Theodosia Burr Alston

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Theodosia Burr Alston
Theodosia Burr NY Hist Soc 1931 55 oval transp.png
Portrait by John Vanderlyn, c. 1815–1820
Theodosia Burr

(1783-06-21)June 21, 1783
DisappearedJanuary 2 or 3, 1813 (aged 29)
Atlantic Ocean off Georgetown, South Carolina
(m. 1801)
Parent(s)Aaron Burr
Theodosia Bartow Prevost
Appletons' Burr Aaron - Theodosia signature.jpg

Theodosia Burr Alston (June 21, 1783 – January 2 or 3, 1813) was an American socialite and the daughter of the third 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]

Theodosia Burr Alston was born to Aaron Burr and Theodosia Bartow Prevost in Albany, New York in 1783, a year after they married. Alston's mother was the widow of Jacques Marcus Prevost (1736-1781), a British Army officer who settled in New York City; she had five other children from that marriage and was nine years Burr's senior.[1]

1794 portrait by Gilbert Stuart

Alston was raised mostly in New York City. Her education was closely supervised by her father, who stressed mental discipline. 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 her father, which were responded to promptly, with the inclusion of detailed criticism. Their correspondence numbered thousands of letters.[1]

Theodosia Bartow Burr died when her daughter was eleven years old. After this event, her father closely supervised his daughter's social education, including training in an appreciation of the arts. By the age of fourteen, she began to serve as hostess at Richmond Hill, 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 physicians David Hosack and Samuel Bard, and Bishop Benjamin Moore, among other notables.

Marriage to Joseph Alston[edit]

Joseph Alston

In 1801, Theodosia married Joseph Alston, a wealthy landowner from South Carolina. They honeymooned at Niagara Falls, the first recorded couple to do so.[2] It has been conjectured that there was more than romance involved in this union. 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 Theo would become prominent. Her letters to her father indicated that she had formed an affectionate alliance with her husband. The couple's son, Aaron Burr Alston, was born in 1802.[3]

Thomas Bee's House, c. 1730. A later owner was governor Joseph Alston and his wife Theodosia, daughter of Aaron Burr.

Following the baby's birth, Alston's health became fragile. She made trips to Saratoga Springs, 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 which were later joined by General James Wilkinson; however, what exactly those plans were is not definitively known due to lack of supporting evidence for any of the popular allegations.

Trial of Aaron Burr[edit]

Aaron Burr in an 1802 portrait

In the spring of 1807, Burr was arrested for treason. During his trial in Richmond, Virginia, Alston was with him, providing comfort and support. Burr was acquitted of the charges against him but left for Europe, where he remained for four years.

While her father remained in exile, Alston acted as his agent in the U.S., raising money which she sent to him, and transmitting messages. Alston wrote letters to Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin and to Dolley Madison in an effort to secure a smooth return for her father.

Alston's son succumbed to malaria and died on June 30, 1812, at age ten. The resulting anguish affected her health, to the point of preventing her from traveling to New York upon her father's return from Europe in July 1812. Unable to join him, she had to wait until December before she could make the journey.

Disappearance at sea[edit]

Several months after the War of 1812 broke out, Alston's 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. Burr sent Timothy Green, to accompany her instead. Green possessed some medical knowledge.

On December 31, 1812, Alston sailed aboard the schooner Patriot.[4]: 265  The Patriot was a famously fast ship, which had originally been built as a pilot boat, and had served as a privateer during the war, when it was commissioned by the U.S. government to prey on English shipping. It had been refitted in December in Georgetown, its guns dismounted and hidden below decks. Its name was painted over 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; it is likely that the ship was laden with the proceeds from its privateering raids.

The Patriot and all those on board were never heard from again.

Rumor and folklore[edit]

Immediately following the Patriot's disappearance, rumors arose. The most enduring were that the Patriot had been captured by a pirate, that something had occurred near Cape Hatteras, notorious for wreckers who lured ships into danger.

Aaron Burr refused to credit any of the rumors of his daughter's possible capture, believing that she had died in a 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.[5]

  • One story which was considered somewhat plausible was that the Patriot had fallen prey to the wreckers known as the Carolina "bankers," who operated near Nags Head, North Carolina and were known for 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 killed. 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.[5]
  • 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]: 290 
  • The most romantic legend 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 she died in his arms.[citation needed]
  • Another myth traces its origin to Charles Gayarré's 1872 novel Fernando de Lemos: Truth and Fiction. Gayarré devoted one chapter to a fictional confession by the pirate Dominique Youx, admitting to having captured the Patriot after discovering it dismasted off Cape Hatteras following a storm. In Gayarré's account, Youx and his men murdered the crew, while Alston 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," Gayarré wrote in Youx'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."[4]: 293–294  Because Gayarré billed his novel as a mixture of "truth and fiction" there was popular speculation about whether his account of Youx's confession might be real, and the story entered American folklore.[6]
  • American folklorist Edward Rowe Snow later published an account in Strange Tales from Nova Scotia to Cape Hatteras incorporating the Gayarré story with later offshoots. For example, a woman named Harriet Sprague made a sworn statement before a Michigan notary on February 14, 1903, claiming to corroborate details in Gayarré's novel concerning Youx's confession. Sprague described the contents of an 1848 confession by pirate Frank Burdick, an alleged shipmate of Youx when the Patriot was attacked.[7][8] In Burdick's version, the pirates left most of Alston's clothing untouched, as well as a portrait of her. 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. A legend later arose in Bald Head Island, North Carolina, that Theodosia roams the beaches searching for the painting.[9]
  • A popular (though very improbable) local story in Alexandria, Virginia, suggests that Alston may have been the Mysterious Female Stranger who died 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."[citation needed]

The Nag's Head Portrait[edit]

"Nag's Head portrait", Lewis Walpole Library, Farmington, Connecticut.
  • In 1869, physician William G. Pool treated Polly Manncaring, an elderly woman in Nag's Head, and noticed an unusually expensive-appearing oil painting on her wall. Manncaring gave it to him as payment and claimed that when she was young, her first husband had discovered it on a wrecked ship during the War of 1812.[7] (Details of the painting in Sprague's story appears to be derived from a separate legend that first appeared in print in 1878.)[4]: 312  Pool became convinced the portrait was of Theodosia, and contacted members of her family, some of whom agreed, though Pool conceded that they "cannot say positively if it was her" because none of them had ever seen her.[4]: 315  Mary Alston Pringle, who had been Alston's sister-in-law, was the only person contacted by Pool who had actually known Theodosia, and Pringle could not recognize the painting as a portrait of her.[4]: 315–316  The portrait is now at Yale University's Lewis Walpole Library.[10]

Historical analysis[edit]

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 who studied the course of the storm, 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," Michie said, "it then faced near hurricane-force winds in the early hours of Sunday. Given this knowledge, the Patriot probably sank between 6:00 PM Saturday [January 2] and 8:00 AM Sunday [January 3]."[4]: 272–274 


Portrait of Theodosia Burr, artist unknown, copy after Vanderlyn

In popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Commire, Anne, ed. (2002). "Burr, Theodosia (1783–1813)". Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia (Vol. 3). Detroit: Yorkin Publications. pp. 232–233.
  2. ^ Zavitz, Sherman (City of Niagara Falls Official Historian) (June 26, 2008). Niagara Falls Moment. CJRN. CJRN 710 Radio.
  3. ^ MacLean, Maggie. "Theodosia Burr Alston". History of American Women. Archived from the original on August 10, 2016.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Côté, Richard N. (2002). Theodosia Burr Alston: Portrait of a Prodigy. Corinthian Books. ISBN 9781929175444.
  5. ^ a b Wandell, Samuel H.; Minngerode, Meade (2003). Aaron Burr, Vol. 2. Kessinger Publishing. pp. 299–300. ISBN 0-7661-6097-1.
  6. ^ Stick, David (1989). Graveyard of the Atlantic: Shipwrecks of the North Carolina Coast. Univ. of North Carolina Press. p. 7. ISBN 9780807842614 – via Internet Archive.
  7. ^ a b Walker, Dale L. (2006). The Calamity Papers: Western Myths and Cold Cases. Macmillan. pp. 75–76. ISBN 9780765308320 – via Google Books.
  8. ^ Fesler, David K. "Theodosia". People Legends. Archived from the original on February 5, 2012.
  9. ^ Pickens, Andrea (October 2016). "Hidden in History..." The Word Wenches (blog). Archived from the original on November 29, 2016.
  10. ^ a b Tharp, Mel (September 24, 2008). "Portrait of Nag's Head". Antique Trader Magazine.
  11. ^ Stuart, Gilbert. "Theodosia Burr (Mrs. Joseph Alston) (1783-1812)". American Paintings and Sculpture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Art Gallery. 1947.433. Archived from the original on August 9, 2016.
  12. ^ Saint-Mémin, Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de (1796). "Theodosia Bartow Burr Alston". National Portrait Gallery. Smithsonian Institution. NPG. Archived from the original on March 21, 2017.
  13. ^ "Theodosia Burr (Mrs. Joseph Alston)". Miniature. Gibbes Museum of Art. 1984.002. Archived from the original on March 21, 2017.
  14. ^ Shelton, Don (April 2006). "Jarvis, John Wesley - Portrait of Theodosia Burr Alston". 1 American Miniature Portraits (blog). Archived from the original on September 21, 2016.
  15. ^ "Theodosia Burr (Mrs. Joseph Alston)". Miniature. Gibbes Museum of Art. 1811. 1963.026. Archived from the original on March 21, 2017.
  16. ^ "Library History". Lewis Walpole Library. Yale University.
  17. ^ Frost, Robert (2002). "Kitty Hawk". In Lathem, Edward Connery (ed.). The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged. Macmillan. pp. 428–442 at 432. ISBN 9780805069860 – via Google Books.


  • Côté, Richard N. (2002). Theodosia Burr Alston: Portrait of a Prodigy. Corinthian Books. ISBN 9781929175444.
  • Fleming, Thomas (2000). Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the future of America. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-01737-9.
  • Isenberg, Nancy (2007). Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr. New York: Viking.
  • Johnson, Allen, ed. (1929). "Theodosia Burr". Dictionary of American biography. Dictionary of American Biography, Volume 3. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 322–323.
  • Lauber, Patricia (1962). "The Nags Head Portrait". Famous Sea Mysteries. Thomas Nelson & Sons. pp. 20–39.
  • Pidgen, Charles Felton (1907). Theodosia, the First Gentlewoman of Her Time. C.M. Clark Publishing Company.