It is just after midnight under a moonless sky during the brutal winter of 1779. A young man rides his horse down a rutted road, now Sunnyside Lane in what would become Irvington, to the shore of the Hudson River. A small barge waits to ferry him and his horse to New Jersey. After crossing the river, he rides on further, to The Hermitage, an estate in Ho-Ho-Kus, for a romantic rendezvous.
He is the future vice president of the United States and the man who will kill Alexander Hamilton 25 years later in a duel on July 11, 1804, 219 years ago this month.
Lieutenant Colonel Aaron Burr, at age 21, is “commander of the lines” for the Continental Army in Westchester County during the Revolutionary War, though ill health would force his resignation after less than three months. He was charged with holding back the countless raids and attacks on civilians by both Redcoats and Patriot soldiers in the “neutral ground,” a dangerous district that ran from Tarrytown through White Plains to the Saw Pits (now Port Chester), according to records at the Westchester Historical Society.
It was scandalous. Aaron Burr was courting Theodosia Bartow Prevost, a member of the Bartow family that would become prominent in Pelham, a woman 10 years his senior who was married to a British officer and had five children.
Though intelligent, witty, and charming, “The lady was not beautiful,” writes Margaret Highland, former curator at the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, quoting a family genealogist. “Besides being past her prime, she was slightly disfigured by a scar on her forehead.”
She and Burr married in 1782, after the death of Theodosia’s husband, who had been in service in the West Indies.
But the truth about his covert journeys across the Hudson, like other stories about Burr’s time in Westchester, may never be known. A trip like that would have taken about seven hours each way. It was one of the coldest winters on record here. And it was very dangerous to travel through Westchester’s “neutral ground,” especially at night. “He could have easily been captured,” says Catalina Hannan of Historic Hudson Valley. “Legends about him could circle the globe several times.”
The couple moved to New York City, and Burr had “a substantial practice in the Westchester courts at this time,” writes former Bedford Town Historian Donald W. Marshall. Burr’s name appears on the court record as having argued several cases at the Bedford Court House on January 28, 1788. And, at St. Paul’s Church in Mount Vernon, Burr tried a civil case when it was used as a courthouse, according to Dr. David Osborn, site manager of St. Paul’s Church National Historic Site.
The couple would soon be in Pelham, where Burr bought a farm to be used as their summer home. Some historians claim this purchase was part of several local land-grab schemes. Following the close of the Revolutionary War, lands owned by those not loyal to the Patriot cause were confiscated by the state of New York and sold. The land that is now Pelham was owned by the Pell family, whose loyalties were split. Joshua Pell Jr. was a British officer, and his land was confiscated, according to Pelham Town Historian Arthur L. Scinta.
Around this time, Burr was attorney general and commissioner of Revolutionary War Claims.
Joshua Pell Jr. and his siblings alleged the wrongful taking of the property and “filed a lawsuit in which they were represented by Aaron Burr,” according to Blake Bell, a former Pelham Town Historian. They won their claim and were compensated by the State.
Though Scinta’s view is that Burr was merely wielding his considerable political power rather than acting as a legal advocate, it is nonetheless true that “in 1790, Burr bought the very same 146-acre tract at issue in the lawsuit,” writes Bell, which included The Shrubbery, the Pell family manor house that once stood between today’s Boston Post Road and Split Rock Road. The property overlooked an expanse of farmland that now includes part of the Hutchinson River Parkway.
Burr quickly deeded the property to his stepson, Augustine Frederick Prevost, perhaps to hide his connection to the purchase and possibly something else. “Burr is accused of having bought land because he was planning to move the Post Road through the property and create a toll road,” says Scinta.
He also bought up land at bargain prices from poor farmers unable to eke out a living in what had been the “neutral ground” during the war. “They were forced to sell their land at bargain prices, writes Bell. Burr was only too glad to oblige.” The new road would have made all this land more valuable. “Burr is the most famous resident of Pelham we’d like to forget,” Scinta says.
During summers in Pelham, Burr lived with his wife, Theodosia Prevost Burr, and their daughter, also named Theodosia, who was born in 1783. When the elder Theodosia died, in 1794, probably of cancer, Burr devoted himself to educating his daughter, and the two remained very close throughout her life. Many know of her from the ballad “Dear Theodosia”, sung by Aaron Burr’s character in the musical Hamilton.
“You will come of age with our young nation. We’ll bleed and fight for you, we’ll make it right for you.”
But years later, there appears another mystery. Theodosia set sail in 1813 from South Carolina for a reunion with her adoring father — and disappeared. Theodosia was presumed dead at the age of 29, whether by shipwreck, capture by pirates, or kidnapping by enemies of her father, no one knows. Some say her ghost and that of Aaron Burr smash dishes and move chairs at his carriage house in Greenwich Village, now the restaurant One if By Land, Two if By Sea.
Burr resented Hamilton having called him “a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government” and demanded a written apology or a duel. The rest is history.
Recently, another twist was revealed: In 2019, Sherri Burr, a professor in New Mexico, presented conclusive evidence that she is descended from John Pierre Burr, one of two children Burr fathered with his wife’s servant.
John Pierre (born 1792) and Louisa Charlotte (born 1788) were Burr’s children with a woman of color named Mary Emmons, originally from Calcutta, India, who worked in the Burrs’ homes. The Aaron Burr Association, a group of Burr’s descendants and others active in “honoring the true legacy of Aaron Burr,” voted unanimously in 2018 to formally acknowledge that all descendants of Aaron Burr’s children by Mary Emmons are legitimate members of the Burr family.
“Aaron Burr’s stormy life resembled a giant roller coaster, with numerous twists and turns that careened from his role as vice president to the duel in which he killed Alexander Hamilton to charges of treason,” writes Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum former curator Highland.
In 1800, four years before the tragic duel, Burr was in a deadlocked presidential election against Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson. Congress made Jefferson president and Burr became vice president. He was still vice president when the famous duel took place in 1804.
Burr resented Hamilton having called him “a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government” and demanded a written apology or a duel. The rest is history. Despite public outrage, his murder charge was never tried.
Shunned by society and out of politics, Burr’s next attempt to gain power would end with Jefferson charging him with treason for the “Burr Conspiracy,” a plot to set up his own empire in the western United States, carved from the Louisiana Purchase and Mexico. Burr was arrested and taken to Richmond, VA, for trial before Chief Justice John Marshall.
Here’s where another myth arises. Many history books place a young reporter named Washington Irving at the treason trial in 1807, writing a story for his brother’s newspaper, the Morning Chronicle. Irving would, of course, settle in Tarrytown and write “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” among dozens of other works at his home Sunnyside, on the banks of the Hudson.
Burr biographer Nancy Isenberg writes, at the trial Irving reported Burr to be “a man of audacity, poise, meticulous self-control — the height of masculinity in this period and the same qualities modern Americans came to admire in Humphrey Bogart and Clint Eastwood.”
But years later, there appears another mystery. Theodosia set sail in 1813 from South Carolina for a reunion with her adoring father — and disappeared.
But Irving was only there a short time as an observer, according to Historic Hudson Valley’s Catalina Hannan.
“At the time of the Burr’s treason trial, the Morning Chronicle as it was, did not exist anymore,” she says, “and Washington Irving was not writing for any newspaper.”
Burr was acquitted, went into exile, and though persona non grata everywhere else, he briefly returned to Pelham in 1812, where he was a welcome guest of John Bartow, Theodosia’s cousin, on the site of the present day Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, according to the Museum Educator Margaret Holmes.
Inside the mansion, built after he died, is an artifact that Burr left behind, an upright Sheraton desk of mahogany, tulip poplar, and white pine.
But of course, there’s a twist: The desk in Pelham came from a Staten Island boarding house where Burr died in 1836 and was eventually donated to the museum by the New York City Parks Department.
Holmes gives tours at the museum. “I love talking to people about that desk. What draws me to it is that Aaron Burr had such a colorful life. His ups and downs reflect the founding of our nation. The many dichotomies of Burr parallel the uncertainties of a new nation just finding its feet.”
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