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Paul Redfern

Aaron Burr
Source:  Black and white portrait of Aaron Burr colorized by Josh Dukes.

Aaron Burr was born on February 6, 1756, in Newark, New Jersey. His father was a Presbyterian minister and the president of the College of New Jersey. After the death of both his parents, Burr and his sister went to live with their uncle. At just 13 years old, he enrolled in the college where his father formerly worked and graduated by the time he was 16. 

When the Revolutionary War broke out in 1776, Burr’s plans to attend law school were put on hold, and he served in the fight for Independence. He worked under the infamous Benedict Arnold, and was shortly named a Major in the Continental Army. As a Major, he served under our nations first President, George Washington. 

Once the war ended, Burr returned to law school and became licensed. He practiced in Albany, New York, and was eventually named the New York State Attorney General. 

Political Career

In 1791, Aaron Burr came out triumphant in the New York State US Senator race against Alexander Hamilton’s father-in-law — General Phillip Schuyler. Hamilton, a long time adversary of Burr, was upset by Burr’s actions, and the feud between them continued to grow. Burr would eventually lose his seat in the Senate to, once again, General Phillip Schuyler. Burr blamed Hamilton for his loss and turning votes against him.

The Election of 1800

Following John Adam’s single term, there were two new candidates on the Election of 1800’s Ballot: Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson. The Electoral College ended in a tie, and the decision of the nation’s third president was handed over to the House of Representatives. Although both candidates were long time enemies of Alexander Hamilton, the federalist chose to support Thomas Jefferson. With the support of Hamilton in the house, Jefferson ended up winning the Presidency. Burr was outraged — Jefferson represented everything Alexander Hamilton was against. 

Burr served as the Vice President under Jefferson, and as his term neared its end, Burr decided to run for the New York Governor position. Again, Alexander Hamilton was a vocal opponent of Burr in the election, and supported Morgan Taylor, who came out on top.

At a dinner party in up-state New York, Hamilton was reported to have spoken illy of Burr, and word got out. When Burr found out about this, he wrote a letter demanding an apology from Hamilton. Hamilton refused to admit that he ever spoke illy of Burr, and no resolve was found. The only solution, in Burr’s eyes — a duel.

The Duel

Hamilton agreed to the duel, but did not plan on firing his gun. Hamilton feared putting his family’s welfare and safety at risk, as well as going against his moral beliefs. A week before their duel, Hamilton and Burr were in attendance at an Independence Day Dinner together. Hamilton’s behavior that night was described as “uncharacteristically effusive” while Burr was described as “uncharacteristically withdrawn.

On July 11th, 1804, Hamilton and Burr met in Weehawken, New Jersey. Before the sun had risen, they both had rowed across the Hudson River to reach the rocky dueling grounds. 

Eventually it was time for the duel. No one knows who shot first. Two bullets were shot, but only one of them landed. Hamilton had aimed his gun above Burr’s head,  planning to miss his enemy. Burr took dead aim and struck Hamilton in the lower right abdomen, a wound that would turn out to be fatal. After 31 hours of immense pain and suffering, Alexander Hamilton had taken his last breath. 

Illustration of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr preparing to duel. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

Drawing (c. 1902) of the Burr–Hamilton duel, from a painting by J. Mund

Burr and St. Simons Island

On July 11th, 1804, Vice President Aaron Burr became a fugitive after his illegal dual with Alexander Hamilton. Killing Hamilton, Burr found it necessary to avoid public scrutiny by removing himself from Philadelphia and New York. He sought refuge with his friends on Saint Simons Island.

Burr was welcomed into the homes of Major Pierce Butler at Hampton Plantation (Butler’s Point) and Mr. John Couper at Cannon’s Point Plantation, both located on the north end and separated by Jones Creek. Several decades earlier in 1738, General James Oglethorpe had located soldiers and their families in this area to settle the bluffs and protect the area from surprise invasions from the Spanish. After immigrating from Scotland to Georgia, John Couper built his home at Cannon’s Point in 1792. Major Butler was born in Ireland and came to Georgia by way of South Carolina. He acquired his land in 1790. Burr and Butler were well-acquainted after serving together in the United States Senate, and Hampton Plantation proved the perfect location for Burr’s hideaway.

Burr was close to his daughter Theodosia, who he wrote often during his stay. In one letter he wrote, “The plantation affords plenty of milk, cream, and butter; turkeys, fowls, kids, pigs, geese and mutton; fish, of course, in abundance. Of figs, peaches, and melons there are yet a few. Oranges and pomegranates just begin to be eatable. The house affords Madeira wine, brandy, and porter. Yesterday, my neighbor, Mr. Couper, sent me an assortment of French wines… Madame Couper added sweetmeats and pickles. We have not a fly, mosquito, or bug. I can sit a whole evening with open windows and lighted candles without the least annoyance of insects; a circumstance which I have never beheld in any other place. I have not even seen a cockroach.”

Burr, 48, had been pursuing a relationship with Celeste, a youthful Philadelphia Belle, at the time of the dual and before he fled. Of the affair, Burr wrote to Theodosia, “If any male friend of yours should be dying of ennui, recommend to him to engage in a duel and a courtship at the same time.”

The John Couper Residence, Canons Point

Two fishermen and four bargemen were always available to assist Burr, and he visited the neighboring islands, fished, shot birds, and “frightened crocodiles  (alligators)”. He rode by carriage with young ladies at John Coupers’ place, for visits to more distant parts of the island. He also boated to Saint Marys on at least one occasion.

One notable incident during his visit was the unexpected arrival of a major hurricane. On September 7, Burr was visiting Couper and his family at Cannon’s Point when the winds began to rise, making it too dangerous for him to return to Hampton. Between noon and 4:00 p.m. the next day, the storm was at its peak. Burr later reported to Theodosia, “The house… shook and rocked so much that Mr. Couper began to express his apprehensions for our safety. Before three, part of the piazza was carried away… The house was inundated with water, and presently one of the chimneys fell.” When the winds subsided, Burr insisted on being rowed back over Jones Creek by the slaves who had accompanied him. They reached the Hampton Plantation house just as the back eyewall struck, and the storm continued throughout the night.

Later in September, perhaps at least partly as a result of the rattling experience of the storm, Burr set out for his return north, where he completed his term as Vice President without prosecution. Though Burr avoided punishment for killing Alexander Hamilton, his situation did not improve.

In 1807, Burr faced treason charges for conspiring to plan the secession of several western states. He fled to Europe, returning to New York after his acquittal. His professional and personal life remained in tatters until his death in 1836.

Today, visitors and residents of Saint Simons Island can identify the locations frequented by Aaron Burr and his hosts by the current roads leading to the respective areas on the north end of the island – one named Hampton Point Drive and the other Cannon’s Point Drive.

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