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Sam Houston's Duel

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Something 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.

Fine 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.

Erwin had his political plum but now he wanted “satisfaction” in an “affair of honor,” a violent Southern custom better known as a duel.

The 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.)

Houston 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.

Smith 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.]

At 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.

“Gen. 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 letter.

Hearing that, Houston said: “If you, sir, have any grievance, I will give you any satisfaction you may demand.”

“I have nothing to do with your difficulty, but I presume to know what is due from one gentleman to another,” White answered.

The next 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 readily accepted.

Even 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.”

At 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 did not.

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.

© Mike Cox - February 19, 2012 column
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