The treasonous secret of this elegant island

Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park is certainly one of West Virginia’s most… interesting stops.

It is a stately island in the Ohio River just outside Parkersburg, with beautifully restored colonial mansions and vast landscaped grounds. It was also the center of a conspiracy to form a new nation in the heart of North America.

It all started in the early days of the American republic, when the area that would become West Virginia was still the frontier.

In the midst of the uncharted wilderness, there was a tiny pinpoint of civilization– the island in the Ohio River, barely 2 miles long. In 1798, a wealthy Irish investor named Harman Blennerhassett bought the eastern end of the island.

He went all out, building a luxury mansion comparable to George Washington’s Mt. Vernon. Oriental carpets, Parisian china, oil paintings, sterling silver door fixtures, a 2-acre flower garden– this elegant mansion was one-of-a-kind, and the only luxury mansion west of the Appalachians.

Blennerhassett and his wife were known far and wide for their indulgent parties. Plenty of high-profile people visited the island.

But in 1805, one of the most infamous figures of the early American republic arrived: Aaron Burr. His political career was already faltering; the previous year he had killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and he was looking to leave the country.

Blennerhassett gave him financial backing, and they started stockpiling supplies and men for some sort of conspiracy to establish their own nation on the frontier, independent from the United States— which had only recently declared its own independence from Britain.

Today, most historians agree that Burr and Blennerhassett were preparing to invade Spanish territory in what is today Texas. That itself was not necessarily illegal, or even looked down upon by many Americans. But, in early 1806, Burr contacted the government of Imperial Spain, laying out plans not just to break off the western part of the United States… but possibly to invade Washington D.C.!

No matter what their plans were, the U.S. government (under President Thomas Jefferson) caught wind of the conspiracy, and issued orders for their arrest.

The men fled from the island in late 1806 with a few boats and 70 men, hoping to sail down the river to New Orleans, but they were arrested.

Burr was eventually acquitted of treason charges, and both men were released, but their lives and finances were ruined. Burr fled to England, and Blennerhassett began a series of failed investments that would take him to Mississippi, Canada and England.

Before the Civil War finalized that individual states had to remain part of the larger nation, ideas of secession and nation building in North America were not necessarily unique. The failed scheme laid out in Blennerhassett mansion was only one of several brief “nations” that came and went within America.

And what of the island mansion in the wilderness? In 1811, it burned to the ground. But in 1973, archaeologists discovered its buried foundations, and after extensive historical and architectural research, the State Park and Blennerhassett historical foundation rebuilt a replica of the mansion, and it’s open to visitors. Also, another mansion, the 1802 Putnam Houser house, has been relocated to the island.

Discover more about the Blennerhassetts’ lavish lifestyle and secrets! Take the ferry to the island to explore.

Discover the island >

This post was last updated on December 14, 2020