The Broderick-Terry Duel

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

Stockton, California is an agricultural town located in the middle of California's great fertile Central Valley at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. Today it is an important shipping port for California's abundant crops, but in the 1850s it was the location of David Smith Terry's farm.

David Smith Terry was Chief Justice David Terry of the California State Supreme Court and on a mid-September day in 1859, he was in a hurry to get there from San Francisco. His political and legal careers were over and he was not welcome in the "city by the bay."

Terry was typical of the politicians and other government leaders of the new state's first decade: rough, opinionated, hot-tempered, corrupt to the core, armed with pistol and bowie knife and ready to use either at the drop of a hat. He had once thrust his bowie knife into the neck of the leader of a group from the San Francisco Vigilance Committee and was only exonerated after the man survived. Now he had pushed his aggressive tendencies a bit too far. Stockton had suddenly become a far safer place than San Francisco.

California in the late 1850s was charged – as was the rest of the country – with the troubling issue of slavery. Passions ran high on both sides of the drive to have California declare for one side or the other; each coveting the immense riches of California's gold and the wealth created by her ports and natural resources. California would have inestimable influence on the future of the nation, regardless of which side she took, even from her remote location.

There were two political parties of note in California: Republican and Democrat. The Democrats far outnumbered the Republicans who were in support of Lincoln's nomination and election. The Democrats, however, were seriously divided internally over the slavery issue. Judge Terry was a passionate supporter of the pro-slavery faction of the party.

Opposing him was United States Senator David Broderick, likewise a Democrat, but an ardent abolitionist. Like Terry, he was a hot-tempered and violent man not above the urge to pummel any whom he felt had wronged him – or disagreed with him.

Though the two men had once been friends and colleagues, the issues separating them began to grow, neither man being loathe to expressing his opinions. And it began to get dangerously personal. Backers of both men began to use them, urging them on as respected spokesmen of each side. Eventually, it boiled over – with tragic consequences.

William Gwinn, California's other U. S. Senator, was a Southerner and a devout pro-slavery voice in support of Terry. Gwinn was as corrupt as the best of them – he connived to obtain lucrative political posts throughout his life and flouted his political patronage by pro-slavery President James Buchanan. The political situation had brought both Terry and Broderick on hard political times.

The Southern sympathizers, including and led by Gwinn and Terry, were members of a casual but close-knit organization known as the "Chivalry." Eschewing the values and customs of the Old South's aristocracy, the Chivalry was a powerful and influential voice in California politic.

Supreme Court judges were elected at that time and Terry lost the 1859 election. He blamed the loss on Broderick's published remarks against Terry's pro-slavery views, even though Broderick at one time had suggested that Terry was the only honest judge on the Supreme Court. As accusations flew, Broderick publicly stated that he withdrew that opinion of Terry. And finally, Terry sent a note to Broderick claiming to have been personally insulted, demanding an apology. Broderick chose to let Terry decide if the remarks were personally offensive and reluctantly agreed to the "duel of honor," an accepted practice in 1850s California.

Their first attempt to stage the duel was thwarted by the San Francisco police and had to be postponed. On the 13th of September the two men met, with their seconds and supporters, in a ravine just off the southern tip of Lake Merced, just outside the San Francisco city limits in present-day Daly City. (A state historical marker today marks the spot and two concrete pylons identify the spots where the two men stood.)

They tossed a coin for the choice of weapons; Terry chose his personal .58 caliber Belgian dueling pistols. Both men were accomplished marksmen, though Terry had practiced with the hair-trigger pistols and Broderick had not. Broderick chose the spot with his back to the rising sun, theoretically a position of advantage. A change in the traditional rules of the duel had been demanded by Terry: the command was to be, "Ready, One - Two." All shots had to be fired between the counts of "One" and "Two," a very unusual arrangement that Broderick almost casually agreed to.

As the two men took their positions, Broderick was obviously the more troubled. His body was rigid, his grip on the heavy pistol awkward and unnatural. He had to use his left hand to position his right arm in the correct position, pointing the muzzle to the ground. In so doing, he had rotated his body to the right, exposing his torso to his opponent.

At the command, "One," Broderick's right arm lurched upward. His trigger finger touched the sensitive trigger and the pistol discharged into the ground halfway between the two men. Just as the command, "Two," was given, Terry calmly fired.

At first, only a slight flinch by Broderick indicated that he had been hit, but seconds later he sagged to his knees and was caught by his seconds as he collapsed. Terry opined that he was satisfied "for the moment" with the affair of honor and left the scene. Broderick lingered for three days before expiring from the ball through his lungs.

Broderick's death roused a great outcry among the state's citizenry. Many of them were Northerners and abolitionists. Broderick had been their loudest and most prominent voice. His funeral was enormous and gave great impetus to the abolitionist cause. And it caused Terry's hurried departure for the Central Valley.

A warrant for his arrest was issued and lawmen were dispatched to serve it. They were met with a barricaded Terry, shotgun muzzles protruding from the farmhouse windows. Wisely, the officers did not approach, but obtained a promise from Terry to turn himself in – which he did later as agreed. The case was dismissed.

The Abolitionists made full political advantage of Broderick's death. Passions were raised to fever pitch; the Chivalry was vilified and began to swiftly lose whatever influence it had. And with the election of 1860 came the most powerful impact of the duel. Aside from causing a quick public outcry to outlaw the practice, the duel managed to split the vote of the Democratic Party. The abolitionists were not about to cast votes for the pro-slavery Democratic candidate, thus giving the election to Abraham Lincoln. The rest is history.

Terry quickly left California for Texas where he served in the Texas Confederate Army. As a veteran of the Mexican-American War, he was commissioned an officer and reached the rank of colonel by the end of the war. He married there and eventually returned to Stockton to practice law.

In one notable case, he represented a "Widow Sanchez," one Maria Encarnacion Ortega de Sanchez, widow of a wealthy rancher who was being cheated by local politicians in collusion with the local sheriff. Terry kidnapped the sheriff, intending to hold him until he agreed to release the widow's gold. The sheriff, however, managed to get word to his family in Monterey to hide the gold. His brother-in-law dutifully buried the gold somewhere in Carmel Valley and proceeded to get himself killed in a barroom brawl. To this day, no one knows where the gold was buried and Terry, realizing that the gold was lost, soon lost interest in the case and abandoned his client.

But the irascible Terry's life had a few more dramatic chapters. When his wife died, he remarried a pretty young woman named Sarah Althea Hill, twenty-five years his junior, who claimed to have been married to and divorced from silver millionaire William Sharon. Sharon denied the marriage and her right to a share of his fortune. The Terrys filed suit in the Federal Circuit Court with Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Field presiding. Field, a friend of the slain Broderick, ruled against them and even jailed them for contempt of court for their behavior in the courtroom. Terry, in typical fashion, vowed vengeance and attempted to attack Field in the little town of Lathrop, just south of Stockton. Field's bodyguard, Deputy U. S. Marshal David Neagle shot and killed Terry on the spot, ending the career of one of California's more notorious political leaders. The Mrs. Sarah Hill Terry eventually was committed to an insane asylum in Stockton and died in 1936.

One wonders "What if . . . ?" If the duel between Terry and Broderick had ended in any other way, if Broderick had survived, even if Terry had been killed, the split within the Democratic Party probably would not have happened, Lincoln would not have carried the state and probably would not have been elected President in 1860. The Civil War would have not begun then, if ever. It is interesting to think about what course the nation might have taken, what would have happened with the slavery issue. Perhaps the war was inevitable. But it was this one event between two belligerent and forceful men in California that triggered the beginning when it did.

Buchanan, Albert Russell, David S.; Terry of California: Dueling Judge; San Marino, California: Huntington Library, 1956

Kirchner, Paul ; Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques; Paladin Press, Boulder, CO, 2010

Potts, Charles S.; "David S. Terry: The Romantic Story of a Great Texan;" Southwest Review, 19 April 1934