Theodosia Burr Alston, the beloved daughter of disgraced vice president Aaron Burr, left the port of Georgetown, South Carolina on the schooner Patriot in 1812 and was never seen again. Throughout the 19th century, newspapers titillated readers with lurid stories of her alleged fate, including captivity, murder, and deathbed confessions of former pirates. Yet her tragic disappearance has remained a mystery for over two hundred years.
Theodosia was one of America’s first great women of learning and achievement. Her father ensured she received the best education available to any man and she was widely acknowledged for her intelligence and sophistication. Both father and daughter were devoted to each other. She once wrote to him, “….you appear to me so superior, so elevated above all other men…” (August 1, 1809).
In 1807, Aaron Burr was tried and acquitted for treason. Seeking to avoid further scandal, he went into a self-imposed European exile for four years and the separation devastated his daughter. He would not return to America until June 1812.
At the time of his return, Theodosia was severely depressed. For years she had suffered long bouts of illness, which made her physically weak. She was also deeply grieving the recent death of her young son. Grief-stricken, it would be months before she was well enough to travel to New York to see her recently-returned father.
By the fall of 1812, Theodosia yearned to be reunited with Burr despite her ill health. Her husband, Joseph Alston, had reservations about the timing of such a dangerous trip, especially since he was unable to accompany his wife on the voyage. As brigadier general of the state militia and the newly elected governor of South Carolina, he could not leave the state while the War of 1812 was underway. Travelling by sea during wartime was risky as British warships were patrolling the Atlantic Coast. Severe weather was also a concern in addition to the threat of pirates who were active in Carolina waters.
Plans were made to try and safeguard Theodosia’s travel. Burr persuaded an old friend and business associate, Dr. Timothy Greene, to accompany his daughter on the journey. Alston chose the vessel Patriot for the trip because of its reputation for excellence and speed.
After saying goodbye to her husband at Georgetown on December 31, 1812, Theodosia, the Patriot and all aboard disappeared and were never seen again. After weeks passed without word of her safe arrival in New York, her concerned father and husband began to fear the worst.
Burr and Alston chose to believe that Theodosia had met her death by drowning after a severe storm sunk the Patriot. However, as word of the disaster filtered through news channels, a stream of rumors and stories emerged about her mysterious fate and the conjecture would continue for decades.
Many speculated that the Patriot fell victim to pirates who trolled the Outer Banks. Over the years, several deathbed confessions from aged or imprisoned pirates were reported in newspapers. In 1820, two men who would be executed for other crimes, confessed to plundering and sinking the Patriot, killing all onboard. In 1833, a man described in detail how he forced Theodosia to walk the plank. Other stories claimed that she had been held captive in Bermuda by one pirate who made her his mistress, or that she was murdered resisting the advances of a pirate while captured by famed privateer Jean Lafitte.
More fanciful tales include everything from her wedding ring thrown in a bottle at sea to an Indian chief in possession of a gold locket inscribed with her name. She has also been linked to the mysterious “Female Stranger,” who is anonymously buried at St. Paul’s Episcopal burying ground in Alexandria, VA.
The pirate motif was thought to be corroborated in 1869, when a doctor attending an elderly woman in Nags Head, North Carolina received a fine oil portrait of a young woman as payment. According to newspapers, the portrait was positively identified as Theodosia by members of the Burr family and others. While much folklore revolves around how the woman came into possession of the portrait, it was believed to be a remnant of the plunder of the Patriot.
Today, the circumstances of what happened to Theodosia are still unknown. Her disappearance remains one of early America’s greatest unsolved mysteries.
- Search and find more newspaper articles about this topic in Chronicling America.
- Research the Theodosia Burr Alston Papers, 1789-1809 and the Aaron Burr Papers, 1788-1824 held in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress.
- View prints of Aaron Burr and related images held in the Prints & Photographs Division at the Library of Congress using the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.