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|In 1811 duel in Concordia, Poindexter shoots, kills Hunt: Was it a fair fight?|
(Third in a series)
When Dr. J.F. Carmichael, a surgeon in the army, first arrived at Fort Adams in October 1798, two things made an impression upon him. He said a man well known in Natchez country -- Daniel Clark -- rode up on a horse which was adorned with a beautiful Spanish bridle, "the first I had ever seen."
Several of the soldiers at the fort, then under construction, were impressed by the leather work, too. The doctor also took notice of the "manner in which he (Clark) departed, which was in full gallop, after the custom of the country."
Men in Natchez were in a hurry and they liked their horses fast. Tempers could rise much faster than a horse could reach a gallop and politics was often the subject which caused verbal confrontations that sometimes became deadly. Often times, these conflicts were settled with pistols -- not in a gunfight but in a controlled contest where men at the signal raised their guns and fired at one another with only a few feet separating the two.
In 1811, the two men who fought a duel were among the most prominent in the Mississippi Territory -- George Poindexter, age 32, a lawyer and politician, and Abijah Hunt, age 58, possibly the richest man in the region.
Hunt first came to Natchez around 1800 and received the first government contract to deliver mail between Nashville and Natchez. A native of New Jersey, he had a head for business and a knack for making good investments. He had made a bundle as a sutler to the Army in Cincinnati and came to Natchez flush with cash.
He brought property -- lots of it -- built and operated cotton gins just as cotton was beginning to dominant the economy. He also operated general stores -- which were the Walmart's of the day -- with establishments in Natchez, Washington, the old town of Greenville in Jefferson County, Port Gibson and along the Big Black. He also was a cotton planter and owned plantations in Adams (3,645 acres), Jefferson and Claiborne counties and Concordia and Tensas parishes. He grew cotton, ginned cotton and brokered cotton, making money every step of the way, and was one of the founding investors in the Bank of Mississippi in 1809.
Hunt, like the first governor of the Mississippi Territory, Winthrop Sargent, was a member of the Federalist Party, which landed him squarely on the opposite side of George Poindexter, a Congressman and the former Attorney General. Hunt and Poindexter got into a political squabble and the two wound up on the dueling grounds of Concordia on the plantation known as Palo Alto, located about a mile north of the Post of Concord (Vidalia) and owned by Stephen Minor of Natchez.
The 1826 "Sandbar Duel" involving Jim Bowie at Vidalia is by far the most famous duel of them all. But this fight -- two killed, two wounded -- was more of a brawl than a duel, but made Bowie and his knife famous worldwide.
POLITICS FUELED THIS DEADLY DUEL
But back in the 19th Century, the Poindexter-Hunt duel was the most significant of the many duels fought, primarily because of the prominence of the two men involved in this fight.
Today, the idea of a duel seems absolutely ridiculous. Why would two grown men, particularly men of means, want to risk their lives and the possibility of having blood on their hands over some disagreement -- petty or large?
But for some reason difficult to understand, dueling became a respectable way to settle a score even though the results, in addition to wounded or dead men, could be two widows and a house full of fatherless children. It was, said Concordia historian Robert Dabney Calhoun, "simply the attitude of mind of the time that one's personal honor could be vindicated and maintained only in that way; and men in the highest walks of social life fought duels. Refusal to accept a challenge subjected the recipient to the humiliation of being publicly 'posted' as a coward."
The reason Natchez squabbles were settled on the grounds of Concordia was simple. In the early 1800s a bill passed the Mississippi Legislature that banned dueling. The law carried a $1,000 fine and a one-year prison sentence if no one was hurt. If someone died, murders charges were applicable.
In duels, the two principles had backups -- called "seconds" -- who in some instances could fire their own guns, depending on the rules of the contest. The seconds in this affair were -- Captain William C. Mead for Poindexter and Captain Ebenezer Bradish for Hunt.
According to historian John F.H. Claiborne, who wrote in the 1880s a book on the early history of Mississippi, Bradish, a New Yorker, "was a high-strung Federalist," of the party of President John Adams who appointed Mississippi Territory's first governor -- Winthrop Sargent. Also on Hunt's side was Judge Elijah Smith, who Claiborne called "a highly respectable citizen."
Poindexter's second was Mead, a Georgian, who, like Poindexter, was a President Thomas Jefferson man. Also taking part on behalf of Mead was Joseph R. Peyton of Virginia, then a lieutenant in the army. These men were Republicans.
Both Mead and Bradish, the seconds, were "fire-eaters," said Claiborne.
THE CHALLENGE AND THE RULES
Once the challenge of the duel was made and accepted, word got out. Because this was against the law in the Mississippi Territory, Hunt was arrested and Poindexter pursued. Poindexter's man, Mead, sent a note to Bradish, Hunt's man, with a proposal. Note how polite this note was -- written at 11 p.m. Thursday, June 6, 1811:
"Having evaded the constables by whom we have been harassed, and understanding your friend has escaped, we have reason to hope there will be no farther difficulty, and that you and your friend will meet us on the opposite side of the river by 4 p. m. tomorrow, if agreeable to your friend, or at as early an hour as possible. My friend, his surgeon and myself cross over immediately under cover of night, and we shall anxiously await the arrival of your party. Our friend Lieutenant Peyton will deliver you this note and will then rejoin us. He will inform you precisely where we are to be found."
The next day, the two parties met on the Concordia shore and agreed upon the rules of the affair. The importance of the "seconds" in these matters is evident in the rules to which both parties agreed, especially rules 5 and 6:
"1. The ground shall be measured in presence of the seconds, and their principals shall then be placed at ten paces apart facing each other.
"2. The seconds in presence of each other shall charge two pistols with powder and one ball each.
"3. These pistols shall be placed in the hands of the principals at their posts by their respective seconds, and shall be held with the muzzle down.
"4. The giving of the word shall then be decided by lot. The second who wins the privilege, shall then say, slowly and distinctly Ś 'Gentlemen, are you ready?' If both principals answer 'We are,' he shall then proceed thus: 'OneŚ twoŚ threeŚ fire!'
"5. After the word 'one' has been pronounced the principals may elevate their pistols, but if either shall raise it from its perpendicular position before the word "one" the second of the opposite party shall shoot him.
"6. If either of the principals shall discharge his pistol before the word 'fire,' or shall withhold his shot after the word 'fire,' and then attempt to 'fire' at his adversary, the second of the latter shall shoot him down.
"7. The parties shall remain on the field until the challenging party shall declare himself satisfied, or until one of the parties shall be too much disabled to continue the fight.
"8. A snap or a flash of the pistol shall be considered a fire."
DID POINDEXTER FIRE BEFORE WORD?
Duncan McMillin lived near the Post of Concord and in a deposition given on Dec. 30, 1815, recalled the day of the duel. He said Poindexter, Mead and Peyton came to his house and told him that a duel with pistols would soon be fought between Poindexter and Hunt due to "a personal conflict." But before the duel, Concordia Sheriff James Dunlap met the two parties "about three hundred yards below" McMillin's house.
Concordia historian Calhoun found in the early 1900s "in the files of the (Concordia) Clerk's office a yellowed and faded warrant, directing the arrest of Poindexter and Hunt and their seconds" -- William Mead and Ebenezer Bradish -- "in order to prevent this duel."
Issued on June 7, 1811, the day of the duel, Sheriff Dunlap of Concordia was ordered to bring the four men before Judge David Lattimore. What Dunlap told the parties before the fight isn't known, but he walked away after reportedly warning all to take their fight back across the river. But the fact that he walked away doesn't mean he thought the parties would follow his directive. Apparently none were worried about trouble with the law in Concordia.
McMillin said he wanted to see the fight and stood "ten paces of the spot where it took place." He recalled that the two duelists "were placed opposite each other, at the usual distance of ten steps; the pistols were then loaded by two gentlemen...after being loaded and cocked, were put into the hands of the parties by the gentlemen who had charged them."
Bradish, Mead's man, won the right to call the count, or as it was known in those days -- "give the word." Once done, two gunshots rang out. Hunt grabbed his gut and fell. In the days to follow, some claimed that Poindexter fired early. It was never proven, but the accusation -- that he fired "before the word" -- stayed on his back for the rest of his life.
WAS IT A FAIR FIGHT?
In 1814, three years after the duel, depositions were being taken as Poindexter attempted to clear his name. Judge Elijah Smith, one of Hunt's friends, recalled: "That the 'fire' did take place before the word 'fire,' (which I understood to be the signal,) I do most unequivocally declare to be the fact, and that it commenced with Mr. Poindexter, I cannot doubt."
Smith said Dr. Duncan, Hunt's "attending surgeon," and Bradish, Hunt's second, agreed that Poindexter fired early. The judge added that Hunt "on his dying bed" declared "Mr. Poindexter 'did' fire before the word, and thereby drew his fire before he was ready."
The dying declaration wasn't communicated at that time, said Dr. Duncan, because of Hunt's fear that Bradish would be embarrassed and possibly ridiculed. As Hunt's second, Bradish had the right by rule to shoot Poindexter if he thought Poindexter fired early. Because Bradish didn't fire at Poindexter, Dr. Duncan said Hunt felt it was "too late to remedy the evil."
But Hunt was a good shot, said the judge, and wouldn't have missed, adding: "The parties stood with their pistols hanging by their sides, and were to raised at the words 'one' - 'two' - 'three' - and fire at the word 'fire.' The ball of Mr. Hunt stuck a log some little distance behind Mr. Poindexter, not higher than his knees, Mr. Hunt being only in the act of raising his pistol when he received the ball of his antagonist."
To this statement, Poindexter pointed to rule six of the dueling agreement which gave Bradish the right, as the second for Mr. Hunt, to shoot Poindexter if he had broken a rule. Another witness -- Col. William Ward of Kentucky, brother-in-law to the vice-president of the United States (Richard M. Johnson) -- swore that as Hunt was carried from the landing that Hunt's second and friends said it was a fair fight.
McMillin, the Concordia man who also witnessed the duel, had a similar take on what happened: "Mr. Bradish gave the word. The fire took place so nearly together, that I could not distinguish which pistol went off first. On discovering that Mr. Hunt had received a wound, I went up to Mr. Poindexter, who continued in the same spot and the same position from which he had fired, until he had (proper) leave to quit the ground."
McMillin then "went to the place where Mr. Hunt had been taken, and looked at his situation. He was very soon removed across the river to Natchez. During the whole time of my being present, I heard not a word from any person of anything unfair in the firing. The affair seemed to me to be conducted with great solemnity and fairness."
After everyone left the dueling grounds, McMillin and another man returned. They found the "log in which the ball from Mr. Hunt's pistol had lodged. We cut it out, and measured the probable distance which it must have passed from Mr. Poindexter's body, by one of us taking the position which he occupied, and then drawing a line, by which we discovered that it passed very near to him, little above the hip, so that if it had struck it would have passed through the abdomen..."
THE AFTERMATH OF THIS AFFAIR
Hunt, a bachelor, left his estate to his nephew, David, who also had a knack for making money. Years after the duel, David Hunt was said to be worth $2 million. Hunt was also a smart and a well-read man. He had 200 books in his personal library, valued at $658.
As for Poindexter, the duel with Hunt caused him much harm. It seems somewhat likely that since no quarrel occurred at the dueling grounds after shots were fired that Poindexter committed no foul. His confrontational personality likely added to the accusations against him concerning this affair. He had many enemies and they fought him as hard as he fought them. Politics could be a dangerous game back then.
But, said the historian Claiborne, the duel with Hunt was one of the most unhappy events of his life..." Poindexter's world at this time "was a perpetual embroilment." He even came close to calling Stephen Minor to the dueling grounds on the property owned by Minor.
Minor, who lived in the old Spanish mansion Concord, was so well respected that few could believe Poindexter's sanity when suggesting that Minor had somehow slandered Poindexter. One friend told him that whatever Minor said would be taken as the gospel.
The friend advised Poindexter to back off, noting, "You must look to him (Minor). Whatever Major Minor states, upon his honor, you, and every other gentleman, are bound to accept."
Poindexter moved on, but turmoil continued to govern his life as he raced ahead at full gallop.
|Frank Morris Murder Series|