This weekend marks the anniversary of the 1806 launch of Aaron Burr’s ill-fated Western expedition. The former vice president had arranged for the construction of riverboats that could carry 1500 men down to New Orleans, Florida, Mexico, and beyond. The recruits mustered at Blennerhassett Island, on the Ohio River beyond Marietta, Ohio (across from the current Parkersburg, WV). So much went wrong.
- Hundreds of recruits stayed away, scared off by a criminal prosecution of Burr in Kentucky (which failed), by a lurid statement by William Eaton that attributed frankly treasonous intentions to Burr, and by a proclamation by President Thomas Jefferson that good Americans would avoid those dangerous men who were up to no good out West.
- Burr wasn’t even on the island, having hustled down to Nashville to try to reassure Tennessee Militia General Andrew Jackson and keep him involved in the expedition. Burr failed. Spooked by the public accusations against Burr, Jackson pulled out.
- The Ohio militia seized a dozen boats constructed for Burr in Marietta boatyards, while vigilantes in Wood County, Virginia, assembled on the riverbank to storm the bucolic island owned by Harman Blennerhassett.
- Some thirty-five men had arrived from Western New York and Pennsylvania, but Blennerhassett was able to produce no volunteers from the Marietta area.
- About ten boats and all the men slipped into the river in the middle of a cold, cold night, evading both the Ohio militia and the Wood County vigilantes (who showed up the next morning and spent most of the day in Blennerhassett’s wine cellar).
It was no way to start an expedition!