Two shots rang out in the early morning mist above the towering Palisades on the Heights of Weehawken NJ. It was July 11, 1804. Alexander Hamilton lay mortally wounded, shot by Aaron Burr in a duel. Hamilton died the next day. The aftermath of the duel would soon be felt in the Ohio Valley.
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Aaron Burr Portrait, from wikipedia
Burr the enigma
Aaron Burr was then the sitting Vice President of the United States. The duel brought his already fading political future to an end. He finished his term as Vice President in early 1805. After leaving Washington, Aaron Burr redirected his energy to seeking fame and fortune in the West (then considered to be any land west of the Appalachian Mountains). His controversial efforts would involve many in the Marietta community and thrust the area into the national spotlight.
Aaron Burr was an enigma -intelligent, accomplished, and well-connected – but with a dark side. He was a successful lawyer, served with distinction in the Revolutionary War, and a prominent politician. In politics, Burr was a chameleon, changing views and making deals according to his own benefit. Most distrusted him. He was called the “modern Machiavelli.”
“Glory and Fortune”
The details of Burr’s “Conspiracy” were never fully disclosed. But he was thinking big, and seeking “glory and fortune” that he mentions in a letter. The primary goal was the creation of a new republic in the western territories or Mexico, instigated by war with Spain or a paramilitary invasion. His campaign played out over two years, culminating in his arrest and trial for treason in early 1807.
In early 1804 General James Wilkinson, then head of all U. S. Army forces, met secretly with Burr. What they discussed is not known, though Wilkinson had a long history of interest in military interventions in the Mississippi Valley.
Soon after, Burr contacted England’s ambassador Anthony Merry offering to help England “effect a separation of the Western part of the United States” from the eastern states. He was short on details but long on promises of benefits to England. Merry notified the English foreign office via an encrypted message and marked “Most Secret.” This was the first documentation of what Burr said he intended to do.
In the spring of 1805, Burr embarked on a fact-finding tour of western territories. He wanted to learn the attitudes of locals and recruit people to his cause. He would promise prosperity and independence for citizens in the western territories to potential recruits. He made it all sound legitimate and patriotic.
Starting Westward – Marietta connections
On April 30, 1805, Burr and assistant Gabriel Shaw started down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh in an elaborate 60 foot long houseboat. It was equipped with a dining room, kitchen with fireplace, and two bedrooms. He would visit people at Pittsburgh, Marietta, the Harman Blennerhassett estate, Cincinnati, Nashville, and Louisville before continuing down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.
He reached Marietta on May 5, 1805. Aaron Burr records notes from the visit in his journal:
On the morning of the 5th reached Marietta…containing about 80 houses; some that would be called handsome in any village on the continent. After breakfast…came in several gentlemen of the town to offer me civilities and hospitalities. We have been walking several miles to see the mounds, parapets, squares, and other remains of unknown antiquity which are found in this neighborhood. I am astonished and confounded….
He was impressed with the Marietta earthworks
, a topic somewhat removed from his intelligence gathering mission.
Just below Marietta, Burr stopped to see Harman Blennerhassett
at his idyllic island estate. He was away at the time. Blennerhassett was a wealthy immigrant from England who settled with his wife Margaret in 1798 on Belpre (later Blennerhassett) Island in the Ohio River. This contact would bring Burr’s conspiracy directly to Marietta.
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Blennerhassett Mansion circa 1800, from the book Historic Blennerhassett Island Home, by
Alvaro F. Gibbons
Burr continued his trip, meeting with prominent people, listening to local attitudes, and promoting his plans. At Cincinnati he met with Senator John Smith and Jonathan Dayton, former senator and friend. He detoured over land to Nashville to meet future president Andrew Jackson, then a major general of the Tennessee militia.
Burr continued on to New Orleans where he was feted by local dignitaries. He met with the Mexican Association, a group who sought emancipation of Mexico from Spain, and planted seeds that separation from eastern states was part of the Mexican campaign.
Reports about Burr’s activity went viral across the region. Daniel Clark, a New Orleans merchant, wrote Wilkinson that “Many absurd and wild reports are circulated here and have reached the ears of the officers of the late Spanish government regarding (Burr)….” The Gazette of the United States featured stories circulating about Burr’s plans – expressed as rhetorical questions. Some are listed below. With this kind of publicity, Burr’s intentions were no longer secret.
- How long will it be before we hear of Colonel Burr being at the head of a revolutionary party on the Western waters?
- How soon will all of the forts and magazines and all the military posts at New Orleans and on the Mississippi be in the hands of Colonel Burr’s revolutionary party?
- How soon will Colonel Burr engage in the reduction of Mexico by granting liberty to its inhabitants, and seizing on its treasures, aided by British ships and forces?
On his return trip from New Orleans, he again stopped in Marietta in late October, 1805. He met with local dignitaries including Return Jonathan Meigs, Jr. and Edward Tupper who was clerk of the common pleas court, a boat builder, and mercantile store owner. After Burr left, Tupper wrote him requesting a command in the army if war with Spain occurred. Burr wrote back in January of 1806 assuring Tupper that he would be invited and asked him to recruit others. He also mentioned that …”I have lately procured for a few of my friends a few copies of The Duty of A Soldier and Decipline of the Infantry as now practiced by the French Army….and have reserved a sett for you.” (spelling as noted in the document quoted). The book was delivered to Marietta by Major Davis Floyd, an ally of Aaron Burr. This was a fascinating example of Burr’s attention to detail.
The Blennerhassett connection
In December of 1805, Burr wrote a letter to Harman Blennerhassett inviting him join in Burr’s grandiose plan – with the opportunity for wealth and prominence. Blennerhassett responded on December 21, 1805, effusively offering help in Burr’s adventure, “…I should be honored in being associated with you in any contemplated you would permit me to participate in.” Blennerhassett was characterized by his friends as a decent person but “having every kind of sense except common sense.” He had no business, military, or political experience, yet Burr relied heavily on him for needed logistics (through Marietta connections) and financial support.
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Harman Blennerhassett from Ohio History Central viewed at ohiohistorycentral.org
Seeking money, men, and armor
Burr’s planning went forward in late 1805 into 1806. Efforts to obtain help from England then Spain (by trying to play one against the other) were unsuccessful. Burr continued promoting his plan to others, including Wilkinson, Thomas Truxton, and William Eaton. The latter two were disgruntled military officers. He offered them commands in his expeditionary force. Burr boasted to Eaton that he would effectively take over the U. S. government. This prompted Eaton to meet in person with President Jefferson in April of 1806, stating that “Colonel Burr should be removed from the country” because of his treasonous intentions.
The cipher letter: “I have commenced the enterprise”
Burr sent an encrypted message in July 1806 to Wilkinson using a code in which numerals are substituted for letters. His use of code is amusing since most of the country and the President already knew of Burr’s intentions. The letter announced that Burr had “commenced the enterprise” and that “detachments from different points and under different pretences will rendezvous on the Ohio (River)” on November 1. He also said that troops would be at Natchez in early December to meet Wilkinson. “The gods invite to glory and fortune,” Burr exclaimed. The letter was cited as evidence in Burr’s trial.
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Beginning of cipher letter from Burr to Wilkinson dated July 1806, from “Burr’s cipher, sir: The 1807 treason case that featured in the Apple/FBI conflict,” macworld.com
Preparing for the mission
In August 1806 Burr began another trip down the Ohio River to set his plans in motion. His first stop was to see his friend, Colonel George Morgan, in Cannonsburg, PA, believing Morgan to be sympathetic to his views. Colonel Morgan was shocked when Burr suggested that the western states would soon be separated from eastern states. Colonel Morgan and his sons were alarmed at Burr’s rebellious talk and wrote a letter of warning to President Thomas Jefferson.
Burr next stopped at Marietta. Again he met with local dignitaries and even led the militia a few drill exercises. This allowed him show off to locals and attract a few recruits in the process. He also met with Harman Blennerhassett, Dudley Woodbridge, Jr., and others to work out logistics for the expeditionary force.
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Image of Aaron Burr exhorting his followers at Blennerhassett Island, 1806, from Granger Collection/NYC, viewed at appalachianhistory.net
Blennerhassett arranged for the construction of 15 boats to transport Burr’s expeditionary force downriver to New Orleans. Dudley Woodbridge, Jr. was a businessman and good friend of Blennerhassett. He hired Joseph Barker, a master builder (who built the Blennerhassett mansion), to build the boats near his home about 7 miles up the Muskingum River. Ten of the boats were to be 40 ft long and 10 ft wide; 5 would be 50 ft long. They were to be ready for delivery by December 9th. At least one would have separate rooms for the Blennerhassetts.
Blennerhassett Island became the mission’s operational center. Provisions, including pork, flour, whiskey, bacon and kiln-dried corn meal were ordered for the mission. Corn was dried in a kiln there, bullets molded, weapons gathered. Boats were to assemble and embark from there.
The plan was to set off from Blennerhassett Island in early December, rendezvous with other forces near Louisville, then proceed down the Mississippi River where hoped for troops would assemble. Burr still believed that the mission, though by that time hopelessly unrealistic, was alive and well supported. He counted on military help from General Wilkinson, General Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, and General William Henry Harrison (both future presidents) of the Northwest Territory.
Fault lines develop
However, despite public excitement, circumstances were shifting against Burr. General Wilkinson turned against Burr without telling him. He disclosed Burr’s plans and broadcast exaggerated warnings to cover up Wilkinson’s own deep involvement in the plan. President Jefferson was well aware of Burr’s intentions and monitored the situation carefully. Without help from France or Spain, available resources were not adequate to execute his plan.
On October 6, 1806, citizens of Wood County, Virginia (now West Virginia) which had jurisdiction over Blennerhassett Island, held a mass meeting. They condemned Burr’s plan, declared their loyalty to the President of the United States, and ordered that a militia be mustered in case of emergency.
President Jefferson and his cabinet reviewed Burr’s actions. Jefferson seemed oddly reluctant to pursue Burr despite numerous warnings. The cabinet approved specific defensive measures on October 22, only to rescind them a few days later.
On November 4, Joseph Daviess, district attorney for the federal district of Kentucky, cited Aaron Burr into court in Frankfort for crimes against the United States. Daviess had actively worked for months to expose Burr’s plan, having written a letter of warning to President Jefferson in January of 1806.
Burr surprised Daviess by voluntarily cooperating. When court convened November 12, Daviess announced that a key witness could not be there and asked for a postponement. The packed courtroom of Burr sympathizers erupted in laughter and catcalls. An embarrassed Daviess was forced to dismiss the grand jury. Burr rose and gave an eloquent speech and left the court in triumph. Another court citation by Daviess in late November had a similar outcome.
The beginning of the end
In early November, President Jefferson sent forth John Graham, Territorial Governor of the Orleans Territory, to spy on Burr with …”confidential authority to inquire into Burr’s movements, put the Governors, etc. on their guard, to provide for his arrest if necessary.”
Graham had to go no further than Marietta to learn the full details of Burr’s plan. There he interviewed Harman Blennerhassett who mistakenly believed that Graham was a participant in Burr’s mission. He willingly gave Graham full details of the plan. Graham tried to discourage Blennerhassett, whom he believed was sadly deluded as to the prospects for Burr’s plan. He then hurried on to Chillicothe, then the state capital of Ohio, to speak urgently with Governor Edward Tiffin.
President Jefferson was finally goaded to action in late November by further alarming reports of Burr’s intended actions. The cabinet convened in haste on November 25. Instructions were issued to authorities from Pittsburgh to New Orleans to thwart the expedition. Included was a directive to seize the boats being built at Marietta.
Jefferson wrote in his notes from the cabinet meeting: “….Marietta, Mr. Gallatin is to write to the (local officials) to proceed to seize the gunboats building in that neighborhood and suspected to be destined for this enterprise and to call in the aid of the militia.” There were further orders the next day for Marietta to station the militia along the river to prevent passage of the “gunboats.”
Jefferson issued a public proclamation on November 27 titled “Proclamation on Spanish Dominion Expeditions.” The document was a rambling notice about a conspiracy for a …”military expedition against the dominions of Spain…” It commanded anyone involved to cease and desist and “enjoined and required” authorities everywhere to take any action required to stop the effort.
Graham met with Governor Tiffin on November 28 who in turn submitted a message about Burr’s conspiracy to the Ohio legislature which they received on December 2. The legislature passed a law “An Act to Prevent certain Acts hostile to the Peace and Tranquillity of the United States within the Jurisdiction of the State of Ohio.” Tiffin then sent an order to Judge Return Jonathan Meigs, Jr. and Major General Joseph Buell in Marietta to seize the boats and gather evidence.
At this point, the reality of Burr’s situation and public perception diverged wildly. Rumors abounded that Burr might have thousands of armed men poised to strike who knows where. The reality was that Burr’s expedition was now a ragtag group of a few dozen men with small arms, a dozen wooden riverboats, limited provisions, no military support, and no element of surprise. This “reality gap” persisted for weeks until Burr’s capture. Elements of farce began playing out behind the public facade.
The militia in Ohio seized ten of the boats at Marietta on December 9 and guarded the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers. The process was, at best, disorganized. The boats were seized at night and floated down the Muskingum River. Clark Green, blind in one eye, controlled two of the boats. Two of his sons, aged 11 and 12, guided another. The boats when finally secured were tied up near Goose Run along the Muskingum River. There were strict orders to carefully guard the boats from being taken by Burr’s men.
Adventuresome young Burr recruits from Belpre heard that the boats had been seized. They tried to capture the boats themselves and nearly succeeded. They advanced unseen in darkness to the Muskingum River and began untying the boats. The group was detected and a melee’ ensued. The Belpreans slipped away with one of the boats and took it to Blennerhassett Island; the other boats were secured.
The militia were not a disciplined military force. Historian James Parton describes them “as rude and undisciplined backwoodsmen…” The militia posted along the Muskingum River had little to do and amused themselves with drinking whiskey and devising clever pranks. One night someone set a barrel on fire and floated it downstream. Sentinels below shouted at and then fired at the phantom “boat.” When the boat refused their commands, they plunged into the water to stop it, surprised and enraged to learn that they had been duped.
There was apprehension that Comfort Tyler, one of Burr’s agents, would try to recapture the seized boats. A party of sentinels opposite the tied up boats decided to trick the guards near the boats. The instigators buried a sack filled with gun powder connected with a fuse. At midnight, when the guards were “resting” after an attack on “whiskey and brandy,” a huge explosion shook the earth. The shaken guards scattered in panic. The farce is captured in Edward Tupper’s satirical poem “The Battle of Muskingum or Defeat of the Burrites
General Joseph Buell, militia commander, declared martial law in the area. Sentinels were posted at a guard house on Ohio Street just above “Boiler Corner” at Front and Greene Streets. All boats passing were stopped for inspection. A cannon was placed on the Ohio River bank.
Colonel Hugh Phelps of Parkersburg called out the militia of Wood County, Virginia. Harman Blennerhassett learned that they intended to visit the Island the following day, on December 11, to capture persons and supplies involved with the mission.
Blennerhassett thought himself immune from Ohio’s authority since his island was in Virginia. He realized that the impending Virginia militia action would force him to leave the island that very night, December 10. There was a flurry of activity. Mrs. Blennerhassett rallied the group, especially her downcast husband, who seemed to realize the futility of the mission. There were four boats and a few dozen men.
That evening after dark, Edward Tupper, appeared on the island. Versions as to what happened during his visit vary. Historian William Saffer (The Blennerhassett Papers…) and Jacob Allbright who testified the trial reported that Tupper tried to arrest Blennerhassett. They said that Tupper, a general in the Ohio Militia, clapped his hand on Blennerhassett’s shoulder and said that he was arresting him by the authority of the state of Ohio. Instantly, several muskets of the expedition’s men standing nearby were thrust at Tupper. He protested, “Forbear, men! Forbear! Would you act so rashly?” One man close to Tupper growled “I’d as lieve as not.” Tupper backed off and encouraged Blennerhassett to turn himself in to Ohio authorities rather than place himself in great personal danger as a fugitive. Edward Tupper stated in a deposition for the trial that he visited Blennerhassett at the latter’s request, went there to collect debts owned him, and encouraged him to surrender. Tupper denied making an arrest attempt or appearing in any official capacity.
The expedition begins and ends
Shortly after midnight, Harman Blennerhassett and his group with four boats and a couple dozen men departed. It was cold, dark, snowy, and the river was swift. He was leaving his family behind for an uncertain future. He faced a dangerous, uncomfortable prospect in setting out on the Ohio River in these circumstances.
Later that day, December 11, the Virginia militia landed on the island and quickly discovered that the Blennerhassett and his men were gone. Phelps left a small group on the island and sent the rest of his force overland to the Great Kanawha River to intercept the Blennerhassett flotilla. Neither group performed well.
At the Great Kanawha (near present day Point Pleasant WV) sentinels “kept the spirits up by pouring spirits down” and were soon oblivious to their duty. The fugitive’s flotilla glided silently past as the militia slept. Back at Blennerhassett Island, the militia with little to do “invaded” the wine cellar and vandalized the mansion and grounds. Colonel Phelps later castigated his men for their rude, incompetent behavior.
Margaret Blennerhassett and her two children departed several days later down river in another boat which had arrived from Pittsburgh. It was a sad end to the Blennerhassett saga at the island “Eden on the River.”
The party continued down the Ohio River. Though his contingent was pathetically small, news of his “escape” generated panic along the river valley. At Cincinnati, three anchored boats thought to be Burr’s sparked fear that the city would be attacked. A prankster set off a bomb and the assault was thought to have started. Local Militia were called out. The next day the boats were discovered to be merchant vessels. Locals were embarrassed at their overreaction. Another example of hyped up rumors: The Western Spy newspaper reported that Blennerhassett had passed Cincinnati in boats loaded with military stores, many boats were being built, Mexico was to be attacked, and 20,000 men were involved.
Near the Falls of the Ohio near Louisville KY, the Blennerhassett party met up with another group headed by Davis Floyd with three boats and thirty men. At the Cumberland River, Burr with two boats and a few men and some horses, joined the others. The entire flotilla included about nine boats and sixty men. Burr ordered some additional corn and farming implements. From the latter action, it seems likely that Burr had discarded any plan for military action and was resigned to merely settling on land he owned in Louisiana. This was a far cry from the public perception of a vast military campaign afoot.
In late January, Aaron Burr and Blennerhassett were apprehended by civil authorities after the flotilla landed at Bayou Pierre on the Mississippi River. Burr was eventually tried and acquitted on treason charges in the fall of 1807. Blennerhassett was imprisoned but released when Burr was acquitted. Both tried to reestablish their lives and reputations, mostly without success, after their failed attempt at “glory and fortune.”
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Scene from Aaron Burr treason trial
Several Mariettans were deposed or appeared as witnesses in Richmond for the Burr trial. Soon after, the Burr episode faded into historical obscurity, perhaps to the benefit of the Marietta area’s reputation.
The Blennerhassetts never returned to the island and eventually were forced by financial stress to return to Europe. The mansion burned in 1809.
Note: most of these references were viewed in digital editions on line.
David, Matthew L., Memoirs of Aaron Burr, New York, Harper and Brothers, 1855
Fisher, Louis, “Jefferson and the Burr Conspiracy: Executive Power Against the Law,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2015, accessed at loufisher.org
Henshaw, Leslie, Editor, “Burr-Blennerhassett Documents,” Quarterly Publication of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, Vol IX, Nos. 1 & 2.
Henshaw, Leslie, “The Aaron Burr Conspiracy in the Ohio Valley,” Columbus, Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society, 1915, digital edition viewed at archive.org.
Map, Alf J., Jr., Thomas Jefferson Passionate Pilgrim, New York, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inv., 1991
McCaleb, Walter Flavius, The Aaron Burr Conspiracy, New York, Dodd Mead and Company, 1903
Melton, Buckner F., Aaron Burr: The Rise and Fall of an American Politician, New York, The Rosen Publishing Group, 2004
Parton, James, Life and Times of Aaron Burr, Volume II, Boston, Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1888
Robertson, David, Reports of the Trials of Aaron Burr, etc., Philadelphia, Hopkins and Earle, 1808
Safford, William, The Blennerhassett Papers, Cincinnati, Moore, Wilstach, & Baldwin, 1864
Tabler, Dave, “Blennerhassett Island – staging ground for high treason,” viewed at appalachianhistory.net, July 12, 2015.
Wiley, Edwin, Editor, The United States: its beginnings, progress, and modern development, Volume 5,New York, American Educational Alliance, 1912
Williams, H. Z., History of Washington County Ohio, Cleveland, H. Z. Williams and Bro, 1881
Blog by: David Baker http://earlymarietta.blogspot.com/2017/05/burr-conspiracy-and-battle-of-muskingum.html