Theodosia Burr Alston was born into one of America’s most respected families in 1783. Indeed, her father, Aaron Burr, became vice president in 1801, serving a single term with President Thomas Jefferson. But it was not to be her father’s fame that made Theodosia an almost legendary figure. Instead, it was the mysterious circumstances surrounding her premature demise and the subsequent rumors that clouded the waters. In a historical foreshadowing of the today’s fake news and conspiracy theories, newspapers of the day were full of flights of fancy over Theodosia’s fate.
If the name Theodosia Burr Alston does not ring a bell, listen carefully to one of the stand-out songs in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical, Hamilton. In the musical, the ballad “Dear Theodosia” is sung by Aaron Burr, celebrating the arrival of his baby daughter and the star of this story. Titular hero Alexander Hamilton also gets in on the act, singing part of the song to welcome his new son, Phillip.
In fact, Theodosia’s father played an extraordinary part in the life of Hamilton. Burr actually fought a duel with the Founding Father, despite the fact that they had once been on friendly terms. The two men had both been active participants in the Revolutionary War before going on to be influential politicians. And it would be their political rivalry which drove them ever further apart over the years.
Nevertheless, rumor has it that the duel took place for more salacious reasons. The showdown was said to have been sparked by Burr’s belief that Hamilton had deliberately and publicly questioned his integrity. However, some of the darker rumors, unsupported by any evidence, insinuated that Burr and his daughter’s relationship was incestuous.
Whatever the case, the defamed man demanded satisfaction, and – even though the practice was illegal – Hamilton agreed to a duel. The two confronted each other with pistols outside Weehawken, New Jersey, in July 1804 and Burr’s shot fatally wounded Hamilton.
But let us return to the heart of our story, the life of Theodosia. Her father, Aaron Burr, had met her mother, Theodosia Bartow Prevost, in 1778 aboard a ship bound for New York. Theodosia had married a Swiss-born British army officer, Jacques Marcus Prevost, when she was just 17 and was still married to him when she met Burr.
Despite this obstacle, and the fact that 32-year-old Theodosia was ten years Burr’s senior, the pair embarked on an affair. When Lieutenant-Colonel Prevost died in 1781, a victim of yellow fever, the adulterous couple were able to marry. The widow already had five children from her first marriage when she wed the following year. In 1783, the second Theodosia was born. Sadly, the leading lady of our story would be the only one of the Burr’s children to make it to adulthood.
By all accounts, Burr doted on his daughter and that affection was returned. The young Theodosia was brought up with a level of education that was unusual for a girl in those times. This was thanks to her loving father taking a keen interest in her schooling. It is said that the girl could speak French, German and even Latin before she reached her teenage years.
Her linguistic skills no doubt served her well since Theodosia spent most of her childhood in cosmopolitan New York City. However, tragedy struck in 1794 when her mother died. The younger Theodosia was just 11 years old. Armed with her formidable scholastic achievements, though, Theodosia was able to act as hostess at the Burr home, Richmond Hill House, from a very early age. She developed the confidence to welcome many prominent guests to the household even in the absence of her famed father.
In 1800, the teenaged Theodosia met the 21-year-old Joseph Alston. He was a man of means and a plantation owner from South Carolina. The two wed the following year and spent their honeymoon at Niagara Falls. In fact, the couple are said to have been the first to celebrate their nuptials at the now-famous honeymoon destination.
This is another point in the story where rumor raises its head. There were suggestions that the marriage was of great financial benefit to the Burr family who were burdened by the costs of maintaining their Manhattan estate. Nevertheless, even if this idle talk was true, the union seems to have been a happy one. A son, Aaron Burr Alston, was born the year after Theodosia and Joseph were married.
Their family came with a price, however. The difficult birth of her son in 1802 caused Theodosia a great deal of suffering. She had to live with considerable pain for the rest of her life. It has been reported that she found it difficult to adapt to life at The Oaks, the Alston family plantation. Despite her love for her husband and son, Theodosia is said to have felt lonely and bored in the South after her Manhattan upbringing. Consequently, the invalid began to spend as much as six months each year living back in New York with her father.
Although Theodosia’s father never faced justice for the killing of Alexander Hamilton, he did find himself charged with treason in 1807. With his daughter by his side in a courthouse in Richmond, Virginia, however, Burr was found not guilty. Nevertheless, he subsequently spent more than four years in virtual exile in Europe, during which he spent most of his time in London.
Meanwhile, with Theodosia missing the presence of her father greatly, tragedy again darkened her life. Little Aaron contracted malaria in South Carolina and died of the disease in June 1812 at the tender age of ten. The depth of Theodosia’s despair is evident in a letter quoted in Richard N. Cote’s 2002 biography, Theodosia Burr Alston. The grieving mother wrote, “There is no more joy for me. The world is blank. I have lost my boy.”
Burr returned to New York from his European sojourn in July 1812, just a month after his grandson’s untimely death. Theodosia was eager to travel north to Manhattan and be reunited with her beloved father, but her poor health – badly affected by the death of her son – delayed the journey from The Oaks.
Some five months later, Theodosia was finally strong enough to travel by sea to New York City. Her husband was unable to go with her as he had just become governor of South Carolina, so a family friend, Timothy Green, was recruited as a travel companion. On the last day of 1812, at Georgetown, South Carolina, Theodosia boarded the Patriot, a fast schooner bound for New York and her father.
However, fate had it that Aaron Burr would never see his daughter again. The Patriot, piloted by one Captain William Overstocks, set sail and promptly disappeared. When it failed to reach its destination in New York, a remarkable rumor mill cranked into gear. The country’s newspapers were full of conjecture about what might have happened to the ship and to its illustrious passenger, 29-year-old Theodosia Burr Alston.
Indeed, looking back on the stories that began to swirl around it seems as if each one is more fantastical than the last. Capture by pirates emerged as a favorite theme. A certain Foster Haley claimed in Charleston’s The Post and Courier that he had seen documents stating that a pirate named John Howard Payne had taken The Patriot and slain all those on board. Needless to say, the pertinent documentation was never produced. Another pirate story, courtesy of American historian Charles Gayarré, actually claimed that Theodosia had been forced to walk the plank.
Yet another tale related how a Karankawa Indian chief had come across a shipwreck on the San Bernard River in Texas. If this was The Patriot, the schooner would have had to have been blown severely off course. Nevertheless, the story had it that only one survivor was left on board – a white woman, held in chains and naked but for a gold locket. The chief rescued the damsel who told him that she was from an eminent family. Apparently, she then asked him to pass on the locket to any white man he met before dying in her savior’s arms.
A later rumor sprang up around a portrait said to depict Theodosia. One Polly Manncaring of Nags Head, North Carolina, owned the artwork and claimed that her husband had found the painting on a shipwreck in 1812. When she became ill in old age in 1869, Manncaring offered the painting, and its backstory, as settlement for a bill for medical treatment. Not only did her doctor, William G. Pool, accept the portrait as payment but he also showed it to some of Theodosia’s relatives. Alas, none of them were able to say for certain if it really was the lady in question.
Bearing in mind these remarkable rumors, it is almost a disappointment to relate the most plausible explanation of what happened to The Patriot. British naval records show that there was a severe two-day storm off the North Carolina coast, blowing up just a couple of days after The Patriot had set sail. One modern-day researcher, the late archaeologist James L. Michie from South Carolina, has calculated that the vessel most likely sank just off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, in the teeth of this very storm.