John Pierre Burr was Aaron Burr's illegitimate son with an Indian maid who he kept secret from his wife. Now, Burr's living descendants are making sure that his hidden life comes to light.
Any good history buff, not to mention anyone familiar with the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, knows Aaron Burr as the man who shot and killed American founding father Alexander Hamilton in an infamous duel in 1804. And now, a new report has added another page to Burr’s complicated legacy.
As The Washington Post reported, one-time Vice President Aaron Burr had a secret family of color that he kept hidden from the public. But now, 183 years after his death, the truth has finally come out.
For years, 59-year-old Sherri Burr, a professor at the University of New Mexico, had been investigating a possible genetic link between herself and the late Burr. Recently, DNA tests showed that both Sherri and her ancestor, John Pierre Burr, are related to Aaron Burr and that John Pierre was in fact Aaron’s secret son.
Sherri initially doubted claims, brought to her attention by fellow Burr descendants, that she was related to the former vice president — largely because she is black. But she’s now traced her roots back to John Pierre and gotten him officially recognized as Aaron’s son, the progeny of his relationship with a maid from India named Mary Emmons.
“Well, for one thing, I think he’s absolutely brilliant, and I am proud of his public service,” Sherri said of Aaron during a recent ceremony organized by the Aaron Burr Association, a Maryland-based non-profit in which descendants and history buffs work to promote Aaron Burr’s legacy. She paused, before continuing, “but, it’s complicated.”
The ceremony saw John Pierre recognized as Aaron’s son and saw his formerly unmarked grave in a cemetery in Philadelphia get a shiny new headstone that reads, “Champion of Justice and Freedom. Conductor on the Underground Railroad. Son of Vice-President Aaron Burr.”
Sherri Burr had spent her whole life not knowing about her heritage until she attended graduate school at Princeton University (which Aaron Burr’s father cofounded). On the day of her arrival, descendants of Aaron Burr at Princeton invited her to attend the Burr family meetings routinely held there.
Not knowing anything about her possible ties to one of early America history’s most prominent political figures and being African-American, Sherri initially thought the invitation was a mix-up.
“I took a look down at my brown skin and thought, ‘Well, that doesn’t apply to me,'” Sherri Burr told the Post. “So I never went.”
But the invitation was enough to pique her interest in learning more about her ancestry which led to years of extensive research. Ultimately, in addition to the genetic testing, the most compelling proof of her ties to Aaron Burr is the plot of land in Warwick, New York that Aaron Burr bought and placed in John Pierre’s name.
According to Sherri’s research, Aaron Burr had secretly fathered two children: John Pierre and a girl, Louisa Charlotte, with a woman of color named Mary Emmons. She was a servant from Kolkata, India, who originally came to the U.S. with British officer Jacques Marcus Prevost and wife Theodosia Bartow Prevost, whom Emmons served at the time.
After Jacques Prevost’s death, Theodosia married Aaron Burr, and Emmons came with her into the Burrs’ household in New York during the early 1780s. In 1783, Aaron Burr’s first child from Theodosia was born; five years later, Emmons gave birth to a baby girl named Louisa Charlotte, who he had fathered also. Another four years after that, Emmons gave birth to John Pierre.
According to the recent research, around the same time that Emmons’ first child with Burr was born, she had already been moved into his other home in Philadelphia where he stayed while in session with the U.S. Senate, which still met in Philadelphia at the time.
Although seemingly out of nowhere, this revelation that Aaron Burr had a secret family of color is certainly not impossible to believe for historians. Aaron Burr was indeed a notorious rake whose appetite for women was no public secret. Rumblings of Burr’s secret family of color spread amongst scholars but the claim had scarcely been seriously investigated until relatively recent.
According to Stuart Fisk Johnson, president of the Aaron Burr Association and one of the 75 members that attended the unveiling of John Pierre Burr’s new tombstone, people left the rumors alone because Burr’s first wife was dying of cancer when John Pierre was born. It’s uncertain whether Theodosia in fact knew about Burr’s other family.
“But the embarrassment is not as important as it is to acknowledge and embrace actual living, robust, accomplished children,” Johnson added.
The acknowledgment of Aaron Burr’s descendants of color is an important reminder of America’s complicated history regarding race and slavery. Furthermore, recognizing Jean Pierre Burr’s ancestry helps draw attention to his own accomplishments as a prominent member of Philadelphia’s elite black society and a leader in the city’s participation in the Underground Railroad. And no matter John Pierre’s heritage, his work certainly deserves the attention it’s finally now getting.