Theodosia Burr Alston

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Theodosia Burr Alston
Theodosia Burr Alston (1802), by John Vanderlyn, New York Historical Society, New York City.
Born (1783-06-21)June 21, 1783
Albany, New York, U.S.
Died Probably January 2 or 3, 1813 (aged 29)
Cause of death Lost at sea
Spouse(s) Joseph Alston, Philip Hamilton
Children Aaron Burr Alston
Parent(s) Aaron Burr
Theodosia Bartow Prevost
Relatives John Bartow Prevost
(maternal half-brother)
Aaron Burr Sr.
(paternal grandfather)
Esther Edwards Burr
(paternal grandmother)
Jonathan Edwards
(paternal great-grandfather)
Appletons' Burr Aaron - Theodosia signature.jpg

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.

Theodosia Burr Alston was born to Theodosia Bartow (Prevost) Burr and Aaron Burr in Albany, New York in 1783, a year after they married. Her 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 ten years Burr's senior.[1]

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 14, Alston 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.


In 1801, she married Joseph Alston, a poet from New York. 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. 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 Alston 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 and died of malaria at age 10, a few months before his mother's death in 1812.[3]

Following the baby's birth, Alston's health became fragile. She made trips to Saratoga Springs, 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 what are now the western states from the United States; the veracity of this claim, with Burr becoming a "king-like" 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, Alston 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, Alston acted as his agent in America, raising money, which she sent to her father, 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. 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 Alston. She had to wait until December before she could make the journey.


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 instead. Green possessed some medical knowledge.

On December 31, 1812, Alston sailed aboard the schooner Patriot from Georgetown, South Carolina.[4] 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. 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.

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 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." 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.[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.[6]
  • The most romantic legend concerning Alston'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 to having captured the Patriot after discovering it dismasted off Cape Hatteras following a storm. You 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," 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."[7] 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.[8] American folklorist Edward Rowe Snow later published 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 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. Years later, in 1869, physician Dr. William G. Pool treated elderly Mrs. Polly Manncaring in Nag's Head, North Carolina, and noticed the unusually expensive oil painting on the wall, and she gave it to him as payment, claiming that when she was young her first husband had discovered it on a wrecked ship during the War of 1812. 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.[9] Pool became convinced the portrait was of Theodosia, and contacted members of her family, some of whom agreed, though Pool conceded "They cannot say positively if it was her",[10] because none of them had ever seen her in life. The only person who had actually known Alston that Pool contacted was her sister-in-law Mary Alston Pringle. To his disappointment, she could not recognize the painting as one of Alston.[11] The unidentified "Nag's Head Portrait" is now at the Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Connecticut. There is a legend in Bald Head Island, NC, that she roams the beaches searching for the painting.[12]
  • A popular (though very improbable) local story in Alexandria, Virginia, suggests that 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]."[13]


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

Gilbert Stuart painted a portrait of the 11-year-old Theodosia Burr in 1794. It is now at Yale University Art Gallery.[14]

In popular culture[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. ^ Sherman Zavitz (City of Niagara Falls Official Historian), 'Niagara Falls Moment', CJRN 710 Radio, June 26, 2008
  3. ^ Maclean, Maggie. History of American Women Retrieved 11/05/212.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help); Missing or empty |title= (help)
  4. ^ Cote (2002), p. 265
  5. ^ a b Wandell, Samuel H; Minngerode, Meade (2003). Aaron Burr Volume 2. Kessinger Publishing. pp. 299–300. ISBN 0-7661-6097-1. 
  6. ^ Cote (2002),[page needed]
  7. ^ Cote (2002), pp. 293-294
  8. ^ David Stick, Graveyard of the Atlantic: Shipwrecks of the North Carolina Coast, p. 7
  9. ^ Cote (2002), p. 312
  10. ^ Cote (2002), p. 315
  11. ^ Cote (2002), pp. 315-316
  12. ^
  13. ^ Cote (2002), pp. 272-274
  14. ^ Theodosia Burr from Yale University Art Gallery.
  15. ^ Engraving by Saint-Mémin.
  16. ^ Jarvis, John Wesley - Portrait of Theodosia Burr Alston.
  17. ^ Theodosia Burr Alston: Portrait of a Prodigy, from
  18. ^ Miniature of Theodosia Burr Alston; link leads to main museum page, from Gibbes Museum of Art.
  19. ^ Mel Tharp, "Portrait of Nag's Head," Antique Trader Magazine, September 24, 2008.
  20. ^ Lewis Walpole Library, from Yale University.
  21. ^ "Kitty Hawk" by Robert Frost


  • 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. 
  • Isenberg, Nancy (2007). Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr. New York: Viking. 
  • "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]