New York, New York, January 16, 1813: Former US Vice President Aaron Burr’s extraordinarily talented daughter, Theodosia, 29, who is also the wife of the current Governor of South Carolina, Joseph Alston, has vanished, along with the crew and all the passenger aboard the schooner Patriot, apparently off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. After nearly two weeks of waiting and searching for them, all on board the Patriot are, now, presumed dead.
The Patriot set sail for New York from Georgetown, South Carolina, at noon on December 30th, last. The trip ordinarily takes five or six days. It has now been 18 days.
Theodosia was on her way to see her father who had been in Europe for the past four years.
Her husband, Governor Alston, told a friend, last week, about the grief of not knowing what has happened to his wife, “Another mail, and still no letter. The state of my mind is dreadful.”
Aaron Burr, her father, meanwhile, took a solitary walk to the Southern tip of Manhattan Island at almost sunset yesterday afternoon, and stood on a pier staring anxiously across the Bay for any signs of his beloved daughter and the Patriot. Nothing. Nothing but empty waters and the soft sounds of surf.
It is no doubt hard for these two powerful men to reflect on how brutally and quickly life can change. It was just four months ago that 12 year old Aaron Burr Alston, Theodosia and the Governor’s only child and Aaron Burr’s only grandchild, died of malaria in Charleston. Father and grandfather have been overcome with grief ever since. And, now, this. Waiting and watching is often one of life’s useless motions, signifying man’s helplessness in wretched reality.
So, what could have possibly happened to the Patriot? We have word from Bermuda and Nassau that there was a tremendous storm in the early days of this month in the Atlantic along the schooner’s route. The storm could have sunk the schooner, but Captain William Overstock and his competent Sailing Master Coon from here in New York City were likely too experienced to be swamped by the storm. They certainly would have avoided the dangerous shoals off Cape Hatteras.
British frigates patrolled those same waters as a result of our current war with Great Britain because that country, yet again, is impeding our trade with Europe. But, it is doubtful even the British would have fired on a passenger ship.
Seasoned seamen are speculating it was likely pirates who raided the ship. Pirates routinely commandeer ships along this route. If that was, indeed, the fate of the Patriot, it is likely all its wealthy passengers and crew were slaughtered with impunity and their treasures taken.
Theodosia Burr Alston was one of the most admired and accomplished women of our time. As a child prodigy and intellectual, she was highly educated by her father in the classics, in art, and in music. She read Latin and was fluent in French, German, and Greek before the age of 12.
Theodosia was also an expert in horsemanship, in shooting, in physical exercise, and in all the social graces. A lovely, charming, accomplished woman who will be sorely missed by those who loved and admired her.
Even, today, no one knows for sure what happened to the Patriot 197 years ago. But, the pirate version of events could be true.
In 1833, a confessed pirate who was on his death bed in Alabama said he helped plunder the Patriot in 1813 and participated in murdering all on board.
In 1848, a former pirate who was dying in Michigan confessed to the same story. He claimed Theodosia was molested, then dressed in white and forced to walk the plank which he held. He said she was calm through it all and simply asked the pirates to notify her husband and her father of her fate. They did neither.
And, in 1869, a doctor was called to treat an old woman on Hatteras Island. The doctor noticed the portrait of a beautiful woman hanging on the wall. The old woman told the doctor that more than 50 years before a looter took the portrait from an abandoned ship that had run aground and gave it to her. The portrait was Theodosia.
Theodosia’s husband died four years after her. Her father, Aaron Burr, who was Thomas Jefferson’s first Vice President, died in 1836, penniless and largely forgotten. But, they all should be remembered in Southern Memories.