American history’s connection with Calcutta, albeit tenuous, came to light recently following research on the ancestral history of the descendants of Vice President Aaron Burr, one of the founding fathers of the American Republic, who served during President Thomas Jefferson's first term.
Almost 200 years after his death in 1836, new research indicates that Burr fathered two children – John Pierre and a girl, Louisa Charlotte – with a woman of color named Mary Emmons who hailed from Calcutta and worked as a servant in the Burrs’ home for several years.
The revelation came to light last year thanks to Sherri Burr, a law professor at the University of New Mexico who spent years delving into her forefather’s parentage. Sherri Burr is descended from John Pierre Burr, who is almost certainly Aaron Burr’s son, according to a report in the Washington Post.
The August 24 report in Post said Mary Emmons, sold into slavery at age eight, originally came to the United States from British India to work as a servant in the household of British officer Jacques Marcus Prevost and Theodosia Bartow Prevost, who — after a secret affair and Jacques Prevost’s death — became the wife of Aaron Burr.
When Theodosia married Burr and moved to a new home in New York in the early 1780s, Emmons followed her. “That’s likely where she got to know Aaron Burr, a known ladies’ man with a voracious sexual appetite.”
The Post quoted Annette Gordon-Reed, a Harvard professor whose Pulitzer Prize-winning scholarship led to widespread acceptance of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with the enslaved Sally Hemings as saying that she had heard rumors that Aaron Burr had a son of color, but this “is not something that is generally known.”
Burr’s first child with Theodosia was born in 1783 and his first child with Emmons, Louisa Charlotte, was born about five years after that. John Pierre was born in circa 1792.
Last September, Sherry Burr presented her findings to the Aaron Burr Association, a group that includes fellow Burr descendants and history lovers and it unanimously recognized John Pierre and his sister Louisa Charlotte as the children of Aaron Burr and Mary Eugenie Emmons.
Speaking with NPR’s Michael Martin, Sherri said, according to the Smithsonian Magazine, she discovered the ancestral connection while working on a book titled Complicated Lives: Free Blacks in Virginia, 1619-1865.
“After I finished researching my father's maternal line, I decided to look at my family's paternal name, which had always been a secret from my brother and me,” Shery was quoted as saying in the Smithsonian Magazine. “We were told that there was something special about our family name, but we were never told what it was.”
The Smithsonian report said family records and DNA testing revealed Sherri’s English and East Indian roots—an unknown background that pushed her to take a closer look at Aaron’s relationship with Emmons.
Sherri Burr said it is not clear whether Theodosia, who died in 1794, knew about her husband’s relationship and children with Emmons, the Post said. It seems certain that Louisa Charlotte and her brother knew about their half siblings, though.
The Washington Post report said around the time of Louisa Charlotte and John Pierre’s births, Emmons was living in Philadelphia at the place Aaron Burr stayed while doing work in the U.S. Senate (which met at the time in Philadelphia’s Congress Hall). Burr served as a senator from New York between 1791 and 1797.
In her book The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr published by Kensington, best-selling author Susan Holloway Scott weaves together carefully researched fact and fiction to tell the story of Mary Emmons, and the place she held in the life—and the heart—of the “notorious Aaron Burr.”
The book in its overview says that today Aaron Burr is remembered more for the fatal duel that killed rival Alexander Hamilton, but long before that single shot destroyed Burr’s political career, there were other dark whispers about him: that he was untrustworthy, a libertine, a man unafraid of claiming whatever he believed should be his.
“Sold into slavery as a child in India, Mary Emmons was brought to an America torn by war. Toughened by the experiences of her young life, Mary is intelligent, resourceful, and strong. She quickly gains the trust of her new mistress, Theodosia Prevost, and becomes indispensable in a complicated household filled with intrigue—especially when the now-widowed Theodosia marries Colonel Aaron Burr.
“As Theodosia sickens with the fatal disease that will finally kill her, Mary and Burr are drawn together into a private world of power and passion, and a secret, tangled union that would have shocked the nation . . .”
The Washington Post quoted Gordon-Reed as saying that though Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway play portrayed Burr as an unprincipled foil to Alexander Hamilton, the academic “jury is still out” on whether the third vice president was truly wicked.
Either way, Gordon-Reed noted that Burr shaped the fate of the country by delivering votes to Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election and was a “pivotal figure” in New York history and at one point almost became president himself.”
“But for over 200 years, Burr has been best known for murdering his rival in a duel.
The revelation of John Pierre’s parentage could alter the way people write about Aaron Burr going forward. There are a lot of stories that we don’t know about members of the founding generation,” she said.