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The Disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alston

by Doug MacGowan

Disappearances of famous people are nothing new, and incidents of mysterious vanishings go back for centuries. The details of such episodes are usually known, even when the explanations for the disappearances differ. Not so of the unknown fate of Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of the infamous Aaron Burr.

theodosia burr alston

Rumors surround the disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alston.

Theodosia was born in June of 1783, and grew up as a daughter of the wealthy, and was educated in the fashion of the day. In 1801, she married Joseph Alston, a wealthy landowner who would go on to become governor of South Carolina.

Theodosia continued to live a life of privilege and refinement. In 1803, Theodosia and Joseph welcomed their first child, a son named Aaron Burr Alston.

Although Theodosia doted on her son, the pregnancy and birth had taken a toll on her previously fragile health. She made trips up and down the eastern seaboard to various physicians in fruitless attempts to regain her health. She experienced even more of a health collapse, both mental and physical, when her son died in June of 1812.

As a proposed change of scene, in hopes of recovering from her loss, she decided to sail to New York to visit her father. On the last day of 1812 she boarded the schooner Patriot in South Carolina. The ship left dock and sailed north.

It was never seen again.

Although all of the crew and the passengers disappeared, the vanishing of Theodosia is the one that people still talk about today. Numerous theories have been put forward as to what happened to the 29-year-old member of high society.

One of the most likely suggestions is that the Patriot fell victim to some military action related to the ongoing War of 1812. Perhaps the passenger ship was mistaken for a war vessel and was sunk by an enemy ship.

Another somewhat similar scenario has the ship falling prey to pirates. They were known to sail in areas where the Patriot would be sailing, and there were also known “land pirates” in the area: lawless men who lured ships to sail too close to the shore where they were then boarded, looted, and the ship’s occupants were killed or taken captive. This may be true: in 1910 a man told a story passed down in his family of the body of a woman washed ashore in the Carolina area in early 1813.

Another unverified story that may be more legend than fact involves a locket engraved with “Theodosia” in the possession of a Karankawa Indian chief. The chief claimed he had rescued a young woman from a wrecked ship and she gave him the locket before dying.

Author Charles Etienne Arthur Gayarre wrote that Theodosia met her death by being forced by pirates to walk the plank into the cold Atlantic Ocean.

An assortment of stories involve a doctor being called to treat an elderly woman in the mid-19th century and was paid with an oil painting that is later found to be a portrait of Theodosia.

A decidedly unromantic version of Theodosia’s fate states plainly that the Patriot encountered foul weather and sank. It was later discovered that ships in the British fleet off the coast of North Carolina logged that they were hit by a severe storm in the first few days of 1813.

Was Theodosia Burr Alston killed or captured by pirates? Was her ship sunk by an enemy force? Or by a storm? Did she manage to survive only to die soon after or did she live to an old age under a new identity? We may never know.

All that is certain is that Theodosia’s disappearance continues to be folklore actively related by residents of the area where she apparently met her ultimate fate.

“Four Bizarre Legends of the Outer Banks,” Fate magazine, number 725.
Theodosia Burr Alston” Wikipedia, pulled 9/28/14.

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