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  • Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

    Was South Carolina’s ‘Lost’ First Lady Buried On The Texas Coast?

    by C. F. Eckhardt
    Aaron Burr, once Vice President of the United States and, for years, one of the most unjustly-maligned men in U. S. history, had a daughter named Theodosia. She was his only legitimate offspring.

    Theodosia Burr met and ultimately married Joseph Alston, who was, at the time, the youngest governor in the short history of the state of South Carolina. Early in 1812 Theodosia Burr Alston gave birth to a son. On Christmas Day of that year, she and her son boarded the coasting barque Patriot to sail to New York so Aaron Burr could meet his grandson.

    The Patriot never arrived in New York. Many years later a drunken derelict lay dying in an old sailors’ home. He claimed, on his death bed, to have been a pirate. According to his story the barque Patriot was capture, looted, and burned and all aboard, including Aaron Burr’s daughter and grandson, were murdered. That story has been accepted as the fate of Theodosia Burr Alston and her infant son, though it has never been corroborated by any second source.

    When Anglo-Americans began to settle in the southeastern part of what was then the Mexican province of Téjas, they encountered an Indian tribe with an evil reputation. The tribe was the Karankawa, and they were acknowledged to be cannibalistic. However, they did trade with the new settlers—probably because they were outnumbered, the Karankawa or ‘Kronks,’ as the settlers called them, were never numerous—and the newcomers were much better armed. Chief among the traders was a large brave who spoke excellent English. He was asked where he learned it.

    The story he told was of a hermit who the Karankawa believed to be possessed by a demon. Among all primitive peoples the world over there seems to be a prohibition against harming the insane. The reason is a fear that the demon possessing the insane one will leave the host upon death and possess the person who killed its host. There is, however, no apparent tabu about talking to—and learning from—one so possessed. The hermit came to southeastern Texas sometime before 1812 and took up residence in Karankawa country. The tall brave learned English—grammatically correct English—from him.

    The brave also wore a large gold locket on a fine chain around his neck. He was asked where he got it. From his white wife, he explained. And where had he gotten a white wife? The great storm brought her to him on one of the big white man canoes and then the storm god took her life, but not before she gave him the necklace.

    Upon examination the locket proved to have a miniature painting, probably on ivory, inside. The painting showed a handsome young man holding an infant. Engraved on the back of the locket was the word ‘Theodosia.’

    The great hurricane of 1816 was certainly the storm of the century, perhaps the storm of the second millennium. During the storm Jean Laffite sailed a ship drawing 12 feet across Galveston Island without grounding. As late as 1825 there were high-water marks 20 feet up on trees as much as 10 miles inland.

    According to the Karankawas, they survived the storm as their people always had. They climbed as high as possible into deep-rooted trees and tied themselves into the branches. After the storm blew itself out the brave went to see how his English-speaking friend had fared.

    The hermit had not done well. He was apparently not a coastal Southerner, for he climbed into the crown of a spreading liveoak and tied himself into the branches. As coastal Southerners know, liveoaks—called ‘water oaks’ in some parts of the South—are very shallow-rooted. Once the ground softens from heavy, continuous rain, even a moderate wind will topple huge liveoaks. Previous to the 1816 storm there was a considerable forest of large liveoaks at the mouth of the Rio San Bernardo, today’s San Bernard River. For years after the storm the fallen trunks of huge liveoaks littered the now-barren coastal landscape. The hermit’s tree fell and he was drowned.

    There was, however, something more interesting than a dead hermit at the mouth of the river. Ashore, her keel broken, was a sizeable ship. The brave said he climbed aboard. The deck was littered with debris and bodies. As he prowled the ship he heard a voice calling for help—in English. He followed the sound to what appears to have been the sterncastle. There he found a small white woman, completely naked save for the necklace he now wore, chained by one ankle to a bulkhead. He freed her from the chain and carried her ashore.

    She apparently fainted at the sight of the brave, for a Karankawa brave was an intimidating sight. Karankawa men stood, on average, taller than six feet. Their name, among other tribes—other than ‘eaters of men’—was Bigfeet for their huge, flat feet. This particular Karankawa habitually wore only a buckskin breechclout and a headdress made from deer antlers. He was also, as was typical of his tribe, well armed—certainly with a huge knife and a war club, probably also with the huge bow made of native cane that the tribe favored. In addition, the tribe smeared their bodies with a home-made insect repellent, the primary ingredient of which was rancid sharks’-liver oil. He probably reeked to the heavens as well as looked like some sort of Hellish horned demon.

    When she finally awoke, he began speak to her in English. This appeared to hearten her. She asked him to take her to the people who taught him English. When he told her there had been only one and he perished in the storm, she apparently lost all hope.

    She told him she was the daughter of a great chief badly misunderstood by his people, and the wife of another great, but lesser chief. She had been on a boat going to see her father when another boat—the one on which he found her—attacked. All aboard except her—but including her infant son—were murdered by the crew of the boat he found her aboard. Then she gave him the locket and told him to find people who spoke English, show them the locket, and tell them the story. Sometime in the next 24 hours she died. The brave buried his ‘white wife’ near the site of the shipwreck.

    The brave refused all offers to trade for the locket and necklace. It had been given to him by his white wife, he said. It was all he had from her. He would never surrender it.

    All Karankawas were eventually expelled from eastern Texas, pushed down the shore to the vicinity of Corpus Christi and Padre Island. The last Karankawas, no more than a few dozen in all, boarded canoes in the fall of 1836 and headed south down Laguna Madre between Padre Island and the Texas coast. The were last seen paddling across a huge, shallow inlet known as Baffin Bay, in present Kenedy County, when a storm blew up out of the Gulf. No trace of them or their canoes was ever seen again.

    Who was the Karankawa brave’s ‘white wife?’ Theodosia Burr Alston’s father, Aaron Burr, was certainly ‘a great chief badly misunderstood by his people,’ a misunderstanding that to a considerable extent continues today. Joseph Alston, her husband, was also a ‘great chief,’ but certainly a lesser one than her father. She had an infant son. The coasting barque Patriot was never again seen after crossing the bar at Charleston Harbor on Christmas Day, 1812. The locket, containing a painting of a handsome young man holding an infant, was engraved on the back with the name ‘Theodosia.’

    Was the brave’s ‘white wife’ Theodosia Burr Alston? No one can say for sure.

    © C. F. Eckhardt August 1, 2007 column

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