This month, I was planning to write about the amazing exhibit “Riffs and Relations” currently on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington. Sadly, with the rapid spread of coronavirus, the museum is closed and I was only able to make one visit. I hope to be able to introduce this wonderful show in a future column. In the meantime, I ask your indulgence as I relate the tale of an illustrious ancestor.
I don’t know if you have an ancestor who was killed in a duel. I certainly never suspected that I had, until a chance discovery in some old family papers led to my learning about John Daly Burk.
I had been revisiting my “ancestry box” that contains a number of materials given to me by my mother, including an ancient family bible, photographs, letters, et al. Among them I found the typescript of a short memoir by my great-great grandmother Junia Burk, typed up and introduced by my maternal grandfather’s sister. A whole world suddenly opened up to me: The story of my maternal grandfather’s family, spanning American history from the post-Revolution days through the Civil War and Reconstruction to the late 20th Century became
vivid and real.
In this memoir I learned of Junia’s grandfather, John Daly Burk, a young Irish immigrant forced to flee from Ireland because of his passionate Irish nationalism. Apparently born into a Protestant family (possibly from Cork—nothing is known about his family nor even his exact year of birth), he attended Trinity College but “[w]hen he attacked the church and the government in the Dublin Evening Post, he was expelled from Trinity for ‘deism and republicanism.’" (1)
Attracted by the promise of liberty in the newly formed United States, he arrived in Boston in 1796, where he wrote plays and published “virulently anti-British newspapers, ‘The Polar Star’ and ‘Boston Daily Advertiser,’ in which he celebrated America's victory over its former oppressors.” (2) His play Bunker-Hill or, The Death of General Warren, drew the wrath of President John Adams, who didn’t like the way his friend General Warren was portrayed. “In fact, the Irishman had been agitating against Adams and Adams's Federalist policies since he arrived in the country.” (3)
Fleeing Boston to avoid being prosecuted under the Alien and Sedition Acts, which might have led to his imprisonment or deportation, Burk relocated to Virginia due to his admiration for Thomas Jefferson. He settled in Petersburg, married a local young widow, and fathered a son, John Junius Burk. John Junius became a lawyer and moved to Louisiana as a young man, founding the line that resulted in my grandfather, Ted Denham, being born in Bogalusa in 1908 (by an odd coincidence 100 years after Burk’s death).
He continued to write prolifically while residing in Petersburg: “Encouraged by Thomas Jefferson and others, Burk wrote a history of Virginia that still is consulted.” (4) (My grandfather had a very old copy of this book that he showed me when I was a boy.) It is fascinating to me that he came to reside in Virginia just as I did, though for very different reasons.
Sadly, Burk’s life was cut short by his already notorious outspokenness. In a tavern he was overheard characterizing the French as a “pack of rascals.”
A young Frenchman named Felix Coquebert took offense and challenged Burk to a duel.
(5) They met on Fleet’s Hill outside Petersburg on April 12, 1808, and Burk was shot dead. He was buried on a friend’s estate and a memorial marker was placed in Petersburg’s Blanchard Cemetery.
My partner and I made the trek to Petersburg just after Christmas 2019 and located the memorial. I must confess I was very moved by this remembrance of an ancestor I hardly knew existed until recently. It has also given me great pride to discover an Irish strain in what I previously believed was essentially an all-English heritage.
So in that spirit, and since I am writing this on St. Patrick’s Day 2020, allow me to wish my readers L谩 Fh茅ile Padraig!
(5) Op. cit http://virginiahistoryseries.org/vhs2_web_site_06272013_290.htm