Today we are talking about two gals named Theodosia Burr. Both gals received well-rounded education (uncommon for gals at the time) but also both grew up in single-parent homes. Their connection to a Aaron Burr certainly gives a complexity to their lives but as you’ll find out, they were pretty complex themselves. We’ll do our best to keep them clear with using Mama Theo – she’s one married to Aaron Burr, and Daughter Theo – she’s the child of Mama Theo and Aaron Burr and the subject of the beautiful song in the musical “Dear Theodosia.”
Learn about the Theodosias’ in less than 2 minutes
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Early Life of Mama Theodosia
Theodosia Bartow Prevost was born in November of 1746 to Ann Sands Stillwell and Theodosius Bartow. Her father Theodosius died on October 5th 1746, several weeks before Theodosia was born, Theodosia was his only child. Theodosia was raised for five years by her single mother, before her mother married Philip de Visme, a Captain in the British Army, together they had 5 more children. Philip ensured that Theodosia was tutored, with a “cosmopolitan education”, and she learned fluent French, which later came in handy while writing letters to Burr and translating French political treatises.
Mama Theodosia’s First Marriage
When Mama Theodosia was 17 she married Jacque Marcus Prevost. He was Swiss but spoke French and English. Jacque followed his other brother into military service. They were both recruited for the British Royal American Regiment and sent to America in 1756. Jacques brother would rise to a commander of the British Army in New Jersey.
Theo and Jacque met in New York city while Jacque was healing from battle wounds. The couple would have 5 children together,three girls and two boys.
Even though Jacque and her stepfather were in the British army, Theodosia was a Patriot. She was friends with William Livingston and Robert Troup. While her husband Jacque was stationed in the West Indies, she offered her Parent’s home, the Hermitage, as gathering place for American soldiers. George Washington even stayed with her in 1778 and briefly became his headquarters meaning pretty much most the cast of Hamilton characters were there including one Aaron Burr.
It’s unclear how long Jacque was in the West Indies and if he knew Theodosia was helping the American Revolution, however Jacque died of battle wounds in Jamaica in 1781.
Mama Theodosia’s Marriage to Aaron Burr
Theodosia first met Aaron Burr in August of 1778. Sources differ on how they met, one says it was sailing to New York City, another says it could be because Theodosia’s cousin was in Burr’s regiment. Others say they met at the Hermitage, regardless, The two quickly became friends and Burr began regularly visiting The Hermitage in New Jersey. By November 1778 he was writing to his sister to speak of Theodosia’s “honest and affectionate heart” and all of the passionate and heart filled knowledge. Of course rumors began to spread about Burrs unusual constant visits. The two gradually fell in love both in mind and in soul, and by 1780 were openly lovers.
Theodosia and Burr’s writings to each other covered politics, philosophy and feminism. They modelled their relationship on a “mature affection,” rather than the standard practice of marriages at the time and relationships being based on social standing, they had the rare chance to marry for love and affection. This appealed to Theodosia’s sense of independence and intellectual freedom.
After Burr became licensed as an attorney, Theodosia and he married on July 2, 1782 at the Hermitage, with Livingston personally issuing the license.
Early life of Daughter Theodosia
In 1783 Mama Theo and Aarron welcomed their daughter into the world. She was named after her mother.
Theodosia was raised in New York City and her supervised her education. Aaron Burr read A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft and was set on giving his daughter the best education.
Theodosia learned French, Latin, Greek, piano, dancing, as well as english and math. It’s also said that she The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at 10 years old.
In his 1908 biography of Theodosia, Charles Felton Pidgin wrote, “She was the first woman in America to have what may be called a college education. Her personal charm, her amiability, her moral heroism, and her educational acquirements entitle her to the designation which we have given her THE FIRST GENTLEWOMAN OF HER TIME.”
Theodosia would write many letters to her father while he was away and apparently even that was a educational endeavor as he would include detailed criticism on her thought or her use of the English language.
Theodosia’s mother died when she was 11 years old (more on that further below). At this point her father was even more plugged in at giving his young daughter a social education including a love and appreciation of the arts.
At age 14, daughter Theodosia started serving as hostess to political and social parties at their home in modern day Greenwich Village. She entertained Joseph Brant – the chief of Six Nations as well as Samuel Bard, Bishop Benjamin Moore, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
Protégés and Stepkids
It’s reported that Mama Theodosia and Aaron Burr had four children together but only Daughter Theodosia would survive to adulthood. However, she was not the only kid in the house. Two son’s from Mama Theo’s first marriage are mentioned living with the new couple. The three daughters are not mentioned but they were most likely in the home as well. What we do know is the boys, Augustine and John, were giving a proper education and both worked in Burr’s law office.
For a few years of young daughter Theodosia’s childhood, the family also took on two protégés. The first was Nathalie de Lage de Volude. She was the daughter of a French admiral and of aristocratic family. The French Revolution made it dangerous for her to stay in her country so Burr opened his home to her and her governess, Caroline de Senat. Caroline would help tutor the children including Theo. Theo and Natalie became close friends.
The second protege was John Vanderlyn. John showed great talent as a painter and the Burr home helped support and grow his craft with the help of mentors. In 1796 John was accepted to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris where he finished his studies.
Aaron Burr also had two illegitimate kids that we talk about in the episode.
Mama Theodosia’s Last Years
Mama Theodosia and Burr has a strong bond, Theodosia was strong willed, never afraid of disagreeing with her husband. He would have intellectual conversations with her just like any man. She had been sick as long as her knew her but it started getting work when their daughter Theodosia was very young. Burr handled more and more of Theodosia’s studies as her mother’s health began to deteriorate.
By 1792 she was in regular pain, with doctors’ prescriptions doing little to help. Burr offered to resign from the Senate to spend more time with her, but she refused to allow it.
In her last year of life, she inspired Burr to set up a school with Madame de Senat for young ladies and gentlemen in New York City in 1794.
Theodosia died of stomach cancer on May 18, 1794, at the age of 48 – long before Aaron Burr became such a controversial figure. Burr was devastated. From that moment on, he focused his love on his daughter, who would serve as his refuge during his darkest days. Burr later wrote, “The mother of my Theo was the best woman and finest lady I have ever known.”
Burr and Theodosia were considered America’s first feminists, and were loyal followers of Mary Wollstonecraft. In their correspondence, the Burrs’ both showed a marked concern for the rights of women.
Daughter Theo’s Marriage and Son
Seven years after the death of her mother, Daughter Theo would marry Joseph Alston in 1801. Joseph was a wealthy landowner from South Carolina and over time would become the state’s Governor.
In a cute story, Daughter Theo and Joseph honeymooned in Niagara Falls. They are placed in history as the first couple to do this and apparently set a trend.
They welcomed their first and only son a year after their wedding and he was named after Theo’s father. Aaron Burr Alston.
Aaron Burr’s Exile and Treasonist Plot
It’s been said that since the death of his wife, Aaron Burr’s outlook took a turn for the dark. He did channel the first few years into his daughter’s education but with her now married and starting a family of her own, Burr got even darker. In 1804 Theo’s father was in the fateful duel with Alexander Hamilton. Burr was charged with murder in New York and New Jersey but was never tired in court. Between the duel and his Vice President position, he fled to be with Daughter Theo in South Carolina. He lacked public and political approval. He had little partnership with Thomas Jefferson and Burr finished his term as VP in 1805.
Daughter Theodosia stayed by his side and went with him on his business trips. She was there in Ohio in the summer of 1806 as Aaron Burr conspired a plan with Harman Blennerhasset and General James Wilkinson to buy and take land by force to create a Western Empire. The idea was something like the land would succeed from America and Burr would become King of the land and Theodosia would eventually become Queen. They wanted the Louisiana Territory, then they wanted Spanish Mexico. Burr would eventually lead well-armed colonists toward New Orleans. Wilkinson turned on Burr and told Washington D.C. Burr’s treasonist plot.
This did not go over well, Aaron Burr was arrested and tried for treason in 1807. Burr was acquitted by the Chief Justice and the public was not happy. Burr fled to Europe due to the public’s hatred of him. Apparently didn’t learn anything because in Europe he tried to instigate war between England and the United States.
Meanwhile, Theo didn’t give up on her father. She wrote a letter to then First lady Dolly Madison saying, “Why, then, is my father banished from a country for which he has encountered wounds and dangers and fatigue for years? Why is he driven from his friends, from an only child, to pass an unlimited time in exile, and that, too, at an age when others are reaping the harvest of past toils, or ought, at least, to be providing seriously for the comfort of ensuing years ? I do not seek to soften you by this recapitulation. I only wish to remind you of all the injuries which are inflicted on one of the first characters the United States ever produced.”
Aaron Burr came back to the United States 4 years later, oddly in 1812. You know the War of 1812?
Daughter Theodosia’s Disappearance
In December of 1812 Burr encouraged his cherished daughter Theodosia to visit him in New York from South Carolina, where she lived with her husband. It was several months after the War of 1812 broke out and Theodosia’s husband was sworn in as governor of South Carolina. As head of the state militia, he could not accompany her on the trip north. Burr sent Timothy Green, an old friend, to accompany by boat instead.
The two of them boarded The Patriot which was a famously fast sailer, which had originally been built as a pilot boat, and had served as a privateer during the war. The schooner’s captain, William Overstocks, desired to make a rapid run to New York with his cargo.
The Patriot and all those on board were never heard from again.
No one actually knows what happened. But as you can imagine there are a lot of theories. Aaron Burr refused to credit any of the rumors of his daughter’s possible capture, believing that she had died in a shipwreck.
One story, which was considered somewhat plausible, was that the Patriot had fallen prey to the wreckers known as the Carolina “bankers,” who operated near Nags Head, North Carolina. They were known for pirating wrecks and murdering both passengers and crews. In relation to this, a Mr. J.A. Elliott of Norfolk, Virginia, made a statement in 1910 that in the early part of 1813, the dead body of a young woman “with every indication of refinement” had been washed ashore at Cape Charles, and had been buried on her finder’s farm.
Foster Haley claimed in the Charleston News and Courier that documents he had discovered in the State archives in Mobile, Alabama said that the Patriot had been captured by pirates.
Other theories include American Indians, an inscribed locket, a possible confession in a fictional novel, a possible portrait of Theodosia and more.
What Happen to the Kids?
Not much is known about Mama Theodosia’s three daughters from her first marriage. A little more is know about her son’s after working in Burr’s law office.
John went on to be appointed by President Thomas Jefferson as one of the first three Superior Court justices of the Territory of Orleans. He left his position 1808, interestingly after his stepfather was accused of treason for you know, trying to invade the region.
John continued to practice law in New Orleans before some very interesting appointments: he was an American Commissioner to examine the state of the Spanish colonies in South America, he was sent to the Oregon Territory to help with U.S. possession from the British, all before moving to Peru with his family. He lived to be 59 years old.
Augustine married twice and had nine daughters and one son. Aaron Burr wrote a letter about Augustine, saying, “The elder Prevost, is a most amiable and honorable man” he goes on to say “I wish you could know him but it would be difficult, by reason of his diffidence and great reluctance to mingle with the world. It has been a source of extreme regret and mortification to me that he should be lost to society and to his friends. The case seems almost remediless for alas! He is married!”
So Augustine was anti-social and I mean compared to Burr, isn’t most of the world? Also having a stepfather like Burr, he understanbly wanted to stay out of the public eye.
Augustine settled on a 240 acre farm in New York near present-day Concord. He lived to be 75 years old.
So what happened to Daughter Theo’s son? As we researching the whole Burr trying-to-get-a-country thing we would find that Theo’s son was sick and she was taking him to doctor after doctor in hopes of healing him. Theodisa herself was also reported as becoming more fragile after the birth of her son. Perhaps on her journey’s with her father she was looking for someone to help both of them.
Unfortunately her son Aaron would die of malaria in 1812 at the age of 10. Womenshistoryblog.com writes, “Theodosia went into a deep depression, and her already fragile health declined over the next several months as she mourned the loss of her son, and her father was still living abroad. It was a very difficult time.”
The Death of An Entire Family
In 1812 Daughter Theodosia’s son dies. The same year Theodosia is lost at sea. A few short years later Theodosia’s husband, Joseph would died at the age of 36. In the course of 5 years the whole family dies. It’s terribly tragic.
Aaron Burr would live another 23 years after his daughter is lost at sea to the age of 80.
Leah and Phoebe digest this tragic story and talk about what lessons we can learn from the Theodosia’s. Listen here.
Previous Episodes in the Hamilton Series
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ABOUT YOUR GAL FRIDAY
Your Gal Friday is a weekly podcast about female leaders, innovators and rule breakers. Your hosts, Dr. Leah Leach & Ms. Phoebe Frear, talk about the life and legacy about a gal as well as what they have learned from her.