Theodosia Burr

What happened to Theodosia of Hamilton fame?

Theodosia Burr Alston

Theodosia Burr Alston immortalized in the musical Hamilton in a song which bears her name, was the daughter of Arron Burr, the former vice president. Her father had just gone through a trial for treason when the War of 1812 had broken out in June between the United States and Great Britain.

Theodosia was traveling north by ship. Her husband was sworn in as Governor of South Carolina on December 10. As Governor he was also head of the state militia and he could not accompany her. Her father sent a family friend Timothy Green, to travel with her instead.

A Schooner during the war of 1812

The Schooner Patriot

On December 31, 1812, Theodosia sailed from Georgetown, South Carolina aboard a schooner ship named Patriot. The Patriot was a famously fast sailer, It had originally been built as a pilot boat, and had served as a privateer during the War of 1812 when it was commissioned by the United States government to prey on English shipping. It had been refitted in December in Georgetown, its guns dismounted and hidden below decks. Its name was painted over and any hint of recent activity was completely erased. The schooner’s captain, William Overstocks, desired to make a rapid run to New York with his cargo; it is likely that the ship was laden with the proceeds from its privateering raids.

The Patriot and all those on board were never heard from again.

Then over the years, rumors started to come in about Theodosia.

The Bankers

One story which was considered somewhat credible was that the Patriot had fallen prey to the wreckers known as the Carolina “bankers.” The bankers populated the sandbank islands near Nags Head, North Carolina, pirating wrecks and murdering both passengers and crews. When the sea did not serve up wrecks for their plunder, they lured ships onto the shoals. On stormy nights the bankers would hobble a horse, tie a lantern around the animal’s neck, and walk it up and down the beach. Sailors at sea could not tell the difference the bobbing light they saw from that of a ship. Often they steered toward shore to find shelter and instead, became wrecked on the banks, after which their crews and passengers were murdered.


Writing in the newspaper Charleston News and Courier, Foster Haley claimed that documents he had discovered in the State archives in Mobile, Alabama, said that the Patriot had been captured by a pirate vessel captained by a John Howard Payne and that every person on board had been murdered by the pirates including “a woman who was obviously a noblewoman or a lady of high birth”. However, Haley never identified or cited the documents he had supposedly found.

Different Pirates

Another myth about her fate traces its origin to Charles Gayarré’s 1872 novel Fernando de Lemos: Truth and Fiction. Gayarré devoted one chapter to a supposed confession by the pirate Dominique Youx.
In Gayarre’s story, Youx admitted to having captured the Patriot after discovering it dismasted off Cape Hatteras following a storm. Youx and his men murdered the crew, while Theodosia was made to walk the plank: “She stepped on it and descended into the sea with graceful composure, as if she had been alighting from a carriage,” Gayarré wrote in Youx’s voice. “She sank, and rising again, she, with an indescribable smile of angelic sweetness, waved her hand to me as if she meant to say: ‘Farewell, and thanks again’; and then sank forever.”
Because Gayarré billed his novel as a mixture of “truth and fiction” there was popular speculation about whether his account of Youx’s confession might be real, and the story entered American folklore
Karankawa tribe

Shipwrecked in Texas

Perhaps the most interesting legend concerning Alston’s fate involves piracy and an Indian chief of the Karankawa tribe, which occupied an area in East Texas near present-day Galveston.
The earliest American settlers to the Gulf Coast testified of a Karankawa warrior wearing a gold locket inscribed “Theodosia.” He had claimed that after a terrible storm, he found a ship-wreck at the mouth of the San Bernard River. Hearing a faint cry, he boarded the hulk and found a white woman, naked except for the gold locket, chained to a bulkhead by her ankle.
The woman fainted on seeing the Karankawa warrior, and he managed to pull her free and carry her to the shore. When she revived she told him that she was the daughter of a great chief of the white men, who was misunderstood by his people and had to leave his country. She gave him the locket and told him that if he ever met white men he was to show them the locket and tell them the story  and then died in his arms.
The Nag’s head painting often identified as Theodosia

The Painting

In 1869, Dr. William G. Pool treated a Polly Manncaring, an elderly woman in Nag’s Head, North Carolina, and noticed an unusually expensive-appearing oil painting on her wall. Polly gave it to him as payment and claimed that when she was young, her first husband had discovered it on a wrecked ship during the War of 1812.

The doctor became convinced the portrait was of Theodosia and contacted members of her family, but there was little consensus because they had not actually met her, more than 50 years having passed.   Mary Alston Pringle, who had been Theodosia sister-in-law, was the only person contacted by Pool who had actually known her, and Mary could not recognize the painting as a portrait of her.

The unidentified “Nag’s Head Portrait” is now at the Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Connecticut.

It is quite possible Theodosia simply was lost at sea, or it maybe that one of these stories is true, or something even stranger occured. We may never know.

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