Monday, September 5, 2011


GULF COAST, TEXAS - When most people think of the state of Texas what is most typically brought to mind are images of cowboys, Indians, cactus and longhorns. The thought of pirates and cannibalistic tribes just doesn't seem to jive with the state's usual reputation.

But there is one story...

The first time any English speakers would hear the tale was in 1820, about four years too late to help the young mysterious heroine of the account. After many meetings, and misunderstanding with the Mexican government Stephen F. Austin received permission for a group of settlers to enter Texas. They may have looked upon their first meetings with the native Karankawas with trepidation. Their neighbors in Mexico had already warned them that this tribe was known for performing ceremonial cannibalism. Whether this rumor was true or not the proximity of the tribe's settlement would have been intimating at best had not the first meeting gone so well. The appearance one morning of a young, six-foot tall, attractive Karankawa warrior was startling enough, but the fact that he spoke perfect English was a pleasant enough surprise to allay their fears.

When asked, as he naturally was, how he learned the language he told them of a white hermit who had oddly enough taken up residence and lived alone in an area now known as San Bernard. The old man had not been harmed the young warrior told them, because he was considered "mad", and like most Native Americans the Karankawa considered it taboo, or bad luck to harm a person who was viewed as insane. From this strange man he had learned how to speak and write in English.

The Karankawa visited with the settlers several more times and during one visit he was asked, tactically it can imagined, how he had come to be wearing a large gold locket. When the subject came up the young man removed the object from his neck and pressed open the clasp that held the locket closed. Inside those present could see a miniature painting of a handsome young man and a little boy. On the back of the locket inscribed in bold letters was the name: THEODOSIA. 

His "white wife", who had been given to him by the Great Storm, had given him the locket he told them but she had only been with him a short time. He and his people were nomadic spending parts of the year along the coast of what is now Galveston. He told them of a fierce storm, and how he and his family had survived by taking refuge in tall salt cedar trees and lashing themselves to the highest point of the trunk. Since this variety of tree is flexible, but has a deep root system, they withstood the storm and the Karankawas survived. After the water had receded the warrior had gone in search of his white friend, but found that the hermit left to his own devices in the storm had made a poor decision.

The hermit had attempted to take the same measures that the tribe had, climbing to the top of a massive spreading live oak and tying himself to the up most branches. This choice marks the hermit as someone who was not a frontiersman, or at the very least unfamiliar with the southwest. He had picked what might have seemed the most logical, the largest tree he could find, but the live oaks have a vulnerable foundation and frequently succumb to high winds. The mighty oak had toppled in the fierceness of the storm, fallen on the hermit and crushed the life from him.

Further along the beach the warrior found another sight that captured his interest. A shipwreck, and unlike other's that he had seen this was a large vessel. Since the time this story was told to Stephen Austin's group it did not find publication until the 1920's and in that retelling the warrior's words were twisted into a dramatized, and stereotyped ideal of Native American speech. Regardless of how his words were blurred by this prejudice we can be certain from diaries and verbal accounts passed on by the colonist that he was speaking of a large ship, it's keel snapped, it's crew dead. The ship lay washed up at the mouth of river. She was a sea-going vessel with a sterncastle still intact, and as the young man walked aboard he found among the dead several useful items, which he gathered for his tribe's use. As he neared the stern a cry startled him. A woman's voice called out for help weakly in English. He responded in kind and finding his way into the interior of the ship he eventually found himself staring into the eyes of a small built Caucasian woman. She was unclothed, and chained by one ankle to the bulkhead. On seeing her rescuer the woman lost consciousness. As C.F. Eckhardt points out in Unsolved Texas Mysteries what the young warrior managed to do seems almost to defy belief, but the strength and stamina of the Karankawas was legendary. He simply grabbed the chain holding the woman prisoner and bracing a foot against the bulkhead pried it loose.

After bringing the young woman to shore and giving her water, she was able to tell him her description of the wreck and her own situation. The storm that they had survived on land had been just as devastating at sea. She was also able to tell him that she had been on a ship similar to the one he had rescued her from, however that ship had been attacked and burned. The crew and passengers were all killed with the exception of herself. She had been kept as a slave. She made the request that he take her locket and if he saw any whites to pass on her story to them. The Karankawa understood her to say that she was the daughter of a "Chief". Her father was powerful, but misunderstood by his own people. Her husband was also a leader, but did not have as much authority as her father; apparently it was her last wish that some word of her reach her loved ones. The young woman had been several days without food or water following the shipwreck, and there is no way to even imagine the horror her life must have been prior to that. She had told the Karankawan that she had survived "three winters" as a slave, and considering what she must have endured on-board that ship we can surmise that she must have had remarkable strength and courage.

Unfortunately despite the young man's attempts to help her, and despite her own tremendous will to live the young woman's life could not be saved. Saddened by the day's tragic turn of events the Karankawan dug a burial place for the young woman above the shoreline. He used wood from the ship to cover the grave. Since performing such a burial was usually the responsibility of a family member he considered her a "wife".

The story left Austin's colonist with more questions than answers. Today at least some of those questions can be resolved.

What storm could the Karankawa Warrior have meant?

In 1816 a storm ravaged the Gulf Coast. As with the later storm in 1919 a huge wall of water engulfed what would be called Galveston Island. One witness, Jean Lafitte, claimed to have been able to sailed completely across the island with no difficulty immediately after the storm. Debris and high-water marks twenty feet about the ground were still visible in 1830's. Since the area was less populated at this time the death toll was much less than in 1919, but this storm in all likelihood was by far the most destructive to ever hit the Texas Coastal Area.

The river in San Bernard does feed out to sea. How could such a shipwreck have occurred?

Prior to the storm in 1816 the river then called El Rio de San Bernardo emptied into the Gulf Coast. Archaeologists have found evidence of shipwrecks at the mouth of San Bernardo, dating back to the 1800's. Environmental damage done by the storm no doubt played a part in changing the landscape.

If the woman was telling the truth, who were these people who were capable of burning a ship, murdering its crew and passengers then holding a woman captive?

That question is easily answered---exactly who you would imagine capable of murder, theft, and horrifying crimes on the high seas---pirates. Pirates used the remote and then unpopulated Gulf Coast to hide from pursuers, gather natural supplies, hide items they didn't want to be found carrying, or to wait out a storm. These men were not the romantic characters made popular by Hollywood. There is little difference between most of those individuals and the criminals of modern times. Their business was murder, terror and any manner of criminal activity. A slave aboard such a ship was abused, starved, and beaten, that the young woman of this story survived for three years in such circumstances is remarkable.

If a woman who had an important husband and a "powerful chief " as a father had gone missing where is the record of such an event?

Actually there was just such a missing woman although the colonists had no way of knowing that. A coasting-barge the Patriot left Charleston harbor on December 25, 1813; its destination New York. The ship left the harbor at good speed, into a calm sea and was never seen again. No trace of the ship was ever found, and the it was eventually considered lost, with no survivors.

On board had been the wife of South Carolina's Governor. Mrs. Joseph Allston had been no stranger to politics. Her name was Theodosia, and her maiden name was Burr. She was the daughter, and the only legitimate child, of former vice president Aaron Burr.

Doesn't it seem unlikely that such a woman would never have endured three years of such horrendous physical and mental torture?

Whatever might be said about Aaron Burr's political views or tactics, he was apparently a good father to Theodosia. His ideas of dotting on his daughter were unusual for that time however, he wanted his offspring to have the same education a male child might have received and he also encouraged her to ice skate, ride and even learn to swim. Such an upbringing was almost scandalous in age where aristocratic young woman were expected to sew, paint, and play a musical instrument, not necessarily be able to read, understand, and discuss a political essay.

The year prior to the disappearance had been a hard one for the young woman. She lost her infant son, her beloved father was in exile in London, and the stress was affecting her marriage. Rumors would have us believe that she would have embraced a quick end to her life. Even her father gave up hope. He wrote to his colleagues that she was gone, but Burr's reasoning in believing that his daughter was dead only serves to demonstrate his faith in her abilities: "She is indeed dead. Were she still alive, all the prisons in the world could not keep her from her father."

Could the Native American have made up the story? Was the Karankawan in this story even real?

Of course any time you hear such a legend you wonder if the storytellers weren't pulling their audience's leg, but the big question in this case would be why? The colonists were not in a position to have any information about the disappearance of Burr's daughter, nor did the settler's have any reason to have fabricated the encounter with the Karankawa. As for the young warrior he likewise had nothing to gain in constructing a tall tale.

That a "hermit" would have chosen San Bernard as a likely place to stay seems odd, and how would he have arrived there?

It does seem unlikely doesn't it? Especially since this old man demonstrated by the cause of his own death that he lacked many of the survival techniques a frontiersman would have possessed. We know from the young Native American who encountered him only that he could read and write in English, and that to them he seemed for whatever reason to be insane.

The nearest English speakers would have been many miles away. The only two ways he could have reached that location would have been either making his way through unpopulated wildness controlled by tribes who might react in a hostile fashion, or by ship. Since he was not a woodsmen the first theory doesn't seem likely, but the second does have some logic.

A sailor might have had the reading and writing skills he passed on to the Karankawas, and been a skilled enough fisherman to have existed by the river. If he'd been many years at sea he might also have walked with the odd see-sawing gait of a true sailor, sported the weathered appearance of an old man, and these factors combined with the strangeness of his living alone might explain why the Karankawas labeled the old hermit as insane.

Of course this leads to the question of why a sailor wouldn't have traveled the relatively short distance to one of the ports in Mexico. The answer to that query could be found in the type of ship he might have been sailing with, since if it flew pirate colors the last place on earth he'd want to be was a Port under either the Spanish, or Mexican flag where he would be tried, convicted, and hanged in short order.

If the old man had in fact been a pirate who was shipwrecked or abandoned in San Bernard, his only clear choice would have been to remain and hope another ship came by that he could find passage on. Unfortunately for him then the very storm that brought close a ship that might have saved him, instead destroyed both the man and his salvation.

What happened to the locket?

The last time Stephen Austin's group saw the locket it was still around the neck of the Karankawan Warrior. In the 1920's there was renewed interested in the case of Aaron Burr's missing daughter and the question of where the evidence might be was brought up frequently, but since the missing locket was with the Karankawas and they as tribe did not survive the war between Mexico and Texas, there probably will never be a way to locate it.

Was there ever any word on what happened to the Patriot?

As soon as the ship went missing foul play was immediately suspected. Many years later several of the by now very elderly crew members of the ship Vengeance admitted to firing on the Patriot, killing the passengers and crew, and then sinking the craft.

Reports conflicted among those who claimed that they had witnessed the death of the daughter of Aaron Burr, which leads one to wonder if any of them were telling the truth. It doesn't seem likely that even after all those years any of them would have felt safe in disclosing such facts as those the castaway revealed before she died. Even with the amnesty of old age to protect them leaving a woman to such a fate as that form of slaving was a crime that would not have been forgivable. Doubtless they would not have made such a revelation even on their deathbeds. 

Does the spirit of Theodosia haunt San Bernard?

If the area around the river is haunted we at What Was Then would like to hear of it. A ghostly young woman dressed in white has been seen along the coastline where the Patriot sailed. Many who have seen this apparition believe it is the ghost of the long missing young woman. In New York what was once a home owned by the Burr family is now a restaurant called One If By Land Two If By Sea, the owners believe that Theodosia haunts the building.  

Aaron Burr's last years were marked by the suffering he and his family endured in large part because of his mistakes, but perhaps he was right about one thing. The young woman who shipwrecked in San Bernard, endured an unimaginable hardship, out lived her tormentors and found someone to tell her story to before she died. If this woman was his daughter than Burr was right, no prison on earth was able to hold Theodosia. 

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