Patriot’s Disappearance and Theodosia Burr Alston

The Patriot’s disappearance in 1813 remains a mystery that has never been solved. Socialite Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of Aaron Burr, U.S. Vice-president to Thomas Jefferson, was the most notable of those aboard when it disappeared. She had married Joseph Alston, a wealthy landowner from South Carolina, who eventually became the 44th governor of that state in 1801, the same year that Eliza de Feuillide’s son died.

Patriots disappearance - Theodosia

Theodosia Burr Alston. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although Theodosia’s father might have been esteemed for the political positions he held, many Americans lost respect for Burr when he became involved in an illegal duel in 1804 with Alexander Hamilton. He was Burr’s political rival and an American statesman, politician, legal scholar, military commander, lawyer, banker, and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Burr shot Hamilton in the lower abdomen above the right hip and it proved to be fatal because Hamilton died the following afternoon. Although Burr was never tried and all charges were dropped against him, Burr’s political career ended with Hamilton’s death.

The Hamilton Burr duel. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Burr’s reputation took another hit in the spring of 1807, when he was arrested for treason having supposedly become involved in a scheme to invade Mexico. During his trial his daughter Theodosia was there supporting him, and she couldn’t have been happier when he was acquitted of all the charges. However, because of the scandal and pressure from creditors Burr left for Europe.

While in exile, Theodosia acted as her father’s agent in the U.S. She hoped to secure a smooth return for her father by raising money, corresponding with the Secretary of the Treasury, and sending her father supportive messages and notes about what she doing to bring him home. She also wrote letters to Dolley Madison, the wife of James Madison, President of the United States. One letter she sent to Dolley in 1809 stated in part:

“I have determined to address myself to you, & request that you will, in my name, apply to the President for a removal of the prosecution now existing against Aaron Burr; I still expect it from him as a man of feeling and candour, as one acting for the world & posterity. … I am aware … that sentiments of liberality, and even justice, should yield to consideration of policy; but what policy can require the absence of my Father at present? Even had he contemplated the project for which he stands arraigned; evidently to pursue it any further would now be impossible. … Why is he driven from his friends, from an only child, to pass an unlimited time in exile … I do not seek to soften you by this recapitulation. I wish only to remind of all the injuries which are inflicted on one of the first characters the United States ever produced. … To whatever fate Mr Madison may doom this application, I trust it will be treated with delicacy; of this I am more desirous as Mr Alston is ignorant of the step I have taken in writing to you; which perhaps, nothing could excuse but the warmth of filial affection; if it be an error, attribute it to the indiscreet zeal of a daughter whose soul sinks at the gloomy prospect of a long and indefinite separation from a Father almost adored; and who can leave unattempted nothing which offers the slightest hope of procuring him redress. What indeed, would I not risk once more to see him, to hang upon him, to place my child on his knee, and again spend my days in the happy occupation of endeavoring to anticipate all his wishes?”[1]

Patriot's disappearance - Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the meantime, while Burr was living exile, he was missing is daughter immensely. He thought about her regularly and filled his journal with thoughts of her. Parisians also noted how much he missed his daughter as they reported:

“Burr carried Theodosia’s portrait with him around Paris … It remained unframed so Burr could unroll the oil-on-canvas portrait whenever he wanted to ‘introduce’ people to his daughter. Remarkable conversations are recorded in his journal whereby not only Burr but also his friends held discussions and engaged in repartee with ‘Theodosia.’ With the portrait, Burr could also instantly transport himself to a semi-imaginary place. There he could envision and review the day’s events and his ruminations about them with his absent daughter. … This was a cultural conceit inherited from classical antiquity, whereby an absent person’s portrait was understood to stand in absentia for their physical self, whether the loved ones be separated geographically or by death.”[2]

Patriots disappearance - Theodosia Burr

Theodosia Burr. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Theodosia and Alston had a happy marriage and she had given birth to a son ten years earlier. Unfortunately, he died of malaria on 30 June 1812, which was around the same time that Juliette Récamier was banished by Napoleon Bonaparte and around the same time that the War of 1812 broke out between the United States and the United Kingdom. Theodosia was anguished by her son’s death and her health began to suffer immensely. In fact, she was so sick that when her father finally returned to America from Europe in July of 1812, she was not there to greet him. Of his return it was stated:

“At last he returned to New York; but in how different a guise from the days of his glory! No cannon thundered at his coming, no crowd thronged the wharf. Men gazed suspiciously upon him as he walked along, or cross the street to avoid him, as one having the pestilence.”[3]

Back in the states, to avoid creditors, Burr began using his mother’s surname, calling himself “Edwards” and to support himself got help from some old friends and began to practice law. Theodosia’s health had meanwhile recovered, and she was anxious to see her father. To do so she planned to sail to New York. Around this same time, on 10 December 1812 Theodosia’s husband was sworn in as Governor of South Carolina. Because war had broken out and because Alston was head of the state militia, he was unable to go with his wife on her trip north. Burr therefore sent an old friend, Timothy Green, to accompany his daughter.

On the last day of 1812, Green and Theodosia boarded the schooner Patriot that sailed from Georgetown, South Carolina to New York. The schooner was a fast sailing ship that could complete the trip from Georgetown to New York in about six days. It had originally been 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 vessels. In addition, it had just returned from the West Indies where privateering raids for the United States government had been undertaken and to ensure that it would not be recognized as a privateer, before it sailed off, indications of its recent activities were erased; The ship’s name was painted over, and it was also refitted with its guns dismounted and hidden below decks. Nonetheless, it is highly likely the ship, captained by William Overstocks, was laden with the proceeds from its recent privateering raids.

About a week or so passed before Burr received a letter from Alston inquiring about his wife and her safe arrival. Burr was frantic when he realized that something had happened to the Patriot. When inquiries revealed that the ship was lost and that there were no signs of crew, passengers, or his beloved daughter, the blow nearly killed him. He wrote to his son-in-law that he “felt severed from the whole human race.”[4]

Joseph Alston, Theodosia’s husband. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

At this same time, the general belief was that the Patriot’s disappearance was due to a dangerous storm that occurred soon after the ship set sail. Most people believed at the time that the schooner had been caught in it, wrecked off the Cape Hatteras, and every sign of it “had gone down.” However, people expected to see some wreckage wash ashore and when that did not happen, rumors began to circulate. Over time the gossip claimed that that the ship had not been lost in a storm with one tale related to the Patriot’s disappearance being published in The Charleston Daily Courier in the 1850s:

“We had it from an old and distinguished citizen of Charleston, now no more: Burr, in his many intrigues, compassed the ruin of the wife of the Captain of a coaster between New and Charlestown. To remove the Captain, Burr corrupted his sailors to mutiny and destroy him. On the outward voyage no opportunity offered, and the execution of the plan was deferred till the return trip. Unfortunately, on this very vessel [his daughter] … took passage. Her fate was awful retribution upon her abandoned father.”[5]

Although there were many different stories about the Patriot’s disappearance the most persistent of these was that the schooner had been captured by eye-patching, parrot-carrying pirates. The reason for pirate stories was partly because nefarious sailors operated where the Patriot would have sailed, that being Cape Hatteras, a strand of broken islands in North Carolina that arched out into the Atlantic Ocean away from the U.S. mainland.

Patriots disappearance - Satellite image of Cape Hatteras

Satellite image of Cape Hatteras. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One of the most plausible of the rumors related to the Patriot’s disappearance was that it had fallen prey to pirates who were also called wreckers but known as the Carolina “bankers.” They operated near Nags Head, North Carolina, and murdered both passengers and crew before plundering wrecked ships. Furthermore, if the sea did not provide them a wrecked ship, they lured ships onto the shoals by hobbling a horse, tying a lantern around its neck, and walking it up and down the beach. At sea sailors could not distinguish the bobbing light from a ship safely anchored and so they often steered toward the light believing they would find shelter on shore. Instead, they wrecked on the bank, crew and passengers were then killed, and the ship plundered.

Around 1850 several other “explanations” of the Patriot’s disappearance surfaced that were related to pirates. These explanations were primarily deathbed confessions by some sailors or soon-to-be executed criminals. Indicative of their confessions was one that came out of Texas. The man claimed to be one of the pirate crew who murdered Theodosia some thirty years earlier. He alleged that everyone on board was murdered and that she was the last one made to walk the plank. The Charleston Daily Courier also reported, “The sailor remembered her look of despair and died [in] the greatest agony of mind.”[6]

With no resolution to the Patriot’s disappearance, it continued to fascinate people. Everyone wanted to know what happened to the ship and what happened to Theodosia. This resulted in another claim made by a man named Foster Haley who maintained that he had discovered documents in the state archives in Mobile, Alabama, that stated the Patriot’s disappearance was due to it having been captured by pirates. According to Haley, the pirate ship was captained by John Howard Payne and everyone on board was murdered including some “noblewoman.” However, Hale’s allegations remain unproven because he never cited or identified the documents where he allegedly found this statement.

Another pirate story related to the Patriot’s disappearance was published in 1899 and involved a Dr. W.G. Pool, a North Carolina physician who was spending the summer at Nag’s Head. He was called to provide medical aid to a destitute old woman named Mrs. Manncaring (or Mann), who had a “handsome oil painting” of a young woman hanging on her wall. Pool was accompanied by his daughter to Manncaring’s and when they saw the painting, they offered to purchase it from her. She refused stating that it had been given to her by her first husband, a man named Tillett. However, after she recovered, she went to the hotel to pay respects to the doctor and offered him the painting in payment for his services. According to the Daily Advocate:

“The doctor and his daughter were overjoyed, especially when she related the circumstances under which it had come into her possession. She had no head for dates, but … remembered that one calm winter’s day during the time of our last war with England her first husband (Tillett) and some of his associates, lounging on the beach at Nag’s Head, were surprised to see a smart vessel under full sail making for the shore  … [Instead of tacking] she sailed straight ahead and in a little while was beached. The men got into one of their boats and rowed up to her. They found that all the canvas of the strange vessel was spread and that her tiller was lashed. Climbing aboard, they descended into the cabin. Here a table was spread with half-finished meal. The berths were unmade. A number of silk dresses were scattered over the floor. Every indication pointed to the fact that the persons on board had hurriedly left the vessel in the midst of a meal. On the wall of the cabin hung the portrait which fell to her husband.”[7]

After Pool obtained the portrait, he immediately thought of Theodosia and compared it against portraits of her. The comparison increased his belief that it must be her and everyone else who saw it also agreed there was a striking resemblance to Theodosia. In addition, supposedly a woman connected to the Burr family went to see the portrait and “went away pretty well convinced that she had looked upon the portrait of her lost relative.”[8]

The conclusion to the Pool and Nag’s Head story was that because the portrait was likely Theodosia and because those aboard left mid-meal, they were attacked by “pirates who murdered its crew and passengers and carried off all the booty they could conveniently dispose of, and then sent the boat adrift!”[9] Nonetheless, there was also another report that stated that Mary Alston Pringle, Alston’s sister-in-law, was the only person contacted by Pool and when she went to look at the portrait she could not recognize it as being a portrait of Theodosia. Whether the painting is Theodosia or not that portrait now resides at Yale University’s Lewis Walpole Library.

The Nag’s Head portrait now at the Lewis Walpole Library. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A man named Frank Burdick also tells a tale about the Patriot’s disappearance. Burdick claimed to have been taken by pirates and forced to function as one of them until he escaped. According to his story after the Patriot was captured Theodosia was given the choice of being the pirate captain’s consort or dying. She chose death, which resulted in the following event:

“[The Captain] said she must walk the plank. Then she knelt down and prayed for them all, for her loved ones, and for herself. Then she asked if any of them had the opportunity, to please send word to her father and her husband, and tell them of her fate, so they would not always be looking for and expecting her. She told them that her only child was dead. Then she stepped on the plank, walked a few steps, and turned toward them, raised her arms, and cried ‘Vengeance is mine saith the Lord! I will repay!’ She turned again and, with face uplifted, walked into the ocean.”[10]

Despite the general belief that pirates may have been involved with the ship’s disappearance, Burr refused to give credence to any such rumors. He believed his daughter had died in a shipwreck, which makes sense as a severe storm in the area happened soon after the ship sailed off. Still speculation about pirates and their involvement in the Patriot’s disappearance persisted long after Burr’s death in 1836. In fact, some people today continue to suggest that the Patriot’s disappearance only makes sense when linked to a pirate attack as that is the best way to explain why all those aboard the Patriot, including Theodosia, vanished and why they were never heard from again.

Patriots disappearance - Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr in 1802. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] “Theodosia Burr Alston to Dolley Madison, 24 June 1809,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/03-01-02-0285
  • [2] J. Merrill and J. Endicott, Aaron Burr in Exile: A Pariah in Paris, 1810-1811 (Jefferson: McFarland, Incorporated, Publishers, 2016), p. 208.
  • [3] W. H. Safford and H. Blennerhassett, The Blennerhassett Papers (Cincinanation: Moore, Wilstach & Baldwin, 1864), p. 258.
  • [4] The Lexington Intelligencer, “The Mystery of Theodosia Alston’s Fate Solved at Last,” January 17, 1880, p. 1.
  • [5] The Charleston Daily Courier, “Confessions,” May 22, 1858, p. 1.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Daily Advocate, “A Strange Romance,” September 8, 1899, p. 3.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] New York Times, “Mystery of Aaron Burr’s Daughter Baffles a Century,” January 12, 1913, p. 11.

1 Comment

  1. Angelyn on April 14, 2020 at 12:08 pm

    One of my favorite Americans from the Regency era, ever since I read Anya Seton’s My Theodosia.

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