ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

The Disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alston

Updated on January 9, 2012

Pirates, forbidden love, high treason – no, it’s not the plot of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. Although the life and disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of Aaron Burr, could make a fascinating blockbuster.

A few weeks ago marked the 199th anniversary of her disappearance. The strange circumstances of her vanishing have inspired lurid tales, vivid rumors, and some pretty bad novels.

Theodosia’s celebrity during her lifetime was exemplary, but it only increased after her death. The only daughter of the notorious vice-president, Theodosia’s mother died when she was ten years old. Burr insisted that her education be as rigorous and well-rounded as a boy’s would be, and she grew up intelligent and was regarded as one of the most accomplished and captivating women of the early American period. She was Aaron Burr’s best friend and chief confidante. As a teenager she often took on the role of hostess for her father and entertained the big names of the post-Revolutionary period – a handful of early presidents and a Mohawk chieftain who was smitten with her. It is also well-known that Aaron Burr (who was sometimes known to get himself into complicated and inconvenient romantic attachments) went to his daughter for relationship advice.

She was married in 1801 to Joseph Alston of the South Carolina rice planting family (Alston would become governor of South Carolina). A tireless supporter of her father even after he fled the United States following his trial for treason, Theodosia worked to raise money and social support for Burr. Prior to his flight he entrusted her with most of his important manuscripts, documents, and personal correspondence.

She took this collection of her father’s documents with her when she set sail for New York City aboard the Patriot, a War of 1812 pilot-boat-turned-schooner. The Patriot left Georgetown, South Carolina on the last day of 1812. The ship never arrived in New York City and no one on board, crew member or passenger, was ever heard from again.

Her morbid celebrity endured even into the latter half of the century. Newspapers continued to publish stories on her disappearance for decades and in death the sharp-minded Theodosia Burr became a docile, romantic hero. Novels were written about her dramatic disappearance. Many people named their daughters after her – she is the namesake of the silent film actress Theda Bara (real name: Theodosia Burr Goodman).

Nothing more than conjecture was known about the fate of Theodosia or the Patriot until decades after the disappearance. Even today there is no concrete evidence of what happened to them, but here are some of the more popular (and interesting) theories.

Dr. Pool's portrait, allegedly retrieved from a shipwreck at Kitty Hawk
Dr. Pool's portrait, allegedly retrieved from a shipwreck at Kitty Hawk | Source

A Woman in White

Several known pirates would make deathbed confessions to having killed Theodosia Alston. The first occurred within ten years of her disappearance. It is doubtful that any of them are true. Many of the stories contain anachronisms (some pirates mistakenly identified the Patriot as having embarked from Charleston, not Georgetown). One of the more outlandish stories claim that Aaron Burr was having an affair with the wife of the Patriot’s captain, and arranged to have the whole ship done away with to make things easier.

No one has ever accused pirates of being truthful, and the sensation surrounding the disappearance of Aaron Burr’s daughter may have inspired some sailors to immortalize themselves as her murderer. However, piracy was a serious problem on the Carolina shores in the early years of the nation. It is entirely possible that Theodosia did meet her end at the hands of brigands.

One of the more famous pirate stories was the deathbed confession of “Old Frank” Burdick, an associate of the pirate Dominic You. Burdick claimed that he and his crew had sacked the Patriot and killed everyone on board, but that even the savage pirates were reluctant to kill the beautiful and compliant Theodosia. Burdick alleges he was selected to hold the plank which Theodosia was forced to walk. He claimed she was wearing a long white dress and descended gracefully into the sea, hands crossed in prayer.

Burdick said that there was a portrait of Theodosia clad in white in the captain’s cabin. Such a portrait does indeed exist; it was allegedly given to Dr. William Pool in the 1870s by a “wrecker” (a scavenger of shipwrecks) who claimed to have found it on the shores of Kitty Hawk in North Carolina in the early 1800s. Dr. Pool tried for years to identify the portrait’s subject as Theodosia, but to no avail. The woman in the portrait bears a resemblance to Aaron Burr’s daughter, but it can never be proven.

A Lady of High Birth

Another pirate, John Foster Payne, claimed to have taken the Patriot and murdered everyone on board, including a “noblewoman” or “lady of high birth.” These reports are supported by the supposed testimony of an Alabama resident in the State Archives.

It is known that pirates along the shore of Nag’s Head, North Carolina would erect makeshift lighthouses during storms to lure ships off the water with the false hope of refuge. This practice was in full swing in the early nineteenth-century. These pirates were known as “bankers” (because of their loitering around the Outer Banks) and many believe that it was this gang of ne’er-do-wells who brought Theodosia to her end.

Theodosia Burr Alston
Theodosia Burr Alston | Source

The Daughter of an Exile

One legend holds that Theodosia was captured by the pirates who took the Patriot and imprisoned onboard for several years. The legend says that eventually the ship was destroyed in a storm in the Gulf of Mexico and the severed mast washed ashore, Theodosia chained naked to it. A local Karankawa Indian chief happened upon her and she told him she was the daughter of a “great white chief” who had been exiled from his people. She gave him the locket around her neck (inscribed with the name Theodosia) and entreated him to tell her tale to any white or English-speaking man he met. She died in his arms. The chief buried her on the beach and wore her necklace forever after.

Incidentally, this story first surfaced in 2001, almost 200 years after Theodosia’s death. Whatever the reality of her death, it must be true of Theodosia that she was a singularly captivating woman. Her celebrity has endured undimmed for a very long time indeed.

Theda Bara, silent film star, named for Theodosia
Theda Bara, silent film star, named for Theodosia | Source


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • ScarlaBlack profile image

      Haley Booker-Lauridson 

      4 years ago from GA

      Very interesting! I also think it's interesting to note that her father Aaron Burr refused to believe any of the legends surrounding her death and insisted that she died in a shipwreck.

    • viking305 profile image

      L M Reid 

      8 years ago from Ireland

      A very interesting story of the disappearance of this unique woman, Theodosia Burr. It always fascinates me when ships just disappear with all on board never to be seen or heard of again.

      Great work, voted up!

    • Colleenmt profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Milwaukee, WI

      Thanks for all the kind words, guys! And Chris, thanks a lot for the FB share!

    • gryphin423 profile image


      8 years ago from Florida

      Very interesting hub! Thanks for sharing this mystery with us! :-)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Really enjoyed your hub. A fascinating tale that you have enlightened us with. :)

    • Chris Thorpe profile image

      Chris Thorpe 

      8 years ago from Golden City, Missouri

      This hub is amazing!!!! As a fan of history I did not know this story and it is a great piece of our history. I highly recommend this hub and keep up the good work!!!! I posted this up on my Facebook so that all my friends could see this. I have family in coastal North Carolina who I am sure are going to read it.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      What with my love for history, famous women, pirates, and mystery, I can't believe I had never heard of Theodosia Burr before! This was a fascinating read. I can't wait to see what you publish next!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Fabulous story... I, too, would love to read the novel! Thank you for sharing this article...

    • SantaCruz profile image


      8 years ago from Santa Cruz, CA

      Write the novel! Make a screenplay! We need more true stories with strong women at the center. And people flock to pirate movies.

      I like the line "No one has ever accused pirates of being truthful." :-)

    • hazelwood4 profile image


      8 years ago from Owensboro, Kentucky

      This is a very well written article, about The Disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alston.:) I too believe this would make a wonderful novel! Keep up the fabulous writing!

    • DeborahNeyens profile image

      Deborah Neyens 

      8 years ago from Iowa

      You should! I love historical novels that have a basis in fact. Phillipa Gregory comes to mind - "The Other Boleyn Girl."

    • Colleenmt profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Milwaukee, WI

      SantaCruz - thanks for reading! My dad actually is interested in the Edmund Fitzgerald - it's a very intriguing idea :)

      icountthetimes - thanks for stopping by! Glad you enjoyed it!

      Deborah - thanks for reading! Maybe I should write the novel...hmmmm...

    • DeborahNeyens profile image

      Deborah Neyens 

      8 years ago from Iowa

      Fascinating story. It would make a great novel.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      A very interesting story. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • SantaCruz profile image


      8 years ago from Santa Cruz, CA

      Fascinating story, Colleen!

      If you like the trouble-at-sea topic, you could also write about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior. Just an idea from another Milwaukee gal ;-).


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)