Revolutionary Bliss


Photo credit: Kristina M. Bragg

The Blennerhasset mansion in Wood County.

Noelle Bragg, Writer

“From the moment you step on the island from the steamboat ferry; you instantly feel as if you just stepped back in time. Each step, each tour guide with their appropriate era costumes and impromptu acting, along with the houses filled with actual items that belonged to the family, and the covered wagon ride, made the experience that much more. If you stopped long enough you could almost hear the whispers of those from long ago that were present for the love story and scandals of Blennerhassett Island,” says Kristina Bragg, as she describes her latest wild W.Va. time travel adventure. Two miles down the Ohio River from Parkersburg, in Wood County,

Horses trot back in time on Blennerhassett. (Photo credit: Kristina M. Bragg)
Graves of the Blennerhassets who were embroiled in controversy and accusations of treason in their lifetimes. (Photo credit Kristina M. Bragg)

W.Va., is an hourglass-shaped island called Blennerhassett. A strange name, but not as strange as the story behind it.

The 500-acre island was once home to prehistoric tribes and later the site of a Shawnee village. It is now under long-term lease to the state of West Virginia, which has transformed into a park dedicated to keeping alive the Blennerhassett story. The park’s centerpiece: an authentic reconstruction of the impressive mansion where the Blennerhassett drama unfolds.

In 1789, the island was settled by Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett, wealthy Irish aristocrats fleeing political persecution and personal scandal. Harman was a member of a distinguished family that was traced back to England’s King John. He might have spent his life as a prosperous country squire playing cards, riding with the hounds and managing the family’s 5,000-acre estate in Ireland’s County Kerry. But Harman committed treason by joining the Society of United Irishmen, a secret organization dedicated to freeing Ireland from English rule, and in 1794 he scandalized his family and friends by marrying his beautiful young niece, Margaret. Determined to put their political and personal problems behind them, the Blennerhassetts fled Ireland and, accompanied by an escort of servants, sailed for America. 

And so, in 1798, they landed on a nameless patch of land in Ohio. The couple immediately fell in love with the island and purchased 169 acres on upstream. Over the years, the couple’s mansion gained a reputation for being the West’s most beautiful home. Then, in 1805, they allowed their estate to become headquarters for Aaron Burr’s military expedition to the Southwest. The Burr conspiracy was suspected to have involved a treasonous plot to create a new country independent of the United States. The Blennerhassetts once again fled when Burr’s scheme collapsed, but the mansion and history remains. 

Though the Blennerhassetts never returned to their home, the original home was destroyed by a fire in 1811 and restored to its glory in the early 1920s. The body of Margaret Blennerhassett was exhumed in 1996 and returned to her home along with her son, Harmon Jr. Harmon Sr.’s body lies in an unknown, unmarked grave on the isle of Guernsey on the English Channel. Their scandalous story of forbidden love and treachery lives on in the history that even today, nearly 200 years later, lures 40,000 curious visitors to the island each year.