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High society and treason swirl around Blennerhassett Island’s past

The Ohio River rolls past a green gem, a four-mile-long island downstream of today’s Parkersburg, West Virginia. For more than 200 years, the island has been known by the name of its brief but most famous — and infamous — owners: Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett. 

Harman and Margaret were wealthy aristocrats. He was born in 1765 in England but grew up in County Kerr​y, Ireland. She was born on an English estate near the Scottish border. Margaret’s mother was Harman’s sister. The marriage between uncle and niece created a social scandal, and Harman’s reported political activities advocating Irish independence drew threat of arrest. 

The couple emigrated to America in 1796. They traveled over mountains and rivers to a fort in what is now Marietta, Ohio. They bought one of the larger islands that dotted the river. There, on the edge of the westward wilderness, they built a Palladian mansion. The horseshoe-shaped structure housed the kitchen in the left wing and Harman’s office and laboratory in the right. The center featured 12 rooms for guests and entertaining. The Blennerhassetts filled their home with elegant furniture, alabaster lamps, oriental carpets, art, a library, a wine cellar and other luxuries. Outside the mansion, they surrounded themselves with lavish flower gardens, fruit trees, ornamental shrubs and, behind the house, a practical vegetable patch. For eight idyllic years, the highborn couple’s gracious hospitality, cultured entertainment and intelligent conversation attracted many prominent guests.

One of their most famous visitors proved to be their undoing: Aaron Burr. In a duel on July 11, 1804, Vice President Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton, former first Secretary of the Treasury and Burr’s political rival. Burr had hoped to revive his political fortunes with Hamilton’s death. Instead, he had to flee arrest warrants for murder. 

 Burr turned to a new scheme for power. But for that, he needed men of wealth and influence – men like Harman Blennerhassett. Although the particulars of Burr’s plan remain unclear even today, the general understanding is that Burr proposed to carve out an empire of his own from Mexico, the U.S.’s newly acquired Territory of Louisiana and the country’s Western region. The Blennerhassetts supplied funds and allowed Burr to use their island as his military headquarters.

Soon word of the conspiracy leaked out and charges issued against Burr for treason. Harman Blennerhassett had fled with Burr by the time Ohio militia raided and ransacked the island in December 1806. Eventually both men were arrested. The Supreme Court ruled that Burr’s plot did not meet the strict definition of treason. He was acquitted by the law, but not so by public opinion.

After Burr’s acquittal, Blennerhassett was freed. Neither he nor his wife ever regained their fortunes or their island in the Ohio River. Fire destroyed the mansion in 1811. The family moved to the Island of Guernsey in the English Channel, where Harman died in 1831. His wife continued to struggle financially, dying in a New York tenement in 1842.

Today the legacy of the tragic lovers lives on as West Virginia’s Blennerhassett Historical State Park. The site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. In 1973, the mansion’s foundations were unearthed and the structure rebuilt. A sternwheel riverboat ferries thousands of visitors a year to the island to tour the mansion, enjoy a horse-drawn wagon ride or stroll the lush grounds.

For more information, please visit the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History here​