Monday, February 29, 2016

Theodosia Alston Lost At Sea

The Patriot, a refitted privateer schooner, slipped out of Georgetown, SC on 30 Dec 1812. There were two passengers—Theodosia Alston, wife of SC governor, Joseph Alston—prostrated by grief at the death of her 12 year old son the prior June, bound for a visit with her dearly loved father in New York—and physician Timothy Green. Captain Overstocks, assisted by NY pilot, Coon, planned to complete the journey in about 6 days. Because of the British blockade of the coast, Gov. Alston wrote a letter to the British navy begging safe passage for his wife.

In early January, the ship encountered the British fleet near Cape Hatteras, off the North Carolina coast. Gov. Alston's letter was offered, and the British officers allowed the ship to continue on its way. Howev­er, a strong storm that same night scattered the ships of the British fleet, and the Patriot disappeared forever. What befell Theodosia Alston? Legends grew around the disappearance of the ship and its ill-fated passenger. One story had the ship breaking up off Cape Hatteras. Was it lured there by ruthless Outer Banks looters with their false lanterns? Or was the ship boarded by pirates and its passengers and crew forced to walk the plank? Some residents of southern Virginia claimed that the body of a beautiful woman washed ashore after the storm. Theodosia?

          A less likely story has Theodosia buried in Alexandria, VA with a tombstone inscribed: “To the Memory of A Female Stranger Whose Mortal Sufferings Terminated The 11th Day of October,  1816 Aged 25 years, 8 months”. The story tells of a veiled woman leaving a river packet with a man in Oct. 1816. They took rooms in Gadsby’s Tavern. Later, a doctor was called and the mysterious lady, said to closely resemble Theodosia, died without revealing her identity. Was she making her way to New York in disguise?

            The true story will probably never be known, but one piece of evidence survives. In 1865, Dr. W. G. Poole of Elizabeth City, NC was called to treat an old woman at Nags Head, NC. As payment, she gave the doctor a painting of a lovely young lady — later identified as Theodosia. The woman said the Patriot had run aground at Ocracoke with her rudder lashed down, her cargo still in place, and a table still set in the cabin. Bankers stripped the ship; the portrait went to the woman’s husband as his part of the loot. What are we to believe?

The Nags Head Portrait of Theodosia Burr hangs
in the Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Connecticut

Who was Theodosia Alston?

            Theodosia Alston was the only daughter of Aaron Burr, Vice President of the United States under Thomas Jefferson, best remembered for the duel in which he killed Alexander Hamilton. Widowed early, Aaron Burr lavished his affection on Theodosia, planning in detail her intellectual and social development. She was one of the best educated women of her time and well-suited to her position as hostess and companion to her highly successful father.

Taken from an unidentified 1890 American History Book

            In 1801, Theodosia married South Carolina plantation owner Joseph Alston who entered politics at Burr’s suggestion. Their only child, Aaron Burr Alston was born the next year.

Theodosia's Northeastern North Carolina Connection

            Theodosia did not adapt well to the heat and humidity of the South Carolina Low Country and she made frequent visits to New York to visit her father—a journey that took 20 days. The route took the travelers through North Carolina by way of Fayetteville, Raleigh, Louisburg, Warrenton, and to Petersburg, VA.

Theodosia and Aaron Bur corresponded frequently. The following is taken from a letter Burr wrote to his daughter from Warrenton, NC on October 27, 1804: We parted at Fayetteville. The morning following I started one hour before day, the moon showing us the way, and, at about seven or eight in the evening, was at Raleigh, being full fifty miles. … I reposed till nine the next morning, and came the next day only to Louisburgh (twenty-nine miles), where I slept in the little up-stairs room which you once occupied; but there is a new landlord. The Jew is broke up. The wind had been two days strong at northeast, threatening a storm … So I lay abed again till nine, and, after breakfasting for two hours, set off at eleven in all the storm. At twelve it began to snow, and continued to snow most plentifully till night. …got here about five, being twenty-five miles.  … My landlord has just been telling me that Swartwent passed here eight days ago. They were three in the stage, all very apprehensive of being overset, as they were to start at two in the morning. In the excess of caution, they desired the landlord to give no rum to the driver. The landlord promised, and gave orders to the barkeeper. When the driver arrived, he called for a dram; was refused, and told the reason. Resenting this indignity, he swore he would get drunk, went to a store, bought rum, and got drunk. Set out at two, and overset the stage the first hour. The passengers were bruised, but not very seriously injured.”

This portrait of Aaron Burr was taken from "Aaron Burr," the Wikipedia article.
         Aaron Burr earlier had become enmeshed in unsavory deals that wrecked his fortunes and reputation. He went abroad for several years. When he returned in 1812, it was only to receive the news of his grandson’s death. A message from his son-in-law, dated Jul 26 said: “… One dreadful blow has destroyed us; reduced us to the veriest, the most sublimated wretchedness. That boy, …who was to have transmitted down the mingled blood of Theodosia and myself…that boy, at once our happiness and our pride, is taken from us… is dead. We saw him dead. My own hand surrendered him to the grave; …My present wish is that Theodosia should join you, … as soon as possible.” And, “Theodosia has endured all that a human being could endure, but her admiral mind will triumph. She supports herself in a manner worthy of your daughter.”

            Theodosia wrote to her father on 12 Aug: “…I wish to see you and will leave this [place] as soon as possible. I could not go alone by land for our coachman is a great drunkard and requires the presence of a master, and my husband is obliged to wait for a military court of inquiry. …”

            During the autumn, Theodosia’s health became precarious. Timothy Green, a physician and friend of the Burr family, journeyed to South Carolina and wrote Burr on 7 Dec 1812, “Mr. Alston seemed rather hurt that you should conceive it necessary to send a person here… you had learned your daughter was in a low state of health, and required unusual attention… I had torn myself from my family to perform this service for my friend. …” and on 22 Dec: “I have engaged a passage to New-York for your daughter… We shall sail in eight days.”

            When Joseph Alston heard nothing from his wife, he wrote to her from Columbia, SC on 15 Jan 1813: “Another mail, and still no letter! I hear, too, rumours of a gale off Cape Hatteras the beginning of the month. …” He wrote Aaron Burr on 19 Jan: “Tomorrow will be three weeks since, in obedience to your wishes, Theodosia left me. …in the privateer Patriot, … Is my wife, too, taken from me? … My wife is either captured or lost.” He wrote Burr again on 25 Feb: “…My boy—my wife—gone, both! This, then is the end of all the hopes we had formed. …”

            Matthew L. Davis, in his Memoirs of Aaron Burr (1836), said, “…the unfortunate Theodosia was never again heard of, except in idle rumours and exaggerated tales of her capture and murder by pirates. These reports, it is believed, were without foundation. The schooner on board which she had taken passage probably foundered, and every soul perished in a heavy gale which was experienced along our whole coast a few days after her departure from Georgetown.” Officially, Theodosia was never heard from again. However, some time later, two murderers who were hanged in Norfolk, VA are said to have confessed to being on a pirate ship that overtook the Patriot and sent all passengers and crew over the side. In 1850, an old resident of a Michigan poorhouse confessed to tipping the plank on which Theodosia walked into the ocean. He said: “…We captured the vessel in which this lady was. When told she must walk the plank into the ocean, she asked for a few moments alone, which was granted. She came forward when told her time had expired, dressed beautiful in white, the loveliest woman I had ever seen. Calmly she stepped upon the plank. With eyes raised to the heavens, and hands crossed reverently upon her bosom, she walked slowly and firmly into the ocean without an apparent tremor. …”

Last Will and Testament

            Joseph Alston died in 1816. His brother, William Alston, sent a trunk to Aaron Burr with a message: “…he never had the courage to open …some things that belonged to your daughter Theodosia; …” The trunk contained a letter from Theodosia written in 1805, directed to “My husband. To be delivered after my death. I wish this to be read immediately, and before my burial.” The letter reads, in part, “…something whispers me that my end approaches. …I have some few requests to make. … Burn all my papers except my father’s letters, which I beg you to return to him. …Speak of me often to our son. …I charge you not to allow me to be stripped and washed, as is usual. I am pure enough thus to return to dust. Why, then, expose my person? Pray see to this. If it does not appear contradictory or silly, I beg to be kept as long as possible before I am consigned to the earth. …”

[This story appeared in The Connector, Newsletter of the Tar River Connections Genealogical Society in the Summer 1999 Issue.]

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