that started in Tennessee and spilled over into Simpsom County, KY on Sept. 23,
1826 could have changed the history of Texas.
At the time, Sam
Houston had just begun his second Congressional term. The 24-year-old Virginian-cum-Tennessean
had proven himself an adroit politician, albeit one who preferred telling it as
he saw it rather than speaking out of both sides of his mouth. In an era when
saying what you thought could get you challenged to a duel, candor amounted to
a risky trait.
When Nashville’s postmaster resigned, some 650 Tennesseans
endorsed his number-two man as his successor. The younger man had been assistant
postmaster for a number of years and stood fully qualified to take over the job.
Houston and all but one member
of the state’s Congressional delegation supported the man’s appointment.
and good, but the John Adams administration instead appointed newspaper editor
John P. Erwin to the post. Though far less qualified than the assistant postmaster,
Erwin had something else going for him: His brother had married Secretary of State
Henry Clay’s daughter.
In a letter to the president, Houston
strongly protested the flagrant nepotism, pointing out that Erwin lacked “fair
and upright moral character.” And on the floor of the House, the young congressman
assailed Erwin’s “want of integrity.” But cronyism trumped qualification.
had his political plum but now he wanted “satisfaction” in an “affair of honor,”
a violent Southern custom better known as a duel.
new postmaster and his friends shopped around for a second to deliver Houston
the necessary written challenge, but the congressman enjoyed considerable popularity
around Nashville and no one could be found to take on the job. Lacking someone
local, Erwin’s friends found a professional duelist from Missouri, one John T.
Smith. (That’s believed to have been an assumed name for obvious reasons.)
had been in Washington while all this was going on. When word reached town that
the congressman was on his way to his district, on the day he was expected to
arrive by stagecoach his friends and supporters of the postmaster gathered at
the Nashville Inn to await his arrival.
One of Houston’s
friends was a Col. McGregor, who would cheerfully stand as his second. Soon after
Houston hit town, Smith approached
McGregor in front of the inn.
Willoughby Williams, one of Houston’s many
Nashville friends, told the story of what happened next in a letter he wrote on
April 1, 1878 – more than a half-century later.
“I have a communication
from Col. Irwin to Gen. Houston, which I now hand to you, sir,” Smith said.
then attempted to give the note to McGregor.
“I can receive no communication
through your hands from Col. Irwin,” McGregor said. [Another version has him adding
“because you are not a citizen of this state,” which is probably accurate.]
that point, Smith dropped the note on the ground in front of Houston’s
friend and walked off.
“The crowd rushed into the hall of the inn, where
Gen. Houston was standing, greatly relieved that there was no fight between McGregor
and Smith,” Williams wrote.
But the matter hadn’t ended.
William White, a brave and chivalric gentleman, remarked that he did not ‘think
the proper courtesy had been extended to Col. Smith,” Williams continued in his
Hearing that, Houston
said: “If you, sir, have any grievance, I will give you any satisfaction you may
“I have nothing to do with your difficulty, but I presume to
know what is due from one gentleman to another,” White answered.
day, word had it that Houston
had “backed down” White, a lawyer who had fought in the Battle of New Orleans.
Hearing that, White sent Houston
a formal challenge to a duel and Houston
though common, dueling was not legal. Accordingly, warrants were sworn out for
the arrest of White and Houston
and given to Sheriff Joseph W. Horton to serve.
Whether White got arrested
is unclear, but according to Williams, Houston
heard about the warrant and promptly left town. After stopping for a visit with
Andrew Jackson at the Hermitage, Houston
repaired to a friend’s home in another county.
The next day, he sent a
messenger to Nashville to notify White that he would be happy to meet him in Kentucky
“on a certain day.”
sunrise on Sept. 23 in Simpson County, Houston
and White shook hands, walked off 15 paces and turned to face each other with
flintlock pistols. White missed; Houston
as it turned out, had been practicing at the Hermitage, where his friend and future
U.S. president urged him to bite down on a bullet to improve his aim. Either that
worked or Houston simply proved
a better shot.
Hit in the groin, White lay on the ground expecting to
die. True to the code, the two erstwhile combatants shook hands and White said
he had no hard feelings about being killed by Houston
in a fair fight.
“I am very sorry,” Houston
said, “but you know it was forced upon me.”
Fortunately for White and
to the great relief of Houston,
the wounded man recovered. A grand jury in Kentucky indicted Houston
for assault, but the case never proceeded.
If William White had been any
better a shot, the story of Texas would have played
out a lot differently.
Cox - February
19, 2012 column
| Texas Towns | Columns