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History: Disappearance of Theodosia Burr a source of speculation for 200 years

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The short answer is: no one knows for sure.

The long answer, spun out over the last 200 years, is a blend of conjecture, myth and mystery.

Theodosia Burr Alston sailed from Georgetown on Dec. 30, 1812. She was never seen again. She was the daughter of a vice president and the wife of South Carolina’s governor. She remains a source of fascination, as the subject of a novel due to be published this year and as part of the history of Brookgreen Gardens, which includes her former homesite and the graves of her husband and son.

The mystery surrounding the death of Theodosia, the only daughter of Aaron Burr, is part of her staying power. “There’s still quite a bit of interest,” said Rose Tomlin, a Charleston author whose novel “Duel of the Heart” is due to be published this year by Evening Post Books. “There certainly should be.”

Born in 1783, Theodosia received the sort of classical education that was rare for women of the era. When she met Joseph Alston, a wealthy rice planter, in 1800 she was considered the most sought-after woman in New York society. They married in 1801 and stopped in Washington to see Burr sworn in as vice president on their way to Alston’s home on Waccamaw Neck.

“Some people do come here looking for her home and the space that she occupied on our property,” said Robin Salmon, vice president for art and historical collections at Brookgreen. “Others learn about it when they’re here. Aaron Burr, what a connection.”

Alston built The Oaks on property that is now part of Brookgreen Gardens. They also lived with other members of his family at Clifton and Hagley plantation and a house in Charleston. Alston built a summer retreat near Greenville.

Alston was elected governor in 1812. But the couple’s only son died that summer of malaria at age 10. Theodosia, who had been a sickly child and who suffered from complications after giving birth, became ill after her son’s death. She wanted to go to New York to visit her father. He had returned from Europe, where he had lived since being acquitted on a charge of treason in connection with a plan to invade Mexico. Burr sent a doctor to accompany his daughter on the trip.

Alston arranged for Theodosia to sail on The Patriot, a schooner that had served as a privateer in the war with England that began that year. It stopped in Georgetown to refit on its way home to New York.

“Her reputed swiftness in sailing inspired such confidence of a voyage of not more than five or six days,” Alston wrote in an anguished letter to Burr three weeks after The Patriot sailed.

The schooner left from the dock at the end of Cannon Street. Alston made the journey down Winyah Bay, leaving his wife for the last time as The Patriot prepared to enter the Atlantic.

“The wind was moderate and fair,” Alston said.

He waited to hear that she had arrived and became increasingly distraught. “I hear, too, rumours of a gale off Cape Hatteras the beginning of the month,” he wrote in a letter to Theodosia on Jan. 15. “The state of my mind is dreadful.”

Alston and Burr believed that The Patriot sank in the gale.

But others had different ideas. In the century after she disappeared, there were stories of pirates who captured The Patriot and killed all aboard, forcing Theodosia to walk the plank. Other accounts claimed the schooner ran aground on the Outer Banks and broke up. There was even a claim she secretly sailed to New Orleans. J. Motte Alston, a nephew of the governor, wrote in 1902 that a British warship had stopped The Patriot before the storm.

The archaeologist who discovered the site of The Oaks in 1992 entered the debate several years later. Jim Michie, who died in 2004, was associate director of the Waccamaw Center for Historical and Cultural Studies at Coastal Carolina University. He grew up in the Pee Dee and finding Theodosia’s house was a long-time goal.

“This area holds so much mystery and so much intrigue,” he said in a 1992 interview at the site. “She was a nationally-known figure. It’s more than just something local and regional in interest. There’s a lot of interest in this.”

Finding The Oaks also meant finding the Waccamaw River landing where boats left for Georgetown. “If you go straight from her house to the marsh, there’s an old boat slip and a canal there, and probably the boat slip she left from,” Michie said.

Following the excavation, he set out to learn more about Theodosia’s fate. He commissioned a researcher in England to look through the logs of Royal Navy ships stationed off the Carolinas in 1812-13. His findings were published by the S.C. Historical Society’s quarterly magazine.

Thinking that The Patriot would be stopped by the British, Alston had provided Theodosia with a letter identifying her as the governor’s wife and asking that she not be detained. Michie found no evidence that the British stopped the schooner. None of the warships on station reported stopping any foreign vessels.

Alston family legend said the flagship of Admiral Sir John Warren had stopped The Patriot. The ship’s log showed it was anchored at Bermuda during the fateful days in question.

What the ships logs revealed, Michie wrote, was a major storm that swept the area Jan. 2 and 3, 1813, a Saturday and Sunday.

“The events and the savagery of the storm are well recorded in the logs,” Michie wrote.

The storm built during the day on Jan. 2. With sails reefed and topmasts struck down on deck, HMS Aeolus recorded that the storm ripped away three of the chain plates that anchored the lines supporting the main mast.

Michie was able to find little information about The Patriot, a popular name for vessels at the time, but he focused on a schooner of 65 tons built in New York. One of the owners Samuel Coon was mentioned as pilot of The Patriot by Alston. It was 63 feet long and 17 feet wide.

He believes the schooner followed close to the coast because of its size. Combining weather conditions reported by the British ships with the sailing qualities dictated by The Patriot’s design, Michie placed the schooner north of Cape Hatteras when the storm struck.

“If the ship managed to escape this battering, which continued until midnight, it then faced near-hurricane force winds in the early hours of Sunday,” Michie wrote. “Given this knowledge, the Patriot probably sank between 6 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. Sunday.”

The shipwreck is the story accepted by Anya Seaton, who wrote “My Theodosia” in 1941. It’s also the scenario accepted by Tomlin, though she hopes to correct the image Seaton portrayed.

“It was not complimentary,” Tomlin said. “The courage she had was incredible.”

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