Portrait of Nag’s Head

In the summer of 1869, Dr. William G. Pool of Elizabeth City, N.C., took his family to the seashore for a few weeks. The place he chose was a small resort called Nag’s Head. It lay on one of the long sand banks separating the ocean from the coast of North Carolina.

The islands, or bank, had a strange and cruel history. In the past, many a ship had been wrecked on the shoals in the area. The inhabitants of the islands, brutal people known as “bankers,” lived by pirating the wrecks.

They murdered passengers and crews, and then plundered the ships. When the sea did not provide them with wrecks, the bankers created them by luring passenger ships onto the rocks.

Nag’s Head received it name from just such a vicious practice. On stormy nights the bankers would hobble a horse, tie a lantern around its neck, and walk it up and down the beach. Sailors at sea would mistake the bobbing light for a ship riding safely at anchor. They steered for shelter, only to be wrecked on the banks and killed so they could tell no tales.

By 1869, however, lighthouses and law had put an end to the wrecking and looting of ships. Nag’s Head had become a small resort town. Now, the bankers were simply year-round inhabitants who gathered what the sea washed up on the beaches. Only the older people remembered the days of piracy.

One of these older people was Mrs. Amelia Mann. Unexpectedly, Dr. Pool’s vacation was interrupted when he was asked to come to Mrs. Mann’s bedside. She was very ill, he was told.

Arriving at her home, Dr. Pool found a crude hut built of timbers from old wrecks and thatched with reeds. The inside was dirty, dark and cluttered. But in the slovenly disorder one object stood out. It was the portrait of a beautiful young woman.

Painted on a wooden panel, the portrait showed a woman in her middle or late twenties. She had piercing black eyes and black hair tinged with reddish-brown. Her skin was fair, her cheeks pink. She wore a white dress cut square at the neck, a fashion popular in the early 1800s.

Dr. Pool was intensely fascinated by the portrait. Who was this young woman? How had her portrait ended up in a banker’s hut at Nag’s Head? At first he could learn nothing about the portrait. Mrs. Mann was sullen by nature and suspicious of outsiders. She had called in the doctor only because she was suffering from an illness that no home remedy could cure.

As time past, Mrs. Mann started to respond to treatment. She came to trust Dr. Pool. When she was well, she was eager to give him the portrait as payment for his services. She was, however, reluctant to talk about the painting. But before the summer ended, Dr. Pool was able to get her to reveal how the portrait came to Nag’s Head.

Her story confirmed the idea that had been growing in his head. He felt sure that the portrait was a major clue to a mystery that had gone unsolved for 56 years – the loss of the schooner Patriot, which carried as its passenger one of the country’s outstanding women Theodosia Burr.

Built originally as a pilot boat, the Patriot had been acting as a privateer during the War of 1812. She had been commissioned by the United States government to prey on British merchant shipping. Fast, sturdy and well sailed, the Patriot had captured a rich haul of spoils. In December 1812, the Patriot was refitted at Georgetown, S.C. Her guns were dismantled and hidden below. Her name was painted over. Every sign of her recent activity was completely erased.

Now, her master, Captain Overstocks, wanted to make a quick run to New York with his cargo. On the way he would have to pass a fleet of British Naval ships, so it was essential that the Patriot’s privateering past be hidden. On sailing day, three passengers came aboard. One was Theodosia Burr, daughter of Aaron Burr and wife of Joseph Alston, governor of South Carolina.

Then 29 years old, she was famed for her beauty, charm and intelligence. But she was ill – restless and homesick. Her health had been poor all through her marriage to the governor. The hot, wet climate of her husband’s rice plantation did not agree with her. In June of 1812, her only child, a boy of ten, had died of malaria. His death was a blow from which she had not recovered and for which she could find no comfort.

Theodosia’s husband and her father were gravely concerned about her. They decided that she should go north for a visit with Burr, who had recently returned from four years in Europe. Perhaps a change of climate and a reunion with her father would restore her health and spirits.

Alston could not accompany his wife. As governor, state law forbade him to leave South Carolina during his term in office. Burr, therefore, sent Timothy Green, an old friend who had some medical knowledge, to travel with Theodosia.

Green and Alston agreed that a land journey by horse-drawn coach would be too much of a strain on Theodosia, so Green booked passage for Theodosia, her maid and himself on the Patriot. In case of trouble, Alston gave Captain Overstocks a letter to the admiral of the British fleet. In it he asked that the ship carrying his sick wife be allowed to proceed without delay to New York. The Patriot left port, bound for New York, on Dec. 30, 1812.

The days turned into weeks. In New York, Burr paced the waterfront watching for a sail that never appeared. In South Carolina, Alston waited for a letter that never came. At last it became clear that the Patriot could not be simply overdue. Somewhere, somehow, between Georgetown and New York she had been lost.

There were no clues as to what happened, but it seemed probable that the Patriot had met her end in one of three ways, for she had sailed into waters that held three known dangers; winter storms, an enemy fleet and the pirate ships which the infested the eastern coastal waters.

For a time Burr hoped that the ship had been captured by the British or by pirates and Theodosia taken prisoner. Then, as the months crept by without news, the conviction grew in his heart that Theodosia was dead. Like Alston, he came to believe that the Patriot had sunk in a storm with all aboard. There was, of course, no proof that a storm had sunk the ship.

At the time of the Patriot’s loss, there was no evidence whatsoever to support the pirate theory. Then, 20 years later, some “evidence” did come to light. It took the form of deathbed confessions of sick or aged pirates.

A dying pirate in Mobile, Ala., made the first “confession” in the early 1830s. A newspaper account read, “It appears from the statement of a respectable merchant of Mobile that a man died in that city recently who confessed on his dying bed that he had been a pirate and helped to destroy a vessel and the crew and passengers, on which Mrs. Alston had embarked for New York. He declared, says this gentleman, that after the men were all killed there was an unwillingness of the part of every pirate to take the life of Mrs. Alston, who had not resisted them or fought them, and therefore they drew lots who should perform the deed, as it had to be done.

“The lot fell upon this pirate who declared that he effected his object by laying a plank along the edge of the ship and made Mrs. Alston walk on the plank till it tilted over with her. The dying pirate requested that his physician make this story public, but his surviving family will not permit that the name of the deceased should be known.”

Other confessions followed, from two criminals about to be executed in Norfolk, Va., and a dying sailor in Texas. The confessions raise some very large questions about how much reliance can be placed on the word of a criminal.

A chance meeting of an American general, Thomas Finkney, and the admiral of the British fleet stationed off the Carolina coast in the winter of 1812-1813 throws more doubt on the pirate confessions.

The men met at a dinner party in London, years after the loss of the Patriot. The admiral stated that he had seen the ship carrying Mrs. Alston, had received and read Governor Alston’s letter, and had granted the shop safe passage. He added, however, that a terrible storm had struck that same night, Jan. 1. It was violent enough to scatter the fleet, and the admiral believed that the storm must have sunk the Patriot.

The admiral had not seen the Patriot go down, of course, so it was just his belief that the ship was sunk. The statement, if true, establishes two things: the Patriot was safe in Jan. 1 and there was a bad storm on the same night.

The storm and the presence of the British fleet make it most unlikely that she was attacked by pirates. They could not have boarded her in such a fierce storm, and they would not have attacked in waters held by British ships – the risk of being attacked by the fleet was too great. So, it was known that the Patriot had been in a storm, and somehow, during or after that storm, she had been lost.

That’s how matters stood when Dr. Pool discovered the Nag’s Head portrait in 1869. The portrait and the story told my Mrs. Mann opened still another possibility.

Mrs. Mann explained that she had been married twice and twice widowed. Her first husband was a local man named Joseph Tillet, whom she married when she was about 16 years old. During their courtship, Tillet had given her several presents, including a vase of wax flowers, a beautifully carved shell, two black silk dresses made for a lady of small build and the portrait.

The gifts came from a disabled ship that Tillet and the other bankers had spied being driven in toward the banks. They boarded the ship and found her deserted. They saw no blood or other signs of violence, but the disorder of the cabins indicated that they might have been ransacked.

The bankers found nothing that told them the name of the ship, her home port, or her destination. Nor, Tillet claimed, could they find much of value. There were some silks and silver, but little else of worth. The bankers divided what they had found. As his share, Tillet took the portrait, which was hanging from the wall of a cabin that had clearly been occupied by a woman. From this cabin he also took the other items that he later gave to the girl he was courting.

Mrs. Mann could not remember the date of the shipwreck. She did, however, remember that it happened in the winter “when we were fighting the British on the sea.” Since in 1869 Mrs. Mann was about 70 years old, she could not have been talking about the Revolutionary War – she must have, the doctor decided, meant the War of 1812 and the winter of 1812-1813.

That was all the information Dr. Pool could get out of Mrs. Mann, though he always suspected that she knew more than she told him. But it was enough to convince him that the wrecked ship could well have been the Patriot and the woman in the portrait, Theodosia. The notion was further strengthened when a distant relative of the Burr family visited the Pools to see the Nag’s Head portrait. The woman, Mrs. Drake, seemed firmly convinced that the woman in the painting was Theodosia.

By 1869 all the people who had known Theodosia were dead. No one could look at the portrait and say, “Yes, that is how she looked in 1812,” or “No, that is not Theodosia.” There is no written record of the portrait, and it is not mentioned in letters that passed between Aaron Burr and Joseph Alston.

Was the portrait a gift for her father? If so, why was it removed from its wrapping and hung in Theodosia’s cabin for what was only a five or six day voyage?

The true identity of the Nag’s Head portrait continues to be an unsolved mystery. What really happened to the Patriot on that stormy night off the Carolina coast will probably never be known. Whatever the truth may be, there is only one clue: the unknown woman in the Nag’s Head portrait.
Theodosia was a real person, but is the story of her passing fact? Fiction? A mix of both? More questions that may never be answered.