An island mystery, 212 years old and countingMay 16, 2017 7:00 am
When an aristocratic couple assisted former Vice President Aaron Burr, they triggered a nationwide outcry— and conspiracy.
Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett: right or wrong, their names are forever entwined with treason. Let’s take a look at this dramatic story and the fascinating lore that continues today!
Never a dull moment
With his wavy locks and mournful face, Harman Blennerhassett lived up to his scholarly image. He studied classics in England during the 1770s, graduated from Trinity College in Ireland and became a lawyer. And because his Irish family had deep pockets, the aristocratic youth polished off his education with a European tour.
Yet the intelligent young man had hidden fires. At the height of the French Revolution— a bloody and exceedingly violent period— he went to France and rescued his niece, who was studying at the time. It proved to be love at first sight. Margaret Agnew was a tall and refined young brunette with striking blue eyes. What’s more, she was his intellectual match; nothing pleased her more than reading Shakespeare, classics, history and Italian and French literature.
They wed in 1794, much to the outrage of both families. After all, they were closely related. Nor did Blennerhassett’s political inclinations help; for a time, he belonged to the Society of United Irishmen— an organization that sought, among other things, freedom from English interference. By 1797, however, it was dissolving. Despite France’s help, the league’s invasion fleet scattered during foul weather. England also discovered a major arms cache.
For someone like Blennerhassett, it was a hazardous time to remain in Europe. The newlyweds quickly moved to America, where they sought refuge on an Ohio River island in what we now know as Parkersburg, WV.
Welcome to the castle
They weren’t in dire straits for long. When Blennerhassett’s father died in 1796, he bequeathed an immense sum to his disgraced son.
It wasn’t long before the island yielded to Irish gold. As the months passed, a 2-story mansion slowly rose over the Ohio River. Its owners spent lavishly. There were 12 rooms (at least), plus gardens, walkways and a greenhouse. Visitors also noted fine paintings and imported furniture. At one point, it was the most expensive home in the country. The white dwelling was also grand: an elegant Palladian structure with pleasing symmetry, balance and classical touches.
Tales of an island “Eden” spread across the country. The couple didn’t disappoint. Fine meals, music and lively entertainment were the hallmarks of a Blennerhassett bash.
The Burr Conspiracy
In 1805, a special guest arrived on the island: former Vice President Aaron Burr. He wasn’t alone, either. An armed escort followed in his wake.
At this point, it’s not clear what Burr was planning. Perhaps he wanted to establish his own territory out west or take Texas from Spain. Regardless, he clearly had some long-distance mission in mind; the weapons and gear suggested as much. So did his request for boats and enough provisions for 500 men.
Burr certainly came to the right place for sponsorship. Furthermore, Blennerhassett might have been sympathetic; his earlier involvement with the United Irishmen indicates revolutionary tendencies. At any rate, he arranged for riverboat construction the following year. Blennerhassett also paid for additional weapons, liquor and food. Meanwhile, Burr returned to the island between recruitment operations. By August of 1806, their mysterious mission was nearly complete.
It didn’t take long for news to travel. After all, no one can possibly hide guests, muskets, and boats on a little island and hope to get away with it. On November 27, 1806, President Thomas Jefferson condemned the Ohio River operation.
“Sundry persons, citizens of the U.S. or resident within the same, are conspiring and confederating together … to prepare the means for a military expedition or enterprise against the dominions of Spain,” he announced.
It was official: Burr and his associates were traitors. What’s more, anybody foolish enough to help them would “answer the contrary at their peril.” Jefferson then ordered local governors and militia to blockade the area.
Lack of evidence
Once again, Harman Blennerhassett found himself on hostile soil. He dashed for Kentucky. Burr also managed to slip away, although soldiers eventually found him and his Irish sponsor.
Both men then awaited trial at the Virginia State Penitentiary.
Margaret Blennerhassett, meanwhile, missed the unfolding drama. She returned from a vacation in Marietta only to discover her gorgeous home ruined by bored— and frustrated— soldiers.
Ultimately, the Burr Conspiracy fell apart. No one could find any condemning evidence. However, those closest to the former vice president were forever tarnished. The Blennerhassetts tragically spent the rest of their lives in poverty. Charitable relatives provided some assistance until Harman died in 1831.
Margaret Blennerhassett, meanwhile, begged Congress to pay for her damaged home. By then, it had burned to ashes in 1811. She unfortunately died before making any progress, although distinguished men like Henry Clay supported her cause.
The Blennerhassett legacy
While the original mansion has long since vanished, the Blennerhassett vision is very much alive.
Today, you can visit Blennerhassett Island. A recreated mansion, shade trees, trim lawns and costumed interpreters complete the illusion that you’ve stepped back in time. You can also tour the property in a horse-drawn carriage. And even though simple riverboats no longer ply the Ohio River, a historic sternwheeler takes their place. In fact, it’s the only way you can reach the island.
If time is short, you can stick to the “mainland” and still get your history fix. The Blennerhassett Museum of Regional History in downtown Parkersburg has 3 stories of accumulated lore. Military artifacts, weapons, vehicles, furniture, paintings and clothes abound.
There’s also a charming gift shop with books, homemade crafts, art and souvenirs. It’s just 3 blocks from the Blennerhassett Hotel, too.
A special Island Package
Now you know why our hotel bears the same name as this prominent family! In honor of that tie, we have an exclusive offer for you, our guest: the Blennerhassett Island package.
It’s a treat that combines mystery— the Burr Conspiracy— with a stay at our historic hotel. You’ll get tickets to Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park, plus a carriage ride and access to the museum. We’ll also throw in a $20 spending card. Put it towards dinner at Spats Restaurant & Lounge or our retail areas.
The Island Package is available May through October.
So, what do you think? Was Aaron Burr a traitor, or just an eccentric adventurer?