heard from again.


Numerous rumors have arisen suggesting the Patriot was captured by pirates including Dominique Youx, wreckers or Carolina “bankers” who lured ships ashore on the Outerbanks and murdered the crews, or a vessel piloted by John Howard Payne. In the case of Payne, documents supporting this theory were supposedly found in the Alabama State Archives stating that the crew included a “woman who was obviously a noblewoman or a lady of high birth”, but Foster Haley, who put forth this theory never identified the documents he cited.

In his 1872 novel, Fernando de Lemos: Truth and Fiction: A Novel, Charles Etienne Gayarre supposedly combined truth and fiction and includes a confession by the pirate Youx where he admits finding the ship wrecked off of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and murdering the crew including a well-bred young woman. The assumption that there was some truth in Gayarre’s book fueled the rumors that this confession might be real.

The "Nag's Head Portrait" possibly by John Vanderlyn, now hangs in the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University (source)

The “Nag’s Head Portrait” possibly by John Vanderlyn, now hangs in the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University (source)

In 1903, a Mrs. Harriet Sprague issued a sworn statement regarding a confession of Frank Burdick, a shipmate of Youx. In it Burdick said that they had discovered the wrecked Patriot and had left Theodosia’s clothing and a portrait of her at the wreck. Also in 1869, Dr. William G. Pool received a portrait of a young woman in white as payment for treating Mrs. Polly Mann, a poor fisherman’s wife. Mrs Mann said that the portrait was found on board a wrecked ship during the War of 1812. Later, Pool became convinced that the “Nag’s Head Portrait” was of Theodosia, but couldn’t confirm this with any remaining relatives at the time.

There has also been speculation that Theodosia was the “Female Stranger” who died at Gadsby’s Tavern and was buried at St. Paul’s Episcopal church Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia in 1816.

It is likely that the ship was caught in a storm off of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The logbooks of the British fleet, which was blockading the coast, report a severe storm in the area on January 2, 1813 with “near hurricane-force winds” continuing into the next day.

However, my favorite theory, although highly improbable, is that a Karankawa warrior from the Texas gulf coast found a ship wrecked at the mouth of the San Bernard River. When he investigated, he found a naked white woman chained by her ankle and carried her to shore. He revived her only to have her die in his arms. But before she did, she gave him a locket inscribed “Theodosia” and told him that her father was a great white chief who “was misunderstood by his people and had to leave his country.” She told him that if he ever met white men, to show them the locket and tell her story.

Whether Theodosia was killed by pirates, died in a shipwreck, or was carried away to the gulf coast as a prisoner, we will never know, but she has made her mark in popular culture. She is the subject of Anya Seton’s novel My Theodosia, and makes appearances in Robert Frost’s poem “Kitty Hawk” as well as Gore Vidal’s novel Burr. Most recently, she is remembered in the song “Dear Theodosia” in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton.

Oh and of course it is rumored that Theodosia still roams the beach at Bald Head Island in North Carolina, perhaps searching for her painting.


Episode #22 – Theodosia Burr at History, Bitches (podcast)

Theodosia Burr Alston: Portrait of a Prodigy by Richard Cote

Theodosia: The First Gentlewoman of Her Time by Charles Felton Pidgen

Khutulun: Wrestling Warrior Shero

This post originally appeared on one of my favorite blogs, Sheroes of History, and was written by the blog’s founder Naomi Wilcox-Lee. I hope you enjoy it and check out the other great women on the site.

Khutulun wrestling a challenger, a miniture c. 1410

Khutulun wrestling a challenger, a miniature c. 1410 (source)

I first read about KHUTULUN in an article called ‘7 of the Most Amazing Women You’ve Never Heard Of’ which is what first started me thinking about doing this blog. And indeed until that point I had never heard of this wrestling, warrior, princess.

Khutulun lived in a country called Mongolia over 800 years ago. Her name means ‘moonlight’, and her father, Kaidu, was a powerful ruler whose kingdom stretched far and wide across Central Asia.

Now Khutulun had some pretty impressive relatives; she was great-great-grandaughter of the fearsome invader Ghengis Khan, and niece to the equally ruthless Khublai Khan. And while it seems she certainly carried the family gene  for fearlessness, her family connections didn’t do her or her father any good – in fact it was her cousin Khubilai Khan who repeatedly tried to invade the land her father ruled over.

She learned how to ride a horse and use a bow & arrow from a young age, as did many young Mongolian boys and girls, and by the time she was grown she became used to bravely riding into battle with her father. Throughout her life she rode into battle alongside her father, fighting of her cousin’s armies.

The explorer Marco Polo once wrote about Khutulun and her signature battle move. He described how she would ride into the midst of the battle on her horse and snatch up a soldier before riding off with him (and presumably disposing of him elsewhere!) Marco Polo said she grabbed these men “as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird”!

Off the battlefield Khutulun became known for her incredible athletic ability as a wrestler, and has gone down in history as the woman no man could beat at wrestling!

Her mother and father really wanted Khutulun to get married, but it seems she wasn’t too keen on the idea. She made an agreement with her father that if any man could beat her at wrestling, she would marry him. The word spread across the kingdom and many men started arriving to take up the challenge. To compete the men had to bet a number of horses, most would maybe give about 10. If Khutulun won the match she could keep the horses, but if the other guy won, he could marry her. As more and more men walked away defeated by the strong princess the number of horses they said they would give her started to go up! Khutulun became very, very rich (with horses!) One day a man offered a thousand horses to wrestle her!  By this time she had beaten loads of men who had all walked away without their horses and without a bride! By the time this suitor offered the 1000 horses to wrestle her, Khutulun’s parents were pleading with her to just let him win!

She was worried about upsetting her parents, so she agreed to let him win. Well that was the plan; huge crowds gathered to watch the match, and it seemed like finally she may have met her match; they wrestled too and fro with Khutulun using all her strength! The match went on for much longer than normal and it looked like maybe this new suitor would win. But Khutulun was proud of her strength and knew she was a great wrestler, in the end she couldn’t just let this stranger win, and just like the many men who had come before him, he was defeated by the awesome Warrior Princess.

Eventually Khutulun was allowed to choose her own husband, and she remained an undefeated wrestler. Today when Mongolian men wrestle in the traditional way they must wear a top with a completely open front – so that their opponent can be sure they are a man! And everytime they win a match they honor Khutulun by raising their arms in the air and bearing their chests.

Check out Sheroes of History video about Khutulun.

Check out other Sheroes of History at the blog and follow on Facebook and at @SheroesHistory on Twitter. The blog is written with younger readers in mind and you also find free downloads to help you celebrate sheroes with your own young sheroes and heroes.

Frederika Charlotte Riedesel: Following the Hessian Army During the American Revolution

Fredrika Charlotte Louise von Massow, Baroness von Riedesel (source)

Frederika Charlotte Louise von Massow, Baroness Riedesel by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tiscbein (source)

During the American Revolution, armies on both sides of the conflict had camp followers. Mostly women, they were often reviled even though their services were needed by the armies. The women cooked, did laundry, nursed the wounded, and transported gear from one battlefield to another. There were mistresses and prostitutes among them, but many were the wives and families of soldiers.

These women came from all walks of life. Among the Americans, we have all heard of Martha Washington’s visits to her husband’s winter camps. There were other officer’s wives who joined her and they made life in camp, if not luxurious, at least bearable. Other women were not so lucky, they often followed the army because their homes had been destroyed or were unsafe because of the location. Frequently their only source of income was the small salary received (intermittently) by their husbands. This was true for both revolutionary and loyalist families. In fact, many American women followed the British army, either because they were loyal to the cause, or simply because the British troops were better provisioned.

Senior British officers didn’t usually bring their wives over from England. However, they often had “camp wives” who took care of their needs, including sex. Sometimes these were the actual wives of non-commissioned officers. One of the more famous examples is Elizabeth Loring, wife of Joshua Loring, who kept General William Howe company for three years.

“Sir William he, snug as a flea
Lay all the time a snoring;
Nor dreamed of harm as he lay warm
in bed with Mrs. Loring” ~ Francis Hopkinson

This was not the habit of the Hession officers, however, and Friedrich Adolf Riedesel, Major General of the Brunswick troops, wanted his wife with him. Frederika had married Friedrich in 1762, when she was 16 years old and he 24, after she nursed him back to health following a wound he received during the Seven Years War. By the time the Duke of Brunswick signed a treaty to provide soldiers to the British for the American Revolution in 1776, they had two little girls,  Augusta and Frederica, and she was pregnant with their third.

Friedrich Adolf Riedesel c. 1790 (source)

Friedrich Adolf Riedesel c. 1790 (source)

Friedrich left in February of 1776, expecting Frederika to follow after the baby’s birth, however, it was April of 1777 before she was able to set sail for America. Two months after the birth of a third daughter, Carolina, she began her journey, traveling to England to meet the wife of another officer, Captain Foy. When she arrived in Bristol, she didn’t speak the language and was laughed at because of her clothes. Mrs. Foy also refused to leave until she had written permission from her husband, even though they needed to leave before the winter set in. This didn’t happen, so Frederika used the time to learn English and adjust her clothing choices.

“I discovered soon after my arrival in Bristol, how unpleasant it is to be in a city when one does not understand the language…I wept for hours in my chamber, until, finally, I gathered courage and resolved to surmount all difficulties. I took great pains to learn the English language, and in six weeks made such progress as to be able to call for what I wanted, and to understand the newspapers…”

Frederika’s father was a lieutenent general in the Prussian army. As he moved with the army he kept his family close, so Frederika knew what to expect as a camp follower. Still, it was a sacrifice to leave her comfortable home with small children in tow and evidence of her affection for her husband. The journey went well with the exception of seasickness among all her servants and at times the children. Friedrich was well-regarded, and she was treated well because of this and her good nature. In June, two months after leaving England, they arrived in Quebec.

“When it was known in Quebec that I was nearing the city, I was saluted with cannon by all the ships in the harbor; and at twelve o’clock, noon, we saw a boat approaching us, containing twelve sailors dressed in white, and wearing silver helmets and green sashes. These seamen had been sent to fetch me from the ship, and they brought me a letter from my husband, in which he wrote that he had been obliged to set out for the army.”

Frederika and the children had to travel for four days via carriage and canoe to reach Friedrich, but they finally had their joyous reunion. They were separated two days later when the troops left, and Frederika settled in at the convent of the Ursulines at Quebec to wait. Finally, at the end of the summer, Friedrich received permission from General Burgoyne to have Frederika and the children join him in route to capture Albany. They had a pleasant two weeks before hostilities broke out again.

Now at the scene of the fighting on the Hudson river, Frederika spent time comforting and helping the sick, wounded and dying. With her children and servants tucked “safely” in her carriage, she followed the army doing what she could to help. She was an eyewitness to the Battle of Freeman’s Farm in September, and present at the Battle of Bemis Heights where she had to clear the dinner table to make a bed for the wounded and dying General Simon Fraser. He had requested burial at 6:00 pm at a particular spot, this was carried out the next day, even though “cannon balls flew continually around and over the party.”

After serious fighting on October 7th, they marched through cold and wet weather to Saratoga. She had no place to change her wet clothes, but dressed her children and put them to sleep on the ground before the fire. The next day fighting resumed, but Frederika was able to find a house for shelter, where she organized the other wives and began to take in wounded and sick soldiers. They remained there for six day under siege and artillery bombardment.

“We were at last obliged to resort to the cellar for refuge, and in one corner of this I remained the whole day, my children sleeping on the earth with their heads in my lap; and in the same situation I passed a sleepless night. Eleven [cannon balls] passed through the house, and we could distinctly hear them roll away. One poor soldier who was lying on a table for the purpose of having his leg amputated, was struck buy a shot, which carried away his other; his comrades had left him, and when we went to his assistance we found him in a corner of the room, into which he had crept, more dead than alive, scarcely breathing”.

The Marshall House in 1867. Although in private hands, the house has been preserved to show the signs of its service during the war. (source)

The Marshall House in 1867 (in present day Schuylerville, New York.) Although in private hands, the house has been preserved to show the signs of its service during the war. (source)

On October 17, 1777, the British troops surrendered at Saratoga and Frederika joined her husband in being taken as a prisoner of war. She was frightened as they entered the American camp, but noticed looks of compassion on the faces of the men when they saw her with small children. When they stopped, a man helped the children down from the carriage and told her not to be afraid. Later, the same man offered to let Frederika and her children eat in his tent rather than with all the men. She accepted and had the best meal she had had in a long time. She then found out that he was the American General Schuyler, who also extended to her an invitation to stay at his home.

The Riedesel family stayed with the Schuylers for three days, unfortunately during that time all of Friedrich’s camp equipment was stolen. All they had left was the baggage Frederika had carried in her carriage for the children. It was three years before they were able to replace most of it. Three days later, the defeated army was moved to Boston and later to Virginia. The generals agreed to a “convention” rather than a “surrender”, so technically they were not prisoners of war, but neither were they free to return to Germany.

In November of 1779, Friedrich expected to be exchanged for an American prisoner and the family was allowed to go to New York City. The exchange fell through, but they were treated well by the American officers, and the governor of New York, William Tryon. In spite of this, life wasn’t easy. Although the army officers treated them well, they met with hostility from ordinary citizens and Friedrich’s health wasn’t good. While in Virginia, he suffered from an apparent heart attack and later in New York Friedrich, Augusta, and most of the servants came down with smallpox during an epidemic.

Three of the Riedesel daughters (source)

Three of the Riedesel daughters (source)

In July of 1781, the family left New York for Canada, finally headed for home, although it would be 1783 before they boarded a ship to sail back to Europe. A fourth child had been born in New York, a daughter they named America, and after their arrival in Canada a fifth daughter arrived who didn’t survive. (After the birth of America, Thomas Jefferson sent his condolences on the birth of another female.)

Life had been difficult for Frederika Riedesel and her family, but it was far more difficult for the lower class women and families who followed the army. Not only was their very survival at stake, but they were treated with disdain by many of the soldiers and citizens. Berkin suggests that the lower class women who did the laundry of the troops and scavenged clothing from the dead “were part of the military life that these men hoped would soon come to an end.” However, the general’s wives “served to distinguish masculine roles from feminine” and reminded them of “a world far removed from the brutality and violence of warfare.”

Christmas, 1781 in Canada. The Riedesels are credited with popularizing the German traditional Christmas Tree in the Americas. (source)

Christmas, 1781 in Canada. The Riedesels are credited with popularizing the German traditional Christmas Tree in the Americas. (source)

Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence by Carol Berkin
The Women of the American Revolution by Elizabeth F. Ellet, Volume I
Letters and journals relating to the war of the American Revolution, and the capture of the German troops at Saratoga by Fredrika Riedesel, translated by William L. Stone, 1867.
Frederika Baroness Riedesel” by Lina Sinnickson, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1906.
Marshall House (Schuylerville, New York). (2014, October 9). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 16:15, April 8, 2015.

Madame Mathilde Anneke – Revolutionary

Mathilde Anneke (source)

Mathilde Anneke (source)

In her older years, Madame Anneke was described as tall, rigid and erect, with a “white silk cloth at her wrist where her right hand had been amputated.” She presided gently, but firmly, over her students at the girl’s school she founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But in spite of her gentle demeanor, her fighting spirit could be seen in her opposition to slavery and her fight for women’s rights. This spirit and her considerable skills had been developed at the printing press and on the battlefield of her native land.

Mathilde Franziska Giesler was born April 3, 1817, to a wealthy, noble family in Lerchenhausen, Westphalia, in the Ruhr Valley of present day Germany. Her father owned coal and iron mines and extensive lands where she was raised in luxury. Mathilde was educated by private tutors and showed an interest and ability in writing as a girl as well as a love for nature.

Mathilde’s happy life ended when she married Alfred von Tabouillot at the age of nineteen.The marriage ended in divorce one year later and was followed by a bitter custody battle over their daughter. This experience gave her first hand knowledge of the injustice of laws related to the rights of married women and she became a staunch advocate of women’s rights.

After the divorce, Mathilde turned to her writing skills to support herself. She did well, writing and editing, publishing a volume of poems and short biographies. She even wrote a play, Oithono oder die Tempelweihe, “The Inauguration of the Temple”, which was successfully performed in both Germany and later in the United States.

Fritz Anneke c. 1870 (source)

Fritz Anneke c. 1870 (source)

In 1847, Mathilde married Fritz Anneke, a Prussian artillery officer. They shared common political ideas and together began publishing a daily paper for working class people in Cologne. This was during a time of increased desire for freedom among the people of the German Confederation, and eventually, Fritz was imprisoned for his political activities, but Mathilde continued publishing their paper until it was banned. Unwilling to have her voice silenced, the next year she started the first German feminist newspaper, Frauen-Zeitung.

When Fritz was released from prison, he joined the revolutionaries fighting against the Prussian invasion of the Palatinate. Mathilde cut off her long hair, donned trousers and went with him to serve as his adjutant. She was nearly six feet tall, courageous, and an excellent horsewoman. She also handled a gun well as one stranger found when he tried to sneak into camp late at night. Coming face-to-face with Mathilde’s pistol he said “My God, a woman!” Fortunately for him, he was able to explain his presence in the camp.

When the revolutionaries were defeated, Mathilde and Fritz were force to flee and joined many Germans who fled to the United States. In the US, Mathilde was faced with many of the same social conditions for women and she was also appalled at the conditions of African Americans. In 1852, she started the first feminist journal published by a woman in the US, Deutsche Frauen-Zeitung, and spoke out against slavery. She was an eloquent speaker and spoke and wrote in support of the Union cause. She and Fritz were in accord on this matter and he served in the Union Army as colonel and commanding officer of the 34th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

While other publishers conspired against her in Milwaukee, possibly out of professional jealousy, Mathilde went on a speaking tour to raise funds for her own printing shop. The tour was very successful and the next month she began publication in New York, Jersey City and Newark, New Jersey. She traveled abroad to report on international events as well as news within the United States. Mathilde worked hard and was successful for three years until ill health forced her to stop the paper.

After the Civil War, separation from her husband, and his death in 1872, Mathilde Anneke continued to speak out for women’s rights, the vote, and economic opportunities. She had also continued to bob her hair since the war in Germany. In spite of her strong opinions and commanding presence, she was known for her tact and the ability to win others to her way of thinking. This skill was very useful to her when she began her career as a teacher.

In her final years, Mathilde, now usually called Madame Anneke, chose to pass on her knowledge and ideals to young girls. She opened a school where she instructed about 40 girls at a time (and over the years a few boys.) Her style was unusual and surprisingly modern. Instead of standing to recite, the girls sat around a long table with their teacher at the head. In a newspaper article from the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1930, one of her former students, Miss Ida Fernekes had this to say: “It was not her idea to pour knowledge into a child. She drew out, removed obstacles, gently led the way. She allow a child to grow, standing by only to give the growth guidance and purpose.”

For roughly 18 years, Mathilde Anneke imparted wisdom, bolstered confidence, and encouraged talents. I’m sure she was greatly missed when she died November 25, 1884.Madame Anneke was buried beside her husband and wrote the words which adorn the headstone. A loose translation says the following:

“We have never bent the knee
before false gods,
We have never cowered in
stormy weather,
Be we have always had faith
in a divinity
That ever consecrates a
shrine to love.
 – From “Ruins and Ivy”

Mathilde Anneke's headstone by Michelle Woodham (source)

Mathilde Anneke’s headstone by Michelle Woodham (source)

National Honor Sought for Madame Anneke: Older Residents Recall Fight for Women’s Rights, Milwaukee Sentinel, April 27, 1930, retrieved from Wisconsin Historical Society website
Anneke, Mathilde Franziska (Giesler) 1817 – 1884 (Wisconsin Historical Society)
Madame Mathilda Franziska Anneke: An Early Wisconsin Journalist, The Wisconsin magazine of history: Volume 21, number 2, December 1937

Rani Lakshmibai – Warrior Queen

Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi

Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi (source)

Lakshmibai was the queen of the state of Jhansi in northern India at the time of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, also known as India’s First War for Independence. She was a leading figure in the rebellion and a symbol for her people of resistance to British rule in India. She was young and is remembered as fearless in battle. And, she made the list of Time’s Top 10 Bad-Ass Women in 2011.

Childhood and Marriage

Born into a Brahmin family, her given name was Manikarnika and she was nicknamed Manu. Her mother died when she was four, but she was well taken care of by her father and officials at the court of Peshwa Baji Rao II at Bithur where he worked. Educated at home and given more freedom than many girls her age, she trained in archery, horseback riding, and martial arts.

Manu’s birth year is given as various dates from 1827 to 1835, but sources agree that she married the Maharaja of Jhansi, Raja Gangadhar Rao in 1842. She was given the name Lakshmibai and as the Rani of Jhansi was called Rani Lakshmibai.

Lakshmibai around the time of her wedding.

Lakshmibai around the time of her wedding. (source)

In 1851, she gave birth to a son named Damodar Rao. Unfortunately, he only lived to be four months old. After their son’s death, the Raja and Rani adopted a boy named Anand Rao, the son of Gangadhar Rao’s cousin. The adoption of Lakshmibai’s son took place in the presence of a British official. At the time he was given a letter from the Raja requesting that after his death the boy be treated with kindness as the heir, and Lakshmibai be appointed regent. The day before the Raja died in November 1853, Anand Rao was renamed Damodar Rao.

Annexation of Jhansi

Gangadhar’s grandfather had signed a treaty in 1817 with the British assuring his successors title to Jhansi and they had been pro-British since that time. But, in spite of the official precautions that the Raja took, and the long standing right of an Indian sovereign to choose his own successor, the British East India Company refused to abide by the agreement. Because Damodar Rao was adopted, they chose to apply the Doctrine of Lapse.

The Doctrine of Lapse stated that any territory under the power of the British East India Company would be automatically annexed if the ruler died without a direct heir. The policy had been used previously, but under the Governor General Lord Dalhousie between 1848 and 1856 the company took over eight different states. This contributed to a growing sense of discontent all over India.

Lakshmibai wrote at least three letters protesting the annexation and consulted British counsel John Lang, but was unsuccessful in getting it reversed. After her third appeal, April 22, 1854, an appeal was made to the Court of Directors in London. This also failed and she was given a monthly pension, the state jewels, and moved to the palace Rani Mahal.

Rani Mahal (Photo credit: Allen Copsey)

Rani Mahal (Photo credit: Allen Copsey, source)

Even though the government  changed hands, Lakshmibai was still recognized by the people as Rani and was probably one of the wealthiest people in Jhansi. She still had responsibilities to her son and the people and was respected, although she may have annoyed the British officials with her petitions. She also continued her practice of daily exercise including horseback riding and shooting.

The Rebellion of 1857

In May of 1857, word reached Jhansi of mutiny among sepoys in the army at Meerut. Lakshmibai asked for permission to raise a small force as bodyguard for her own protection. British officials agreed, but failed to take the same precaution themselves. On June 5th, sepoys in the Jhansi garrison rebelled, looted, released prisoners from the local jail and took possession of one of the forts in the town.

At least two British officers were killed and the rest took refuge in the other fort with their families. Two days later, the fort was besieged and they surrendered. Although promised safe passage by the mutineers, once the British were out of town one of the rebel leaders ordered their deaths. They then turned their attention to Lakshmibai and demanded money.

There was little Lakshmibai could do at the time, she complied with the demands of the rebels for money under threat of violence and as soon as they left the area on June 11th she reported the situation to British authorities.  At this point, there was no government, so she took steps to stabilize the situation and three days later sent another letter to a Major Erskine who encouraged her to take charge until another official could be sent.

Over the next six months, Lakshmibai worked to protect the town and keep the situation stable. She had to defend against a rival for the throne as well as attacks from neighboring towns taking advantage of the absence of troops, and in one case claiming to act on behalf of the British. Throughout this time, she made repeated requests for help from the British and got no response. She also found it necessary to deal with the rebels in order to obtain the weapons she needed to build up her fighting force.

The Jhansi fort in 1857

The Jhansi fort in 1857 (source)

After spending most of her money and doing all she could, Lakshmibai wrote one last time to the British authorities. She closed her letter dated January 1, 1858, with this statement: “I beg you will give me your support in the best way you can, and thus save myself and the people who are reduced to the last extremity and are not able to cope with the enemy.”

The Final Showdown

There are conflicting reports of when Lakshmibai decided to oppose the British. To protect herself and Jhansi, she had been forced to cooperate with those opposed to the British; they had taken her throne from her, and the people were opposed to many things about British rule. They also received reports from villages and towns where the British had regained control. Some commanders were lenient, but others executed anyone they suspected of being a rebel, looted the towns and left the wounded to die.

The British force which marched toward Jhansi on January 5, 1858 was led by Sir Hugh Rose. He was apparently of the opinion that no leniency should be offered. One of his subordinates wrote to his parents, “Sir Hugh knows no native language so pays little heed to what a prisoner says. His first question is ‘Was this man taken with arms in his hands?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, ‘Then shoot him’ says Sir Hugh.” Hearing reports from other towns, Lakshmibai had no other choice but to expect the worst. So she prepared.

The siege began on March 21, 1858. She was given a chance to surrender, but the Rani knew that many of her supporters would be executed, so with the support of the people she refused. The British were outnumbered, but had a distinct advantage in weapons and training. The fort was surrounded and bombarded until finally a breach was made in the wall on March 30th.

At the same time, a rebel force of 20,000 under the command of Tatya Tope arrived, forcing Rose to delay entering the fort. Even though Rose was forced to split his forces, he was able to keep continued bombardment on the breach to prevent escape while pursuing the newly arrived rebels to the Betwa river where he defeated them.

Although they were delayed, on the morning of April 3rd, the British entered the fort at Jhansi with orders to kill any male over sixteen. Vishnu Godse, a Hindu priest, wrote of the experience that it was four days of destruction of property and people “without distinction.” The fighting was intense and the Rani was in the middle of it, just as she had frequently been seen on the walls during the siege.

In spite of Rose’s precautions, sometime on April 3rd or 4th Lakshmibai was able to escape. There is a legend that says, once she knew her capture was inevitable, she tied her son to her back, mounted her horse and leapt over the cliff. The horse died, but she escaped and rode 100 miles to Kalpi. At Kalpi, she met with other rebels, but Rose pursued them and again forced them to retreat, this time to Gwalior.

The point from which Lakshmibai supposedly jumped from the battlement on her horse. (Photo credit: Allen Copsey)

The point from which Lakshmibai supposedly jumped from the battlement on her horse. (Photo credit: Allen Copsey source)

The fort at Gwalior was considered impregnable and Maharaja Sindia had remained pro-British throughout the rebellion. The British expected them to disband, but instead about 11,000 rebels advanced on Gwalior. After the first few shots, most of the Maharaja’s army defected and he fled to safety. Another Maharaja, Rao Sahib, was crowned and Lakshmibai was given a priceless pearl necklace.

On June 17th, they faced the British in battle. Lakshmibai was given command of the eastern flank, supposedly the most difficult position to defend. There are several accounts of how she died. You can read several of them at Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi: Mutiny, but the one I like the best is from Saul David’s book Indian Mutiny 1857, and taken from the diary of Edward Grey, a veterinary surgeon with the 8th Hussars:

“The Rani was on horseback … when the British cavalry [8th Hussars] made their surprise appearance, causing her escort to scatter … she boldly ‘attacked one of the 8th in their advance, was unhorsed and wounded’, possibly by a sabre cut. A short while later as the British retired … she recognised her former assailant as she sat bleeding by the roadside and fired at him with her pistol. Unfortunately she missed and he ‘dispatched the young lady with his carbine’. But because she was ‘dressed as a sowar’, the trooper never realised ‘that he had cut off one of the mainstays of the mutiny, that there was a reward of a lac [lakh] on his victim’s head, or that at that moment she was wearing jewels worth a crore of rupees’.”

Rani Lakshmibai's statue in Solapur near the Kambar Talav (Sambhaji Talav). Author: Dharmadhyaksha

Rani Lakshmibai’s statue in Solapur near the Kambar Talav (Sambhaji Talav). Author: Dharmadhyaksha. Legend says that she escaped with Damodar tied to her back. (source)


Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi: Early Life
Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi: Annexation
Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi: Mutiny
Rani LakshmibaiWikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 08:18, May 24, 2013.