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The Unsolved Mystery of Aaron Burr’s Daughter

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“MYSTERY OF AARON BURR’S DAUGHTER BAFFLES A CENTURY,” The New York Times, January 12, 1913, p. SM11

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.

The New-England Palladium (Boston, MA), April 23, 1813, p. 3

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.

“OLD PAINTING GIVES CLEW TO THE FATE OF THEODOSIA BURR ALSTON,” The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, CA), June 17, 1906

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.

                                      “A VEIL OF MYSTERY,” The Saint Paul Globe (St. Paul, MN), August 20, 1899

Today, the circumstances of what happened to Theodosia are still unknown. Her disappearance remains one of early America’s greatest unsolved mysteries.

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Comments (24)

  1. Amazing story! I can’t wait to share it with my students. Thank you so much for posting!

  2. “disgraced vice president Aaron Burr”?

    Not very scholarly.

  3. My theory is that Burr’s daughter was probably held captive by a pirate and later sold into slavery.

  4. In our family history a story is told of our relative, Job Sweet, a healer. Aaron Burr’s daughter had been unable to walk and Job took her for a buggy ride and “healed” her.

  5. Interesting, I’m only reading this because of the song dear Theodosia in Hamilton

    • Hi Autumn,

      I’ll confess that I only started researching Theodoshia after seeing Hamilton myself! The play’s success has really opened up an interesting chapter in U.S. history to a modern audience.

  6. I think it is because of bermiuda triangle.

  7. Wow, this is a very sad story. I was listening to the song “Dear Theodosia” and I found these lyrics very interesting so I searched it up. This is a really weird mystery but my theory is:

    Since she was ill and severely depressed after her son and a bunch was going on with her at that time…it was a suicide.

  8. Lets be honest we are only seeing this because of dear theodosia

    • Hi Summer! I readily admit that I’m a fan of Hamilton :-)

  9. I love hamilton the play and i always wondered who was theodosia.That is why i saw the wikipedia of her and i was so happy that i found this.So now i’m going to make a slideshow about her and present it.Thank you so much for making this.

  10. I think that she might have died sooner than that…… There’s an urban legend in North Carolina about the Cape of Hattera. There was a shipwreck in 1802, and one of the victims was named Theodosia Burr.

  11. What was the name of the ship Theodora Was on? And where did it go down

    • Theodosia was on a schooner sailing ship named the Patriot. While the exact location of where the ship went down is unknown, logbooks from the blockading British fleet report a severe storm which began off the Carolina coast in the afternoon of January 2, 1813 (2 days after the Patriot’s departure from South Carolina) that continued into the next day. It has been speculated that the ship went down just north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

  12. “Confession. – A sailor died recently in Texas, and on his death-bed confessed that he was one of the crew who murdered Mrs. Alston, of South Carolina, forty years ago. Mrs. Alston was the daughter of Aaron Burr. She sailed from Charleston for New York, in a brig, and on the trip the crew mutinied and murdered all the officers and passengers, Mrs. Alston being the last one to walk the plank. The sailor remembered her look of despair, and died in the greatest agony of mind.” — NY Evening Express 8 May 1858

  13. Aaron Burr was not a disgrace. The people that don’t research are. Alexander Hamilton shot first. My family just didn’t miss.

  14. Not that long ago, I saw a special about the Smithsonian which dealt, among other things, with the restoration of the pistols used in the Burr-Hamilton duel.
    What FLOORED me was the disclosure that the gun known to be Hamilton’s was found to have been fitted with a “hair trigger!”
    “Highly unsporting,” to say the least, and sheds a completely different light on why Burr went ahead & shot him: both men were shrewd, intelligent, & VETERANS, & I’m pretty sure Burr fired because he IMMEDIATELY knew what had been tried.

  15. In response to “Aaron Burr’s family.”: states that ” According to Hamilton’s ‘second’—his assistant and witness in the duel—Hamilton decided the duel was morally wrong and deliberately fired into the air. Burr’s second claimed that Hamilton fired at Burr and missed.” This proves biased claims can be made by both sides. However, states that “Hamilton shot wide of Burr, hitting a nearby tree. Hamilton wrote days before that he had planned to do this before the duel. “I have resolved,” wrote Hamilton, “to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire.” This statement was verbally confirmed in the moments before the duel, according to Hamilton’s second, Nathaniel Pendleton.” Now a verbal statement from Hamilton’s second could also be biased, however, Hamilton’s journals are a primary source and can confirm this. Regardless of whether or not he shot first, he threw the shot on purpose.
    I’d like to make a gentle statement/recommendation that biased statements could be just as harmful as; “The People Who Don’t Research.”. I’ve checked many sources, attempting to use only the most credible ones. Of course, like many others, I learned of this duel thanks to Hamilton, but the musical has also prompted me to continue my research into the truth behind the songs. Many sources have stated many things, but they all have the same general consensus, Hamilton intentionally threw his shot. And according to journals, this was his intention. He knew the duel was wrong. So perhaps consider doing your own research as well, and not just believing your family’s accounts. Of course, they would side with your ancestors. A matter of this kind will almost definitely have a form of Bias associated on both sides. I’d like to try to see both sides. I can see how a shot near the Vice President would absolutely prompt him to fire back. It says he threw the shot, but he did so in a way that could have been seen as a misfire, so I can see why Vice President Burr would respond with fire. I can also see Hamilton’s side, firing close but intentionally missing would show that he had the moral ethics to not kill Mr.Burr. I feel as though mistakes were made on both sides, and I’d just like to say this as a gentle reminder to keep a family bias in mind, considering how it may affect your views in situations like this. I agree that he wasn’t necessarily a “Disgraced Vice President.” However, it appears he held a lot of guilt about what he did, as he and Hamilton could have once been considered friends. I simply urge you to keep these things in mind and do some neutral research that doesn’t support one side over the other the next time a topic like this comes up. Duels were flawed, I think almost everyone can agree with that, they took many great people from this world too soon, and were formed on a system that left room for bias to take over on both sides, resulting in situations like the one I’m responding to. I mean no disrespect by this comment, and I’m hoping it’s taken in the way that it was written, which is as a form of gentle advice.

    To the author: I really appreciate this article, very educational. Apologies for the long comment that was off-topic, but seeing someone make a comment like that just seemed wrong. I truly enjoyed this article and I thank you for the information. Wishing you the best.

  16. Looking for a copy of the script to “ The Mystery of Theodosia Burr “ by Jeanne Welty
    Thank you in advance for any assistance.
    John Lange

    • Hi John and thank you for your reference question. I will be in touch shortly.

  17. I am a local storyteller and have done lectures regarding the history and legends of the South Carolina Coast. I live in Murrells Inlet where Theodosia lived w her husband Joseph Alston. I’ve spoken to descendants of the Burr family regarding this story. I believe the Patriot was destroyed along the North Carolina Coast- the graveyard of the Atlantic. Some believe the British attacked the ship… (it was during the war of 1812) but there is no mention in any ships logs. Many pirates said they had kidnapped her but that was never proven.

  18. IMHO the mom of Alexander Hamilton was an astonishing specimen of humanity. On Nevis she was recognized by her family receiving the responsibility of her dad’s estate when he passed away. Married she resisted limitations of marriage and was imprisoned as a result. Her husband allowed her release whereupon she continued management of her deceased father’s affairs. Meeting gentleman farmer from Maryland/Virginia she arranged to import wheat from his farm and export sugar produced on her farm to him. Not much correspondence from their association is published but her young son arrives in time to be given serious responsibilities as one of Washington’s young colleagues. Hamilton’s duel of 1804 could have been instrumental in delaying the impending larger duel known as the War of 1812 considering Arron Burr was a well known servitor of the British empire.

  19. I’ve always liked this story.

  20. I think what happened to her is that the ship was hit by a bad storm and sunk because of the extreme conditions.

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