Burr letter

After Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel he came to St. Simons to avoid prosecution as dueling had been made illegal. While here he visited John Couper on Cannon’s Point and survived a hurricane. This is his letter to his daughter, it includes fascinating tidbits about life back then.

TO THEODOSIA.

St. Simon’s, September 3, 1804.

You see me returned from Gaston’s Bluff, now called ‘Hamilton’s Bluff’, a London merchant, partner of Mr. Couper. We were four in the carriage; the three ladies and myself.

Mr. Morse informs you that this island is forty-five miles long, and that it lies north of the mouth Altamaha, commonly spelled Alatamaha. It is, in fact, twelve and a half miles in length, and lies southeast of that river. Its width is about two and a half miles. There are now residing on the island about twenty-five white families. Frederica, now known only by the name of ‘Old Town’, is on the west side of the island, and about midway between its northern and southern extremities. It was first settled by Governor Oglethorpe, and was, about fifty years ago, a very gay place, consisting of perhaps twenty-five or thirty houses. The walls of several of them still remain. Three or four families only now reside here. In the vicinity of the town several ruins were pointed out to me, as having been, formerly, country seats of the governor, and officers of the garrison, and gentlemen of the town. At present, nothing can be more gloomy than what was once called Frederica. The few families now remaining, or rather residing there, for they are all new-comers, have a sickly, melancholy appearance, well assorted with the ruins which surround them. The southern part of this island abounds with fetid swamps, which must render it very unhealthy. On the northern half I have seen no stagnant water.

Mr. Couper, with his escort of ladies, was to have met us this afternoon, but he has sent us word that he is taken ill on the way; that, owing to illness in the family of the ladies who were to have accompanied him, they have been obliged to renounce the visit. We therefore returned as we went. At Frederica and Gaston’s Bluff we were convinced that insects can subsist on this island. Moschetoes, flies, and cockroaches abounded.

Thursday, September 6, 1804

Just returned from Darien. And what took you to Darien? To see the plantation of Mr. Butler on an island opposite that town, and to meet a day sooner the letters which I expected from you. In the last object I have been again disappointed, which I ascribe wholly to the irregularity of the mails. It is most mortifying and vexatious to be seven weeks without hearing of you or from you, and now a whole week must elapse before I can expect it.

You are probably ignorant that Darien is a settlement (called a town) on the north bank of the Alatamaha, about eight miles from its mouth. Major Butler’s Island in this river is one mile below the town. It must become a fine rice country, for the water is fresh four miles below Major Butler’s, and the tide rises from four to five feet, and the flats or swamps are from five to seven miles in width for a considerable distance up the river. The country, of course, presents no scenes for a painter. I visited Little St. Simon’s and several other islands; frightened the crocodiles, shot some rice-birds, and caught some trout. Honey of fine flavour is found in great abundance in the woods about the mouth of the river, and, for aught I know, in every part of the country. You perceive that I am constantly discovering new luxuries for my table. Not having been able to kill a crocodile (alligator), I have offered a reward for one, which I mean to eat, dressed in soup, fricassees, and steaks. Oh! how you long to partake of this repast.

Wednesday, September 12, 1804.

On Friday last, hearing that Mr. Couper had returned and was very seriously ill, I took a small canoe with two boys, and went to see him. He lay in a high fever. When about to return in the evening, the wind had risen so that, after an ineffectual attempt, I was obliged to give it up, and remain at Mr. C.’s. In the morning the wind was still higher. It continued to rise, and by noon blew a gale from the north, which, together with the swelling of the water, became alarming. From twelve to three, several of the out-houses had been destroyed; most of the trees about the house were blown down. The house in which we were shook and rocked so much that Mr. C. began to express his apprehensions for our safety. Before three, part of the piazza was carried away; two or three of the windows bursted in. The house was inundated with water, and presently one of the chimneys fell. Mr. C. then commanded a retreat to a storehouse about fifty yards off, and we decamped, men, women, and children. You may imagine, in this scene of confusion and dismay, a good many incidents to amuse one if one had dared to be amused in a moment of much anxiety. The house, however, did not blow down. The storm continued till four, and then very suddenly abated, and in ten minutes it was almost a calm. I seized the moment to return home. Before I had got quite over, the gale rose from the southeast and threatened new destruction. It lasted great part of the night, but did not attain the violence of that from the north; yet it contributed to raise still higher the water, which was the principal instrument of devastation. The flood was about seven feet above the height of an ordinary high tide. This has been sufficient to inundate great part of the coast; to destroy all the rice; to carry off most of the buildings which were on low lands, and to destroy the lives of many blacks. The roads are rendered impassable, and scarcely a boat has been preserved. Thus all intercourse is suspended. The mail-boat, which ought to have passed northward last Saturday, and by which it was intended to forward this letter, has not been heard of. This will go by a man who will attempt to get from Darien to Savannah on foot, being sent express by the manager of Major Butler; but how, or whether it will go on from Savannah, is not imagined.

Major Butler has lost nineteen negroes (drowned), and I fear his whole crop of rice, being about two hundred and sixty acres. Mr. Brailsford, of Charleston, who cultivates in rice an island at the mouth of the Alatamaha, has lost, reports say, seventy-four blacks. The banks and the buildings on the low lands are greatly injured. We have heard nothing from the southward, nor farther than from Darien northward. I greatly fear that this hurricane, so it is here called, has extended to the Waccama.

The illness of Mr. C., which still continues, and the effects of the storm, have defeated all my plans. To get to Florida seems now impracticable; nor do any present means occur of getting from this island in any direction. Young Swartwout, who went ten days ago to Savannah, has not returned, nor is it possible that he should very speedily return. I have not received a letter since my arrival from any person north of Savannah (yes, one from C. Biddle, of 19th August), nor do I expect one for many days to come.

I had taken up another sheet to say something more, I know not what; but the appearance of a fine sheep’s-head smoking on the table has attractions not to be resisted. ‘Laissez moi diner’, “and then,” &c.

_Madame j’ais bien diner’, and ‘j’ai fait mettre mon’ writing-desk _sur le table a diner’. What a scandalous thing to sit here all alone drinking Champagne–and yet–(_madame je bois a votre santé et a celle de monsieur’ votre fils)–and yet, I say, if Champagne be that exhilarating cordial which (_je bois a la santé de Madame Sumtare_) songs and rumour ascribe to it (_a la santé de Mademoiselle Sumtare_), can there be ever an occasion in which its application could be more appropriate, or its virtues more (_mais buvons a la santé de mon hôte et bon ami’, Major Butler). By-the-by, you have no idea–how should you have, seeing that you never heard a word about it?–you have no idea, I was going to say, of the zeal and animation, of the intrepidity and frankness with which he avowed and maintained–but I forget that this letter goes to Savannah by a negro, who has to swim half a dozen creeks, in one of which, ‘at least’, it is probable he may drown, and that, if he escape drowning, various other accidents may bring it to you through the newspapers, and then how many enemies might my indiscretion create for a man who had the sensibility and the honour to feel and to judge, and the firmness to avow (_a la santé de Celeste un’ bumper toast). ‘La pauvre Celeste’. Adieu.

A. BURR.