Like mournful echo from the silent tomb
That pines away upon the midnight air,
Whilst the pale moon breaks out with fitful gloom,
Fond memory turns, with sad but welcome care
To scenes of desolation and despair,
Once bright with all that beauty could bestow,
That peace could shed, or youthful fancy know
– Excerpt from “The Desert Isle”, by Margaret Blennerhassett
When Margaret Blennerhassett penned the words of the titular poem from her 1822 collection, The Desert Isle, she unleashed the mourning cry of a family scorned, her words forlorn and and smoldering like the ashes of her family’s Palladian mansion built upon a sprawling island in the middle of the Ohio River Valley, abandoned in 1806 and burned to its foundation only a few years later. Her poem, sixteen stanzas in length, haunts its pages with desolate imagery and provides a first-hand chronicle of a period of American history rife with conspiracy and sedition. The history of the Blennerhassett family is Shakespearean in its details, an appalachian Macbeth whose players included some of America’s founding fathers.
Margaret settled the area that would later become the Blennerhassett Island State Historical Park with her husband and uncle, Harman Blennerhassett, in 1798 after emigrating Ireland to escape political and personal upheaval. They completed the island’s landmark mansion in 1800. In 1805, they hosted Vice-President Aaron Burr (famous for, among other things, dueling Alexander Hamilton to the death in 1804) who, after unsuccessfully petitioning the British for guns and money for what he claimed was an expedition into Spanish-controlled America to settle land leased to him by Spain in the Texas Territory, appealed to the Blennerhassett family for support. Harman Blennerhassett cooperated, offering financial support to Burr along with the use of the island. In 1806 the United States Government, suspicious of Burr’s intentions, dispatched local militia to seize the island. Margaret, Harman, and their children were forced to flee. Burr was captured and charged with treason after word reached President Thomas Jefferson that Burr had conspired to form a separatist government in Spanish territory. Harman initially fled authorities, but was later arrested and imprisoned on charges of conspiracy.
Following one of the most controversial trials in American history, Burr and his alleged cabal were acquitted from charges as prosecution could not produce enough evidence find to Burr culpable. The Blennerhassett family was financially devastated. After a failed venture owning a cotton plantation in Mississippi, the family moved to Montreal and later back to Europe where Harman Blennerhassett died in 1831. In 1842, an elderly Margaret Blennerhassett returned to America where she petitioned Congress for restitution following the destruction of her family’s mansion thirty years prior. Congress approved her appeal later that year, but Margaret died in New York before restitution could be paid. On the 16th day of June in 1842, Margaret Blennerhassett, matriarch of one of the most notorious aristocratic families of the 19th century and one of West Virginia’s first recognized poets, passed from this world penniless, destined to reside in the footnotes of American History textbooks.
The tale of the Blennerhassett family, were we to leave it where it stands, rivals even the most cathartic of Grecian tragedies. The island itself, however, has met with a happier fate. Prolific writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman have written about the island. In 1972, the island made it onto the National Register of Historic Places. In the 1980s, historians and architects resurrected the mansion, building an exact replica of the Blennerhassett’s original home. Since then, The Blennerhassett Island Historical Park has welcomed droves of visitors to its inviting shore where tourists can journey two centuries into the past, enjoying strolls upon the mansion’s grounds beneath the canopy of black walnut trees, guided tours of the grounds via horse-drawn wagon, or hikes along nature trails that vein across the island where visitors have spied deer, raccoon, coyote, and various species of waterfowl along with a multitude of local flora. If nature and history aren’t your thing (and if they’re not, then I doubt you’ve made it this far through the article anyway), the Blennerhassett Island Historical Park hosts a plethora of events and activities perfect for explorers of all ages throughout its May-October season. Trust me when I say that the island is worth the $10 ferry ride.
If you’re already planning a trip to the island, I suggest arriving early and touring the Blennerhassett Museum located on Second and Juliana Streets in Parkersburg, West Virginia (you can purchase tickets for the ferry ride at the museum without touring it, but I highly recommend taking the time to look through the exhibits). Here you will find relics from the area’s rich history including recovered portraits, artwork, firearms dating back to the 19th century along with flint arrowheads and artifacts from indigenous tribes that settled the island long before Europeans were aware the new world existed. After returning to the mainland, consider stopping by Point Park Marketplace, a collection of local vendors walking distance from both the museum and the ferry drop-off.
It is impossible to fit all the intricacies and necessary detail regarding the history of the Blennerhassetts into a thousand word web article. There is enough important history tied into both the family and the island to fill a doctoral thesis. But if you have a free Saturday and are looking for a one-of-a-kind day trip for the family, then skip the zoo or the mall and spend a day exploring our local past.
I think you’ll enjoy it.