by Kathy Warnes
Her contemporaries noted Margaret Agnew Blennerhassett’s beauty and surviving portraits reflect that beauty. According to a Montreal Gazette story of January 28, 1841, she was tall, with chiseled features, a clear complexion and her blue eyes sparkled with intelligence and life. Margaret Blennerhassett’s intelligence, accomplishments, and romantic temperament matched her beauty. An excellent linguist, she fluently spoke Italian, French, German, and enjoyed comfortable familiarity with Spanish, German, French, and English literature.
Although talented in her own right, Margaret Agnew’s family background added to her mystique. Accounts of her early years conflict, with some sources stating that she was born in 1771, others 1772, and others fixing her birth year as 1777. Whichever year, Margaret was born and raised on her grandfather’s estate in England near the Scottish border. It is clear that Brigadier General James Tanner Agnew, a British Army officer killed in the Battle of Germantown during the American Revolutionary War was Margaret’s grandfather and her father was Robert Agnew, the lieutenant governor of the Isle of Man.
Despite the advantages of beauty, talent, an excellent education, an illustrious family, and later a famous husband, Margaret Agnew Blennerhassett died poor and virtually alone in New York City in 1842. Often historians and writers access and interpret her life through her husband, Harman Blennerhassett, but Margaret Agnew Blennerhassett deserves individual interpretation. She acted with courage, determination, and perseverance, while suffering the consequences of her perception of Aaron Burr and she fought her own battles for survival in an era when women depended mostly on men for survival.
Margaret Agnew Married Her Uncle Harman Blennerhassett
The Montreal Gazette story and a story in the Brooklyn Eagle dated October 21, 1900, say that Margaret Agnew married Harman Blennerhassett between 1796 and 1800. One source says that she married Harman in 1794 when she was just twenty years old. Many of her biographies say that they married in 1796 when Margaret was just 18. Like the date, the circumstances of their marriage are unclear.
Some accounts say that Harman Blennerhassett met Margaret Agnew in England at the home of Admiral Hon. Michael de Courcyand his wife, the former Anne Blennerhassett and Harman’s sister. Other accounts state that Margaret had gone to France to study and had gotten caught up in the violence of the French Revolution. Concerned for her safety, her family had sent her Uncle Harman Blennerhassett to Paris to find her and bring her safely back to England. Her Uncle Harman rescued Margaret from the French Revolution, but he also fell in love with her and she with him. The two shared a common love of art, literature, and music and they were reasonably close in age, Harman Blennerhassett being born on October 8, 1764, and Margaret either in 1771, 1772, 1774, or 1777. Since they were closely related, both the church, state, and their families considered the Blennerhassett marriage incestuous, so after they were married they were forced to leave England.
Margaret Blennerhassett chose to defy convention, married her uncle, and left her home and family to accompany her husband to a strange country. Accounts also vary as to whether the Blennerhassetts came to the United States together or separately. Margaret’s uncle and husband Harman Blennerhassett had been born in Castle Conway in County Kerry, Ireland, educated at Trinity College in Dublin, and in 1790 became a member of the Irish bar.
Articles in the American Review of 1848 contend that Harman Blennerhassett came directly to the United States from England, but other records show that he probably spent some time traveling in Europe after his succeeded to his family property. He traveled and lived in Europe where he absorbed the republican ideas prevalent at the time and lived in the West Indies where he added to his substantial fortune for several years before he came to America. Other sources say that he had to leave England after agitating too enthusiastically for Irish independence.
Harman Blennerhassett may have used his powers of eloquence and sense of adventure to appeal to the same qualities in his wife Margaret. Some sources say that the Blennerhassetts arrived in New York in 1794, others in 1797, along with their fortune of about $140,000, and their valuable possessions. Over the next two years they moved to Philadelphia and then crossed the Appalachian Mountains to Pittsburgh, the gateway to what was then known as the West. Whatever the time and circumstances of their arrival, the Blennerhassetts moved down the Ohio River to Marietta and learned about an island in the middle of the Ohio River for sale.
The Blennerhassetts Bought An Island and Developed it into An Estate
In 1797, a vast wilderness extended for hundreds of miles west of the Alleghany Mountains. A few scattered villages and a log blockhouse along the Ohio Valley punctuated the miles of trees and brush and occasionally a log cabin stood at the meeting of streams. Emerald green islands dotted the face of the Ohio River and when Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett heard descriptions of this beautiful country, they decided to visit it. After a long difficult journey over the mountains and through the wilderness, they arrived at the old Fort Duquesne in Pittsburgh in the late fall of 1797. They took passage on a keelboat, arriving at Fort Harman, now Marietta, Ohio, about two weeks after leaving Pittsburgh.
In the spring of 1798, the Blennerhassetts bought Backus Island which lies two miles below what was then called The Point, and is now the city of Parkersburg, West Virginia. For two years the Blennerhassetts lived in an old blockhouse at the head of the island and immediately changed its name from Backus Island to Blennerhassett Island. Immense forests and lush meadows covered their new home. The Blennerhassetts and their workers and slaves began the task of leveling the forests and grading and clearing the lands.
By 1800, the Blennerhassett’s Island estate was completed. A velvety green lawn covered with flowers spread like a carpet in front of the mansion. Peaches, pears and many other fruit trees that pack horses had carried across the mountains lined a tall protective fence. To the south, slaves planted vegetable gardens. A broad street ran in the rear of the mansion, lined with rows of white log cottages, homes for the laborers and slaves.
The mansion itself was designed in Palladian style, horseshoe shaped with an outbuilding attached to either end of the arch. The left wing served as a kitchen and the right wing functioned as Harman’s office, laboratory and wine cellar. The central part of the house contained twelve rooms, ample space for the frequent guests that the Blennerhassett’s enjoyed entertaining. The mansion’s furniture was elegantly and tastefully designed. Costly pictures and mirrors lined its walls, fine carpets covered its floors, and Margaret Blennerhassett had chosen bric a brac and ornaments from the East to accent and harmonize the entire house.
Margaret and Harman Blennerhassett lived pleasant and comfortable lives in their wilderness mansion. Harman conducted scientific experiments, organized an extensive private library, and oversaw his fields. Margaret Blennerhassett was a fearless horsewoman and frequently rode ten to twenty miles a day through the countryside.
Both Blennerhassetts quickly made many friends among the Virginians and the people of Belpre and Marietta, Ohio. Harman often went to Marietta to attend Mason meetings at the first lodge west of the Alleghenies. Margaret Blennerhassett socialized with the ladies of Belpre and Marietta, and frequently entertained ladies from the East. Their hospitality became renowned up and down the Ohio River, and many travelers stopped to enjoy the hospitality of the Blennerhassett home.
The young couple spent eight happy years in their wilderness home and eventually they had six children, Margaret, Dominic born in 1799, Harman born in 1803 and Joseph Lewis born in 1812, another daughter named Martha, and another who died of fever.
A Famous and Fateful Man with a Plan Visited Blennerhassett Mansion
Then in the spring of 1805, the Blennerhassetts entertained a famous and fateful visitor. That spring, Aaron Burr, ex vice- president of the United States, colonel in the American Army, and frustrated politician decided to come to the West. Indicted in New Jersey for murder for shooting Alexander Hamilton in a duel, Aaron Burr looked for new worlds to conquer in the West. Many historians agree that Aaron Burr created a plan, which came to be called the Burr Conspiracy. He wanted to separate the West from the East and establish a republic with himself as president. As an extension of his presidency, he planned to establish an empire in Mexico in case of war between the United States and Spain and he also wanted to purchase and colonize the territory that is now Louisiana.
Aaron Burr’s controversial plan was complicated by the hatred of President Thomas Jefferson whom Aaron Burr had almost defeated for the presidency after 31 Congressional ballots and the already bitter section feelings on both sides of the slavery question. Aaron Burr definitely prowled for influential and wealthy men to cooperate with him in his political schemes whatever they were. He soon discerned that Harman Blennerhassett was both wealthy and influential and he likely found Margaret Blennerhassett both gracious and charming. Taking a woman companion with him, Aaron Burr visited Blennerhassett Island. They strolled around the grounds in plain view of the mansion, Aaron Burr knowing full well that Margaret Blennerhassett’s hospitable nature would bring an invitation to tea at the least. Mrs. Blennerhassett saw Burr and his companion and invited them to come inside the house.
Shrewdly, Aaron Burr sent back his card declining the invitation on the grounds that they just wanted to satisfy their curiosity about the grounds. Burr knew that Margaret Blennerhassett, famed for her hospitality, would consider Aaron Burr, ex- Vice President of the United States a distinguished guest.
It seemed that Aaron Burr read Margaret Blennerhassett correctly, for she sent her servant back to Burr with a more cajoling invitation and finally, with the proper degree of reluctance, he accepted her invitation and he and the lady allowed Mrs. Blennerhassett to lead them into the house.
Aaron Burr first wrote to Harman Blennerhassett in December 1805, months before they had ever met, but Margaret Blennerhasset’s enthusiasm and admiration for Aaron certainly eased the correspondence between the two men. In his first letter Aaron Burr hinted that the United States was on the brink of war with Spain which he felt made it necessary to mobilize all of the talented men in the country to action. He indirectly appealed to Blennerhassett’s ambition and republicanism.
Harman Belnnerhassett Endorsed and Acted Upon Aaron Burr’s Plan
According to the October 21, 1900 Brooklyn Eagle story, Harman Blennerhassett answered Aaron Burr’s letter asking him to elaborate on his plan, but Burr replied that: the matter in its present state cannot be satisfactorily explain by letter.” He hinted that he and Harman Blennerhassett needed to speak in person.
In August 1806, Aaron Burr visited Blennerhassett Island again, this time accompanied by his accomplished daughter, Theodosia, wife of Joseph Alston, who was governor of South Carolina. Theodosia and her father shared a deep love that endured through Burr’s tempestuous life. When he was arrested she went to him, although poor health required her to be carried on a litter. She wrote to him daily. Since Theodosia Alston was a beautiful and accomplished woman, it does not stretch the imagination to believe that Theodosia Burr and Margaret Blennerhassett became fast friends.
Although Aaron Burr and Theodosia Alston remained only a short time on Blennerhassett Island, Harman Blennerhassett’s actions attest to the outcome of his conversations with Aaron Burr. He offered support and money to Aaron Burr who soon began to recruit men for his planned conquest of Mexico. Many men enrolled in the expedition, believing that President Thomas Jefferson favored the plan.
Boatyards at the mouth of the Muskingum River and at Belleville eighteen miles below the town quickly hummed with the activity of building batteaus and keel boats, the only way of transporting men and supplies. Family tradition and letters indicate that both Aaron Burr and Harman Blennerhassett often visited the boatyards to hurry the work before cold weather and ice slowed the construction. Harman Blennerhassett was responsible for the cost of the boats and the material crews for the expedition.
South Carolina Governor Joseph Alston, Aaron Burr’s son-in-law, visited his wife Theodosia on Blennerhassett Island and he and Harman Blennerhassett traveled to Lexington, Kentucky together to expedite the expedition. In the meantime, Aaron Burr visited Ohio River towns, adding recruits and expanding his acquaintance with influential citizens and officials.
Plots and Counter Plots
Rumors and reports began circulating around the United States. Rumor had it that an army of 10,000 men would rendezvous at New Orleans and join with a force partially composed of a Tennessee Army under General Andrew Jackson which would follow Burr into Mexico. Reports circulated that a squadron from the West Indies would participate in the invasion, slaves were to revolt and the banks of New Orleans were to be looted to supply funds for expenses.
President Thomas Jefferson eventually heard about the expedition and sent out secret agents empowered to call on the military and he also called on General James Wilkinson, the governor of Louisiana Territory to help suppress the expedition. When General Wilkinson received his orders from the President, he reconsidered his involvement in Aaron Burr’s plan. In 1805, General Wilkinson had agreed to support Aaron Burr’s plot to conquer Mexico and had sent his agent Zebulon Pike to map the most favorable route to conquer the southwest. Before Pike returned, General Wilkinson betrayed Burr’s plans to President Jefferson, and apprehended Aaron Burr and some of his accomplices. General Wilkins seemed to have betrayed both sides and in the trial of the Burr conspirators at Richmond, Virginia, he emerged with a badly damaged reputation.
Harman Blennerhassett joined forces with Aaron Burr, but it isn’t clear whether or not he knew the extent of Burr’s real plans. He did publish a series of papers supporting Aaron Burr’s views in the Ohio Gazette, under the pen name of Querist. He invested large sums of money in boats, provisions, arms and ammunition for the expedition. He went to Kentucky and when someone warned him of Aaron Burr’s real purpose, he returned to Blennerhassett Island very upset.
The Brooklyn Eagle story said that a secret agent, a Mr. Graham, working for President Jefferson, co visited Harman Blennerhassett and tried to convince him of Aaron Burr’s real purpose, but at that same time Captain Comfort Tyler of New York appeared on Blennerhassett Island with a company of men. Captain Tyler and Margaret Blennerhassett persuaded Harman to continue with his plans to aid Aaron Burr. Captain Tyler and his men along with Harman Blennerhassett and a company of men from Belpre obtained one boat and joined Aaron Burr at the mouth of the Cumberland River.
The Virginia Militia Invaded Blennerhassett Island
President Thomas Jefferson issued a proclamation on November 27, 1806, which said that conspirators were fitting out and arming vessels in western waters for an unlawful military expedition against Mexico. He said that expedition leaders were “seducing honest and well-meaning citizens under various pretences,” to participate in the expedition. He warned all persons to withdraw from the expedition immediately or they would be prosecuted.
Under the Proclamation’s authority Colonel Hugh Phelps and the Virginia Militia invaded Blennerhassett Island on December 11, 1806. Colonel Hugh Phelps of Parkersburg, who was also sheriff of the county, arrived at Blennerhassett Island with three companies of militia but discovered that Captain Tyler and Harman Blennerhassett had left during the night. Leaving his militia on Blennerhassett Island, Colonel Phelps quickly headed for the mouth of the Great Kanawha, expecting to intercept them. The Colonel arrived at Point Pleasant before Tyler and Blennerhassett, but they managed to pass by undetected in the darkness of the night and joined Burr at the mouth of the Cumberland River.
While Colonel Phelps pursued Captain Tyler and Harman Blennerhassett, his Virginia Militia broke into the Blennerhassett Mansion and plundered it. They broke into the cellars and drank the liquor they found there. They tore down pictures, threw curtains into the fire, and riddled ceiling and walls with bullets. They broke up or carried off the furniture and destroyed shrubbery, flowers, and crops. Many of the Militiamen owned Harman Blennerhassett money. Old court records later revealed the same names that Harman Blennerhassett had loaned money to for necessary supplies to survive the winter appearing on the rolls of the three Virginia Militia companies that vandalized Blennerhassett Island.
The marauding militia also threatened Margaret Blennerhassett and she may have been killed if Colonel Phelps hadn’t returned in time to prevent her murder. When Colonel Phelps, who was a man of character, saw the ruin and destruction that his men had committed during his absence, he castigated them in no uncertain terms, telling them they were a shame and disgrace to humanity. He offered his services to Margaret Blennerhassett and assisted her in every way possible.
The Blennerhassetts Moved to Mississippi and then to Montreal, Canada
The next morning Margaret Blennerhassett said a final goodbye to the home where she and Harman Blennerhassett had spent eight of the happiest years of her life. She and her two sons and their servants descended the Ohio River to the Mississippi River to rejoin her husband at Bayou Pierre, about thirty miles above New Orleans.
In the meantime, all of the governors on both sides of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers issued proclamations and called out their militia. Aaron Burr’s followers heard about these proclamations and most of them abandoned the expedition. All that remained were hunted and pursued as traitors.
Harman Blennerhassett was eventually arrested, but set free. While he was traveling back to Blennerhassett Island he was again arrested at Lexington, Kentucky, and put in prison. He hired the legal services of Henry Clay, who could not win his freedom. Harman Blennerhasset, Aaron Burr, and the other conspirators were tried by the United States Circuit Court at Richmond, Virginia, in August 1807. Aaron Burr and his fellow conspirators were acquitted and released.
Judging by his correspondence found in The Blennerhassett Papers, Embodying the Private Journal of Harman Blennerhassett and the Hitherto Unpublished Correspondence, Harman Blennerhassett attempted to clear his name and recover some of his lost fortune. He wrote to Margaret from Washington City on October 29, 1807, that “I have strong expectations of putting my claims upon Burr and Alston on a desirable footing.”
Despite his efforts, misfortune continued to pursue Harman Blennerhassett. Creditors seized his property on Blennerhassett Island and they used the grounds to cultivate hemp. The mansion was converted into a store house to preserve crops. In 1811, careless slaves accidentally set the mansion on fire and it burned to the ground. After his island home burned and Harman Blennerhassett couldn’t pay the debts on the island, he purchased a 1,000 acre plantation near Gibbensport, Mississippi, and with the few slaves remaining to him, he began to cultivate cotton. He had a reasonable chance of success because cotton brought in a good price in foreign markets at this point. For at least five years he earned a living for his family with cotton, but then the War of 1812 broke out, an embargo followed and the Blennerhassett fortunes again declined.
In 1819, Harman Blennerhassett received a letter from his old schoolmate, Charles Lenox, the Fourth Duke of Richmond, offering him a judgeship in Lower Canada. He sold his plantation and with a modest nest egg, he moved his family to Montreal where he was admitted to the Lower Canada Bar. In Montreal, Harman practiced law, waiting for his old schoolmate to secure him the judgeship. While touring Upper Canada, Charles Lennox, the Fourth Duke of Richmond, was bitten by a fox and died of hydrophobia on August 28, 1819, effectively ending any help that he could give his old friend Harman Blennerhassett. Harman next tried to build a successful law firm with a Mr. Rossiter, but did not make much financial progress with that endeavor either.
In 1821, Dudley Woodbridge, a former partner of Harman Blennerhassett, wrote to a friend that he had seen Margaret Blennerhassett in Germantown, Pennsylvania where she was visiting the grave of her grandfather. He noted that she had “lost every vestige “ of her former beauty and that she told him that her health and that of her children had suffered greatly during the time they lived in Mississippi. She said that her two daughters had died of the fever and that she and her three sons were recuperating in Montreal.
In 1822, Harman Blennerhassett sailed for Ireland pursuing an old legal claim and also wrote old acquaintances in London seeking profitable activities. In England, a spinster sister of Harman’s settled her inheritance on him, enabling him to send for his family. He retired to the Island of Guernsey and waited for his family to join him.
Margaret Blennerhassett struggled on in Montreal while Harman conducted a law suit in Ireland and searched for work in London. She had considerable literary talent and probably hoped that she could help the family finances with her books. She published her book The Deserted Isle in 1822 and The Widow of the Rock and Other Poems in 1824. Although The Widow of the Rock and Other Poems was published anonymously, the Montreal press called it “Mrs. Blennerhassett’s poems,” and treated her with considerable personal and literary respect. This excerpt from her poem, The Widow of the Rock, reveals another tragic episode in Margaret Blennerhassett’s life.
“On Visiting the Grave of my Daughter for the Last Time
It is not the moon in the pride of her power,
Nor the soothing relief of the calm midnight shade,
That leads me to wander alone at this hour,
“Tis the moonlighted hill where my daughter is laid…
Years have passed away since, but I cannot forget thee,
Sweet germ of my hopes, ‘thou thy sorrows are o’re,
Thou are happy my daughter, why should I regret Thee?
‘Thou thy mother must weep, thou will never weep more!”
Margaret Blennerhassett Finally Returns Home
In 1825, Margaret Blennerhassett and her children moved to the Island of Guernsey to be with Harman. Faithful and loving to the end, Margaret held him with his head pillowed on her breast as he died on February 2, 1831.
For the next thirteen years, Margaret Blennerhassett struggled to keep herself and her children in modest circumstances, and in 1842 she and her son Harman Jr. crossed the Atlantic again for New York City. Margaret had decided to petition Congress for restitution for the ruin of her Blennerhassett Island property by the Virginia Militia. Robert Emmett, the son of the noted Irish patriot, an old friend of the family, and Henry Clay, the same person who had helped Harman also presented her petition in Congress.
Other prominent gentlemen supported Margaret Blennerhassett’s claim and a committee of the Senate voted to allow it, easing some of her financial trouble. She didn’t live to savor her victory over years of hardship. She died in June 1842, in a New York City tenement and was buried in New York by the Sisters of Charity. Another source says that she was buried in the Emmet family vault. Whichever her burial site, she was buried thousands of miles away from the resting place of Harman Blennerhassett, the man she had loved so faithfully and well.
The mansion on Blennerhassett Island lay in ruins until the 1970s, when archaeologists uncovered it and reconstructed it as Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park near Parkersburg, West Virginia. In late 1990, Margaret Blennerhassett and her son Harman Jr. were moved back to Blennerhassett Island where they now rest next to the restored mansion that Margaret loved so well.
Links for more Information about the Blennerhassett Story
Blennerhassett, Harman, and Fitch, Raymond E. (contributor). Breaking with Burr; Harman Blennerhassett’s Journal, 1807. Ohio University Press, 1988.
Isenberg, Nancy. Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr. Penguin, 2008.
Lowther, Minnie. Blennerhassett Island in Romance and Tragedy. Mcclain Printing Company, 1974.
Safford, William H. The Blennerhassett Papers: Embodying the Private Journal of Harman Blennerhassett, and the Hitherto Unpublished Correspondence of Burr, Alston, … and Others .Cornell University Library, 2009.
Schneider, Norris Franz. Blennerhassett Island and the Burr Conspiracy. Ohio Historical Society, 1966.
Swick, Ray. An Island Called Eden: An Historical Sketch of Blennerhassett Island near Parkersburg, West Virginia, 1798-1807. Parkersburg Printing, 1996.