By Alice Begley
This historian’s pen has not written the name “Theodosia” for many years. For a time, my pen overflowed with words about Theodosia Burr Alston and her history.
The shuttle of Theodosia’s fate wove a delicate silver thread through the fabric of national life in Colonial America at the close of the 18th Century. In the annals of history, she is noted as the daughter of the vice president of a struggling nation; the wife of the governor whose state would be the first to secede from that nation; and the champion of a father tried for murder and treason.
Theodosia, daughter of Aaron Burr, was born in Albany in 1783 in a mansion where the Fort Orange Club stands today.
This historian became acquainted with Theodosia’s story on a winter vacation in South Carolina when visiting Brookgreen Gardens, a splendid botanical spot.
On the entrance road was a historic marker proclaiming that this had been the home of Theodosia Burr Alston born in Albany, New York, and wife of a former governor of South Carolina, Joseph Alston. That marker started my long, vigorous years of research on Theodosia.
Theodosia was born June 21, 1783 to Colonel Aaron Burr, a distinguished officer in the Revolution who had just started practicing law. Her mother, 10 years older than Burr, was Theodosia Barrow Prevost, widow of a British officer, Lieutenant Colonel James Marcus Prevost.
The Burr family lived in the Washington Street Hill Mansion while he was a junior senator in the New York State Legislature; Theodosia was born in the mansion. In a few years, Burr moved his family to Richmond Hill outside of New York City on a tract of land along the Hudson, south of what is now the Greenwich Village section of New York. The house on 160 acres had previously been owned by George Washington and John Adams and his wife, Abigail, who stated, “its northern windows provided a field covered with verdure, and pastures full of cattle,” according to late author, Milton Lomask.
At the age of 10, Theodosia was studying Horace, Terence in original Latin, Greek grammar, speaking French fluently, and mastering piano concertos with teachers under the direction of her father. In her young years, she translated the Constitution into French. She was a pioneer to the modern-day educated woman.
Theodosia’s mother died in 1794, and Theodosia soon became a young hostess for her father in the large house on the Hudson River. Burr and his daughter entertained famous guests from all over the world, Lomask writes.
Many visitors from France were on Burr’s guest list: Tallyrand, Jerome Bonaparte, Louis Phillipe.
Other guests included Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Theodosia was said to have entertained Mohawk Chief Joseph Grant at dinner when her father could not be there to greet him.
Theodosia’s character was molded, historic records claim, by her mother’s teaching of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and drama, and her father’s belief in the Chesterfield system of education. Burr directed Theodosia’s studies and continued to be the catalyst in her life while keeping up a voluminous correspondence with her.
Theodosia’s ties to the frontier town of Albany remained strong during her father’s politically active career in the State Legislature there. She traveled north with him on several occasions to hear his speeches. Burr had also opened a law office in Albany on the corner of Norton and Green streets in 1782.
Though many men courted Theodosia, her father had his sights set on his own choice for the man who would be worthy to marry his daughter. Wealthy, 22-year-old Joseph Alston from South Carolina was on a political tour in Connecticut with Burr, and he arranged for him to meet Theodosia, now a lovely, educated young woman of 18.
A short courtship took place and the marriage was held at the Yates House on State Street in Albany on Feb. 2, 1801 in the evening. Reverend John Johnson of the Dutch Reformed Church performed the ceremony. The marriage was announced in The Albany Register newspaper.
Theodosia and her husband, Joseph Alston, traveled to Waccamaw, South Carolina to begin their married life in his plantation home, The Oaks. But the marriage was not a happy one. She greatly missed “Papa” overseeing her life. Joseph and Theodosia had a boy child in May of 1802. She doted on him and named him Aaron Burr Alston.
Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in a politically motivated duel on July 11, 1804 in Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton died the next day. Theodosia staunchly defended her father through his long trial in Richmond, Virginia. Burr was acquitted of the charges.
Theodosia’s child, Aaron Burr Alston, died of malarial fever when he was 10 years old. She was devastated and wrote to her Papa.
“There is no more joy for me,” she wrote. “The world is blank. My boy who was to have redeemed all of your glory…is gone forever. I do live, but how does it happen? Of what am I formed that I live…and why…of what service can I be to you, Papa, or anyone else with a body reduced to old age… and a mind feeble and bewildered. Omnipotence could give me no equivalent for my boy, — no none — none!”
Theodosia’s grief was so intense that her husband, Joseph, planned for her to travel to New York to be consoled by her father. She boarded the ship, the Patriot, in Georgetown, South Carolina as an attempt to end her sorrow and grief. But the voyage did not end as she had wished.
Two southern legends recount that voyage. One tells that a terrible Atlantic gale overtook the ship and it sank. All passengers and crew were lost.
The other tale reports that it was during the War of 1812, and pirates knowing who and what wealth was on board the Patriot, captured the ship and made all aboard walk the plank.
Theodosia’s body was never recovered. In later years, a seaman living on the coast found a picture on the Atlantic shore and brought it home to his wife. It was never proven to be Theodosia but accounts say it looked much like her.
In the cemetery plot in Brookgreen Gardens, the grave next to her husband and her son lies empty — a symbolic gesture of Theodosia’s marriage to the man who could not fulfill the expectations and dreams set for her by her father.
Historian’s note: This historian had the privilege of organizing and cataloging the papers that Milton Lomask had gathered to research his books — Aaron Burr: The Years from Princeton to the President, 1756-1805, and Aaron Burr: The Conspiracy and Years of Exile 1805-1836.
This historian used many of those documents to flesh out the story of Theodosia’s life and times, and wrote a play called An Evening with Theodosia. The papers are now in the Rutgers University archives.