The Mysterious Disappearance of Aaron Burr's Daughter, Theodosia

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 
Theodosia Burr Alston
This is the so-called "Nag's Head Portrait," possibly of Theodosia Burr Alston (1783-1813), though the sitter and artist are both unidentified. This painting was found in Nag's Head, North Carolina in 1869, 56 years after Theodosia Burr Alston disappeared. It is thought to have been salvaged from an abandoned ship during the War of 1812. Wikimedia Commons

If you're a fan of the musical "Hamilton," you undoubtedly remember a song in Act I titled "Dear Theodosia," in which Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton's rival and eventual killer, professes his love for his young daughter:

You have my eyes / You have your mother's name / When you came into the world you cried and it broke my heart

That daughter, Theodosia Burr Alston, never actually appears in the musical, and she isn't mentioned when Burr laments what he envisions as his ignominious place in history — "I survived, but I paid for it" — after fatally shooting Hamilton in a July 1804 duel near the end of Act II.


Theodosia Burr Disappears

But Burr would suffer a pain worse than shame. On Dec. 31, 1812, a little more than eight years after the fateful duel, the 29-year-old Theodosia boarded a schooner, the Patriot, in Georgetown, South Carolina, for a trip northward to visit her father in New York City. But the Patriot never arrived. Instead, it disappeared somewhere along the Atlantic coast, and Theodosia was never seen again. The cruel mystery of her fate would torment Aaron Burr until his own death in 1836.

"For the rest of his life, only the broken-hearted shell of Aaron Burr walked the streets of New York," the late author and publisher Richard N. Cote wrote in his 2002 biography, "Theodosia Burr Alston: Portrait of a Prodigy."


Theo Burr
This portrait of a young Theodosia Burr was painted by artist John Vanderlyn (1775–1852) in 1802-3.
Yale University Art Gallery

More than two centuries later, Theodosia's fate remains unknown. Did the small ship on which she was a passenger sink in a storm? Was the ship captured by pirates who forced Theodosia and the other passengers to walk the plank? Or did it fall victim to the infamous "wreckers" of North Carolina's Outer Banks, who tied lanterns to ponies on the shore to trick ship captains into changing course so they would run aground? While most historians who've written about Theodosia seem to agree that a storm was the most likely cause of her disappearance, darker suspicions have lingered, driven in part by ex-pirates who claimed to know about her demise.

Adding to the enigma is a painting of a woman, by one account found in an abandoned ship that floated into the waters off Nags Head, North Carolina, as this 1894 newspaper story details. Many believe the painting, which is now part of the collection at Yale University's Lewis Walpole Library, to be a portrait of Theodosia.

"I think there's still interest in it, because it's an unsolved mystery," explained Faye Jensen, a historian, archivist and chief executive officer of the South Carolina Historical Society, who wrote this 2021 blog post on Theodosia's unresolved fate.

"And apparently there were confessions by pirates. With that sort of thing, you don't know if it's legitimate or not, but it certainly adds to the mystique," Jensen said. "Add to that the portrait. Anytime you have one little artifact that will provide a clue, you're going to bring a lot of speculation about how something happened, if you don't have the facts. I think the portrait really encouraged a lot of people to come up with ideas about what happened."


Who Was Theodosia Burr?

The disappearance was a strange and troubling ending for the life of one of the best-educated American women of her time. Theodosia was born June 21, 1783, and named at Burr's insistence after his wife Theodosia Bartow Burr, the widow of a British military officer, according to Burr biographer Nancy Isenberg in "Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr." Theodosia was the only one of Burr's three children from his marriage to survived to adulthood. (He did father two other children, Louisa Charlotte and John Pierre, in an extramarital relationship with Mary Emmons, an Indian-Haitian immigrant who worked for him. Both eventually married and had families, and both became involved in the abolitionist movement.)

"Burr was quite attached to his daughter and has fairly progressive views about women's education," John Vile, professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University, explains in an email. Though Burr was self-centered, reckless, arrogant and sexually promiscuous, by most accounts he was a devoted father to Theodosia.


Burr believed that women were the intellectual equals of men — his own wife was a voracious reader of Greek classics and Edward Gibbons' multi-volume "History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," according to Isenberg's book — and he and his wife made sure that Theodosia got an education as fine as any upper-class male child. She was bright enough to take advantage of the opportunity. As James Parton wrote in his 1893 biography, "The Life and Times of Aaron Burr," by age 10, "she was reading Horace and Terence in the original Latin, learning the Greek grammar, speaking French, studying Gibbon, practicing on the piano, taking lessons in dancing, and learning to skate."

Theodosia's brilliance might have prepared her well for a career in law or politics, but neither path was available to a woman of her time. Instead, like her mother, she became the wife of a powerful man. In 1801, the same year that her father became vice-president after narrowly losing the presidency to Thomas Jefferson, Theodosia married Joseph Alston, the scion of a wealthy rice plantation family in South Carolina.

Theodosia's husband became a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1802, the same year that the couple's son, Aaron Burr Alston was born. From 1805 to 1809, Theodosia's husband served as speaker of the house, the youngest man ever to hold that position. A reform-minded politician who opposed reopening the slave trade and wanted to make the state's severe criminal laws more humane, he seemed like a leader with a bright future.


Hamilton and Aaron Burr

Around this time, the political fortunes of Theodosia's father began to sink. Congress passed the 12th Amendment, dumping the original system in which the runner-up in the Electoral College became vice president, and replacing it with one in which presidential and vice-presidential candidates ran on one party ticket.

Since Jefferson didn't like Aaron Burr, there wasn't much likelihood that Jefferson would pick him as his running mate. Burr wanted to become governor of New York, but Hamilton worked to crush Burr's ambitions.


After Burr killed Hamilton in the duel, Burr was charged with murder in both New Jersey and New York, though he was never actually arrested or tried. Instead, in 1805, he left office in disgrace. Burr blackened his reputation even more by becoming involved in a bizarre scheme to use a private army to steal Texas from Mexico and New Orleans from the U.S.-controlled Louisiana Territory and form a new nation. That led to Burr being tried for treason in 1807. Though he was acquitted, he was such a pariah that he moved for a time to England before returning to New York in May 1812.

Theodosia Burr Alston
This post-disappearance portrait of Theodosia Burr was painted by John Vanderlyn sometime between 1815 and 1820.
Public Domain

Meanwhile, Theodosia's life took a turn for the worse as well. Her son died at age 10 in the summer of 1812 from malaria, leaving her in despair. She herself was ill, probably with uterine cancer, according to her biographer Cote, who compiled the most detailed account of Theodosia's life. After her husband won a close election for governor of South Carolina in early December, she yearned to see her father again.

The trip probably wasn't a good idea. As Cote wrote, Thodosia's health made traveling by coach difficult, and the family coachman was an undependable drunkard. With the War of 1812 raging, sailing to New York meant getting past British warships that were seizing American vessels, as well as pirates and North Carolina's wreckers. The winter weather along the southern Atlantic coast often was perilous as well. To make things even more complicated, Alston, who also served as a brigadier general in the militia that defended South Carolina, couldn't leave the state to accompany her.

Even so, Alston knew that his wife desperately needed to see her father, so he reluctantly agreed to let her sail to New York. Burr convinced an old friend who was a physician, Dr. Timothy Ruggles Greene, to travel by land down to South Carolina and escort his daughter. Alston arranged for them to travel on the Patriot, a small ship that was sufficiently swift that it had seen service as a privateer, though its cannons had been removed and stowed below deck and concealed behind barrels of rice, so that it could pass as a civilian ship, according to Cote's book.


The Last Time Anyone Ever Saw Theodosia Burr

At about noon on New Year's Eve 1812, Theodosia, her husband, her maid and Dr. Greene got into a small boat and were rowed to the Patriot, which was anchored in the waters of Winyah Bay, off the port of Georgetown, South Carolina, according to Cote's account. Joseph Alston said goodbye to his wife, and soon afterward, the Patriot's captain, William Overstocks, gave the order to pull up the anchor and hoist the sails. The trip should have taken five or six days. In his possession, the captain had a letter from Alston, addressed to the admiral of the British fleet, in which he asked for his wife's safe passage because of her illness.

That was the last that anyone saw of the Patriot or Theodosia. After a few weeks, Alston wrote to Aaron Burr in despair. Burr himself roamed the New York waterfront, searching for news that might allow him to cling to hope, according to H.W. Brands' biography, "The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr." He waited for a letter from kidnappers seeking a ransom, or from the British Navy. But there was nothing.


Aaron Burr probably was tormented by thoughts of the various terrible fates that might been suffered by Theodosia. Eventually, he apparently accepted the least disturbing of the bad possibilities — that she had been lost at sea.

But even before Burr's death in 1836, other rumors about what had happened to Theodosia continued to circulate.

As this 2019 article from the Library of Congress website details, several elderly or imprisoned pirates confessed to having been involved in the plundering and sinking of the Patriot. (Here's an 1820 newspaper article about two condemned men who claimed to have been involved in the Patriot's capture.) One who surfaced in 1833 even described how he had forced Theodosia to walk the plank. And in the mid-1870s, a 90-year-old man who called himself Jean Baptiste Castro, and claimed to have been a gunner on the Vengeance, the ship of famous pirate Jean Lafitte, claimed that Theodosia had become Lafitte's captive, only to be killed by another pirate after resisting his sexual advances. The story is detailed in this 1875 article from a New Orleans newspaper on the Library of Congress website.

It's likely we will never know the truth about the disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alston, but the speculation will certainly continue.