In early American history, a duel…then called an Affair of Honor were a legal way to settle disputes between parties. Most of these duels were settled amicably before the duel ever too place, still, some went the way of the full-blown duel. I can understand why the parties would try to work it out amicably, because you really never knew who was going to win in a duel, and you had to decide if this dispute was worth your life.
One of the most famous duels in American history, was between Vice President Aaron Burr and his long-time political antagonist, Alexander Hamilton, who was born on the Caribbean island of Nevis in either 1755 or 1757 (the exact date is under dispute). Hamilton was a poor immigrant, while Burr was born into a wealthy New Jersey family in 1756. Both were highly intelligent and became capable politicians…but had opposing views and were part of different political parties. Hamilton thought Burr was a politically dangerous man, and was quick to point out his views on the matter.
As you can imagine, Hamilton’s statements against Burr did not create a friendship between the two. Burr became vice-president to Thomas Jefferson in 1800, but his political views quickly caused the two men to grow apart politically. Jefferson did not support Burr’s re-nomination to a second term, in 1804. In the campaign, Burr’s character was savagely attacked by Hamilton and others, and after the election Burr vowed to restore his reputation by challenging Hamilton to a duel…an “affair of honor.”
As “affairs of honor” go, most were solved without gunfire, in fact, the outspoken Hamilton had been involved in several affairs of honor in his life, and he had resolved most of them peaceably. That was not to be the case here. The hatred between the two men went too deep, and there was no such willingness to resolve the matter easily. So, on July 11, 1804, the enemies met at 7am at the dueling grounds near Weehawken, New Jersey. Ironically, it was the same spot where Hamilton’s son had died defending his father’s honor in 1801. As these matters go, the events that followed were told in conflicting accounts. According to Hamilton’s “second,” (his assistant and witness in the duel), Hamilton decided the duel was morally wrong and fired into the air. Burr’s “second” claimed that Hamilton fired at Burr and missed. The seconds agreed on the next events. Burr shot Hamilton in the stomach. The bullet lodged next to his spine. He was taken back to New York. He died the next day.
The nation was outraged by the killing of a man as respected as Alexander Hamilton. Burr, who was still vice president at the time, was charged with murder. Nevertheless, he returned to Washington DC, where he finished his term immune from prosecution. In 1805, Burr, thoroughly discredited, concocted a plot with James Wilkinson, commander of the US Army, to seize the Louisiana Territory and establish an independent empire, which Burr would lead. He contacted the British government and unsuccessfully pleaded for assistance in the scheme. Later, when border trouble with Spanish Mexico heated up, Burr and Wilkinson conspired to seize territory in Spanish America for the same purpose.
In the fall of 1806, Burr led a group of well-armed colonists toward New Orleans, prompting an immediate US investigation. General Wilkinson, in an effort to save himself, turned against Burr and sent dispatches to Washington accusing Burr of treason, or maybe insanity. In February 1807, Burr was arrested in Louisiana for treason and sent to Virginia to be tried in a US court. He was acquitted on a technicality in September. Still, public opinion called him as a traitor, and he fled to Europe. He later returned to private life in New York, the murder charges against him somehow forgotten. He died in 1836.
Duels weren’t always fought with guns, in fact most fights in the Old West weren’t really fought by duel or shootout. Most were actually drunken brawls that ended in a gunfire, but some fights, duels or brawls were fought with knives, and among the most famous knife fighters was a man named Jim Bowie. Many people think that he invented the Bowie knife, but in reality, the Bowie knife was invented by Jim’s equally belligerent brother Rezin Bowie. Resin came up with the design after nearly being killed in a vicious knife fight. Nevertheless, on September 19, 1827, it was Jim Bowie who made the knife famous when he killed a banker in Alexandria, Louisiana, using an early version of the Bowie knife. The Bowie brothers engaged in more fights than the typical frontiersman of the day, but such violent duels were not uncommon events on the untamed margins of American civilization. I guess some people just liked the bloody challenge more than other people. Personally, I don’t think that I would have the stomach for taking a life in such a manner, but then most of us really don’t want to kill someone at all. The Bowie brothers seemed to thrive on killing and fighting.
As time went on, most frontiersmen preferred knives to guns for fighting. I suppose they decided that they had a better chance against a knife than a gun. The Bowie knife quickly became one of the favorites, probably because it was scary all by itself. Often, when the Bowie knife was pulled out, the opponent had to quickly consider whether or not the fight was really worth the risk. The Bowie knife often discouraged many a would-be robber or attacker. The designs varied somewhat, but the typical Bowie knife sported a 9 to 15 inch blade sharpened only on one side for much of its length, though the curved tip was sharpened to a point on both sides. The double-edged tip made the knife an effective stabbing weapon, while the dull-edge combined with a brass hand guard allowed the user to slide a hand down over the blade as needed. It was the perfect knife for close-quarter fighting, and quickly became the weapon of choice for many westerners before the reliable rapid-fire revolver took its place in the post-Civil War era.
One would think that the Bowie brothers were outlaws, but in reality, they weren’t. They were landowners, and like many people in the Old West, sometimes they had to defend themselves. I suppose that as their fame grew, the need to defend themselves became a more common occurrence. While Rezin Bowie invented the Bowie knife, it was Jim Bowie who ultimately brought the knife its fame. After his first fight, men started going to a blacksmith to ask them to make a knife like Jim Bowie’s knife.
When we think of the Old West, cowboys, Indians, and outlaws come to mind…not to mention showdowns, or what might have been known as a duel, in years gone by. In reality, showdowns were not all that common…no matter what Hollywood tries to tell you. The men and women who went west were a tough bunch. In the beginning, it was mostly men who went west, and since there was no law in the West, altercations were bound to happen. Still, altercations that led to a showdown were not all that common. Rather than coolly confronting each other on a dusty street in a deadly game of quick draw, most men began shooting at each other in drunken brawls or spontaneous arguments. Ambushes and cowardly attacks were far more common than noble showdowns, but those who took the noble approach were far more respected.
Southern emigrants brought to the West a crude form of the “code duello,” a highly formalized means of solving disputes between gentlemen with swords or guns that had its origins in European chivalry. Similar to the duels of times past, they thought it would bring some form of civility to the West. The duel influenced the informal western code of what constituted a legitimate and legal gun battle. Duels were not used to for very long. In fact, by the second half of the 19th century, few Americans still fought duels to solve their problems. The western code required that a man resort to his six-gun only in defense of his honor or life, and only if his opponent was also armed. Also, a western jury was unlikely to convict a man in a shooting provided witnesses testified that his opponent had been the aggressor.
In what is thought to be the first western duel, Wild Bill Hickok, killed Davis Tutt on July 21, 1865. Hickok was a skilled gunman with a formidable reputation, who was eking out a living as a professional gambler in Springfield, Missouri. He quarreled with Tutt, a former Union soldier, but it is unclear what caused the dispute. Some people say it was over a card game while others say they fought over a woman. Whatever the cause, the two men agreed to a duel. The showdown took place the following day with crowd of onlookers watching as Hickok and Tutt confronted each other from opposite sides of the town square. When Tutt was about 75 yards away, Hickok shouted, “Don’t come any closer, Dave.” Tutt nervously drew his revolver and fired a shot that went wild. Hickok, by contrast, remained cool. He steadied his own revolver in his left hand and shot Tutt dead with a bullet through the chest. Hickok immediately turn and threatened Tutt’s friends…should they try to avenge his death.
Having adhered to the code of the West, Hickok was acquitted of manslaughter charges. Nevertheless, those were rough times, and just eleven years later, Hickok died in a fashion far more typical of the violence of the day. A young gunslinger shot him in the back of the head while he played cards. Legend says that the hand Hickok was holding at the time of his death was two pair…black aces and black eights. The hand would forever be known as the “dead man’s hand.” Jack McCall shot Hickok from behind as he played poker at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory on August 2, 1876. In one shooting is honor, and in another is a dishonor. McCall was executed for the murder on March 1, 1877.