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.

Resources

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

Eleanor Roosevelt – A Late Bloomer

There are many biographies about Eleanor Roosevelt, multi-volume biographies, as well as biographies about her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt which of necessity include her. I am certainly not an expert on her and there are people out there who are; people who have a better understanding of what motivated her to achieve the things she did. And she did achieve amazing things. But part of what I wanted to do when I started this blog was to write about women who inspire me. That doesn’t mean I always agree with them, but that I see something in their lives that I believe is of value and worth talking about. With Eleanor Roosevelt, I happen to agree with much of what she did and stood for.

Eleanor Roosevelt inspires me in many ways, and there are many lessons that we can learn from her life I’m sure, but one thing that I love about her is that she in some respects was a late bloomer, coming into her own power if you will after marriage and motherhood. She was a shy child born to parents who were a hit in society and the talk of the town. Her mother was a celebrated beauty and her father was the life of the party, but she wasn’t either of these things.

Eleanor’s father, Elliot Bulloch Roosevelt, was the younger brother of President Theodore Roosevelt. Both Roosevelt brothers, as well as their oldest sister, had health problems when they were young. Theodore is famous for pushing himself to overcome his problems, but Elliot’s were not as easily understood. He suffered from spells when the blood would rush to his head and he would have incredible pain; he also took “nerve medication.” These spells seemed to be worse when he was under stress and better when he was away from the family, or school, traveling. Despite his problems, the family was a loving one, full of fun and joy. Elliot embodied this with the force of his charming personality.

Eleanor’s mother, Anna Hall, was from a very different type of family. Her father was very religious and had little respect for his wife intellectually. He required submission and restricted the activities of the women, even to the point of having dresses brought to the house for them to try rather than allowing them to go out to buy their own clothes. He died when the children were all still at home, leaving Anna’s mother ill-equipped to deal with much in her life. Anna received little in the way of education that was not necessary for her to be successful in society. She was the oldest of six children and a celebrated beauty, but was reserved and somewhat cold.

At a young age Eleanor was aware that her mother was beautiful and that she was not. (Although, I think she is very pretty in the photo above.) She also believed that her mother tried so hard to instill in her good manners to compensate for her lack of beauty. A serious, shy, insecure girl, her mother called her “granny” because she said Eleanor was “old fashioned.” Her father on the other hand, was the light of her life. Unfortunately, he was away a good bit, either on alcoholic binges or in a sanitarium. This wasn’t the only grief in her life. Her mother died when Eleanor was eight and her father died when she was ten. She and her brother Hall went to live with their grandmother Hall and her aunts who were still at home. They were a family of society belles and Eleanor didn’t fit in well there either.

Elliot Roosevelt with Eleanor and her two brothers Hall and Elliot Jr. Elliot Jr. died in 1893.

Eleanor’s life began to change at age 15 when she went abroad to the Allenswood Academy run by Marie Souvestre, a noted feminist who taught her charges to think independently. Allenswood was a finishing school and Eleanor gained confidence, but I think this is also where she began to learn lessons that would serve her later in life about her own worth and ability. When she returned she “came out” with all the society parties that coming out entailed, and soon met Franklin. He was charismatic and outgoing, the life of the party in a way similar to her father.

Franklin brought with him, however, a mother with very fixed ideas about things. Sara Delano Roosevelt was a second wife, born the same year as Franklin’s older half brother. When Franklin’s father died, he was all Sara had left and she invested all her energies in him. She was not in favor of the marriage, but Franklin had his way and he and Eleanor married when she was 20 and he 23. But to give you a taste of how it would be, while they were in Europe on their honeymoon, Sara bought them a house. It was a townhouse in New York City and might not have been so bad except that she owned the one next to it and there were sliding doors on every floor connecting the two.

Eleanor and Sara 1908

The relationship between Sara and Eleanor is complicated and debated among historians. Eleanor had six children between 1906 and 1916, and had little experience with children or running a household so in many ways Sara was a tremendous help to Eleanor, but it must have reinforced her feelings of inadequacy.

There are several things that helped Eleanor begin her transformation. In 1910, Franklin was elected to the New York State Senate. This took them to Albany away from Sara, and exposed Eleanor to more of the political life that she would later be so involved in. The second thing, in 1918, Eleanor discovered letters written to Franklin by Lucy Mercer, her personal secretary, exposing an ongoing affair between Lucy and Franklin. Although Eleanor had probably never had the emotionally intimate relationship she wanted with Franklin, this was devastating. She gave him the choice of a divorce, or ending the affair for good. He chose to stay in the marriage, but what intimacy they had in their marriage was gone.

Women so often just do what has to be done. They find the strength within themselves to go on. Eleanor did this after the affair and I’m sure there were many reasons for it – for the sake of the children, Franklin’s career, etc. But what I think inspires me the most is that she didn’t just carry on the status quo. When Franklin was stricken with polio in 1921 (although there is doubt now that it was polio), Eleanor rose to the occasion in a way that was truly above and beyond the call of duty. As might be expected she stood by him as he dealt with the disease both in the initial stages and over the years as he searched for a cure. But more than that, she worked tirelessly to keep his name in front of the public. Louis Howe, the man that had coached Franklin in the ways of politics, took on Eleanor and together they refused to let him be forgotten. She began to speak publicly and get involved in Democratic women’s organizations. She began to write and network. And it worked. Although Franklin remained marginally involved, he didn’t fully enter politics again until he was elected Governor of New York in 1929. And the rest as they say, is history.

In doing this work for Franklin, Eleanor came into her own. From this point on she would be involved in many ways, both as a helper to Franklin and in the name of causes which had become important to her over the years. She may have been a late bloomer, but she truly became a force to be reckoned with.

Many of you may know more about Eleanor than I do, or have a different perspective on her life. Please comment. I would love to hear your thoughts on this remarkable woman.

Resources
Eleanor and Franklin: The Story of Their Relationship Based on Eleanor Roosevelt’s Private Papers by Joseph P. Lash
TR: The Last Romantic by H. W. Brands
Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History by Paul F. Boller Jr.
Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume I, 1884 – 1933 by Blanche Wiesen Cook
Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume II, 1933 – 1938 by Blanche Wiesen Cook