In 1805, Aaron Burr’s life took an abrupt change that would change the course of the nation. He had seemed on a path toward greatness since his youth, yet fate always seemed to pull back the hand it offered. Burr was born as a grandson of the famed preacher Jonathan Edwards, orphaned at age two, and entered the College of New Jersey at 13. He abandoned his study of theology at 19 in 1775, deciding to turn to law as the American uproar grew toward revolution. At news of the first shots fired at Lexington and Concord, Burr enlisted, serving in the campaign in Quebec where he was promoted to captain. Washington invited Burr onto his personal staff, but Burr was determined to stay on the battlefield. Despite his heroism and national fame, he never received a commendation.
By 1800, Burr was savvier. He returned to local politics in the New York Assembly, where the deep rift between himself and Federalist campaigner Alexander Hamilton drove deeper still over water company rights and banking. Despite vicious campaigns on both sides, Burr was able to stir support from groups such as the Tammany Hall social club and won the 1800 election for Jefferson with himself as vice-president. Yet again Jefferson proved to be a short-lived ally, and it was clear that Burr would not be invited onto the 1804 ticket.
Instead, Burr stepped away from Washington politics and ran for governor of New York. The campaign was filled with brutal smears, both from rivals in his own party as well as Hamilton and his Federalists, who called Burr “dangerous… one who ought not be trusted with the reins of government.” After Burr’s bitter defeat, he demanded that Hamilton apologize for years of remarks. When Hamilton refused, Burr challenged him to a duel at the Weehawken Heights overlooking the Hudson River.
Hamilton wrote the night before that he intended to miss. After Burr shot Hamilton in the torso, he remarked that he would have hit Hamilton in the heart if not for blurry morning mist. Hamilton died of his wounds, prompting Burr to a hurried visit to his daughter in South Carolina. Ultimately there would be no penalty as Burr shot Hamilton in New Jersey, where dueling was not illegal, and Hamilton had died in New York, where the fatal shot could not be called murder. Burr ventured as far north as Washington to complete his vice-presidency, although his political ambitions died along with Hamilton.
Like many other Americans seeking a new life, Burr turned west. The Louisiana Purchase had been completed in 1803, and there seemed ample opportunity for anyone willing to take a chance. Burr leased a tract of 40,000 acres from Baron de Bastrop, a Dutchman some considered a con artist. Regardless, Burr began his colony with some eighty farmers, planting wheat since the lease stated that he could not start a plantation for cash crops like cotton.
Immediately, rumors began spreading about Burr. Some in the South feared that his strong abolition sentiments would create a haven for escaped slaves. Others throughout the nation felt that Burr had gathered a militia and sought to spark a war with Spain in which he could seize huge swaths of land in Florida or Texas as bounty. Allegedly even young Colonel Andrew Jackson was waiting to hear a declaration of war and charge into Spanish territory alongside him. With the latter suspicions of treason, Jefferson dispatched a warrant for Burr’s arrest.
Upon the news, Burr turned east. There is a difference of opinion about whether Burr was fleeing to Spanish Florida where he could make an escape into the Caribbean. In either case, he was quickly spotted and placed under arrest. Jefferson granted US Attorney George Hay carte blanche with pardons for anyone who would testify against the conspiracy. Hay intended to bring Burr to trial in the circuit court in Virginia, but initial arraignments before a grand jury could find no evidence. With the move clearly political, Burr managed to stir Congress into an impeachment hearing through his lawyer, Kentucky Representative Henry Clay. Burr himself had presided over the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase as vice-president and knew what damage could be done. Even though Jefferson escaped impeachment, the Jeffersonian wing of the Democratic-Republican Party broke up. In 1808, Burr’s old mentor George Clinton was elected president.
Burr, meanwhile, settled back to Bastrop. He ultimately purchased the land and resold it, building capital along with investments from old friends in New York. With Francophile Jeffersonians out of office, Burr established strong relations with London, importing a great deal of Newton’s Catalyst as he expanded his holdings to found Lake Providence as an industrial center on the west banks of the Mississippi.
Burr continually frustrated his Southern neighbors. As Burr’s influence in the area grew, he campaigned to wrest land north of the Red River away from Orleans, creating the territory of Gloriana, which would later become the twenty-third state after years of its admission being blocked in Congress. Southern leaders were fearful the free territory would become a free state, which it of course it did. Burr’s legitimized son John Pierre Burr, himself mixed-race, was an active proponent of the Underground Railroad and is said to have escorted many slaves across the Mississippi to freedom.
With the borders of Gloriana set running from the Mississippi to the Red River and up into the Ozarks, Burr turned to modernizing his territory. He was an avid supporter of steamboat captain and inventor Henry Miller Shreve, who cleared the Great Raft blocking the Red River and opened the west for navigation. As railroads were introduced, Burr drove lines out across the Texas Trail and up through the Ozarks into Indian Territory.
Burr served as governor until 1836, handing over the reins just a few months before passing away. The railroad bridge built across Stack Island, connecting the Lake Providence railhead with Jackson, MS, was named in his honor. It was the first to cross the Mississippi River, a fitting tribute to a man who brought East and West so close together.
In reality, Burr faced his trial in Virginia. Despite being found not guilty, his reputation was destroyed. He fled to England, and the colony at Bastrop dispersed.
This alternate timeline serves as the setting for Hellfire released June 6, 2016, from Tirgearr Publishing.
Special thanks to Robbie Taylor for the use of “Gloriana!”