by Kathy Warnes
Theodosia Burr Alston - Wikimedia Commons
Theodosia Burr Alston boarded a ship to sail from South Carolina to New York to visit her father, Aaron Burr. He haunted the docks, but she never arrived.
Fate wove the lives of Aaron Burr, Theodosia Burr Alston, and Alexander Hamilton together into an intricate sailor’s knot of tangled maritime tragedy. Born in Nevis in the West Indies, Alexander Hamilton acquired a deep respect for the power of the sea while still a young man.
As a student and businessman, Alexander Hamilton made frequent trips between New York and the Virgin Islands, and in 1773, during one of his voyages on the Thunderbolt, a fierce storm struck the ship off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
The storm battered the Thunderbolt and the galley caught fire. Alexander Hamilton and the ship’s crew fought for twelve hours to control the fire before the devastated Thunderbolt could creep northward toward Boston. Hamilton vowed that if he ever had the power, he would build a lighthouse on Cape Hatteras to warn other mariners of the dangerous waters. He eventually became a leader of the American Revolution and Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington. In 1790, he passed a bill in Congress that provided for the first lighthouse on Cape Hatteras, and nine years later workers finished the lighthouse.
While he served under George Washington during the Revolutionary War, Alexander Hamilton met another ambitious young man, a New York lawyer named Aaron Burr. After the Revolution, Hamilton and Burr worked together to build America and their own families and fortunes. In 1781, Aaron Burr married Theodosia Prevost and in 1783, Theodosia, their only child, joined them at Richmond Hill, their family home in what is now Greenwich Village, New York City. Theodosia’s mother died of cancer in 1794, and she assumed the role of mistress of Richmond Hill and became her father’s close companion and confidant. She hosted lavish parties at Richmond Hill to advance her father’s political career and served as a gracious, charming hostess to regular visitors including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton.
Many young men wanted to marry Theodosia Burr, but her thoughts didn’t turn to marriage until she met Joseph Alston, a handsome southern aristocrat who visited Albany in 1800. They were married in February 1801, and Theodosia left her father and Richmond Hill to live at The Oaks, one of the Alston family plantations in South Carolina.
In May 1802, after a difficult labor, Theodosia Burr Alston gave birth to a son, Aaron Burr Alston. Shortly after her son’s birth, the people of South Carolina elected Joseph Alston governor and her additional responsibilities as first lady and her fragile health took their toll on Theodosia.
Theodosia’s life grew even more difficult in 1804. The relationship between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr had steadily disintegrated, and finally Aaron Burr, the sitting Vice President of the United States, and former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton faced off in a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804. Burr fatally shot Hamilton who died the next day. During her father’s subsequent murder trial, Theodosia traveled to New York several times and fully supported her father. Acquitted but still politically ambitious, according to some sources, Burr schemed to convince several western states to secede and make him the head of the government.
Again in 1807, Burr defended himself against a conspiracy charge and again Theodosia fully supported him. After a year long, difficult trial, Aaron Burr once again won acquittal, and he left the United States for exile in Europe. When Theodosia returned to South Carolina, her health had become more fragile and when her son died of tropical fever in June 1812, she collapsed.
Theodosia wrote her father, “Less than a fortnight ago your letter would have gladdened my soul. Now there is no joy, and life is a blank. My boy is gone-forever dead and gone!”
Newly returned from Europe and deeply worried about his daughter, Aaron Burr convinced Theodosia to come to New York for the holidays. Joseph Alston couldn’t leave South Carolina, and he felt uneasy about Theodosia’s voyage. The United States and Great Britain were at war, Theodosia’s health continued to deteriorate, and rumors about pirates along the North Carolina Outer Banks circulated around the Carolinas.
Granting his wife’s request, Joseph Alston wrote a letter to the British Navy blockading the coast, asking for safe passage for his wife. Aaron Burr sent a trusted friend and doctor, Timothy Green, to make the voyage with Theodosia, and on December 30, 1812, Theodosia Burr Alston, Dr. Green, and a maid climbed aboard the schooner The Patriot which lay moored in Charleston Harbor.
The Patriot had just returned from several months of West Indies privateering raids for the United States government with a hold filled with booty from these raids. The sailors lifted The Patriot’s anchor in late afternoon and the captain set a course for the open sea. Theodosia Burr settled in her cabin with several chests filled with her wardrobe and accessories. Some stories say that she also carried a recent portrait of herself that she intended to give her father as a Christmas gift. The Patriot sailed out of Charleston Harbor on December 30, 1812, bound for New York City. Theodosia Burr Alston, her fellow passengers and crew, and The Patriot itself were never seen again.
Almost from the time the schooner The Patriot disappeared, rumors piled upon rumors as years piled upon years. In 1836, two shore pirates were captured and brought to Norfolk, Virginia, in irons. While waiting to be executed, they confessed that with other “bankers,” –pirates who operated on the Outer Banks of North Carolina- they had used lights to lure The Patriot on the rocks at Nag’s Head, North Carolina. After that, they blindfolded all of the passengers and crew and made them walk the plank.
A sailor in Texas confessed that he and other members of The Patriot’s crew had mutinied and murdered the ships officers. He said that they had made all of the passengers walk the plank and he especially remembered Theodosia Burr Alston, describing how she had been the last to go over the ship’s side. He said that her look of horror had haunted him for forty years.
In 1833, an Alabama newspaper printed a story that a local resident, a former pirate, admitted to being involved in plundering The Patriot at Nags head and murdering everyone on board.
A story in the Brooklyn Eagle of January 3, 1880, reported that a former pirate, Old Frank Burdick, confessed on his deathbed in a poorhouse in Cassopolis, Michigan, that he had held the plank for Mrs. Theodosia Alston. She had begged him to send word of her fate to her father and husband and walked calmly over the side, dressed completely in white. He said that once the crew and passengers had been murdered, they plundered The Patriot and abandoned her under full sail.
The fate of The Patriot, whether she sank in a fierce storm or pirates captured her, is a maritime mystery. The fact that a lonely stretch of North Carolina beach where Alexander Hamilton had ordered a lighthouse built to save lives might be where Aaron Burr’s daughter, Theodosia, lost her life is a maritime irony and a human tragedy.