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.

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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

6 thoughts on “The Mysterious Disappearance of Theodosia Burr

  1. Cape Hatteras is a vicious place (I was there a number of times when I was a child). A winter nor’easter is also one of the worst kind of coastal storms one can imagine (I still live near the coast in Connecticut). Poor lady, she rests in peace beneath the waves.

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