Theodosia Burr Alston

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Theodosia Burr Alston (1802), by John Vanderlyn, New York Historical Society, New York City.

Theodosia Burr Alston (June 21, 1783 – probably January 2 or 3, 1813) was the daughter of U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr and Theodosia Bartow Prevost. Her husband, Joseph Alston, was governor of South Carolina during the War of 1812. She was lost at sea at age 29.

Early life[edit]

Aaron Burr (1802), by John Vanderlyn, New York Historical Society, New York City.
Appletons' Burr Aaron - Theodosia signature.jpg

Her mother was the widow of Jacques Marcus Prevost (1736-1781), a British Army officer who settled in New York City. Her parents married in 1782.

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 (the French textbook by Martel, Martel's Elements, published by Van Alen in New York in 1796, is dedicated to Theodosia), 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 10, 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 14 Theodosia began to serve as hostess at Richmond Hill, 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.

Marriage[edit]

On February 2, 1801 she married Joseph Alston, a wealthy landowner from South Carolina.[1] They honeymooned at Niagara Falls, the first recorded couple to do so. 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, New York 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 were rumored to be plotting to separate Louisiana and parts of the western United States from America; the veracity of this claim, with Burr becoming a "kinglike" figure of the separated lands, was never proven.

Trial of Aaron Burr[edit]

Joseph Alston (1779-1816).

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, Theodosia 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.

Disappearance[edit]

The War of 1812 had broken out in June between the United States and Great Britain. Her husband was sworn in as Governor of South Carolina on December 10. As head of the state militia, he could not accompany her on the trip north. Her father sent Timothy Green, an old friend, to accompany her. Green possessed some medical knowledge.

On December 31, 1812, Theodosia sailed aboard the schooner Patriot from Georgetown, South Carolina.[2] 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, William 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 from again.

Suggested explanations[edit]

Following the Patriot's disappearance, rumors immediately arose. The most enduring was that the Patriot had been captured by the pirates Dominique You or "The Bloody Babe"; or something had occurred near Cape Hatteras, notorious for wreckers who lured ships into danger.

Her father refused to credit any of the rumors of her possible capture, believing that she had died in shipwreck, but the rumors 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.[3]

  • 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.[3]
  • 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.[4]
  • 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.
  • Another myth about her fate traces its origin to Charles Etienne Arthur Gayarre's novel Fernando de Lemos: Truth and Fiction: A Novel (1872). Gayarre devoted one chapter to a confession by the pirate Dominique You. In Gayarre's story You admitted having captured the Patriot after he discovered it dismasted off Cape Hatteras following a storm. You and his men murdered the crew, while Theodosia was made to walk the plank: "She stepped on it and descended into the sea with graceful composure, as if she had been alighting from a carriage," Gayarre wrote in You's voice. "She sank, and rising again, she, with an indescribable smile of angelic sweetness, waved her hand to me as if she meant to say: 'Farewell, and thanks again'; and then sank forever."[5] Because Gayarre billed his novel as a mixture of "truth and fiction" there was popular speculation about whether his account of You's confession might be real, and the story entered American folklore.[6] The American folklorist Edward Rowe Snow later put together an account in Strange Tales from Nova Scotia to Cape Hatteras incorporating the Gayarre story with later offshoots; for example, on February 14, 1903, one Mrs. Harriet Sprague issued a sworn statement before Notary Freeman Atwell, of Cass County, Michigan claiming to corroborate the details of You's confession in Gayarre's 1872 novel. Mrs. Sprague described the contents of an 1848 confession by pirate Frank Burdick, an alleged shipmate of You when the Patriot was discovered. The pirates left most of Alston's clothing untouched, as well as a portrait of Alston. Later, "wreckers" (locals known for rifling stranded vessels in often-criminal fashion) discovered the deserted Patriot and one of them carried the painting and clothing ashore, giving it to a female suitor. Years later, a physician caring for the now-elderly woman noticed the unusually expensive oil painting in the Nag's Head shack and it was supposedly confirmed to have belonged to the Alston family. The detail of the painting in Mrs. Sprague's story appears to be derived from a separate legend that first appeared in print in 1878.[7] In 1869, Dr. William G. Pool treated Mrs. Polly Mann for an ailment; in payment she gave him a portrait of a young woman which she claimed her first husband had discovered on board a wrecked ship during the War of 1812. Pool became convinced the portrait was of Theodosia Burr Alston, and contacted members of her family, some of whom agreed, though Pool conceded "they cannot say positively if it was her."[8] None of them had ever seen Theodosia in life. The only person who had actually known Theodosia that Pool contacted was Mary Alston Pringle, Theodosia's sister-in-law. To his disappointment, she could not recognize the painting as one of Theodosia.[9] The unidentified "Nag's Head" portrait is now at the Lewis Walpole Library in Fairfield, Connecticut.
  • 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."
  • A less romantic analysis of the known facts has led some scholars to conclude that the Patriot was probably wrecked by a storm off Cape Hatteras. Logbooks from the blockading British fleet report a severe storm which began off the Carolina coast in the afternoon of January 2, 1813, and continued into the next day. James L. Michie, an archaeologist from South Carolina, by studying its course has concluded that the Patriot was likely just north of Cape Hatteras when the storm was at its fiercest. "If the ship managed to escape this battering, which continued until midnight," he has said, "it then faced near hurricane-force winds in the early hours of Sunday. Given this knowledge, the Patriot probably sank between 6 p.m. Saturday [January 2] and 8 a.m. Sunday [January 3]."[10]

Portraits[edit]

"Nag's Head portrait," Lewis Walpole Library, Fairfield, Connecticut.

Gilbert Stuart painted a portrait of the 11-year-old Theodosia Burr in 1794. It is now at Yale University Art Gallery.[11]

Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin painted a profile portrait of the 13-year-old Theodosia Burr in 1796. He made an engraving of it, a copy of which is at the National Portrait Gallery.[12]

A miniature of a young woman, possibly painted by John Wesley Jarvis, is traditionally identified as Theodosia Burr Alston. Two (later?) copies of the miniature were made and are attributed to Charles Fraser.[13] One descended in the Alston family, and illustrated the cover of Richard N. Cote's 2002 biography: Theodosia Burr Alston: Portrait of a Prodigy.[14]

Pendant portraits of Vice-President Burr and his daughter were painted by John Vanderlyn in 1802. They are at the New York Historical Society.

A circa-1811 miniature of Theodosia Burr Alston by an unidentified artist is at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina.[15]

A Federal Era portrait of an unidentified woman by an unidentified artist was found in Nag's Head, North Carolina in 1869. The story attached to the painting was that it had been salvaged from an abandoned ship during the War of 1812.[16] In the 20th century, the "Nag's Head portrait" was owned by Annie Burr Auchincloss, who married the collector Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis in 1928. The couple bequeathed their collections and 14-acre farm to Yale University, which opened the Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Connecticut in 1980.[17]

In popular culture[edit]

  • The silent-film actress Theda Bara (1885-1955) – born Theodosia Burr Goodman – was named for her.
  • Theodosia Burr is the subject of Anya Seton's first novel, My Theodosia, published in 1941.
  • Theodosia Burr is featured in Robert Frost's 1953 poem "Kitty Hawk," published in In the Clearing in 1962.[18]
  • Theodosia Burr Alston is a character in Gore Vidal's historical novel Burr, published in 1973.
  • Theodosia Burr Alston is a character in Michael Parker's novel The Watery Part of the World, published in 2011.
  • Theodosia Burr is the namesake of the cryostat of a Cosmic Microwave Background experiment.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ The Oaks, Alston's rice plantation in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina is now part of Brookgreen Gardens.
  2. ^ Cote (2002), p. 265
  3. ^ a b Minngerode, Meade (2003). Aaron Burr Volume 2. Kessinger Publishing. pp. 299–300. ISBN 0-7661-6097-1.  |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  4. ^ Cote (2002),[page needed]
  5. ^ Cote (2002), pp. 293-294
  6. ^ David Stick, Graveyard of the Atlantic: Shipwrecks of the North Carolina Coast, p. 7
  7. ^ Cote (2002), p. 312
  8. ^ Cote (2002), p. 315
  9. ^ Cote (2002), pp. 315-316
  10. ^ Cote (2002), pp. 272-274
  11. ^ Theodosia Burr from Yale University Art Gallery.
  12. ^ Engraving by Saint-Mémin.
  13. ^ Jarvis, John Wesley - Portrait of Theodosia Burr Alston.
  14. ^ Theodosia Burr Alston: Portrait of a Prodigy, from Amazon.com
  15. ^ Miniature of Theodosia Burr Alston, from Gibbes Museum of Art.
  16. ^ Mel Tharp, "Portrait of Nag's Head," Antique Trader Magazine, September 24, 2008.
  17. ^ Lewis Walpole Library, from Yale University.
  18. ^ "Kitty Hawk" by Robert Frost

References[edit]

  • Cote, Richard N. (2002). Theodosia Burr Alston: Portrait of a Prodigy. Corinthian Books. ISBN 1-929175-31-0. 
  • Fleming, Thomas (2000). Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the future of America. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-01737-9. 
  • "Theodosia Burr," Dictionary of American Biography Base Set, American Council of Learned Societies, 1928–1936. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Farmington Hills, Michigan: Thomson Gale. 2006.
  • Lauber Patricia, "The Nags Head Portrait," in Famous Sea Mysteries, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1962, Pages 20–39.
  • Pidgen, Charles Felton (1907). Theodosia, the First Gentlewoman of Her Time. C.M. Clark Publishing Company.[1]

External links[edit]