Blennerhassett Isle de Beau
The largest island in the Ohio River lies a mile below Parkersburg, W. Va., and the mouth of the Little Kanawha River. From the beginning it has borne several names but for the last hundred-odd years it has borne but one, the ill-fated name of Blennerhassett.
The romantic tragedy of Blennerhassett Island has been given to the world on a thousand pages; and while it would be inappropriate not to sketch it here again, we will do so with a purpose not before essayed—that of allowing the romance to interpret certain of the phases of the history of the Ohio River which have been treated in preceding pages. The real story, shorn of its glittering, tinselled fabrications, contains an object-lesson in western history that has been ignored in inverse ratio to its inherent value. The romantic and unusual features of the story serve the admirable purpose of embalming and saving a number of facts and suggestions that enable us to form a more perfect picture of the Ohio Valley in the first decade of the nineteenth century than is possible in the case of any other single historical episode.
The story of Blennerhassett Island, for instance, illustrates the experiences of an emigrant in making a pioneer settlement in this valley; again, it shows the character of the political unrest in the day before any real unification of the West and the East had dawned; it illustrates that fervent, lawless type of patriotism with which the first western settlers were sternly imbued; it is full of help in making us able to understand to some degree the nature and passion for land speculation, the rowdy element in the valley, the flatboat days, the character of the infant Ohio Valley settlements, in short, the whole of the rude conditions of the life of the times.
Those who have followed the present record thus far can very well appreciate that all land in the valley had been "taken up" somewhat before the end of the eighteenth century; all the land on the Virginia side had been claimed, probably, by 1780, and, beginning with the Marietta and Cincinnati settlements in 1788, the Ohio and Indiana shore was doubtless in some settler's or speculator's hands by 1796.
In that year the Irish 'emigre' whose name will forever be remembered in the West came to America. Harman Blennerhassett was descended from the choicest Irish stock; his blood could be traced back to the times of King John. He was one of three sons born to noble, wealthy parents residing at Conway Castle, Kerry County, Ireland. The year of his birth is in dispute, but it is sure that it fell in the year 1764 or 1765 at Hampshire, England, where his mother was visiting. As the youngest son he was destined to learn a profession and his education was well attended to.
When young he was placed in the celebrated school at Westminster, England, and later he entered Trinity College, Dublin, from which he was graduated, sharing honors with his lifelong friend, the distinguished Irish patriot and orator, Thomas Addis Emmet. Leaving Trinity, Blennerhassett continued his law studies at King's Inn Courts, Dublin, and was admitted to practise at the Irish bar in 1790. He rounded out his education by a continental tour, visiting the Netherlands and arriving in France in the summer of 1790, at the period when that nation had been rocked in the arms of revolution. This revolutionary spirit was quickly imbibed by a disciple of Rousseau and one thoroughly acquainted with Voltaire, and Blennerhassett returned to his native country with a feeling of genuine sympathy for republicanism. But he cared not for political or social honors and strove to keep aloof from all party affiliation. The quiet and retirement for which he yearned was sought for in vain in a country thoroughly awakened to revolt, so he disposed of his estate and started for Kingsdale where his sister, the wife of Baron de Courcey, resided.
Although Blennerhassett was closely allied to the nobility of Ireland and England he looked with longing toward the free America which had but recently shaken off the identical yoke under which his mother-country - Ireland - was now groaning, and he made haste to England where he completed preparations to transfer his property to America. His estates had yielded him a fortune of one hundred thousand dollars. A share of this was invested in a library and chemical and philosophical apparatus. At this time Blennerhassett was married to Miss Agnew, daughter of the Lieutenant-Governor of the Isle of Man, and granddaughter of the celebrated General Agnew who fell at the battle of German town, much against the wishes of her parents who practically disinherited her for the act. Being endowed with a surprising degree of energy and of a romantic nature however, Mrs. Blennerhassett listened, with delight, to his tales of the far-off America and did not hesitate to link her destiny with his; alienated from her home the prospect of emigration came as a relief so with wife, library, and apparatus, Blennerhasset; set sail for New York in 1796. During the several months that the couple remained in New York they were received by the first American families - more in a parental and brotherly way than in a manner you would call polite and elegant," as he wrote to England. But Blennerhassett had not come across the waters to seek social distinction, and the reports of the quiet, fertile country west of the Alleghenies, where "first families" and social distinctions were not known, were more alluring to him than anything New York had to offer; so, in company with his wife, Blennerhassett set out westward. After a tedious trip they reached Pittsburg in the fall of 1797, and at once embarked in a keelboat for Marietta - the oldest and one of the most important towns on the Ohio. Here they spent the winter of 1797 and 1798, feeling much at home amid the general culture and intellectuality of the Mariettians, the descendants of the sturdy, puritanical stock of Massachusetts and Connecticut They decided to abandon their former plan of looking for land in the States of Kentucky and Tennessee and resolved to locate amid this enterprising settlement.
Lacking any complete information on the subject, there is no ground for speculating on the practicability of Blennerhassett's plan of removal to America or of his adventuring into the Ohio Valley. The moment, however, that he arrives here and begins the work of selecting and building a home we are forced to the conclusion that he was everything that a level-headed, practical man could not be. It is as difficult for the fair-minded student to retain any respect for the Irish immigrant as it is to treat respectfully some of the commonly accepted accounts of those who have written most about him. The most absurd stories have been circulated by writers; some of these have been, seemingly, as gullible as was Blennerhassett when they say he paid a laborer five times the rightful price for collecting mussel-shells along the shore of the Ohio because the man averred he had to dive into fifteen feet of water to gather them! Several such chroniclers assert that Blennerhassett could repeat the entire Iliad "in the original Greek."
In casting about for a "seat" the immigrant at first chose the beautiful height known to-day as Harmar Hill which overlooks the Ohio and Muskingum at Marietta. The difficulty of access, however, is given as his reason for a change of plan. It is doubtful if that was the real reason, because he immediately chose another site infinitely more difficult, the island twelve miles below Marietta which will ever bear his name. The chimerical nature of the island proposition seems to have fascinated the eccentric young man—for he was hardly out of the twenties at the time. The island in question bore the name of Backus from its owner, Elijah Backus of Marietta, editor of the Ohio Gazette and the Territorial and Virginia Herald. It has been said that Washington, in his tour of 1770, included this island in one of his "tomahawk claims," but this is only a rumor; the island, though the largest in the river, is not mentioned in his journal of his trip. It was patented in 1786 by Alexander Nelson, Governor Patrick Henry signing the patent. Mr. Backus purchased it in 1792 from one James Heron (agent?), paying $883.33 for the 297 acres it contained. Blennerhassett bought a one hundred-and-seventy-acre tract (the upper end of the island), paying four thousand five hundred dollars for it—truly an enterprising Yankee bargain! What had been an old blockhouse cabin during the Indian War stood on the portion that Blennerhassett bought, and, in 1798, the year of the purchase, the imigrant, wife, and servants, moved into these temporary quarters.
Backus Island was as picturesque to the eye as it was impracticable for a homestead at that time; its beauty entranced the idealistic immigrant, who named it Isle de Beau; yet he could have gone only half that distance from Marietta and found as beautiful a location and one far more accessible. Also, in descending the Ohio to these island acres, he quite passed out of the range of convenient intercourse with the New Englanders among whom (his biographers affirm) he was disposed to associate, and became a citizen of Virginia. It is probable, however, that the Blennerhassetts were decidedly inclined toward the social caste of the slave State than otherwise. It seems, therefore, that they did not at all pause here on the Ohio because of the New England settlement, but simply because they decided they might go farther and fare worse. At the price, and under the circumstances, Isle de Beau assumes the gorgeous tints of a golden brick—without straw.
The lack of straw becomes plain in a short space of time. Between 1798 and 1800 a mansion was built by Colonel Jos. Barker, a resident on the Muskingum near Marietta, and in the building of it the young couple were exceedingly happy.
To this accomplishment [writes the island's historian, Mr. Gibbens many hands were requisite, in addition to the contractors, house-carpenters and the laborers, the ten negro servants he had purchased as grooms, waiters and watermen. Forest trees, the growth of years innumerable were uprooted, boughs and trunks burned or conveyed away, and the inequalities of ground surface were smoothed and changed in accordance with artistic taste. The giant trees, save here and there reserved ones, together with underbrush which might obstruct the delightful view to the traveller descending Ohio's current, were removed from the broad front of the upper portion of the sand-pebbled gently-sloping head of the island. Elms, sycamores, and cottonwoods were sacrificed 'neath the strokes ofthe woodman's axe, that better, grander view might be had of the palatial mansion, which he had painted an alabaster whiteness.
Colonel Joseph Barker, of Marietta, who, a few years after, in 1803, built a brigantine and named it Dominic, for Blennerhassett's oldest son, was the principal architect of this uniquely planned residence of costly beauty. An exterior view is given in the cut presented. Springing up at that era of primitive cabins, in almost a wilderness, which had just emerged from the perils of Indian warfare and the presence of ferocious game, it was like a creation of magic, a revelation of paradise in a "boundless contiguity of shade" and unadorned nature. The cost of the princely building, remote from the marts of industry and art, was, it is said, in excess of a half hundred thousand dollars. The exterior improvements of walks, lawns, shrubbery, orchards, flowers and clearing of an hundred acre farm below the structure, doubtless added ten thousand more, the entire expenditure of which among farmers, mechanics and laborers was an appreciated benefit where money was scarce and opportunities to earn it few indeed.
No expense was spared in the construction and decoration, which might impart splendor, usefulness, or convenience. The main building fronted the east and was two stories high, fifty-two feet in length and thirty feet in width. Across the front a deep portico extended, and thence on cither side in circular wings, single stories forty feet in length, connected the principal or centre building with buildings on the north and south sides, each also facing the east, and being twenty-six feet in length and twenty feet in depth and two stories high. The entire structure formed half of an ellipse, with frontage of one hundred and four feet, exclusive of the circular porticoes, or promenade extensions. The right hand wing was used for library, philosophical apparatus, laboratory and study; the left appropriated to an occupancy by the servants. The united taste, culture and consultation of the Blennerhassett pair brought finishing, furnishing and furniture of every apartment in harmony and unison with a matured plan and ideal. The furniture, the best, latest and richest, in every room, was brought from the East by wagon, through Pittsburg, and thence down the Ohio by barge and keel, and was selected to please the eye and add luxurious comfort and convenience to family and numerous guests.
The hall, a spacious room, was painted sombre color, with cornice of plaster, bordered with moulding of gilt, extending around the lofty ceiling, with rich, heavy furniture to correspond. The drawing-room contrasted with the hall in having furniture light in hue and structure, and elegant, with gay carpets splendid mirrors, rich curtains, classic pictures and artistic ornaments. The side-boards - with decanters and wine glasses indispensable to Virginia hospitality in early times - were graced, as were the tables, by a liberal supply of silverware. The finest taste in all the interior, as well as beauty of the exterior surroundings .indicated the refinement of owner and hostes, and the possession and enjoyment of the finest estate in the Virginia section of the Western world, compensated them partly for the absence and immigration from associates and heritage in the older land across the wide, wide sea.
Passing, the question whether this description is overdrawn, there is no question but that every description of its mistress is fairly true to life. Mrs. Blennerhassett, perhaps more graceful than beautiful, was fit to rule in the best mansion in the West. To her outward charm of manner there was added much faith and devotion, in small things as well as in great, to her family and its best interests. She was a brilliantly active girl; and if one prefers to believe that she cleared "a five-rail Virginia fence at a single bound" as infrequently as her husband repeated the entire Iliad in the Greek, it will not be questioned that she was a marvellously good and sweet mother, hostess and friend. The late Maria P. Woodbridge of Marietta has asserted that Mrs. Blennerhasset, for instance, introduced vaccination in the West. In New York her children were vaccinated. She preserved the virus, invited parents to send their little ones to the island, and successfully performed the operation. One of the children long recollected the beautiful Mrs. Blennerhassett. Admiration, love and respect and sympathy are felt for her as we follow her changing life from happy gaiety to lonely death in a New York garret. One of the Blennerhassett children, Dorninic, was born in the blockhouse in 1799; a second, Harman, Jr., was born in the newly completed mansion in 1801.
For six years the life of the Blennerhassetts was, seemingly, very happy; if their island was not the Eden so many have pictured it, there are few hints of the sad ending of the strange drama—though the fickle husband was ever an element of uncertainty. It was not at all out of the range of possibility that his head would be turned by almost any chance adventurer armed with both chivalry and sagacity.
Aaron Burr was such a man; and this Catiline of American politics wrought the ruin of this weak Irishman in a very short space of time. In 1805 Burr entered the Ohio Valley, lacking one year of being fifty years of age. He had run his meteoric course as Revolutionary soldier, member of New York House of Representatives, Attorney General of New York, Commissioner of Revolutionary Claims, Senator from New York from 1791 to 1797, Vice-President of the United States from 1801 to 1804, defeated candidate for Governor of New York, and murderer of Alexander Hamilton. So far as native ability, personal magnetism, and lack of conscience were concerned he was a great enough man to have been guilty of any of the crimes his fiercest enemies ever accused him of plotting; at the same time he was shrewd and brilliant and popular enough to have been able to escape conviction of any crime. We shall not attempt here to sound his unfathomable "designs" as he entered the Ohio Valley, but, rather, attempt merely to sketch his influence on the residents of Blennerhassett Island and the result.
Burr was ambitious and without financial resources. He was quite detested in the East and, in a like measure, was idolized in the West. The entire West and South accepted the outcome of the Burr-Hamilton duel as honorable to all concerned, and extolled Burr in proportion as the East maligned him." Failing in his ambition to become Governor of New York, Burr showed his prescience by turning his face westward. His political prestige gone, little was left to him—few friends and less fortune—unless it was in the West. So long as the reign of the rowdy and outlaw lasted there he had friends; and, so far as fortune was concerned, when all other enterprises failed, who could not launch a land company?
The nominal purpose of Burr's western tour was to see the country and interest people in an investment in land on the Washita, a tributary of the Red River. "His chief power," it has been said of Burr, consisted in his skill in enlisting the good will and sympathy of those with whom he came into contact. It seems, also, that there was a more or less well-defined arrangement between Burr and General James Wilkinson, Major-General of the United States Army, either to provoke an outbreak between Spain and the United States on the Mississippi, or at least to take advantage of an outbreak provided one should occur. The nature of this understanding was such that it was easy for anyone, knowing about it, to infer that Burr and Wilkinson were not faithful to their country. What may have been only a speculation contingent on certain given developments came to be thought to be Burr's deeply plotted act of treason. And the difficulty was, few men lived who could give Burr the benefit of any doubt. Suppose, for instance, that Burr planned a land investment on the Washita; the whole country at that time anticipated a war with Spain; it necessarily followed that all who were to be moved to invest money in the land enterprise must be made to see that the outbreak of such a war would be a benefit and not an injury. It was natural, therefore, that Burr should emphasize to all the military possibilities in such a case. His enemies were not slow to impute to him, justly or unjustly, a desire if not a determination to bring on the hostilities. They affirmed that he not only planned a war but fancied himself as conqueror of Mexico—and had more ground for their suspicion than they ought to have had.
But to make dark puzzle blacker still, the unsettled political status of the West at that time was dangerous enough without the appearance of any mysterious plotter on the stage. When rivers were the sole avenues of trade there was little commercial affinity between the metropolis of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and those of the Hudson and Potomac, and commerce often determines boundary lines. This we have emphasized sufficiently to make the reader's imagination fully alive to the fate of the West should war be declared against Spain. Burr's far-reaching hatred of the reigning administration, his many prophecies of a dissolution of the United Slates as then constituted, made it a gigantic task to throw from his shoulders the stigma of actually plotting the disunion of his country.
Such was the status when Burr reached Pittsburg, where a boat had been prepared for him in advance. It was the kind of house boat then called an "ark," sixty feet in length and fourteen feet wide; it contained four rooms, a dining-room, kitchen, and two bedrooms, all lighted by glass windows. One roof covered the apartments and served as a promenade deck. It is extremely unfortunate that the journal Burr kept during his tour was not preserved as it would give much interesting information of the Ohio Valley at this early date. Touching at Wheeling and Marietta he recorded that the citizens of the former village seemed quite on a par with eastern villagers, and that many of the houses at Marietta would have been called handsome anywhere. At the latter point he made a tour of the celebrated mounds, and concerning them he records that he found it difficult to reach any satisfactory conclusion—practically agreeing with the opinions of our latest and most accurate scholars.
Dropping down the river he moored his ark out of curiosity at Blennerhassett Island, having heard of the eccentric immigrant when at Marietta. While strolling on the island the strangers were seen by Mrs. Blennerhassett, who sent an invitation to them to come to the house. Burr in reply sent his card, politely declining the offer of hospitality. The lord of the manor being absent Mrs. Blennerhassett took it upon herself to entertain the distinguished traveller and went in person to present an invitation to dinner. This Burr accepted and remained through a pleasant evening at the mansion. At eleven o'clock the travellers again set sail. Burr, without seeing Blennerhassett, accurately took his measurement; be found the man but half satisfied with his island adventure and nearing the bottom of his pocket-book. Whether at this time he broached the subject of this intended land speculation to Mrs. Blennerhassett is very probable but not sure; that she herself was attracted to him strongly and was his true friend through all that followed is a matter of history.
Burr spent the memorable summer of 1805 in the South, sounding people of importance, feted far and wide. In October he ascended the Ohio and paused once more at the island, Blennerhassett again being absent. Reaching the East he addressed his first letter to him in December.
It was a very innocent communication [writes Parton] though the contrary has been asserted- It began with regrets that he had not had the pleasure of meeting Blennerhassett at his home, and inquired when and where they could come together. Its main purport was that Blennerhassett was too much of a man to be satisfied with the commonplace delights of rural seclusion. He should aspire to a career in which his powers would be employed. His fortune, already impaired, would dwindle away gradually, and his children be left destitute. The world was wide, he should go forth from his enervating solitude in pursuit of fortune and of honor.
Whether Burr got his information of Blennerhassett's affairs directly from Mrs. Blennerhassett or from current rumor one cannot say. But the fact remains that there was the best foundation for his suspicion. Blennerhassett was already planning to make a change of residence. This is clear from letters written by him in this same month of December, 1805. In a letter to John Brown, then just settled on the lower Mississippi, Blennerhassett says: "The hints you have given of the predilection you entertain for your last chosen meridian, have kindled in our minds a fire of enthusiastic curiosity, which our present embarrasmcnts will constantly fan. ... "He then speaks of a commercial venture in company with Dudley Woodbridge of Marietta and refers to a necessary abandonment of books and science, "to which, I fear, the state of my affairs will henceforth, I know not how long, condemn me." Six days later, December 15th, he writes a letter to General Devereux in which he speaks of the need of "selling or letting this place to effect a removal to another, where I could embark in mercantile pursuits, or the resumption of my old legal profession."'
Thus it is only right to emphasize the fact of Blennerhassett's purpose to leave the island, before Burr's "innocent" communication of early December reached him. In all the literature of the subject there is not sufficient emphasis of this fact. It may be that in this decision Burr had a part, as he had twice been on Blennerhassett Island, but there is no proof of this.
Such being the case, and Blennerhassett being the vagary he was, this letter of Burr's, received in December, 1805, proved a trump card. The ground was fertile with strange possibilities; and Burr's seed was as timely as fate. In his reply to Burr, dated December 21 st, the 'emigre' states that he is compelled to give over the former hope of remaining on his island where for eight years I have dreamed and hoped I should rest my bones forever, [and desired to go again] into active life, to the resumption of my former profession of the bar, mercantile or other enterprise, if I should find an opportunity of selling or letting my establishment here. . . . Having thus advised you [he continues] of my desire and motives to pursue a change of life, to engage in anything whichmay suit my circumstances,
I hope, Sir, you will not regard it indelicate in me to observe to you how highly I should be honored in being associated with you. in any contemplated enterprise you would permit me to participate in.
Blennerhassett had, in the letter, received a substantial hint at the possible outcome of Burr's land speculation as shown by the following sentence:
Not presuming to know or guess at the intercourse, if any, subsisting between you and the present Government, but viewing the probability of a rupture with Spain, the claim for action the country will make upon your talents, in the event of an engagement against, or subjugation of, any of the Spanish Territories, I am disposed in the confidential spirit of this letter to offer you my friends, and my own services to co-operate in any contemplated measures in which you may embark. . . . I shall await with much anxiety the receipt of your reply. . . .
To be lenient where there is doubt it is safe to say that Blennerhassett was embarking in Burr's scheme because it was, in the main, in line with an earlier plan of his own. It seems that it did not occur to him that Burr might be promoting a land speculation chiefly because of a subtle ulterior motive. He was duped, as were hundreds of others. As the necessary preparations for a commercial venture (securing boats, provisions, and men) were exactly similar, in many respects, to the preparations for a campaign against the Spaniards, it was easy for the adroit fortune-seeker to hoodwink those who would not have engaged in his latter plan, and, at the same time, by hints and suggestions, incite those who would have relished it in the extreme.
For several months Burr's expedition delayed in proportion as the probabilities of a war with Spain decreased; he even sought, for the second time, an appointment from President Jefferson as late as April.
Failing in this he seems to have turned with energy sharpened by bitter anger to the western exploit, whatever it was, and now answered Blennerhassett's letter of December 21st of the year before, which he received in February. It had lain unanswered until now; and it is more than singular that the date of his reply (April 15th) and the date of which President Jefferson makes record in his "Anas" of Burr's second unsuccessful application for a diplomatic or other appointment, should exactly coincide! It is difficult for one not to feel a strong prejudice against Burr in his seeking an appointment from Jefferson after the western "exploit" had been proposed widely; it has every appearance of being a "dernier ressort" when other lines of activity were blocked.
Blennerhassett Isle de Beau
From this on, there seems to be no pause in the movement of the pitiful tragedy. So far as Blennerhassett is concerned it all appears measurably clear, save for one feature to be mentioned in a moment. In July, 1806, Burr made his purchase of the Washita lands. The tract comprised four hundred thousand acres for which he was to pay forty thousand dollars; five thousand he paid down. His son-in-law, husband of the rare Theodosia Burr Alston, doubtless furnished the funds in part; a number of friends in the East aided. At this time war seemed very probable; "Never was an adventurer more sanguine of success than was Burr in July and August . . . " affirmed Parton; "the plot seemed well laid. The excellence of it was that both his schemes were genuine. He really had two strings to his bow. If war broke out, he would march into Mexico; if not, he would settle on the Washita; and wait for a better opportunity."
On the 29th of July Burr forwarded by the hand of his agent Swartwout the famous cypher letter to General Wilkinson; it reads as follows, the italics being the words Wilkinson erased when he turned State's evidence and divulged the plot:
Your letter, postmarked 13th May, is received. At length I have obtained funds, and have actually commenced. The eastern detachments from different points, and under different pretences, will rendezvous on the Ohio, 1st of November. Every thing internal and external favors our views. Naval protection of England is secured. Truxton is going to Jamaica, to arrange with the Admiral on that station. It will meet us at the Mississippi. England, a navy of the United States, are ready to join, and final orders are given to my friends and followers. It will be a host of choice spirits. Wilkinson shall be second to Burr only, and Wilkinson shall dictate the rank and promotion of his officers. Burr will proceed westward 1st of August, never to return. With him go his daughter and grandson. The husband will follow in October, with a CORPS of worthies. Send, forthwith, an intelligent friend with whom Burr may confer. He shall return immediately with further interesting details: this is essential to harmony and concert of movement. Send a list all persons known to Wilkinson west of the mountains, who could be useful, with a note delineating their character. By your messenger, send me four or five of the commissions of your officers, which you can borrow under any pretense you please. They shall be retained faithfully. Already are orders given to the contractor to forward six months' provision to points Wilkinson may name; this shall not be used until the last moment, and then under proper injunctions. Our project, my dear friend, is brought to a point so long desired. Burr guarantees the result with his life and honor, with the lives, and honor, and the fortunes of hundreds, the best blood of our country. Burr's plan of operation is to move down rapidly, from the falls, on the 15th of November, with the first five hundred or one thousand men, in light boats now constructing for that purpose, to be at Natchez between the 5th and 15th of December, there to meet you. there to determine whether it will be expedient in the first instance, to seize on, or pass by, Baton Rouge ... on receipt of this, send Burr an answer, . . . draw on Burr for all expenses, etc. The people of the country to which we are going are prepared to receive us; their agents, now with Burr, say that if we will protect their religion, and will not subject them to a foreign power that, in three weeks, all will be settled. The gods invite us to glory and fortune; it remains to be seen whether we deserve the boon. The bearer of this goes express to you; he will hand a formal letter of introduction to you, from Burr; he is a man of inviolable honor and perfect discretion, formed to execute rather than project, capable of relating facts with fidelity and incapable of relating them otherwise. He is thoroughly informed of the plans and intentions of, and will disclose to you, as far as you inquire, and no further; he has imbibed a reverence for your character, and may be embarrassed in your presence; put him at ease, and he will satisfy you.
(Note: The words in italics were stricken out, and, in some instances, supplied by others, in the copy which was presented to the Legislature of Louisiana by General Wilkinson, his reason for the alteration being to divert public suspicion from himself as being connected with Burr." - Saflord, The Blennerhassett Papers, 169.)
On August 4th, Burr with Mrs. Alston and son set out for the West. From Bedford, Pennsylvania, he wrote Blennerhassett on August 15th that he would reach him on the 23d or 24th of that month. As he forged westward he seems to have spread everywhere the seeds of sedition; diverging north and south from his direct course he met many people and talked to each as he felt would do most good; to one he would emphasize the land purchase; with another the possibilities of war and glory; to another he coincided in despising the reigning government at Washington, though everywhere he made it appear that Jefferson's administration favored war with Spain, and everywhere spread the intimation that Burr's plan was secretly favored by it. If in most instances he fed the right sauce to the right gander he made a mess of it in one staunch home in the "Monongahela country"—that of Colonel Morgan near Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. After talking freely to the Colonel's sons he descended from his chamber, when his host thought him abed, and broached the subject uppermost in his mind to the old Colonel. The latter's attitude gave the sharp Burr great reason to change the topic of conversation, which he quickly did. Morgan in consultation with others dispatched a letter to President Jefferson; this letter, Jefferson later said, gave him his first notion of Burr's real design.
Reaching Blennerhassett Island, the plan of operations was quickly rounded into shape. The land speculation was circulated as the real purpose, and all comers were to have one hundred acres of land as bounty for embarking. How much or how little Burr confided in Blennerhassett is not known. It has been said that the Irishman was kept in the dark so far as the larger dreams of the fortune-seeker were concerned. If such was the case how are we to explain the series of articles which the fluent pen of Blennerhassett now wrote, and which were published in the Ohio Gazette at Marietta under the non-de-plume of "Querist"? They present the view of a logical separation of the eastern and western States of the Union. Who can explain these literary productions, originating immediately after Burr's arrival, otherwise than as part and parcel with the plan of operations then outlined? To the present writer these articles form one of the strongest proofs of the treasonable influence exerted by Aaron Burr on the western people.
From this time on Burr and Blennerhassett were in close touch, the former securing men for the emigration, the latter preparing the boats and stores, and arranging his affairs before departing from his home. Burr made Kentucky his headquarters, but visited all the important western towns. Blennerhassett ran back and forth between Kentucky, the island, and Marietta. The expedition was to proceed in three divisions. One Comfort Tyler, from New York, was in command of boats to start at Pittsburg containing the emigrants of that region and the East. When this flotilla reached the island it was to be joined by Blennerhassett's boats, fifteen in number, then being built by Col. Jos. Barker on the Muskingum. The combined fleets were to be met by Burr's own boats (six) at the mouth of the Cumberland, these having been built and stocked at Nashville, for the payment of which Andrew Jackson held four thousand dollars of Burr's money. Burr hoped the expedition would get off by November 15th but was disappointed in this. On November 14th Tyler wrote Blennerhassett that he hoped to set sail by December 15th but that his "settlers" were late in arriving. He purposed being at the island by December 8th. By contract Blennerhassett's boats were to be ready December 9th. They were to number fifteen; ten were to be forty feet, and five fifty feet long; all were to be ten feet wide and two and one half feet deep, "after the Schenectady model, such as were used on the Mohawk river." A keelboat sixty feet long was to carry arms and stores; one of the boats was to be finished in the best of style for Blennerhassett's family; this was to have separate rooms, glass windows, and a fire-place. The boats were to be provisioned with pork, bacon, flour, kiln-dried meal, whiskey, etc. The cost of the boats was two thousand dollars and the cost of the provisions an equal amount.
Little by little the suspicions of people were awakened by these preparations; Burr was accused in Kentucky of plotting disunion; Blennerhassett confidentially acknowledged the authorship of the "Querist" articles, and rumor ran riot in the neighborhood that Blennerhassett's boats were being built for treasonable purposes. An agent, one Graham, was sent westward by Jefferson on the receipt of Colonel Morgan's letter, who palmed himself off on Blennerhassett as an ardent Burrite and then hurried to Chillicothe, the capital of Ohio, with a clear idea of what Blennerhassett thought was on the tapis. As early as October 6th a mass meeting of the citizens of Wood County, of which Newport, now Parkersburg, W. Va., was the metropolis, was held for the purpose of protecting "the honor and safety of the settlers and their property, and to cause every person friendly to the Constitution of the United States to express their attachment thereto." Matters came to a crisis when, on receipt of information from General Wilkinson, who turned State's evidence, President Jefferson issued a proclamation on November 27th announcing that "unlawful enterprises were on foot in the western States . . . and commanded all officers, civil and military, to use their immediate and utmost exertions to bring the offending persons to condign punishment." The Ohio Legislature, December 6th, authorized the calling out of militia at Marietta.
The situation now presented is perfectly typical of the Ohio Valley at this time, when this valley was "the West." There was the political rivalry, which Burr's friends, with Henry Gay at their head, soundly denounced as "persecution" - such as had driven him out of the East. The virulence of this political rivalry could not have been more bitter than here on the river that was the dividing line of Roundhead and Cavalier. Then there was the idle crew that Burr's agents had enlisted along the river, hot for this or any other adventure; a number of these were earnest, honest men but the rank and file were the rowdies with which the valley was infested and eager as Catiline's old tribe for "new things." With the overhauling of Burr in Kentucky and the issuing of Jefferson's proclamation, a wave of boisterous patriotism swept over the valley, inherently honest, although identified with half-ruffian hordes who made the pretence of preserving order an opportunity for riotous outlawry.
Jefferson's proclamation and the action of the Ohio Legislature December 6th came just in time to thwart Blennerhassett's plan of departure. Tyler, with only four boats and thirty-two men, reached Blennerhassett Island December 7th, but before Blennerhassett's own boats were completed they were seized by the Ohio militia. This adroit movement followed the arrival of Jefferson's proclamation. At Newport (Parkersburg) even a bolder measure was proposed; this was nothing less than the seizure of Blennerhassett and his men. Learning this fact the latter wrote hastily to Colonel Barker at Marietta for such of the boats as were completed. Finding these held by the State of Ohio, the baffled man, fully determined to escape the Virginia militia, prepared to leave the island on the following night, December 10th.
His situation was now pitiable; many of those who had agreed to embark in the adventure were thunder-struck at the President's proclamation and its results; few of them, and those a most unreliable lot, remained steadfast in the adventurous plan. An episode of the hour is not without its significant, as well as humorous, aspects, in that day of rowdy and outlaw. A band of young men who were unmoved in their determination to follow the fortunes of the fleeing Irishman undertook to filch the appropriated flotilla of flatboats from the militia at Marietta. One boat was secured on the maraud, the militia succeeding in holding the remainder, and in this one boat, near midnight of December 10th, poor "Blanny," as he was locally known, set sail with Tyler's boats.
Mrs. Blennerhassett and children were left to come later in the family boat that was being built. For this boat Mrs. Blennerhassett made a hurried trip to Marietta on the following day and during her absence the horde of Virginia militia descended upon the island estate under the command of Colonel Hugh Parker. The commander, learning of Blennerhassett's flight, put off post haste "cross country" to head the boats at Point Pleasant. The militia, lacking the restraining hand of their leader, occupied the mansion like vandals and, filled with liquors there discovered, entered upon a disgraceful round of violence and destruction. This wantonness is described by two young men, Morgan Neville and William Robinson, who chanced to be passing down the Ohio and were arrested as accomplices, as follows:
On the 13th day of December 1806 the boat in which we were, was driven ashore, by ice and wind, on Backus' Island, about one mile below Mr. Blennerhassett's house; we landed in the forenoon, and the wind continuing unfavorable, did not afford us any opportunity of putting off until three o'clock in the evening, at which time we were attacked by about twenty-five men, well armed, who rushed upon us suddenly, and we, not being in a situation to resist the fury of a mob, surrendered; a strong guard was placed in the boat, to prevent, we presume, those persons of our party who remained in the boat, from going off with her, while we were taken to the house of Mr. Blennerhassett. On our arrival at the house we found it filled with militia; another party of them were engaged in making fires, around the house, of rails dragged from the fences of Mr. Blennerhassett. At this time Mrs. Blennerhassett was from home. When she returned, about an hour after, she remonstrated against this outrage on the property, but without effect; the officers declared that while they were on the island, the property absolutely belonged to them. We were informed, by themselves that their force consisted of forty men the first night; and on the third day it was increased to eighty. The officers were constantly issuing the whiskey and meat, which had been laid up for the use of the family; and whenever any complaint was made by the friends of Mrs. Blennerhassett, they invariably asserted that everything on the farm was their own property. There appeared to us to be no kind of subordination among the men; the large room they occupied on the first floor presented a continued scene of riot and drunkenness; the furniture appeared ruined by the bayonets, and one of the men fired his gun against the ceiling; the ball made a large hole, which completely spoiled the beauty of the room. They insisted that the servants should wait on them, before attending to their mistress; when this was refused, they seized upon the kitchen, and drove the negroes into the wash house. We were detained from Saturday evening until Tuesday morning; during which time there were never less than thirty, and frequently from seventy to eighty men living in this riotous manner entirely on provisions of Mrs. Blennerhassett. When we left the island, a cornfield near the house, in which the corn was still remaining, was filled with cattle, the fences having been pulled down to make fires. This, we pledge ourselves to be a true statement of those transactions, as impression was made on us at the time.
In company with these young men Mrs. Blennerhassett set sail in a flatboat secured from A. W. Putnam of Belpre on the night of December 17th.
Blennerhassett escaped detection of guards both at Gallipolis and Point Pleasant. His boats passed the "Falls" at Louisville December 16th. On the 2 nd Burr came down the Cumberland with two boats. The combined flotilla numbered eleven boats, and an hundred-odd men. Fort Massac was reached
December 29 th and on the next day the Mississippi was entered. As is well known both Burr and Blennerhassett were brought to trial at Richmond, Virginia, and declared "not guilty" of treason as accused.
The island farm and home, despoiled and overgrown, was seized by Blennerhassett's creditors and when he returned a year later it was truly a "Deserted Isle" that welcomed the ill-fated man. The house had been gutted of its contents, the slaves had run away or been seized for debt. The boats that were completed on the Muskingum had been used as government transports for troops to St. Louis, the provisions had been sold by the government. Some of the older residents of the Muskingum valley can still remember when portions of some of Blennerhassett's uncompleted boats formed portions of farm buildings until the knives of relic-hunters demolished them.
Negligence of tenants, river freshets, and the rudeness of those in charge (who viewed it as public property) had rendered the building and surroundings pitiable to behold; window casings had been torn out to procure the leaden weights by which the sashes were poised; the stone roller used to level the lawn and grounds was broken to obtain the iron axles on which it ran. Hemp and cordage rnachinery took the place of flowers and shrubbery.
Blennerhassett looked sadly upon the ruins of his once bright home, and returning to Natchez, purchased a plantation of one thousand acres, at St. Catherine, near Port Gibson, Claiborne County, Mississippi;on it he placed twenty-two slaves, and there, upon about two hundred acres, began the culture of cotton. The war with Great Britain, in 1812-15, occasioned an embargo and reduction of values, and the enterprise was abandoned. He sold the plant entire for twenty-seven thousand dollars, which scarcely satisfied his creditors.
He removed to New York, and attempted the practice of law. Not succeeding, he went to Canada in 1819, and there also failed in his purposes. Then he visited Ireland, his native heath, to prosecute a reversionary claim, but was barred by statute of limitations. During this absence of her husband, Mrs. Blennerhassett found a home in New York, and was financially assisted by the Emmets. She went then to Pennsylvania, where at Wilkesbarre, her sister, Mrs. Dow, resided. She next joined her husband in Montreal, and while there, in 1824, wrote for publication a volume entitled Widow of tlte Rock and other Poems. Among the productions of her pen while in Canada was the pathetic poem, The Deserted Isle. She died in New York and was buried in the '' Marble Cemetery" on Second Street. Blennerhassett died at Port Pierre, Isle of Guernsey, February 1st, 1831.
Before leaving the island with the flotilla, Blennerhassett had rented to Colonel Nathaniel Cushing, a friend in Belpre, the entire estate, crops, cattle, and agricultural utensils. He kept possession for two years, and it was then, on creditors' suits, taken out of his hands by the courts, and furniture and library under an attachment sold at auction for bills endorsed by Blennerhassett for Burr.
Joseph S. Lewis, of Philadelphia, a merchant, purchased the island in September 1817, after the failure, and destruction of the house and property. It passed into the hands of George Neale, Sr., and is now possessed by his daughter Alice and son-in-law Amos W. Gordon. It is a pleasure resort during the summer season. The old well is still in use, and some locust and other trees said to have been planted by Blennerhassett himself overshadow its moss-covered edges and its crystal waters that drop from the old oaken bucket. The caps of the stone gateway are shown in the steps of the present dwelling. On the fine grassy terrace where Blennerhassett was wont to promenade and repeat the entire Iliad in the original Greek, fierce baseball games are played on sunny Sunday afternoons, while the peanut vender hawks his ware and the "pop" bottles resound under the shade of the gigantic sycamores.
[Source: Excerpt from "The Ohio River: A Course of Empire", by Arthur Butler Hulbert 1906 - Transcribed by C. Anthony]
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