About 1980, my interest in genealogy piqued. Likewise, my husband Bob’s (Robert Joseph Dickinson) interest in his family roots also was stirred. Bob knew little about his Dickinson family. So we went to his dad, Robert Ditzler Dickinson for more information. Bob Sr. had talked little about his family and seemed not to keep in touch with his siblings. So when his son asked him about the family beginnings he said that he really didn’t know that much. We pushed him to tell us as much as he knew anyway. He replied; “You probably shouldn’t go snooping around because you might find a horse thief or the likes somewhere along the line down in Kentucky.” And that’s all he ever said about that.
And, in the 1980’s it wasn’t easy to do genealogical research because everything was done manually, not much was machinized. To do any research we had to travel to the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, and learn about their soundex system and how to wind through the voluminous reels of microfiche using microfiche readers. In 1980, the earliest and most information available was from the earlier Decennial Censuses records. The latest census data available was the 1900 census films (due to the confidentiality law that protects the data collected for 72 years). The 1890 censuses were lost in a fire, so this meant we needed to know something more about the family from 1880 or earlier to go any further.
With the advent of computers, the information age explosion of digitized data, and most everything being made available on the web, research can be done light years faster than 30+ years earlier. So since retiring, I have been back at it. Naturally, the research and family trees have exploded with new family members and information about their lives; thus, the birth of these blogs to inform and share interesting family history and stories with our younger generations. Which brings me to the topic of today’s blog, but before we go any further, I should let you know that the recent research into Charles Dickinson’s roots and descendants is not quite finished. It seems that I discovered about 150 more people dating back to the 1500’s and England and Wales. This new research spans into the late 1800’s, and our existing research is getting closer to revealing how the families migrated from England and Wales, the Atlantic coast of America and down into the southern and gulf states——a story for yet another time. So let’s look back about 10 generations to see how American culture was doing when Charles Dickinson and Andrew Jackson were alive.
Charles Henry Dickinson, II (1780 – May 30, 1806), American attorney, expert marksman, and famous duelist “Dead Shot” Dickinson
On May 30, 1806, future President Andrew Jackson killed Charles Dickinson in a duel because he accused him of cheating on a horse race bet and then insulted his wife, Rachel.
Charles Dickinson was born at Wiltshire Manor in Caroline County, Maryland, the son of Elizabeth Walker and Henry Dickinson, the grandson of Sophia Richardson and Charles Dickinson (1695–1795), and the great-grandson of Rebecca Wynne (daughter of Dr. Thomas Wynne) and John Dickinson. He studied law under U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall, who wrote formal letters of introduction and recommendation for his student. Dickinson owned a house in Maryland for 3 years before moving to Tennessee, where he became a successful horse breeder and plantation owner. Within two years of his arrival in Tennessee, he courted and married Jane Erwin, the daughter of Captain Joseph Erwin.
Unfortunately for Dickinson, he ran afoul of fellow plantation owner and horse breeder, Andrew Jackson. An argument over a horse race scheduled between Jackson’s horse Truxton and a horse owned by Captain Joseph Erwin named Ploughboy. When Ploughboy was not able to run in the race, Erwin was supposed to pay Jackson a forfeit. There apparently was a disagreement between Jackson and Erwin over the amount of the forfeit. In 1805 a friend of Jackson’s deprecated the manner in which Captain Joseph Erwin had handled the bet. Erwin’s son-in-law, Charles Dickinson, became enraged and started quarreling with Jackson’s friend which lead to Jackson becoming involved. Dickinson wrote to Jackson calling him a ‘coward and an equivocator.’ The affair continued, with more insults and misunderstandings, until Dickinson published a statement in the Nashville Review in May 1806, calling Jackson a ‘worthless scoundrel, … a poltroon and a coward.'”
To add further context, the political atmosphere in Nashville was heated by ambition. Many American men in the early 1800s, particularly in the South, viewed dueling as a time-honored tradition. In 1804, Thomas Jefferson’s vice president Aaron Burr had avoided murder charges after killing former Treasury secretary and founding father Alexander Hamilton in a duel. John Coffee, a friend of Jackson’s, had fought a duel earlier in the year with one of Dickinson’s associates, and there were larger political and sporting interests involved. The Jackson-Dickinson duel, like that between Aaron Burr – another friend of Jackson’s – and Alexander Hamilton, had been developing over some time. Jackson and Erwin had scheduled their horse race in 1805. The stakes specified a winning pot of $2,000 paid by the loser, with an $800 forfeit if a horse was unable to run. Erwin’s horse went lame, and after a minor disagreement about the forfeit payment, Erwin paid.:136–137 Although the forfeiture terms were disputed and settled, Jackson also confronted Dickinson over a report that Dickinson had insulted Rachel, his wife. Dickinson said if he had, he was drunk at the time and apologized. Jackson accepted his apology, but there were probably still hard feelings between the two.
Meanwhile, one of Jackson’s friends, while sitting in a Nashville store, shared what was probably a more lurid story about Erwin’s disputed payment to him. When Dickinson heard the story, he sent a friend, Thomas Swann, to act as a go-between to inquire about what Jackson said about his father-in-law. Whether the friend misinterpreted or even misrepresented what was said by the two men, this minor misunderstanding flamed into full controversy.
In a confrontation at Winn’s Tavern, Jackson struck Swann with his cane and called him a stupid meddler. Dickinson sent Jackson a letter calling him a coward about the same time that Swann wrote a column in a local newspaper calling Jackson a coward. Jackson responded in the same newspaper saying Swann was a “lying valet for a worthless, drunken, blackguard” meaning Dickinson.:138–139
That did it for Dickinson who in May 1806 published an attack on Jackson in the local newspaper calling Jackson “a poltroon and a coward.” After reading the article, Jackson sent Dickinson a letter requesting “satisfaction due me for the insults offered.”
Contemporaries described Jackson, who had already served in Tennessee’s Senate and was practicing law at the time of the duel, as argumentative, physically violent and fond of dueling to solve conflicts. (Estimates of the number of duels in which Jackson participated ranged from five to 100.)
On May 30, 1806, Jackson and Dickinson met at Harrison’s Mills on the Red River in Logan, Kentucky for the duel (dueling was outlawed in Tennessee) At the first signal from their seconds, Dickinson shot hitting Jackson in the chest next to his heart. Jackson put his hand over the wound to slow the flow of blood and stayed standing long enough to fire his gun. Dickinson’s seconds claimed Jackson’s first shot misfired, which would have meant the duel was over but, in a breach of etiquette, Jackson re-cocked the gun and shot again, this time killing his opponent. Jackson aimed and shot Dickinson in the chest. Dickinson died from blood loss. The doctors decided it would be too dangerous to remove the bullet from Jackson’s chest so they left it there. Although he recovered, Jackson suffered chronic pain from the wound for the remainder of his life.
Jackson was not prosecuted for murder, and the duel had very little effect on his successful campaign for the presidency in 1829. In fact, Rachel’s divorce and “bigamist” controversy raised more of a scandal in the press and in parlors than the killing of Charles Dickinson.
1Morris, Hal (November 11, 2005). “Andrew Jackson’s Duel with Charles Dickinson”. University of Groningen, Humanities Computing. Retrieved 19 November 2009.
2Remini, Robert V., Andrew Jackson, Volume One: The Course of American Empire, 1767-1821. (Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1977,1998) ISBN 978-0-8018-5911-3
4The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/17/us/17grave.html.