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8 Facts About Theodosia Burr Alston

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Those familiar with the name Theodosia are no doubt fans of the musical Hamilton, in which Aaron Burr sings to his daughter in “Dear Theodosia,” "When you smile, you knock me out, I fall apart / And I thought I was so smart." In real life, Theodosia, born on June 21, 1783, got her name from her mother, who died, probably of cancer, in 1794. Aaron gave Theodosia the best possible education, and she went on to have an incredibly interesting life; here are a few things you might not have known about her.


After reading A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft, Aaron Burr decided to raise his daughter with the best education. (Aaron’s passion for raising Theodosia right is even referenced in Hamilton.) "She was reading Horace and Terence in the original Latin, learning the Greek grammar, speaking French, studying Gibbon, practicing on the piano, taking lessons in dancing, and learning to skate," James Parton said in his biography of Aaron Burr. She also had reportedly read all of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by the time she was 10. Her education was truly progressive for the time, and according to Charles Felton Pidgin in his 1908 biography of Theodosia, “She was the first woman in America to have what may be called a college education. Her personal charm, her amiability, her moral heroism, and her educational acquirements entitle her to the designation which we have given her THE FIRST GENTLEWOMAN OF HER TIME.”


The relationship between Theodosia and Lewis has been the subject of tabloid level speculation for over a hundred years. The traditional story is that the two met at a dinner hosted by Thomas Jefferson; discussed the possibility of finding living examples of the mastodon, bones of which were just being found, on Lewis’s upcoming expedition; and went on to have dinners and riding dates together before Theodosia married in 1801 and Lewis embarked on his expedition in 1803.

It’s a nice story, but just that—a story. Quite apart from the fact that mastodons weren’t named as such until 1806, Theodosia married in February 1801, while Lewis was in the Army and still stationed at Detroit. Lewis wouldn’t arrive in Washington until March, a full month after Theodosia married. It’s also unlikely that the two would be talking about an expedition that was still years away. Finally, the two probably never really interacted that much. As Richard Côté points out in Theodora Burr Alston: Portrait of a Prodigy, when Theodosia visited Washington in October 1803, Lewis and Clark were already in Illinois. So while the two may have known each other, reports of a romance have been greatly exaggerated.


On February 2, 1801, 17-year-old Theodosia married a wealthy southerner named Joseph Alston; shortly after, they went on their honeymoon to Niagara Falls. Now a common location for weddings or honeymoons, at the time, Theodosia and Joseph were the first celebrity couple to make the destination their honeymoon retreat. Today, Niagara Falls is nicknamed “The Honeymoon Capital of the World.”


In 1805, one year after the famous duel with Hamilton, Aaron Burr hatched a questionable plan: He was hoping to annex part of North America and declare himself the monarch. This would have made Theodosia next in line to become Queen of Mexico; eventually, her son, Aaron Burr Alston, born in 1802, would have inherited the throne. Obviously, Aaron’s plan didn't pan out, and he was later tried for treason.


In 1808, after being found not guilty, Aaron Burr went to Europe in a self-imposed exile to escape creditors and a public that was turning against him. But he soon found that without a passport, he was unable to return to the United States. Theodosia wrote letters to those in power she thought could help, including first lady Dolley Madison and Secretary of Treasury Gallatin. In her letter to Madison, she wrote,

“Why, then, is my father banished from a country for which he has encountered wounds and dangers and fatigue for years? Why is he driven from his friends, from an only child, to pass an unlimited time in exile, and that, too, at an age when others are reaping the harvest of past toils, or ought, at least, to be providing seriously for the comfort of ensuing years ? I do not seek to soften you by this recapitulation. I only wish to remind you of all the injuries which are inflicted on one of the first characters the United States ever produced.”

While Theodosia’s efforts didn’t directly bring her father home, the responses she received showed that the government wouldn’t provide any obstacles to Aaron Burr’s eventual return in 1812. Back in the United States, Burr practiced law in New York City.


Her husband Joseph Alston became Governor of South Carolina in December of 1812, making Theodosia the first lady. Unfortunately, she only held the position for 21 days before tragedy struck ...


Aaron Burr had experienced some pretty rough years, but they would all pale in comparison to what happened between 1812 and early 1813. In June 1812, just weeks after returning from Europe, his only grandson died of malaria. A few months later, Theodosia boarded the Patriot, which had previously been used in the war of 1812, to go see her father—but the ship never reached New York. The boat disappeared, taking 29-year-old Theodosia Burr Alston with it [PDF].

To this day, the fate of the Patriot remains a mystery, but the most popular theory is that the boat was overtaken by pirates. Despite speculation, the details of Theosodia's death and disappearance are likely to remain unclear. After she disappeared, Aaron Burr was quoted saying he felt “severed from the human race.”


Hamilton isn’t the only reminder of Theodosia’s legacy. Her name has lived on through many others, including silent film star Theda Bara, whose real name was Theodosia Burr Goodman. She starred in films like A Fool There Was (1915) and Cleopatra (1917). Theodosia was also a subject in Robert Frost’s poem, "Kitty Hawk":

Apropos of sin,
Did I recollect
How the wreckers wrecked
Theodosia Burr
Off this very shore?
'Twas to punish her,
But her father more
We don't know what for:
There was no confession.

In more recent years, Theodosia inspired a corset made by artist and costume designer Camilla Huey for her 2013 exhibit "The Loves of Aaron Burr: Portraits in Corsetry and Binding." With Hamilton bringing her name back into the mainstream, this probably won’t be the last we hear of Theodosia Burr Alston.

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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Why Your Traditional Thanksgiving Should Include Oysters
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If you want to throw a really traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll need oysters. The mollusks would have been featured prominently on the holiday tables of the earliest American settlers—even if that beloved Thanksgiving turkey probably wasn’t. At the time, oysters were supremely popular additions to the table for coastal colonial settlements, though in some cases, they were seen as a hardship food more than a delicacy.

For one thing, oysters were an easy food source. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds, and one visitor in 1702 wrote that they could be pulled up with only a pair of tongs. Native Americans, too, ate plenty of oysters, occasionally harvesting them and feasting for days.

Early colonists ate so many oysters that the population of the mollusks dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, according to curriculum prepared by a Gettysburg University history professor. In these years, scarcity turned oysters into a luxury item for the wealthy, a situation that prevailed until the 1880s, when oyster production skyrocketed and prices dropped again [PDF]. If you lived on the coast, though, you were probably still downing the bivalves.

Beginning in the 1840s, canning and railroads brought the mollusks to inland regions. According to 1985's The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, the middle of the 19th century found America in a “great oyster craze,” where “no evening of pleasure was complete without oysters; no host worthy of the name failed to serve 'the luscious bivalves,' as they were actually called, to his guests.”

At the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving standard. They were on Thanksgiving menus everywhere from New York City's Plaza Hotel to train dining cars, in the form of soup, cocktails, and stuffing.

In 1954, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to promote Thanksgiving oysters to widespread use once again. They sent out a press release [PDF], entitled “Oysters—a Thanksgiving Tradition,” which included the agency’s own recipes for cocktail sauce, oyster bisque, and oyster stuffing.

In the modern era, Thanksgiving oysters have remained most popular in the South. Oyster stuffing is a classic dish in New Orleans, and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have their own signature recipes. If you’re not looking for a celebrity chef’s recipe, perhaps you want to try the Fish and Wildlife Service’s? Check it out below.

Oyster Stuffing


1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter
4 cups day-old bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Dash poultry seasoning
Dash pepper

Drain oysters, saving liquor, and chop. Cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Combine oysters, cooked vegetables, bread cubes, and seasonings, and mix thoroughly. If stuffing seems dry, moisten with oyster liquor. Makes enough for a four-pound chicken.

If you’re using a turkey, the FWS advises that the recipe above provides enough for about every five pounds of bird, so multiply accordingly.


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