In late December 1806, Aaron Burr was desperately trying breathe life into the Western expedition he had spent the previous twenty months organizing. For several weeks, everything had been turning sour.
In October, the U.S. Attorney in Kentucky tried to prosecute him for organizing an illegal private invasion of Mexico. A grand jury in Frankfort refused to indict the former vice president, but the episode snarled Burr’s planning and discouraged many of his recruits — who fully expected to invade Mexico behind Burr’s sword, or even to begin the secession of America’s Western territories.
Then William Eaton issued a deposition claiming that Burr had proposed to take over Washington, D.C. and fling President Thomas Jefferson and Congress out of office. And Jefferson himself, after more than a year of ignoring warnings that Burr was organizing treason or secession or something equally evil, issued a proclamation that matters were afoot in the West that were threatening to the Union and good Americans should abhor them.
The backlash against Burr, who had ordered the construction of boats to accommodate 1500 stout-hearted adventurers, began to unravel his expedition. He hurried off to Nashville to try to persuade Andrew Jackson, then a Tennessee militia general, to continue with their expedition, but to no avail. Jackson, troubled by the reports of Burr’s nefarious purposes, withdrew his prior pledges to support the expedition and join it. Burr hired a couple of boatmen to steer him and a few livestock down the Cumberland River.
Burr’s captains from Western New York descended the Ohio River with but forty men, fleeing Blennerhassett Island (opposition the current Parkersburg, WV) on the night of December 11, one step ahead of the Ohio militia and a posse of Virginia vigilantes.
It was near Christmas when Burr finally joined his expedition, which had swelled to about 100 worthies. The rendezvous happened below where the Cumberland River flowed into the Ohio, in what is now Illinois. And there, on the banks of the Ohio, sleeping outdoors and patching up their boats, Burr and his men spent Christmas 1806.
Here’s hoping your holiday is merrier than theirs was!