Lost to the Sea: The Mysterious Disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alston

On New Year’s Eve 1812, Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of the vice-president of the United States, boarded the schooner Patriot in South Carolina headed for New York to see her father. She never made it. The Theodosia Burr disappearance has baffled historians for over two centuries. Read on for the astonishing story of one of America’s most perplexing enigmas.

4 October 2023

The annals of maritime lore are brimming with unsolved mysteries, but few tales resonate with the haunting nature of the disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alston.

For over two hundred years, one of America’s most famous missing persons cases has baffled the world. What happened to Theodosia Burr Alston? Was the schooner Patriot the victim of a terrible storm or were there other, more sinister forces at play? Was the Theodosia Burr disappearance somehow connected to her father’s political disgrace?

At the heart of this intriguing story is Aaron Burr’s daughter, Theodosia. An exceptionally bright socialite in the upper echelons of American high society, she championed education for women and became a figure of intrigue and admiration. Yet, it was her inexplicable vanishing which transformed her from an historical footnote into the subject of legend and countless speculation.

And what of the famous, albeit unverified Theodosia Burr portrait found in a house in Nags Head, North Carolina in the late 1860s? Is it a clue as to the true fate of Theodosia Burr?

Here’s a dive into the upper reaches of American high society as we attempt to shed light on this truly baffling mystery.

Who Was Theodosia Burr Alston?

The Burr family, and subsequently the Alstons, were key players in the early years of American politics.

Theodosia was born on June 21, 1783 to Aaron Burr and Theodosia Bartow Prevost. Her mother died when she was eleven and she became extremely close to her father, who, between 1801 and 1805, was the third vice president of the USA, serving under Thomas Jefferson.

Theodosia lived a life that was both blessed and burdened by the public eye. A gifted intellectual and a driving force in the most sophisticated social circles of the age, her life was inextricably linked to that of her father.

In 1801, Theodosia married Joseph Alston, a prosperous South Carolinian landowner. Relocating to the South, she became a central figure in Charleston’s elite society and gave birth to a son, Aaron Burr Alston, in 1802.

She was rich, popular and Aaron Burr’s daughter, one of America’s most famous politicians. However events transpired to make the following decade one of personal trials and heartbreaking loss, culminating in her mysterious disappearance – which still remains unsolved to this day.

The Trials and Tribulations of Vice President Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr’s political career was steeped in controversy due to a series of high-profile incidents. Notably, his infamous duel with Alexander Hamilton – the former Secretary of the Treasury, who died from his wounds. This forever stained Burr’s reputation. Later, his alleged involvement in a conspiracy to create an independent territory in the southwestern regions of the U.S. and Mexico led to his trial for treason. Though acquitted, these events tarnished his standing in the political arena and contributed to his eventual political downfall.

Later, his alleged involvement in a conspiracy to create an independent territory in the southwestern regions of the U.S. and Mexico led to his trial for treason.

In 1807, he went into self-imposed exile in Europe, spending much of this time in London. He lived in Scotland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and France before returning to the United States in July 1812, residing in New York. Did his political dealings have anything to do with the Theodosia Burr disappearance?

Decennium Horribilis

A painting of Theodosia Burr Alston, by Gilbert Stuart. (Credit: Sepia Times / Contributor via Getty Images)

The decade between 1802 and 1812 was supposed to be filled with the joys of her young, upwardly mobile wealthy Southern family, however it was anything but for Theodosia Burr Alston.

The events in her father’s life cast a long shadow over Theodosia’s, isolating her from many Northern contacts. Yet, she remained a devoted daughter, consistently offering her father emotional and sometimes financial support during his various exiles and trials.

She became unwell after the birth of her son and visited various spas and health retreats in an effort to cure her ills. Compounding her physical ailments, she endured the tragic death of her ten year-old son from malaria in 1812.

Devastated and seeking to reunite with her father, who had just returned from Europe, the twenty-nine year-old Theodosia Burr Alston decided to sail up the eastern seaboard to see him.

In early December 1812, Theodosia’s husband Joseph Alston was sworn in as governor of South Carolina so he couldn’t accompany his wife. Instead, he sent a man said to have been an old friend named Timothy Green (sometimes spelled Greene) who some reports suggest was a doctor but others merely say he possessed some medical knowledge.

On New Years’ Eve 1812, Theodosia Burr Alston and Timothy Green, along with an indeterminate number of passengers set sail on the schooner Patriot, captained by William Overstocks, bound for New York.

The ship never arrived.

The Lost Ship Patriot

The true story of The Patriot is mired in some conjecture, but it’s generally agreed it was originally built as a pilot boat – one used to transport ship’s pilots from land to their boats – and is believed to have served as a privateer. A privateer was a vessel that engaged in wartime activities with the permission of the government or nation they were serving.

It was reported that the ship was refitted, with its guns dismounted and hidden to present a non-hostile appearance, and its name was painted over to maintain a low profile due to its previous activities. It’s also thought, although not conclusively verified, that along with Theodosia Burr Alston, the schooner was also carrying valuable proceeds from privateering raids captured during the War of 1812.

Theodosia Burr Disappearance: What Happened?

The mysterious disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alston and The Patriot has given rise to various theories over the years. While none have been definitively proven, there’s a range of speculation offering intriguing possibilities about their fate.


Some believe The Patriot and its passengers fell victim to pirates who roamed the waters at the time. Given that the ship might have been laden with valuables from privateering exploits, it would have been a tempting target. Some stories which circulated at the time suggested The Patriot became a victim of the infamous Banker pirates off the coast of North Carolina, particularly in the Nags Head area. They supposedly lured ships aground, plundered them, then killed the crew and passengers. The discovery of the famous Theodosia Burr portrait in Nags Head many years later adds some weight to this theory.


The waters off the Carolina coast are notoriously treacherous. Bad weather or navigational errors could have led to the schooner Patriot’s wreck. Some reports from early January 1813 mention severe storms in the vicinity which could have contributed to the ship’s untimely demise.

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Given the ongoing War of 1812, there’s a possibility the ship was captured by a British naval vessel. However, British records from the time don’t indicate any capture of a ship fitting The Patriot’s description. An alternative theory claimed that Theodosia survived a shipwreck and was taken in by a Native American tribe, where she lived out her days.


Another – albeit less likely – theory posits that the crew mutinied, took control of the ship, and possibly killed the passengers. They could then have sold the ship and its cargo elsewhere.

While these theories offer potential explanations, the truth about the fate of Theodosia Burr Alston and The Patriot remains one of history’s most intriguing unsolved mysteries.

The Theodosia Burr Portrait

One of the most tantalising pieces of the puzzle regarding the Theodosia Burr disappearance is a portrait discovered in Nags Head, North Carolina, believed by some to depict her.

In 1869, Dr. William G. Pool was attending an elderly woman named Polly Manncaring (sometimes Mann Caring or Mannycaring) when he noticed a portrait on her wall. She claimed her first husband found it on the sunken wreck of a ship he believed to have been plundered by the Banker pirates who operated off the North Carolina coast.

For reasons unknown, it’s said that Pool became convinced the portrait was of Theodosia Burr Alston and is believed to have contacted members of her family, many of whom suggested it could be her but none were certain.

Another version of the story about how the painting came into the elderly woman’s possession was that her husband, a fisherman, found a semi-unconscious woman in a rowing boat drifting near the shore. She had no idea who she was nor from where she came, and the only item she had in her possession was the portrait.

The portrait is now housed at the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University.

Lost to Time and Tide: The Mystery of Theodosia Burr Alston

The enduring mystery of the Theodosia Burr disappearance is one that has perplexed maritime historians for generations. Her prestigious lineage, the political storms her family weathered, and her own personal trials paint a vivid picture of a woman who, despite her societal stature, became an enigma lost to the sea.

The allure of unsolved puzzles, the fragments of tales like the portrait in Nags Head, and the haunting image of a vanishing ship have all collided to etch an indelible, yet unexplained mark on American folklore.


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