Dec. 30, 1812: The schooner Patriot departed Charleston, South Carolina bound for New York. On board was one Dr. Timothy Green and his charge, Theodosia Burr Alston, First Lady of South Carolina and daughter of former US Vice-President Aaron Burr. (Burr was Thomas Jefferson's VP and was the man in the famous duel in which Alexander Hamilton was killed.)
Theodosia was returning to visit her father in New York for the first time in five years. This was after the loss of her only son in June of 1812. Both Theodosia and Aaron were devastated by his death. However, with the country at war with Britain and British ships known to be blockading the eastern coast of the USA, her husband John Alston, Governor of South Carolina was understandably reluctant to allow her to make the trip. However at her insistence he relented. He did take precautions for her as did her father. Aaron sent Dr. Green to Charleston to accompany her to New York and John wrote a letter to the British requesting safe passage for her.
On December 30, 1812 Theodosia and Dr. Green boarded the Patriot and sailed for New York. They would never be seen again. The story begins there.
After two weeks the Patriot failed to arrive in New York and no word of her was sent. Aaron Burr was beside himself with grief sending searching parties to Nassau and the Bahamas but for some strange reason sent nobody to the Outer Banks off North Carolina, which is where a gale, known to him to have occurred off Cape Hatteras, may have held the key to the mystery.
The Patriot had been used as a privateer by the US Government and had plundered several British ships in the few months prior to this voyage. Her captain even went so far as to paint over the name on the bow and hide the guns below so as not to attract attention. The Patriot's holds were still filled with the bounty of their raiding cruise so this would have been a prime target for the British to capture. And it seems that the British did stop the ship on January 2 off Cape Hatteras however, the letter that her husband had sent supposedly did the trick and according to the British records the ship was released. From that point what became of the Patriot and her passengers is a mystery.
In 1833 however a newspaper in Alabama reported that a confessed pirate admitted to having captured the Patriot off Nag's Head, North Carolina. He also claimed that they murdered everyone on board. In 1848 another known pirate, Frank Burdick, told the same story just before he died. He claimed that the entire complement on board were killed, the ship was plundered and then abandoned under full sail. Neither of these stories could be confirmed.
Burdick did mention one other thing. He said that he saw a portrait of the woman they had killed in one of the cabins. This presumably was Theodosia. For years nothing else was learned about the fate of the Patriot. Then in 1869 another piece of the puzzle surfaced. A woman in Nag's Head was visited by a Dr. Poole, having no money to pay the good Doctor she offered him a portrait of a beautiful young woman she had hanging on her wall. She also told him the story of how she came into possession of the painting.
She claimed that relatives of hers who used to earn a living by plundering ships that were either wrecked or abandoned along the North Carolina shore had looted the painting from a ship. She said the ship, who's name had been painted over, was grounded on Nag's Head by a gale during the war with England. The ship had come in under full sail but abandoned by her crew. In the main cabin the looters had found trunk's and a woman's belongings, which were scattered about the room. The painting was taken as a gift for the woman.
Several years later relatives of Theodosia came to visit Dr. Poole and identified the painting as being Theodosia because of the family resemblance. Weather these stories are facts or fanciful myths will never be known for sure. No record I have been able to find tells of a shipwreck on Nag's Head so we have only the story of the woman, who was not there. Many people were looking for this ship and if it had washed up on Nag's Head one would think that someone other than the looters would have seen it. It is of course possible that the ship was destroyed by the sea during the storm but again you would think there would be debris. We might never know for sure if the story is true.
We do know one thing, in 1773 Alexander Hamilton, the man that Aaron Burr would kill, was caught in a gale off Cape Hatteras. After almost loosing his life there he vowed to construct a lighthouse on the Cape. In 1790 he passed legislation to do so and in 1799 the first lighthouse on Cape Hatteras was finished. Not far from where, thirteen years later, the daughter of his killer would herself loose her life.
© 2005 Michael W. Pocock