Monday, July 30, 2012

The Blennerhassett Story

This is a story of illicit love, or political intrigue, squandered fortunes and a wilderness estate unlike any other of its time. It is a story of ambition, empire, and some say treason. It is romantic, suspenseful and even sad. It is the story of Blennerhassett Island and the ill-fated couple who made it, for a few brief years, their home.

It began in Ireland in the late 1700's when Harman Blennerhassett, son of wealthy landowners, fell in love. That's usually considered normal for a young, single man but  Harman fell in love with his niece, Margaret Agnew, and he married her. This union was against the law of both the church and the land and young Blennerhassett, wealthy though he was, realized that he and his bride would have to leave Ireland to find a new home in another land. Young Blennerhassett was well-to-do, having inherited his father's fortune even though he was the third son, because his two older brothers did not live long enough to inherit the family estate. Harman sold his inheritance, packed up his wife, and left the British Isles for a new life.

So began a journey that began with high hopes and high adventure. The young couple landed in New York City and spent a pleasant time there, wining and dining with the high society of their day. Mrs. Blennerhassett was beautiful, her husband charming, so the writings of the time tell us. They soon made plans to travel   to Marietta, Ohio and from there on to points west. The trip over land (across the route that we now know as Route 40, or the National Road) to Pittsburgh, and then by river to Marietta. In those days this was the easiest route across the Allegheny Mountains. Marietta was considered the "gateway to the West" as it was the landing point for many vessels coming down the river filled with settlers, trappers and speculators all bound for the wild western frontier.

The Blennerhassetts did not travel light. A string of wagons accompanied them, filled with fine furnishings for the new home they planned to build wherever they found a place that suited them. They ended up spending the winter in Marietta and liked the people and the lay of the land so well they decided to settle there. Someone told them of an island in the Ohio, an island three miles long that was not too far downriver from Marietta. Blennerhassett bought the island and set about building his dream home.

No expense was spared in the building of this house. Fine building materials were shipped to Marietta and used in its construction. The house had a central house and two wings adjoining it by curving palladian galleries. One wing ended in the summer kitchen, the other in Harman's study. A greenhouse, orangerie, wine cellar, music room, and library were all incorporated into the house's plans. Silver, crystal, brocade rugs, and fine furnishings adorned the rooms. Travelers along the Ohio River were astonished when, rounding a bend in the river, they were met by a view of a stately white mansion in what was otherwise a wilderness.

And visitors were more than welcome at the Blennerhassett home. Social gatherings of all kinds were held at the mansion. Harman and Margaret were gracious hosts and word spread of their "Eden on the River."

Enter Aaron Burr, former Vice President and Presidential candidate. You might remember him from your American history lessons--he is the one who was in the duel with Alexander Hamilton at Weehawken, New Jersey, and killed Hamilton. Burr was on the run; dueling was illegal even in those days and he would have faced trial for murder had he been detained in New Jersey. However, he made his escape to Philadelphia and there he laid low, living with friends. While in Philadelphia he met some men who had grand plans. They wanted to take the Northwest Territories and Mexico and create a new empire. They would become the royalty of this new country.

Burr was all ears and promised to seek financial backing for the venture. He agreed to travel to New Orleans and persuade the Spanish government to back this scheme. Burr was a good choice for the job because he had a charismatic personality that had gotten him far in politics. He traveled the same route as the Blennerhassetts had taken some years earlier. As his flatboat floated down the Ohio, he was amazed to see a mansion on an island, with sweeping lawns, farmed fields, and a gracious home with glowing white paint situated on a rise above the river. he ordered his boatman to pull in to shore, and walked up to house to make the acquaintance of its owners.

I am sure Burr was also assessing the value of the location to his plans of conquest. Located strategically just below the supply point of Marietta, the island could be an excellent place for staging supplies, gathering recruits, and so on. Burr charmed the Blennerhassetts and it did not take much persuading to convince Harman to go in on the empire scheme. Harman had spent a great deal of money establishing his island home and getting the fields into production. The lifestyle was expensive too, and he saw his fortune dwindling at an alarming rate. Burr's talk of empire, becoming royalty, riches of the wilderness must have seemed like just the thing to relieve Harman's financial anxiety.

Although Burr and his friends had tried to keep their plans quiet, rumors began to spread about what he was planning to do. Eventually these rumors reached all the way to Washington and into the White House, where Thomas Jefferson at first ignored them but then began to pay attention. In October of 1806, Burr's co-conspirator, General James Wilkinson, decided to abandon his connection with Burr and informed Jefferson of the plan to create a new empire in the west. Jefferson sent federal troops to apprehend Burr and Blennerhassett.

Word reached the island just ahead of the troops and Burr and Harman Blennerhassett fled, leaving Margaret behind. The troops arrived and created havoc on the island before departing downriver. Eventually the two men were arrested and charged with treason. Harman was forced to sspend most of his remaining funds to defend himself against the charges. He was eventually cleared, as was Burr, and returned to the island to try to repair the damage done by the troops but it was beyond repair. He and Margaret moved to Mississippi where he invested in a cotton plantation. Here too, luck failed him and he lost his land.

He and Margaret moved many times after that, to Canada, back to Ireland and then to the island of Guernsey, where Harman died in 1831, still bitter about the loss of his home and fortune. Margaret eventually returned to the US, and lived in New York City until she died in 1842. Until her death she continued to seek compensation from the government for the destruction of her beloved home on the island. She died with little to her name.

Margaret was buried in New York, but her remains were later returned to Blennerhassett Island, where she rests beside her son, Harman Blennerhassett, Jr.

And so ended the dream of an island paradise, a dream of empire and royal status, and a love that, while not condoned by law, lasted through many storms and hardships for thirty-seven years.

Today the mansion (destroyed completely by fire many years ago) is rebuilt and visitors can tour it and the island. It is a place filled with the ghosts of the past, and a soft sadness for what might have been.

Copyright 2012 Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


Nance said...

oh my. I visited this island with folks 25 years ago or so. Your post brings back so many memories. I and my neice made a "basket" seat with our arms and carried my dad (her Gramps) down the island to the grand house. I may have to email you a photo of a young me, my dad and my younger neice : )

Granny Sue said...

I would love to see your photo, Nance. There is another house on the island that is now restored--the Israel Putnam house.

Blennerhassett is such a lovely place to visit; I love the ferry ride over and the huge trees. Perfect for a picnic!

Wayfarin' Stranger said...

Fascinating story! Although I lived in Ohio for several years I had never heard it or heard of the island mansion. I'll have to check it out one of these days. Jim

Pat MacKenzie said...

What a lovely sad story. I'd love to visit the island.

Country Whispers said...

I went to Blennerhassett as a teen and loved it. I'd love to go back with my kids and spend the day walking around, bike riding or take a wagon ride around the island. I know the kids would love the ferry ride too!

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