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Robinson Library >> American
History >> United States:
General History and Description
to the Civil War, 1775/1783-1861
Period, 1789-1809 >> Thomas Jefferson's
supposedly conspired to establish an independent nation in the Southwest
Harman Blennerhassett was born in the English village of Hambledon, on October 8, 1764, the son of a wealthy Irish land owner -- his parents were in England at the time of his birth due to raids on prominent Irisih landlords by a group of peasant outlaws. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and in 1790 was admitted to the Irish bar. His future seemed bright after he inherited his father's estate at the age of 27, but Blennerhassett managed to squander a vast portion of his wealth in a short span of time. In 1796 he married his niece, Margaret Agnew, and was immediately ostracized by his family and neighbors. To make matters worse, he also publicly aligned himself with people who were less-than-satisfied with the British government. Soon after his marriage to Margaret, Harman sold his estate and used the proceeds to immigrate to the United States, residing in New York and Pittsburgh before purchasing an island in the Ohio River just down river from present-day Parkersburg, West Virginia, in 1798.
Using what remained of the money he had earned from the sale of his estate, Blennerhassett built one of the most extravagant mansions of his time and hosted lavish parties that attracted guests thousands at a time. However, Blennerhassett had no income aside from the interest earned on his rapidly-dwindling bank account, and soon found himself on the brink of financial ruin.
Although it is unclear how, Aaron Burr became aware of the supposed wealth of Blennerhassett and paid a visit to his island in 1805. According to rumor and gossip, it was Burr's hope that Blennerhassett would help finance a scheme to seize territories in the Southwest and Mexico and to establish an independent nation. Ever the revolutionary, Blennerhassett took to the scheme and, according to rumors and accusations, agreed to put whatever money he had left into the plan. The two men met often at Blennerhassett's mansion, and Burr's frequent presence there stirred the suspicions of people in the area (as Burr had already earned a less-than-savory reputation for himself by this time). Word of what Burr and Blennerhassett were planning eventually made it back to Washington, and on November 27, 1806, President Thomas Jefferson issued a proclamation calling for the arrest of Burr and his co-conspirators. Blennerhassett managed to escape the militia only hours before it laid siege to his island, but he was subsequently arrested in Kentucky, along with Burr and several associates. Although Blennerhassett was never tried for his role in the alleged plot, he had permanently damaged his reputation and had lost most of what was left of his inheritance, including his island estate.
Blennerhassett tried to regain his fortune by purchasing a small cotton plantation in Mississippi Territory, but declining cotton prices and crop failures doomed that enterprise. In 1819 he moved his family to Montreal, Canada, where he practiced law. By 1822, however, the family (which by now consisted of Harman, Margaret, and five children) was virtually bankrupt and was forced to return to Ireland and live off the grace and pity of one of Harman's older sisters. Harman Blennerhassett died on February 2, 1831, after a series of strokes, and Margaret Blennerhassett died in 1842.
Ironically, the mansion which helped drive the Blennerhassett family into poverty has been restored and is today a profitable tourist attraction, quite probably earning more money in daily admission fees than Harman Blennerhassett made in a year while living there.
The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Revolution to the Civil War, 1775/1783-1861 >> Constitutional Period, 1789-1809 >> Thomas Jefferson's Administration, 1801-1809
This page was last updated on January 18, 2017.