Aaron Burr loved women, and according to those who knew him, he also had great respect for them. When he was in Natchez country in 1807, while staying with his friend Benijah Osmun, Burr reportedly had a brief romance with a woman who may have been three decades younger than he.
While waiting for a grand jury to be empaneled in the Mississippi Territory capital of Washington, six miles inland from Natchez, Burr got reacquainted with Osmun, who, like Burr, was a New Jersey native.
Osmun's job in 1790 had brought him south to Natchez 17 years before he was reunited with his old friend Burr. Osmun, a bachelor, and Burr, a widower, were also good friends with Judge Peter Bryan Bruin, who lived upriver from Natchez at Bruinsburg along the Mississippi in Claiborne County. All three men had a strong bond – they had fought under General Richard Montgomery at the Battle of Quebec in 1775 during the American Revolution.
While Burr resided with Osmun after being arrested in Natchez country on suspicions of treason and while awaiting grand jury proceedings, he reportedly fell in love with a woman who lived near Osmun’s home at Windy Hill Manor off Liberty Road.
All of these events occurred during one of the coldest winters in Mississippi history.
OSMUN THE VETERAN
Osmun had served in a New Jersey regiment of the Continental Army. During those days he befriended General David Forman and Aaron Burr, both natives of New Jersey.
Historian Dunbar Rowland (Encyclopedia of Mississippi History) wrote that Osmun “had previously been overseer of the plantation of General Forman in New Jersey.
“In the Revolution, he enlisted as a private, which was his condition when captured at the battle of Long Island. He was again a prisoner of war in 1780, was made a lieutenant in 1781, and retired at the close of the war with the brevet rank of captain.”
Possessing some knowledge of the primitive health care of the day, Osmun knew how to pull teeth and "could bleed," meaning that he knew how to draw blood from a patient. Bleeding was commonly used by doctors during the day and believed effective in curing a host of illnesses.
By the late 1780s Osmun was back in New Jersey and working as plantation overseer for General David Forman in Monmouth County. When the general's brother, Ezekiel Forman, decided to settle in Natchez country, Gen. Forman asked both his son, Samuel Forman, and Osmun to accompany his brother and party of 100, including 60 slaves, on the long overland and river journey.
JOURNEY TO NATCHEZ
Samuel Forman penned the details of the journey in a book (Narrative of a Journey Down the Ohio And Mississippi in 1789-90).
The first stage of the trip was overland from New Jersey to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They traveled by horse and mule teams and because there was constant conflict between whites and Indians over land and territory, there were occasional attacks. At night, the wagons were circled for protection and a big fire built in the center.
In the Allegheny Mountains, the Forman party bought flour, made bread and paid to have a fat steer processed. It took three weeks to get to the Ohio River at Pittsburgh.
There, according to Forman, Osmun traveled on a tobacco boat with the black families. The flotilla was made up of boats that were “flat-bottomed, and boarded over the top, and appeared like floating houses. Uncle’s boat was a seventy feet keel-boat, decked over, with a cabin for lodging purposes, but too low to stand up erect. The beds and bedding lay on the floor ...”
While in Louisville, river travel on the Ohio was halted because of floating blocks of ice.
About a year after arriving in Natchez, Samuel Forman returned to New Jersey. Captain Osmun stayed on to oversee Ezekiel Forman's plantation and eventually branched out on his own after Ezekiel's death in 1795.
With his military background, Osmun was commissioned by Mississippi Territory's first governor, Winthrop Sargent, as lieutenant-colonel of the Adams County militia, a position he held until his resignation in December 1806, just a few days before Burr arrived.
One historian described Osmun a “high-strung federalist,” and a strong supporter of President John Adams, also a federalist (believer in strong national government), and an anti-Jefferson man.
By the 1790s, Osmun was living in a home that later became known as Windy Hill Manor. A simple structure, the home was later greatly enlarged by other owners. At his plantation at the foot of Halfway Hill, Osmun “became wealthy, and there died, a bachelor at a good old age,” according to Forman’s narrative.
For several days in 1807, Osmun hosted Burr, whom the Mississippi Territory militia had recently arrested on orders originating from President Jefferson. Burr was also well known at the time as the victor in a duel with Alexander Hamilton in 1804, a fair fight that cost Hamilton his life but forever vilified Burr.
Arriving in Natchez country with dozens of men in nine boats, Burr first visited Judge Bruin at Bruinsburg near the mouth of Bayou Pierre.
‘HIS WITCHERY DAY AND NIGHT’
While at Windy Hill, Burr began a romance.
John F.H. Claiborne, in his 19th century book on the early history of Mississippi, wrote about the brief love affair between Burr and Madeline Price.
Burr’s visit to Natchez remains shrouded in mystery even until this day. At the time of his visit, some believed Burr was planning a coup or land grab against the Spanish or the American governments in the Southwest. Alarm enveloped the region even before Burr arrived with nine boats and a number of men.
Jefferson, under whom Burr had served as vice-president until 1805, had previously issued a message to Acting Mississippi Territory Gov. Cowles Mead in late December 1806 warning of Burr’s travels. Rumors were circulating and there was genuine concern and fear that armed men with bad intentions were on the way.
Wrote the historian Claiborne in 1880: "At this day, when we know how feeble the force was with which Colonel Burr descended the river, the alarm that pervaded the country seems unaccountable and even ludicrous. But (Natchez) was then a remote settlement, and had been the scene of frequent insurrections and political changes ... and scarcely (had) any communication with other portions of the United States, a thoroughly isolated people, but true to every American instinct and tradition."
Considered an able trial lawyer, Burr was placed under security bond of $10,000 (Osmun stood for half of it) while awaiting legal proceedings. Osmun’s home at Windy Hill Manor was located down a pathway about a mile from Half-Way Hill, a landmark on the Liberty Road. Atop that hill lived the widow Mrs. Price and her beautiful daughter, Madeline. Their home, wrote Claiborne, was a modest "vine-covered cottage," adding that Mr. Price had been murdered while traveling to Natchez from Virginia by the outlaw Joseph Thompson Hare.
During his days in Natchez, according to historian Claiborne, Burr courted Madeline, who "must still be remembered by a few of our older citizens as a miracle of beauty." Burr was 50, and Madeline was quite young although Claiborne does not reveal her age. But he says that for the next few days the two courted and apparently fell in love.
Before Burr secretly left the territory, he apprised Madeline of his plan.
Wrote Claiborne: "At length, after canvassing his situation with Colonel Osmun, and six other confidential friends, Colonel Burr determined to forfeit his bond. One stormy night in February 1807, he set forth mounted on the favorite horse of his host. Urgent as he was the necessity for expedition, Colonel Burr halted till daylight at the widow's cottage, imploring the beautiful Madeline to be the companion of his flight. He promised marriage, fortune, high position, and even hinted at imperial honors ... The maiden gave him her heart; she had listened to his witchery … and loved him with all the fervor of a Southern nature."
But she refused to go with him, deciding that the courtship was too brief, her future with him too uncertain, and the thought of taking flight too risky. She promised him her hand, however, and also promised to await his return. According to Claiborne, she was true to her word -- remaining faithful despite being "wooed by many a lover," including the eligible young men from "the large plantations on Second creek and St. Catherine's."
Months afterward, though exonerated in a Virginia federal court, Burr fell on even harder times and eventually moved to Europe. Claiborne says that from across the ocean Burr "wrote Madeline, and, in a few formal words, released her from her promise." Later, said Claiborne, Madeline traveled to Havana and met a man he identified only as "Mr. K., an English gentleman, the head of the largest commercial house in Havana," who eventually convinced her to marry him. Her mother long dead, Madeline left Natchez with her husband never to return.
The story of the Burr-Madeline romance is contained in a footnote in Claiborne's 1880 book, which includes this passage: "The vine-covered cottage, its trellises and borders, have crumbled into dust. The courtly lover and the innocent maiden are long dead. But the old hill still lifts its aged brow, wrinkled all over with traditions."