Theodosia Prevost and Aaron Burr
Aaron Burr took an aggressive role in leading his regiment during the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778. His horse was shot out from under him, and the punishing heat of the day, with temperatures in the high 90s, caused him to suffer prostration. Nevertheless, shortly after the battle, General William Alexander sent Burr on a spy mission to check on British positions in preparation for a possible attack by combined French and Continental Army troops and the French fleet off Sandy Hook. When it was decided that the French would attack a smaller British force in Rhode Island instead, Burr's spying assignment was terminated. He was ordered to rejoin his regiment in the Highlands, which marched to West Point in late July. While there he was selected by General Washington to convey three highly placed Loyalists—William Smith, Cadwallader Colden, and Roeliff Eltinge—under a white flag down the Hudson River to the enemy. Anxious for an opportunity to visit relatives in New York City, Theodosia obtained permission from General Alexander to take passage on the ship along with her half-sister Caty and a male servant. Burr added their names to the passenger list. With a number of stops, the trip took five days (August 5–10), providing a considerable amount of time for those on board to become acquainted.
Burr was kept at the task of escorting Loyalists and British prisoners to New York through September but continued to suffer. Although he wrote to Washington about resigning from the army, he decided instead to take a short leave, spending time with friends in Elizabethtown and at The Hermitage. On November 5, Burr wrote a letter to his sister Sally Reeves from The Hermitage in which he referred to Theodosia as “our lovely sister.” He continued, “Believe me, Sally, she has an honest and affectionate heart. We talk of you very often, her highest happiness will be to see and love you.”
Burr's poor health did not improve, and he decided to carry out his deferred decision to resign from the military. On March 10, 1779, he wrote to Washington, and on April 3, Washington replied: “In giving permission to your retiring from the army, I am not only to regret the loss of a good officer, but the cause which makes his resignation necessary.”
Letters from Colonel Robert Troup and William Paterson indicate that by 1780, Burr was a frequent visitor at The Hermitage. The situation was such that Burr's cousin Thaddeus Burr stated, “I won't joke you any more about a certain lady.”
After his regiment's successes in Georgia and the Carolinas, James Marcus Prevost was assigned with a contingent of troops to deal with disturbances in Jamaica, where he was wounded. On July 26, he reported to London that most of his officers were in the infirmary at Spanish Town and that he feared the “annihilation” of his regiment if they were not moved to a healthier area. Prevost's own health was affected, and his condition was in decline. Sometime in 1780, he sent his teenage sons back to their mother at The Hermitage. They undoubtedly reported on their father's poor health, and Theodosia and others may have come to expect that his condition was terminal.
Burr Returns to Civilian Life
Aaron Burr returned to his law studies with Titus Homer, one of Connecticut's delegates to the Continental Congress. While he was there, he was urged by Troup to join him in Princeton in a law apprenticeship with Richard Stockton, one of New Jersey's signers of the Declaration of Independence. Troup and Burr quickly realized, however, that female acquaintances in Princeton—among them, the daughters of Governor William Livingston—created too many distractions. [Tell me more about Burr's law studies.]
They decided instead to study with William Paterson; however, they found that Paterson was too busy and traveled too often to give them the attention they needed. Burr and Troup finally decided to study with Thomas Smith in Haverstraw, under whom they moved forward quickly.
By early 1781, Burr had regained his health and was deeply engaged in his law studies. Theodosia's two young sons had returned from the south, and Burr arranged for a tutor for Theodosia's children and, possibly, for her half-sister Caty. [Tell me more about this tutor.] For much of 1780–81, for reasons that are not clear, Theodosia was living in Sharon, Connecticut. Her relationship with Burr appears to have been conducted largely through correspondence. Theodosia wrote to Burr in February stating, “I am happy that there is a post established for the winter. I shall expect to hear from you every week. My ill health will not permit me to return your punctuality. You must be contented with hearing once a fortnight.”
The few letters that have survived from the correspondence give insight into the interests that increasingly bound Burr and Theodosia together, as well as the scrutiny they appeared to be under. In May 1781, Theodosia wrote:
Our being the subject of much inquiry, conjecture, and calumny, is no more than we ought to expect. My attention to you was ever pointed enough to attract the observation of those who visited the house. Your esteem more than compensated for the worst they could say. When I am sensible I can make you and myself happy, will readily join you to suppress their malice. But, till I am confident of this, I cannot think of our union. Till then I shall take shelter under the roof of my dear mother, where by joining stock, we shall have sufficient to stem the torrent of adversity.
By the fall of 1781, Burr and Troup had completed their law studies with Smith. The next task was to obtain licenses to practice law in the State of New York. But Burr had a problem: since colonial times, a candidate for the bar has been required to complete three years of apprenticeship, but Burr could claim barely one year. However, he pushed on. He moved to Albany and petitioned the Supreme Court to waive the apprenticeship requirement because of his military service. The judges delayed their decision for several months, and Burr remained in Albany. Although he was able to make a visit or two to Theodosia, they continued to communicate mostly by letter. [Tell me more about Aaron Burr's letters to Theodosia Prevost.]
In January 1782, the New York Supreme Court decided that military service could be taken into consideration as a qualification for admission to the bar. They adopted this opinion partly because they realized that legislation passed in November 1781 barring from practice all those who could not prove they had supported the Revolution would result in a shortage of lawyers. Burr's petition was finally accepted, and he obtained his license as an attorney on January 19. He immediately began to study to reach the highest rank in the profession, counselor-at-law, which he attained on April 17. He was ready to set up his own law office and decided to do so in Albany, because New York City was still occupied by the British.
Burr and Theodosia Marry
On December 30, 1781, Caty De Visme wrote to Burr from The Hermitage: “If you have not seen the York Gazette, the following account will be news to you; We hear from Jamaica that Lieutenant Col. Prevost, Major of the 60th foot, died at that place in October last.’” The information does not appear to have come as a great surprise to Burr or to the people at The Hermitage.
While the news legally opened the way for Theodosia and Aaron to marry, as seemed to be their intention, they did not act quickly. Burr was still living in Albany and attempting to obtain a license to practice law and thus begin a career that would bring him an income. Theodosia seemed hesitant. At the time, she was a 35-year-old widow with children while he was only 25. She arranged to stay with relatives after the new year.
While Burr was establishing his law office in Albany, he received news that Caty De Visme and her fiancé, Joseph Browne, a British-born medical doctor and Rebel officer in the Pennsylvania line, had set July 2 as the date for their wedding at The Hermitage. Burr arrived in Hopperstown sometime before the event. With very little preparation, Aaron and Theodosia decided to make July 2 a double wedding. After years of friendship and courtship, the wedding took place on such short notice that Burr had no time to get a new coat. Theodosia had to borrow gloves and other items, and they hardly had enough ready cash to pay the minister. They also did not have time to arrange for the banns of marriage to be read and asked Governor Livingston to issue a special license for their wedding.
The marriage ceremonies, at which the Reverend Benjamin Van Der Linde (Leude), officiated, were held at The Hermitage. The couple’s marriage certificate read:
I do hereby certify that Aaron Burr of the State of N. York Esqr. and Theodosia Prevost of Bergen County, State of N. Jersey widow were by me joined in lawful wedlock on the second day of July instant. Given under my hand this sixth of July 1782.
According to Theodosia, many friends were present, and the abundance of food supplied by the Brownes was all consumed. Both couples left the wedding celebration shortly after it ended. The Burrs went to Albany, and from there Theodosia wrote to Sally Reeves, now her sister-in-law, about the wedding day. Governor Livingston, Judge Hobart, and Governor Clinton sent congratulations to the newlyweds. [Tell me more about these letters.]
The Burrs settled in Albany, where Aaron developed his law practice and Theodosia gave birth to a daughter, Theodosia Burr. Following the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolution, and the consequent evacuation of British troops in late 1783, the Burrs moved to New York City. There, Burr became a leading lawyer and successful politician. He was elected to the New York State Assembly in the 1780s and to the U.S. Senator in 1791.
Theodosia managed a succession of increasingly affluent homes in New York City, as well as a summer residence in Westchester County near many of her Bartow and Pell relatives. She also oversaw Burr's law office while he made business trips and raised their daughter, for whom Burr intended to provide a superior education. (In their correspondence, the couple showed a marked concern for the rights of women.) Theodosia's longstanding health problems (most likely cancer) progressed, however, despite the efforts of leading doctors, and she died in 1794. Burr went on to become the vice president of the United States in 1800 and then to lose his political future after killing Alexander Hamilton in their famous duel in 1804.
After the Revolution
Following her marriage to Aaron Burr in 1782, Theodosia saw to it that her brother-in-law Joseph Browne was named the executor of the estate she had inherited from her deceased husband, James Marcus Prevost. James appears to have been indebted to a Mrs. Anne Baldwin in the amount of 470 pounds. Burr arranged to buy the estate for 520 pounds, which more than covered repayment of the debt. The transaction took place on May 15, 1785.
The 36 acres owned by Theodosia's mother, Ann De Visme, which included The Hermitage, were not affected by the settlement. However, by 1794 Ann was living in New York City, perhaps with one of her daughters, and had rented The Hermitage to William Bell, the sheriff of Bergen County, who had married into the locally influential Hopper family. On June 14, 1794, Bell bought the house and its acreage from Ann for 450 pounds. In the same year, he bought 240 acres of former Prevost property for 981 pounds.
William Bell was both a Methodist and a Mason. The local Methodist church tradition holds that a small congregation first met in his house after 1794. In 1797, he sold a small tract, probably with a building, to the congregation, which refitted the building as a church. Some believe that Bell, who was senior warden and treasurer of the Masonic Union Lodge in Bergen County, had the Masonic symbols carved into the front of The Hermitage.
In 1801, Bell sold The Hermitage, along with gristmills and sawmills and eight acres of land, to Peter Alyea for $1,625. Alyea sold the parcel the following year to Cornelius Smith for $1,375. In 1803, Smith sold the same piece to James Laroe for $1,750. In 1804, Bell sold more acreage to Laroe for $3,855, bringing the properties back together. Laroe, a member of French Huguenot family that had lived in Bergen County for many generations, was a distant relative of the wife of Johannes Traphagen, the first owner of the Hermitage property. James Laroe himself was a local innkeeper.
In 1807, Laroe sold The Hermitage and 55 acres of land to Dr. Elijah Rosegrant for $2,112. Laroe retained the mills for his own use.
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