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Exploring History: The last duel in Pennsylvania

| Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, 5:11 p.m.

Although nearly two years had elapsed, in January 1806, many Pittsburgh residents were continuing to discuss the ominous course of the former vice-president, Aaron Burr.

He recently had passed through heading westward down the Ohio River toward the Louisiana Territory. There were rumors circulating that he was organizing a private military expedition against Spanish America, notably Mexico.

Not surprisingly, many western Pennsylvanians had shunned Burr because of his controversial past.

On July 11, 1804, he had fatally shot Alexander Hamilton, his longtime political enemy, during a duel at Weehaucken, New Jersey. Their deadly “interview” at dawn had caused a widespread outcry against dueling.

That episode also effectively had destroyed Burr's national political career. Nevertheless, various political insiders were aware that another duel was pending between two local men, Tarleton Bates and Thomas Stewart.

By all accounts, Tarleton Bates was a rising figure within Thomas Jefferson's Republican Party in western Pennsylvania. In fact, President Jefferson was an old friend of Bates's parents back in Virginia.

He had been born, on May 23, 1775, upon the family plantation of Belmont in Goochland County, Virginia. Initially, he had come to Pittsburgh as the Deputy Quarter Master at Fort Fayette, a Federal military post along the Allegheny River, commanded by Major Issac Craig.

Upon concluding his army service, he became associated with Henry Baldwin, a rising Pittsburgh attorney. Both men were strong Republican partisans and the prime financial backers of the Tree of Liberty, edited by Walter Forward, Baldwin's law student.

This newspaper was considered the official party organ beyond the Allegheny Mountains. Most observers considered Bates to be the prime determiner of the paper's editorial policy.

Futhermore, Bates was known to be courting Emily Morgan Neville, the daughter of Baldwin's law partner, Colonel Presley Neville. While the young couple apparently had reached a marital “understanding,” reports were spreading that Bates would be relocating to Natchez, Mississippi Territory within a few months. Meanwhile, Bates had become embroiled in an ugly political quarrel that was turning personal.

In 1805, Gov. Thomas McKean of Pennsylvania was running for reelection. While President Jefferson had endorsed him, a vocal anti-McKean faction was backing the candidacy of William Duane.

Because the Tree of Liberty was supporting the governor, these dissidents in Pittsburgh had created a rival newspaper, The Commonwealth. The editor of this paper was a Pittsburgh newcomer, Ephraim Pentland.

To the delight of local Federalist Party supporters these two Republican journals exchanged scathing commentaries for many months. Despite McKean's decisive victory that autumn, however, Pentland and his associates remained bitter about the electoral results.

On Dec. 24, Pentland ran a blistering editorial which called Bates and Baldwin “two of the most abundant political miscreants that ever graced a state.” Bates retaliated by threatening publicly to file a libel lawsuit against Pentland.

Unfortunately, on Jan. 2, the two men had a chance encounter upon Market Street in downtown Pittsburgh. After exchanging insults, Bates began to beat Pentland with his walking stick. And a crowd of onlookers yelled derisively as Pentland sought safety within a nearby building.

During the next several days the victim demanded that Bates apologize for the beating. When no such statement was forthcoming, on Jan. 5, Pentland decided to issue a duel challenge.

Accordingly, he dispatched an emissary, Thomas Stewart, with a note demanding satisfaction. Several years earlier, Stewart, an Irish immigrant, had established a mercantile business in town.

But the aristocratic Bates refused to honor the demand because Pentland, a perceived social inferior, was “unworthy of such notice.”

Apparently, during their conversation Bates and Stewart had made some choice remarks about each other. Futhermore, Bates published an open letter in the Tree of Liberty, denouncing Pentland, as well as Stewart.

By Jan. 7, therefore, the Irishman issued his own demand for satisfaction. Bates evidently considered him a more worthy opponent because this challenge was accepted.

Consequently, that evening Bates dictated his final legal will to Walter Forward. For the record, duels had been illegal in Pennsylvania since 1794. Nevertheless, the dueling “code of honor” remained widely acceptable throughout the Monongahela Valley, especially with Virginia expatriates.

At dawn, on Jan. 8, four men on horseback headed south along the Monongahela to a locale three miles from town.

Their “interview” was to occur at a riverside clearing adjoining the mouth of Three Mile Creek. Later in the century, the Jones & Laughlin Steel Company erected a mill at that spot. In 1806, it was a secluded, bucolic place where a private duel could take place without outside interference.

Along with the combatants were their two seconds. Morgan Neville was Bates's second, whereas, his opponent was assisted by William Wilkins.

The previous day the pair had agreed to settle their feud with pistols. They evidently made no effort to achieve a reconciliation. Exhibiting a grim determination the two principals exchanged no remarks. They stood by silently as their seconds loaded the guns. Neville and Wilkins would be the only witnesses to the duel.

Upon pacing off 10 steps, the two men were expected to turn and fire. Although neither man flinched while firing, their shots did not hit the mark.

Unsatisfied with this result, therefore, they agreed to a second exchange. Accordingly, during this round Bates collapsed with a bullet in his upper left chest. The mortally wounded man died within the hour.

Despite his written request, Bates's remains were not returned to Virginia for burial. A suggestion to cremate the body was rejected as well.

Instead, on Jan. 12, he was accorded a large funeral at Trinity Episcopal Church on Sixth Street in Pittsburgh. Subsequently, he was interred in the adjoining Trinity Churchyard.

For several decades his grave was a “hallowed spot” for many city residents. And the grave site was pointed out to various visiting dignitaries, including the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825.

By the 20th Century, however, Bates's resting place locally was forgotten. Moreover, his tombstone Trinity Churchyard was no longer extant.

Fearing arrest for the shooting, Thomas Stewart had promptly fled to Baltimore, Maryland. Upon settling in Philadelphia he established a successful business career.

Although Stewart lived another 40 years, he never returned to Pittsburgh. Bates's original antagonist, Ephraim Pentland, eventually became a civic leader in Allegheny City (now Pittsburgh's Northside).

Meanwhile, Henry Baldwin had a long career in law, as well as politics. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson appointed Baldwin to be an associate justice on the Federal Supreme Court. He served upon that tribunal for 17 years.

The news of Tarleton Bates's demise did not reach his relatives in Virginia for two weeks. Although grief-sticken the Bates family also “rejoiced that the tradition (familial) of honor had not been violated .....” The practice of dueling remained legal in most southern states until after the Civil War.

But Bates's violent death caused a considerable public revulsion against the practice among Pennsylvanians. Consequently, the Bates-Stewart “interview” was the last formal duel to occur in the “Keystone State.”

A century later the historian, Charles D. Dahlinger, remarked: “Had it not been for his untimely death, the name of Tarleton Bates might have become one of the great names in Pennsylvania history, if not in the United States.”

Interestingly, two of his brothers later moved westward to seek betterment. One of them became Gov. Frederick Bates of Missouri. The other sibling, Edward Bates of St. Louis, also enjoyed a lengthy, successful stint within Missouri politics. Futhermore, he climaxed this career by serving in President Abraham Lincoln's cabinet as attorney general amid the Civil War.

Given their later success out west, Tarleton Bates should have followed through on his initial resolve to make a fresh start in Natchez, Mississippi in 1805.

Exploring History appears in The Independent-Observer periodically. The author holds a doctorate in history from the University of South Carolina.