Jacataqua, the story goes, fell in love with Aaron Burr when she first laid eyes on him in 1775. She was the young Franco-American sachem of a small Abenaki tribe on Swan Island in the Kennebec River. Not only was she beautiful, but she possessed unusual intelligence, self-reliance and winsomeness.
Aaron Burr, 19, had volunteered for duty during Benedict Arnold’s disastrous march through the Maine wilderness and failed capture of Quebec. As Arnold’s forces made their way up the Kennebec River, they halted at Fort Western, where most of the citizens sided with the patriots. They held a lively feast, and Burr met, and fell, for Jacataqua. Or at least he got her pregnant, and she followed Arnold’s men to Quebec.
To what extent the story of Jacataqua is true and to what extent is myth will probably never be known.
A feast did take place at Fort Western during Arnold’s expedition to Quebec. And Aaron Burr, described as one of history’s ‘great wench lovers,’ sired several illegitimate children he never acknowledged.
So falling in love with an Indian sachem wouldn’t be out of character for the man who served as Thomas Jefferson’s vice president, killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel and then raised an army of mercenaries to conquer Mexico.
Before everything went terribly wrong on the expedition, Arnold’s expedition held an al fresco banquet at Fort Western. The revelers enjoyed barbecued bear, green corn and rum. According to one version of the Jacataqua story, a young Continental Army officer had captured her at Swan Island. Burr then paid her captor for her release.
According to another version of the story, Burr and Jacataqua shot the bears for the barbecue and brought a cub back to the fort on a leash.
A third version has Burr and his party stopping by a Kennebec Indian party. Burr’s men carried plenty of rum, and they partied with the Indians. There, Jacataqua was instantly attracted to young Burr.
However they met, the stories agree that Burr got Jacataqua pregnant. They also agree she followed Burr to Quebec, where her knowledge of the woods and hunting skill endeared her to the soldiers. When the soldiers no longer had food, they began to shoot their dogs. But Burr’s regiment liked Jacataqua so much they spared her pooch.
Before the Americans began their ill-fated siege on Quebec, the story goes, Burr roamed the woods near camp. He saw a brook and realized he was thirsty, so he kneeled down and started to drink water from a brook. Coincidentally, across the brook stood an enemy British officer. The two men saluted each other and the British officer loaned Burr his cup.
Burr and the officer met up a few times before the Siege of Quebec, and the British officer pledged to take care of Jacataqua and her child if the Americans lost at Quebec.
The British easily defeated the Americans, and the British officer placed Jacataqua in a convent to have her child.
One version of the story has Jacataqua giving birth to a baby girl named Chestnutiana. Her name came from Jacataqua’s toast to Burr at the Fort Western feast: “A Burr full of chestnuts.”
The soldier took the baby with him to Scotland, adopted her and gave her a good education. She married a well-to-do man named Webb, who squandered his fortune.
Burr took Jacataqua back to New York, where she lived in a cabin on Long Island for several years. He married Theodosia Bartow Prevost, a widow with five children. After she died he married Eliza Jumel, a rich widow who divorced him.
The story of Jacataqua picks up again at the close of Aaron Burr’s life. He suffered a stroke, which left him paralyzed, and lived out his days in a Staten Island boardinghouse. Chestnutiana Webb, who had emigrated to New York, appeared and took care of him until he died.
Jacataqua inspired a character in Kenneth Roberts’ novel Arundel, and the essay Jacataqua by William Carlos Williams.
This story was updated in 2022.