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Who is Theodosia Burr?

Ben Steelman

The only child of Vice President Aaron Burr, Theodosia Burr Alston (1783-1813?) disappeared at sea while sailing north from her South Carolina home to visit her father in New York. Her ghost — all clad in white, according to some stories — is said to haunt parts of the North Carolina coast, including Bald Head Island in Brunswick County.

Theodosia and her father grew exceptionally close, especially after Burr’s wife died in 1794. Burr supervised his daughter’s education, and from the age of 14, she served as hostess for his house at Richmond Hill. Accounts and letters indicate that young Theodosia was intelligent, articulate and unusually cultured for the time. Apparently, she was also an accomplished diplomat. In 1797, while her father was away, she presided, solo, over a dinner for the paramount chief of the Iroquois Confederacy, with several local notables and the Episcopal bishop of New York in attendance.

In 1801, Theodosia married Joseph Alston, a politically prominent planter who would eventually serve as governor of South Carolina (1812-1814). Reportedly, they were the first couple to honeymoon at Niagara Falls. Although the marriage was a political match, letters suggest the couple were deeply in love, and they had one son.

On Dec. 31, 1812, Theodosia boarded the schooner Patriot, a former privateer, in Georgetown, S.C., bound for New York. Neither the ship, nor Theodosia, were ever heard from again.

The most plausible explanation was that the Patriot was lost in a storm off Cape Hatteras on Jan. 2 or Jan. 3, 1813. British Admiralty records indicate near-hurricane-force winds scattered a Royal Navy fleet off Hatteras on Jan. 2.

Romantic legends have sprung up, nevertheless, about her fate. Some claim that the Patriot was lost to “wreckers,” who misled ships with false lights off Nags Head. Others say the Patriot was intercepted by pirates and that Theodosia walked the plank (all dressed in white, of course) rather than disgrace herself with the pirate captain. One story claims she died, a distressed and lonely stranger, in Alexandria, Va.; another has her dying in the arms of an Indian, having wound up somehow on the Texas Gulf Coast. A strange, elderly woman, supposedly claiming to be Theodosia died in 1869 at Elizabeth City, N.C. — and had in her possession a portrait later identified as Theodosia Burr’s.

Hauntings by the Lady in White, walking the shore, are still occasionally reported on the Brunswick coast; J.C. Judah recounts the story in “The Legends of Brunswick County.” Theodosia’s Bed and Breakfast, at Harbour Village on Bald Head Island, takes its name from the unfortunate lady.

A factual biography is “Theodosia Burr Alston: Portrait of a Prodigy” by Richard N. Cote (2002). Anya Seton based her 1941 novel “My Theodosia” on her. Richard Walser’s “North Carolina Legends” covers the various versions of the tale.

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