In 1811, two prominent Mississippi Territory citizens met on the dueling grounds of Concordia Parish -- George Poindexter, age 32, a lawyer and politician, and Abijah Hunt, age 58, possibly the richest man in the region.
The event would be talked about up and down the Mississippi for years.
Was it a fair fight?
Did Poindexter fire before the “word”?
And what about Hunt’s deathbed declaration?
Abijah Hunt had moved to Natchez in 1800 where he 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 made a lot of money as a sutler to the Army in Cincinnati and came to Natchez with a full purse.
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 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, a supporter of Jefferson and the Republican Party, 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).
‘MIND OF THE TIME’
Poindexter was bi-polar, known for his dark moods. He was also a binge drinker. He had accused his first wife of infidelity, divorced her, and then disowned his son based on the accusation. Albert, the son, never got over the rejection. When he died a young man and a pauper, an old friend of Poindexter's made sure Albert received a proper burial.
The friend wrote Poindexter: "Not withstanding the coldness you exhibited to me ... I cannot permit the son of an old friend to fill a pauper's grave. No matter what your feelings may have been towards the poor boy, or may be towards me, I am simply doing what I would wish done for me, or mine, under similar circumstances."
Yet Poindexter had a fine legal mind, understood how to govern and knew how to serve the public. His personal demons sometimes disappeared long enough to allow him to succeed and achieve, but they always returned and dominated periods of his life.
The Poindexter-Hunt duel was one of the most significant of the many duels fought in this region, primarily because of the prominence of the two men involved. 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?
Yet dueling became a respectable way to settle a score even though the results were horrific -- wounded or dead men, as many as two widows and a house full of fatherless children. It was, wrote 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 in the 1880s published 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.
CHALLENGE & 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. The 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 further 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 — 'Gentlemen, are you ready?' If both principals answer 'We are,' he shall then proceed thus: 'One— two— three— 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."
‘A PERSONAL CONFLICT’
Duncan McMillin lived in Vidalia and in a deposition given on December 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.
HUNT’S DYING DECLARATION
In 1814, three years after the duel, depositions were being taken as Poindexter attempted to clear his name. Judge Elijah Smith, one of Abijah 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."
The judge claimed 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." A dying declaration can be used as evidence in court.
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 Hunt, to shoot Poindexter if he had broken a rule. Another witness -- Col. William Ward of Kentucky, brother-in-law to a future 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."
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. Abijah Hunt had been 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. 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 Poindexter survived, going on to become a judge, Congressman, governor of Mississippi and U.S. Senator.