Saturday, June 9, 2012

Theodosia Burr Alston…

…or a look back 200 years. She was the daughter of Theodosia Bartow and Aaron Burr. In those days sometimes daughters were given their mother’s names. Hers was a short and tragic life. Here is the opening paragraph of a letter she wrote her father from South Carolina:

Alas! my dear father, I do live, but how does it happen? Of what am I formed that I live, and why? Of what service can I be in this world, either to you or any one else, with a body reduced to premature old age, and a mind enfeebled and bewildered? Yet, since it is my lot to live, I will endeavour to fulfil my part, and exert myself to my utmost, though this life must henceforth be to me a bed of thorns. Whichever way I turn, the same anguish still assails me. You talk of consolation. Ah! you know not what I have lost. I think Omnipotence could give me no equivalent for my boy; no, none—none.†

As she wrote this letter on August 12, 1812, Theodosia was thirty years old, married to a prominent southern land owner and politician. Her only son, aged ten, had just died of fever. This added to a deteriorating health condition which had begun with the boy’s birth. Less than four months after penning these words, she was dead herself, lost in a shipwreck probably off Cape Hatteras, notorious enough in those days for shipwrecks so that it was known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. She departed from Georgetown, SC December 30, 1812 on board the Patriot, bound for New York to see her father. Not the ship, not the crew, nor any passengers were ever heard from after that.

She was a prominent figure, hence speculation surrounded her mysterious disappearance, among these one that conveys the flavor of life—and travel—two hundred years ago. According to this speculation, the ship had fallen prey to so-called “wreckers” near Nags Head, North Carolina, where they notoriously operated. They lured ships by displaying moving lights until the ships, perhaps attempting to escape a storm, ran onto dangerous shoals. They murdered all people and stole the cargo and goods they found on board.

Modern thought on Theodosia’s death suggests, from contemporary weather reports, that the Patriot sank in a severe storm that began on January 2, 1813 followed by hurricane-strength winds. Her ghost, however, is still said to be haunting the plantation in Seashore, SC, where Theodosia had lived…

†Taken from Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present, edited by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler, 2005, The Dial Press, p. 106.


  1. She conveys her tragedy to us in a few sentences of brilliant, funereal onyx.

  2. What a story!

    We so often complain about our health care system and it certainly has plenty of flaws, of that there is no doubt. But the bright side is quite bright and worth remembering on occasion. Between medical advances and reduced overall wear and tear thanks to less physical toil, we are luckier than most of humanity before us, able to greatly postpone the inevitable slowing and decline of the body.


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