“Back when …”

When Georgia Politics Favored Straight Shooters: More Politics As A Blood Sport

William Harris Crawford. After the rough and tumble of Georgia frontier politics he went on to be a U.S. senator, Secretary of the Treasury in the Monroe Adminstration and a candidate for the presidency in 1824

About eleven o‘clock on the morning of July 31, 1802, Peter L. Van Alen[1] and William H. Crawford, two of upcountry Georgia’s most prominent lawyers, with their seconds, met on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River, paced off the agreed distance and turned to face each other, pistols at the ready.

The next edition of the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle told the outcome: “They exchanged two fires. The first was without effect, but the second proved fatal to [Van Alen]. He received a ball, about two inches, above his right hip, it passed through the abdomen and lodged against the left hip bone, from whence it was extracted on the ground. [Van Alen] lived about 38 hours.”[2]

The newspaper didn’t have to explain why the duel had been fought. Regular readers of the Chronicle would have followed the over two months of charges, countercharges, challenges and other sharp words that preceded flint igniting powder. This had all played out in a series of letters to the paper, all duly published for readers who may well have been gleeful at the prospect, regardless of which side they wanted to see prevail. If readers were surprised at anything, it was that Crawford had been a principal participant. The original feud that personalities and the demands of honor had fanned to flame was between Van Alen and another attorney, Charles Tait, to whom Crawford had acted as second.

The Chronicle’s regular readers also didn’t need a published explanation that the duels, both the one anticipated between Van Alen and Tait and the one that actually took place between Van Alen and Crawford, were about a lot more than the alleged impugning of honor and the demands for honor’s satisfaction. The whole affair had a clear undercurrent of a political war between two factions that had preceded the duel and would go on after it. This particular duel, in fact, wasn’t the first of the war and it wouldn’t be the last. It was a political war that largely shaped Georgia’s politics from the last half of the 1790s till well into the third decade of the nineteenth century. In these days when voters despair that politics is too uncivil, that the epithets and brickbats of backbiting fly from all sides like angry hornets, it’s sometimes easily overlooked that in days nostalgically thought more genteel it was actually much the same, and that sometimes the partisan rhetorical affray led to remote face-offs and flying lead. But such was the very case in early Georgia, when the dueling ground was not uncommonly used to settle political differences that had become personal (and vice versa).

When Van Alen and Crawford squinted at each other down pistol barrels, they were center stage in a political drama that in the upper Savannah River Valley owed no small part to smoldering tensions between two groups somewhat at odds since the first settlers to the lands above the Little River that the Cherokees and Creeks ceded in 1773. But the embers had been fanned to flames by the factions that drew battle lines in the wake of the most pivotal event of early Georgia politics, what became known as the Yazoo Land Fraud.

This bit of political chicanery grew out of the efforts to dispose of Georgia’s western lands, which just after the revolution included much of present day Alabama and Mississippi, called the Yazoo lands for the river on the western fringe. As the state was strapped for cash in the first years of independence, legislators gave ready ears to proposals by speculators to open the lands to settlement. Two such ventures in the mid 1780s failed. In 1788, an effort to cede a portion of the lands to the U.S. government didn’t muster enough support. In 1789, the legislature actually approved the sale of 25 million acres to three companies, but the deal collapsed within six months because the speculators couldn’t pay in gold and silver instead of paper currency. Pressures both political and practical to do something with the land continued to build, however, and in January 1795 Governor George Mathews signed the freshly passed Yazoo Act. This transferred to four companies 35 million acres for the sum of $500,000.

On the face of it, the Yazoo sale looked like a typical deal between a government and land speculators, but as the Act made its way toward final passage in the legislature and Mathews’s signature, it was met with public petitions and even street protests. To many Georgians the Act carried the fetid odor of corruption. And that was small wonder. James Gunn, one of Georgia’s U.S. senators, was a stakeholder in one of the three land companies involved, the Georgia Company, and had greased the political machinery that produced the deal by passing out money and stakes in the Yazoo lands to legislators, other state officials and even newspaper editors, anyone in a position to raise effective opposition. For the times, it was practically business as usual.[3]

With Georgia’s other U.S. senator, however, the business didn’t sit well. James Jackson, born in Devonshire, England, in 1757, had arrived in Georgia in 1772, and come the revolution had readily thrown in with the rebellion. He emerged a war hero, with key roles in the Battle of Cowpens and the siege of Augusta, both in 1781, among his credits. An early member of the Georgia legislature, Jackson was elected to the First Congress and had become an early opponent of the policies of the new Federalist Party favoring strong central government and Alexander Hamilton’s economic ambitions, stances that cast him with the faction loosely led by Thomas Jefferson. In 1793, he had become a senator. With the signing of the Yazoo Act into law, he resigned his Senate seat to run, successfully, for a seat in the Georgia legislature. Anti-Yazoo Act feeling had turned enough legislature seats that Jackson had solid support for fighting the consequences, and in 1796 the Rescinding Act nullified the Yazoo lands’ sale (though a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case later upheld the contracts of third-party buyers who had in the meantime bought land from the speculators). Jackson served as governor from 1798 until 1801 before returning to the Senate. (In 1802, he would oversee the transfer of most of Georgia’s western lands to the U.S. government for $1.25 million.) Jackson’s impress upon state politics remained strong even during his return to Washington (and even after his death), his faction led by his two main protégés, George Troup of Savannah and William Crawford of Lexington, Oglethorpe County.[4]

William Harris Crawford was seven in 1779 when his family had moved, in the midst of the revolution, from Amherst County, Virginia, to what is now the Edgefield District of South Carolina. In 1783, the family moved to Georgia, near Augusta. The young Crawford’s education was entrusted to the famed early educator Moses Waddell, and Crawford later taught at Waddell’s Richmond Academy in Augusta while also studying law. Admitted to practice in 1799, in Lexington, county seat of Oglethorpe County, he was appointed as one of the compilers of the Digest of the Laws of the State of Georgia that would be published in 1801. Probably no small part in his selection for this important was played by Crawford being a nephew of William Barnett, an Elbert County doctor and solid Jackson partisan in the state legislature. Crawford himself wouldn’t hold public office until his 1803 election to the legislature representing Oglethorpe County, but he was a stalwart member of the Jackson faction and considered its leader in the upper Savannah River Valley, balancing Troup’s role around Savannah.[5]

Aligned against the Jackson-Troup-Crawford party was the Clark faction, led by Elijah and John Clark, the sons of the Georgia partisan hero of the revolution, Elijah Clarke (his sons had dropped the “e” from their names). In the main, the Clarkites comprised those who had supported − and stood to somehow benefit from − the Yazoo land sale. The Clark party was strongest in the upper Savannah River Valley, claiming sway among the smaller farmers and those on the frontier, while the Jackson-Troup-Crawford faction had its base in the more settled areas. Aside from the Yazoo land issue, the two sides differed little politically. On both sides, however, the alliances also depended much on webs of long friendship and often kinship by blood or marriage or both. There was also something more in play, something gut-level, a contest for power and position that had begun years earlier. What it came down to, as wryly odd as it might seem in hindsight, was whether one’s family arrived in the upper Savannah River Valley haling from Virginia or from North Carolina.[6]

Most of the Virginians who came into the upper Savannah River Valley after the Cherokee and Creek cession of 1773 had come, directly or indirectly, from either the eastern area − Hanover and Henrico counties were heavily represented − or else from the central Virginia piedmont. Both areas were long settled, generally peaceful compared to the frontier farther west, and had well-established social orders. The Virginians of those areas also largely traced their ancestry back to England. The North Carolinians, on the other hand, tended to be Scot-Irish, the originally Lowland Scots transplanted first to the northern counties of Ireland and eventually immigrating to the American colonies, driven by the desire for land as well as their fiercely independent natures. They had sifted down the Great Wagon Road into the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia and then into the verdant valleys of western North Carolina (and some, like the elder Elijah Clarke, moving farther, into upcountry South Carolina). They were drawn southward by the same desire for good, cheap land that eventually drew them to the upper Savannah River Valley, but compared to the Virginians who also came, they often seemed a different breed.

In the late 1760s the Anglican missionary the Reverend Charles Woodmason traveled among the mostly Presbyterian Scot-Irish of the Carolina backcountry and found them in great part dismaying. In his journal, he described them as “white savages … ignorant, mean, worthless, beggarly … Scum of the Earth, the Refuse of Mankind.”[7] He noted that the men often preferred hunting and fishing to farm work, the farms often left to just what their wives and children could manage. Young couples oftentimes dispensed with marriage ceremonies, and the young women seemingly preferred skimpy clothing and that tight-fitting. In the upright Anglican’s eyes, the heathens raged. To be fair to both sides, Woodmason was observing frontier societies in the process of sorting themselves out, socially, economically, and in every way pioneering societies evolve to stable communities. Among these same societies in the late 1760s and early 1770s, “regulator” movements would arise seeking to compel colonial authorities to extend the benefits of orderly society to the backcountry with local courts and schools. The Scot-Irish communities would not always be as Woodmason observed them. (Woodmason would even play a small role in aiding the regulator movement in South Carolina.) But the good reverend was also expressing a bias toward the Scot-Irish not uncommon among those whose forebears had haled from England, and that widespread attitude would endure, at least in the upper Savannah River Valley, into the nineteenth century.

Writing in the 1850s, onetime Georgia governor George Gilmer, born in 1790 in Lexington, Georgia, but of solid Virginian stock, conceded that not all the Virginians among the early settlers fit the eastern Virginia aristocratic mould. In describing some, he echoed Woodmason’s comments on the Scot-Irish. These lower class Virginians, he acknowledged, were “poor white … Most would cheat for six and a quarter cents and sue each other for a quarter of a dollar.” Nevertheless, Gilmer maintained, of the better sort of the Virginians who settled in the upper Savannah River Valley, it was “not known that any so small a community of planting people, ever created so much wealth, and filled so many offices, in so short a time.”[8] While not laying any particular shortcomings to the North Carolinians, Gilmer readily owned that the Virginians held them in little regard. Writing of John Dooly, son of the revolutionary hero murdered by loyalists in 1780 and himself with a part to play in our story, Gilmer wrote: “Though identified with Wilkes county as Judge Dooly was, my friends had little or no intercourse with him. The habits and opinions of the old Georgia settlers from North Carolina were so different from those of the Virginians who followed them, to whom I belonged, that there was scarcely any intercourse between them.”[9] It was, at least in part, this ferment that gave the Jackson-Troup-Crawford and Clark factions a dividing line.

Into this fray came Peter Lawrence Van Alen of New York. Van Alen had come to Georgia to practice law and speculate in land; he had supported the Yazoo purchase. Almost naturally he gravitated to politics. Despite his support for the Yazoo purchase, he had aligned himself tenuously and briefly with Jackson when Jackson became governor, a move showing his true allegiance was mostly to his own ambitions. (He had none of the long ties of friendship or kinships by blood or marriage, after all.) By 1802, Van Alen was solidly a Clarkite. His split from Jackson is likely rooted in a special congressional election in 1801, when Jackson supported John Milledge for a seat Van Alen coveted. A year later, though, found Van Alen as the solicitor general for Georgia’s western circuit, a role that brought him head to head with Jackson and Crawford crony Charles Tait.[10]

The first battleground for Van Alen and Tait was a Wilkes County courtroom in early May 1802, where Van Alen was defending another local attorney, George Cook, charged with misappropriation of funds. Tait was prosecuting. Tait and Cook had once been friends; Cook had been one of Tait’s students when Tait was the rector of Richmond Academy in Augusta, before he was admitted to the bar. During their years of friendship, Tait had written Clark a series of letters. The exact nature of the letters’ contents defies query now, but how Cook’s trial played out indicates Tait’s written thoughts were of the sort he preferred not be aired in public. But that is exactly what Van Alen did, finding an excuse to introduce them into the trial. Appalled and embarrassed by this, Tait decided only the dueling ground was the place to settle matters with Van Alen. He asked William Crawford to formally deliver his challenge, casting Crawford in the role of his second.[11]

Like Crawford, Tait was a native Virginian. He and his family had moved to Georgia from Hanover County in 1783, when the young Charles was 15, eventually settling near Petersburg, the thriving river town that developed in the mid and late 1780s at the confluence of the Savannah and Broad rivers, where the British colonial government had originally intended established a town to be named Dartmouth. The major upper valley shipping port for moving tobacco and other cash crops downriver, Petersburg was Georgia’s third largest city, and naturally a hotbed for politics. Educated at Cokesbury College in Maryland when he came of age, Tait remained at Cokesbury as a teacher for five years while reading law, being admitted to the Georgia bar in 1795. He was rector and professor at Richmond Academy (along with Crawford) for four years before beginning his legal practice in Elbert and Oglethorpe counties in 1799. With his Virginia background, to say nothing of his exceptional education and connections of friendship, he was a natural and solid member of the Jackson faction. That meant his and Van Alen’s differences, even if the set-to began as personal, were at least in the public’s eyes were bound to take on a political air. In fact, William Crawford, in an early show of the gamesmanship he would manifest throughout his political career, made sure of that.[12]

Two days after delivering Tait’s challenge, Crawford wrote a letter to the Augusta Chronicle detailing the reasons for the challenge.[13] Over succeeding weeks, more letters followed from both sides as the charges, counter-charges, hedges and attempted evasions, all wrapped in a combination of both direct and flowery language, were laid before a titillated public. The formal rituals of the dueling code in a way mocked the process of legal pleadings, with complaint and the details of grievance by the challenger and the answers and any cross complaints of the challenged. The June 1 edition of the Chronicle devoted nearly a full broadsheet page to publishing the verbal jousting and narrative of the entire feud, letters by Crawford, Tait, Van Alen and the arch Clarkite John Dooly, who found himself drawn into the affair as Van Alen’s second.

The day after delivering Tait’s challenge, Crawford met Van Alen and Dooly to receive Van Alen’s response. (Van Alen had refused an immediate response the previous evening.) In a letter handed Crawford, Van Alen, according to Crawford’s first Chronicle letter, “absolutely refused to make reparations for the injury he had done.” It was this refusal that Crawford used to justify making the affair public by writing to the Chronicle, to let the public judge what reasons or shortcomings of character kept Van Alen “from making that reparation, which, if a Gentlemen, he was bound to render.” Crawford’s account to the Chronicle turned the Tait-Van Alen feud into public theater. And even if we take him at his word as to his motives, it’s still hard to imagine him not gleeful at provoking the Clarkites.[14]  

In his responding letter Van Alen pulled no punches. He had, he wrote, consulted Dooly whether he should meet Tait, and Dooly had said no. Dooly had given “it as his decided opinion, that from Mr. Tait’s standing I ought not meet him as a gentleman.” Even secondhand, Dooly’s opining that Tait wasn’t a gentleman drew Dooly into the fray, but Van Alen took the full responsibility on himself by repeating the words of his formal note to Tait: “I think it a duty I owe the community and my own feelings, to tell you that I consider you not in anywise on a footing with a gentlemen. But I will assure you that whenever you shall have wiped off that infamy, I shall give you a different answer.” It was both a pointed response and an evasion. Van Alen didn’t consider Tait a gentleman, therefore neither he nor his challenge were worthy of Van Alen’s attention. In the rest of his response, Van Alen asserted that Tait was a coward, that he had not returned to court (Cook’s trial) after Van Alen had brought forth Tait’s letters, and had in fact not been seen on the streets of Washington (the Wilkes County seat). He also, somewhat incongruously, alleged that Tait was “an apostate preacher and politician [emphasis in the original].”  He also attacked Crawford for his role in the business, and if Crawford took offense, “I am ready and willing to give him any satisfaction he may require.”[15]

Tait sharpened his pen especially keen for his response. He denied being an “apostate preacher” associated with any persuasion, and that his political principles had ever changed. Then he took aim at Van Alen personally. “I shall not attempt to vie with you  in the low arts of scurrility and abuse,” he wrote, before continuing satirically. “I have too much respect for propriety, for the delicacy of the public ear, and for my own dignity, to call you an insidious rascal, a corrupt villain, or a dastardly calumniator, but perhaps I may, with all imaginable ease, prove you such.” He then accused Van Alen of corruption of his office, offering to affidavits in support. He denied any cowardice by avoiding Van Alen, offering that he was following the advice of friends, and ended with a charge that it was Van Alen who was showing cowardice.[16]

Van Alen dispatched another second to see Tait, Dooly having bowed out of an argument not his. The second was to seek from Tait a definite time and place and choice of weapons for the duel. These Tait refused to give, which according to the customs of the time amounted to a refusal to meet Van Alen. The piqued solicitor general then asserted in the Chronicle that Tait was “disposed to shrink behind an inky curtain of falsehood, malevolence detraction. …” Van Alen then added that he would be at a well known dueling ground at a particular time and dared Tait to meet him, offering him the choice of weapons.[17]

It’s not easy at this point in the imbroglio of alleged impugning of honor, charges of cowardice and corruption, and the apparent ducking of the challenges by both sides to say either man had hands that were entirely clean or whose prickly honor was wholly intact. But to give Van Alen his due, he followed through on his terms. On the appointed day he was at the appointed place across the Savannah River from Petersburg by 9 o’clock that morning. He and his second waited there until 6 o’clock that evening. Tait did not appear or send a second to offer any explanation. Naturally, Van Alen followed up by offering another chapter for the delight of Chronicle’s readers. He explained that his initial refusal to accept Tait’s challenge stemmed not from any fear but from his low opinion of Tait’s character as demonstrated by the letters unveiled at Cook’s trial. And he ended with perhaps the most telling point of all: He had declined to meet Tait because Tait was acting “under the influence of those who it is well known use you as a tool.” Presumably, by the latter Van Alen was implying that Tait was a mere catspaw of the Jackson-Troup-Crawford faction. That can scarcely be denied, and Van Alen’s presumption explains how this particular interlude in the running fight between the two factions played out.[18]

William Crawford had ignored the oblique attacks and insinuations in Van Alen’s Chronicle letters that seemingly invited Crawford also to throw down the gauntlet. So Van Alen took a more direct approach, perhaps believing that Crawford, too, would avoid meeting him. On seeing Crawford one day in Washington’s Willis Hotel, Van Alen insulted him and challenged him to a duel. If he believed Crawford would repeat Tait’s hemming and hawing, it was a serious misjudgment. Crawford readily agreed to terms. They would meet July 31 on the South Carolina side of the river about three miles below Petersburg, near the old abandoned colonial outpost Fort Charlotte.

Each man missed on his first shot, but both agreed to a second shot. In later years, Crawford told that when he first fired at Van Alen the New Yorker “made an ugly face at him,” so for his second shot Crawford pulled the brim of his hat low so he couldn’t see Van Alen’s face. Crawford’s second shot struck home. Van Alen was carried to a home in Lincoln County, on the Georgia side of the river from Fort Charlotte, where he died.[19]

The affair was to have a second act, however. In fact. a second duel was in the works even before Crawford and Van Alen met. Again, Charles Tait was the instigator, this time targeting in John Dooly and using the pages of the Augusta Chronicle as his weapon. Tait claimed offense at Dooly’s impugning his character in his alleged private advice to Van Alen after Tait’s first challenge. That Dooly apparently regarded Tait as not a gentleman and hence unworthy of Van Alen’s response, Van Alen had made a public record. For honor to be preserved Dooly had to be called to answer himself whether he had in fact made the alleged statements. And if he had, he had to answer for them, either with an apology or with a dueling pistol. A series of printed letters and private notes (most of which were printed for public consumption) followed. Finally, on August 4, Tait, though a new second, Dr. William Bibb, a Petersburg physician, made his formal challenge to Dooly: “I am reduced to the necessity of calling on you for that satisfaction due to a man of honor.”[20]

Dooly responded that he would discuss with friends whether he should meet Tait. In the meantime, if they should meet in the normal course of their affairs, “you are at liberty to take satisfaction whenever you please; I shall not avoid your company.” That seemed more an invitation to public fisticuffs than a dueling ground. More than three weeks went by before Tait received any further reply. Dooly had in the meantime been busy furthering his nomination to the post of general solicitor of the Western circuit, the post formerly held by the now dead Van Alen. On September 1, Dooly wrote Tait that he had consulted friends and discussions could continue. William Bibb conveyed the letter.[21]

Bibb’s role in the affair was both fascinating and exceptional, as he found himself in the practically unheard of position of acting as second to both principals. Only 21 years old in 1802, Bibb was of another of the families from Virginia who moved into the upper Savannah River valley beginning in 1783. After attending William and Mary and earning his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 1801, Bibb returned to Petersburg to practice, but in little time politics edged out medicine as his main interest. In 1802, he was elected to his first term in the Georgia legislature. A pleasant and easygoing man, by most accounts, at ease in all situations and among all classes of people, Bibb had a natural leaning to the faction of his friend Tait. But with his demeanor, his years away from Petersburg, and his only recent election to public office, Bibb hadn’t had time to acquire an array of personal enemies like his cohort (he would later) and was trusted by all parties. That fact evidently made possible his role as the single intermediary, and also his eventual role as peacemaker. He would later write of his “high regard for Mr. Dooly,” of his regret of the dispute at hand and of “soliciting the privilege of settling it amicably if it could be done.”[22]

The good doctor’s solution was evidently to choreograph a bit of theater that would spare both principals from chancing Van Alen’s fate yet would leave the honor of both satisfied. Bibb arranged the terms for the duel. Tait and Dooly, along with their seconds, would meet at a ferry a few miles below Petersburg, cross the river, and there hold the duel, near where Crawford had met Van Alen. On September 3, two days after Dooly’s reply to Tait, both men met at the ferry on the Georgia side. Only Bibb accompanied them, Dooly not bringing another second.

At the dueling ground, the formalities were observed, which involved giving the parties an opportunity to make any amends before the pistols were prepared. There and then, Bibb made his proposal. Tait would say that he had not strictly followed customary protocols in calling Dooly out to answer for the claim that he had told the late Van Alen Tait was not a gentleman. Dooly, in turn, would say that he had never told Van Alen any such thing. (This, as Georgia historian E. Merton Coulter pointed out, is at odds with the public record established by Dooly’s own letters to the Augusta Chronicle. But perhaps a bit of convenient forgetfulness was thought better than taking the chance of a large caliber pistol ball tearing its way through one’s innards.) According to Bibb’s account, on that proposal Dooly extended his hand and Tait took it. Bibb drew up a written agreement of the settlement, which he and Dooly signed. Why Tait didn’t sign it isn’t known for certain. Coulter, writing in 1959, speculated that it might in some way have reflected the possibility that Tait wasn’t privy to Bibb’s behind the scenes arrangements (which might also explain why Dooly didn’t bother to bring a second).[23]

So the imbroglio that began with Tait challenging Van Alen ended with William Crawford killing Van Alen and Tait and John Dooly walking away from their own duel with both men’s honor preserved.

There would be other duels. William Crawford and John Clark would meet in December 1804, with Crawford challenging Clark after a series of impugning aspersions and insinuations after Crawford helped Charles Tait win an election to a judgeship over a Clarkite candidate (and Clark relative). After one postponement at the instigation of Governor John Milledge, who set up a state commission tasked with settling the dispute, the duel took place. Crawford suffered a wound to his left hand.[24]

Georgia outlawed dueling in 1809, but it continued, though less often and with less fanfare. Few duelists were prosecuted, even if a death resulted, because state courts regarded duels as a “purely private affair.”[25]

By the time dueling was outlawed, William Crawford was in the U.S. Senate. He still played major role in the state faction he and Troup headed (James Jackson died in 1806). In later years he would go on to serve as the U.S minister to France (1813-15), as Secretary of War (1815-16) and Secretary of the Treasury (1816-25). Twice he sought the presidency, in 1816 and 1824, this second time after he had suffered a severe stroke. That contest set him against another Jackson, Andrew, who regarded Crawford as a thoroughgoing scoundrel based on Crawford’s corruption and evident mismanagement of the Treasury Department in President James Monroe’s administration. (Most historians agree with Andrew Jackson’s appraisal.) The election of 1824, one of the most bitterly contested in U.S. history, pitted against each other Crawford, Jackson, John C. Calhoun and John Quincy Adams. The electoral vote failed to resolve the contest and the U.S. House of Representatives selected Adams. Crawford’s career and life then entered their dusk. He died at his Oglethorpe County farm in 1834.

William Bibb, for his part, continued to dislike dueling. His political fortunes would flourish greatest in his and his brother Thomas’s role in forming the state of Alabama. As governor of Alabama, William would sign an act passed by the legislature outlawing the practice (which, as in Georgia, didn’t necessarily end it). Charles Tait would also end up in Alabama, as a federal judge.[26]

The battle between the Crawford-Troup faction and the Clarkites dominated a good part of state politics well into the third decade of the nineteenth century, but it never afterward saw the open squabbling, much less the bloodletting, of 1802 and Crawford and John Clark’s feud of 1803-04.

One Baltimore magazine editor in the 1830s, looking back at the history of the factions’ battles, whether by rhetoric or gunfire, wondered why two factions, similar in their political views and aims in so many ways, were at such odds. “We know not what they differ about,” Hezekiah Niles of Niles’ Weekly Register wrote, “but they do violently differ.”[27]  


[1] Some accounts use the “Van Allen” spelling instead of “Van Alen.” The letters he wrote to the Augusta Chronicle, he signed “Peter L. Van Alen,” so the presumption must be that a man knows how to spell his own name. Van Alen was of the Van Alen family from around Kinderhook, New York, but it isn’t clear what if any relation he was to Martin Van Buren, the eighth U.S. president and a Kinderhook native, whose mother’s maiden name was Van Alen.

[2] The Augusta Chronicle, August 7, 1802 edition.

[3] “The Yazoo Land Fraud,” The New Georgia Encyclopedia, online, and A History of Georgia, Kenneth Coleman, general editor (The University of Georgia Press 1977, 1991) pp. 96-99.

[4] “James Jackson,” The New Georgia Encyclopedia, online, and A History of Georgia, pp. 97-99.

[5] “William Harris Crawford,” The New Georgia Encyclopedia, online, and George A. Lamplugh, Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806  (University of Delaware Press, 1993) pp. 193-195.

[6] E. Merton Coulter, Old Petersburg and the Broad River Valley of Georgia: Their Rise and Decline (The University of Georgia Press 1965) pp. 86-87.

[7] John Buchanan, The Road to Guildford Courthouse (New York, John Wiley and Son, Inc. 1997) p. 86.

[8] Coulter, pp. 9-10.

[9] Ibid, p. 87.

[10] Lamplugh, pp. 194-195.

[11] Coulter, p. 89.

[12] Charles H. Moffat, “Charles Tait, Planter, Politician and Scientist of the Old South,” (1948) Journal of Southern History 14 (2).

[13] Coulter, p. 89.

[14] Ibid, pp. 89-90.

[15] Augusta Chronicle, June 12, 1802 edition, and Coulter, p. 90.

[16] Augusta Chronicle, July 3 edition.

[17] Coulter, p. 92.

[18] Ibid, p. 92.

[19] Ibid, pp. 92-93.

[20] Ibid, pp. 94-95.

[21] Ibid, p. 95.

[22] The Encyclopedia of Alabama online, “William Wyatt Bibb,” and Coulter, p. 96.

[23] Coulter, pp. 96-97.

[24] Coulter, p. 97.

[25] The New Georgia Encyclopedia online, “Dueling in Georgia.”

[26] The Encyclopedia of Alabama online, “William Wyatt Bibb.”

[27] Hezekiah Niles, Niles Weekly Register (Baltimore) Vol. XLI (1831-1832) p. 150.


The upper Savannah River Valley was the hotbed of Georgia politics that spawned so many duels.

Death Comes to “the meanest man in Georgia

A simple headstone now is the only monument to a man who was once likely the wealthiest and most politically powerful man in the county, and one of the most powerful in the state.

Just after four in the afternoon on November 17, 1900, in the small, dozy Elbert County hamlet of Heardmont. William Mattox and his son-in-law, Jeptha Jones, stalked toward each other with their revolvers blasting. Not more than twenty minutes later, the sixty-four-year-old Mattox was dead.

The duel had begun over a horse. At least that was the tale as it was told, the story attested to by the witnesses at the inquest. But there was more to the story. Jones was later reported to have told his wife that in shooting her father he “had done what he wanted to do.”

A lot of people had probably felt that way about William Mattox in his life, especially if he held some position of power over them. He had, after all, been widely labeled “the meanest man in Georgia,” the subject of black minstrel ditties alluding to his brutality toward the leased convicts who had worked his cotton farms along the upper Savannah River after the Civil War.

He had been born of rough-hewn pioneer stock on a farm in the North Georgia back country of the upper Savannah River Valley. But antebellum family prosperity had brought him the opportunity to become a classically educated man, a man who by accounts could combine his erudition with considerable native charm and eloquence, all qualities he would in time parlay all the way to the Georgia legislature.

That was one side of the man. The other side was a brutal and savage side to the man, one especially well known to those he stood over or who stood in his way.

Of that there is evidence aplenty.

He was a scion of the Old South, a one time Confederate Army officer, but he had also been among the first to grasp the essence of celebrated Atlanta Constitution editor Henry Grady’s New South, and was set on attempting to lead his own quiet corner of the world toward Grady’s vision of factories side by side with farms. William Faulkner, wading into the swamps and scrub pine woods of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, could not have plucked from them a character more telling in the qualities, good and bad, of the class of leaders who rose from the ashes of the Old South to forge a new order.

Nor could Faulkner have imagined a better end for him as Mattox’s worst qualities won out. By 1900, his new business ventures had failed, taking away most of his once large fortune and much of his status. And finally Mattox’s infamous temper and violent streak led his son-in-law to lay him low in the middle of a dusty Heardmont road.

William Henry Mattox, was born January 5, 1836, in Elbert County, the son of Henry Page Mattox, planter and onetime state legislator. The Mattox family had migrated to Georgia from central Virginia in the mid-1780s. They were of a group of Virginians led south by George Mathews, future Georgia governor and Yazoo Land Fraud figure, a group that also included a youngster named Meriwether Lewis whose widowed mother had married a Mathews crony, John Marks. The Mattox clan settled first with the rest of Mathews’s party in what became the Goose Pond area of Wilkes and Oglethorpe counties, along the Broad River.

The family prospered. By 1842, Henry Mattox, then thirty-one and living in Elbert County, was able to pay $5,000 for 673 acres along the Elbert County side of the Broad River. Here, too, the Mattox family thrived. The Mattox holdings increased and in 1852 young William was sent to Franklin College (the University of Georgia after 1859).

He made the best of it, despite having no apparent scholarly ambitions. In later years he would make a great impression on others with the depth and breadth of his classical education. 

Graduating in 1856, he immediately started laying the foundation of what would become his own empire. Probably with his father’s backing, he began acquiring land in Elbert County along the Savannah River near the mouth of Beaverdam Creek. In 1858, he bought three hundred acres around Cherokee Ford on the Savannah and the next year added another nearby 732 acres to his holdings. Along the way he also acquired seventy-nine slaves.

He also made the time-honored good move of marrying well. In 1858 he married Rebecca Allen, a daughter of Singleton Allen.  Singleton’s father, William, had established a prosperous plantation and mercantile business along Beaverdam Creek in the 1790s, coupled with some business interests in the thriving river port of Petersburg at the confluence of the Broad and Savannah Rivers. The only blemish on the Allen name came from William’s brother Beverly, a defrocked  Methodist minister who had shot and killed U.S. marshal Robert Forsyth in a dispute in 1794. With the help of friends, William had freed Beverly from jail, enabling him to escape to Kentucky, where he lived out his remaining years. With the passing of years, however, that episode had actually burnished the Allen name in Elbert County, Beverly Allen’s exploits having become the stuff of local legend. Singleton Allen had married the daughter of a prosperous local planter, Georgia’s one time provisional governor Stephen Heard, and by the time the young up and coming planter William Mattox married into the family the Allens were part of the local landed gentry.

Mattox’s buying of land adjoining rapidly flowing rivers and streams hints that he might have been looking to build mills even at this time, but as with so many others the coming of the war meant he had to postpone his plans. As events unfolded, however, he would be less inconvenienced and hindered by the war than most others.

In the summer of 1861, he was elected a second lieutenant in the McIntosh Volunteers, a company formed by his brother-in-law, William McPherson McIntosh, and kept the rank when the company became Company I of the 15th Georgia Infantry. The regiment would be among those forces in gray who missed the Battle of First Manasass in July 1861,, but Virginia was their destination. On Christmas Day, 1861, he was promoted to captain.

Despite his promotion, however, soldiering did not seem to agree with him (or he did not agree with soldiering). As early as the previous September he had fallen ill. “Bill Mattox has not held up as well as I have,” McIntosh, by then the 15th Georgia’s commander, wrote another brother-in-law, Young L. G. Harris, on Sept. 26, 1861. “He is even now under the weather, not confined to his bed but complaining. I got him into a house not far from camp, where he is doing well, and I hope will soon be able to return to duty.” 

The 15th Georgia was stationed in northern Virginia, in the vicinity of the Manassas battlefield, for a good deal of the winter of 1861-62 and was involved in occasional skirmishing. There is no record, however, of Mattox being involved in any fighting or even being in the field with the regiment during this time instead of laid up with apparent illness.

In any case, on April 9, 1862, he resigned his commission. By this time McIntosh had been promoted to colonel commanding the regiment, in the brigade of his friend and sometimes law practice associate, Robert A. Toombs of Washington, Georgia, former U.S. congressman, former U.S. senator, former Confederate secretary of state, now a brigadier general. On June 27, 1862, McIntosh would be mortally wounded leading the 15th Georgia into an attack at the Battle of Garnett’s Farm.

By that time Mattox had been home in Georgia for nearly three months. In that alone, though, he was hardly unique. The spring of 1862 had seen many officers resign as conditions or regimental politics caused soldiering to lose its luster. Ironically, to the end of his days Mattox would be known as “Colonel Mattox” in the way that more than a few men who rose to postwar prominence were endowed with an honorary title they hadn’t earned. His desultory record in uniform, however, did not prevent him from trading on his Confederate Army service in his postwar political ballyhooing.

Accounts of Mattox’s activities on the home front as the war marched on are sketchy, except for his recorded new acquisitions of property. But stories suggest that he was looking to come out of the war a prosperous man in the midst of hard times all around.  He succeeded.

To do it, he exploited the shortage and dearness of hard money in the South at the same time depreciating Confederate money became more worthless by the day. During the war he borrowed $10,000 in gold specie from Mildred “Miss Millie” Gray, a local lady of some wealth who was related to Mattox by marriage.

Hard money was in short supply in substantial amounts in the South even before the war, but a circumstance had placed this trove in Mildred Gray’s possession (and Mattox’s reach). She had inherited considerable property and money from her deceased first husband, Beverly Allen, son of William Allen and brother of Mattox’s father-in-law, Singleton Allen (and nephew of the original, notorious Beverly). By family accounts, the brothers Singleton and Beverly Allen had ventured into the North Georgia gold fields around Dahlonega and Auraria and increased the family fortunes. The accounts seem well founded. An elderly descendant of Mildred Gray has recounted that as a boy in the 1930s he played over old gold mining machinery the brothers had brought back and stored in a barn. The borrowed money might even have been in coins minted at the Dahlonega mint, but that is solely speculation.

Whatever the coinage, however, the loan wasn’t repaid in kind. Mattox did repay the loan before the end of the war − but he repaid it in Confederate currency. As late as the 1930s, descendants of the Gray family retained the stacks and bundles of Confederate money Mattox had given in repayment.

At a time when others faced the hardship of the war on the home front, Mattox was spending money, investing in both land and in mills. By early in 1865 he, along with some partners, had acquired Eureka Mill on upper Beaverdam Creek, for $4,854. The core of this grist mill operation dated from about 1820 and had been expanded several times over the years under different owners. By the time Mattox bought into it, it was owned by the Rucker family, having been acquired by Joseph Rucker, a local planter and banker reputed to have been Georgia’s first millionaire.

Mattox was also laying the groundwork for an even larger mill on his property at Cherokee Ford on the Savannah River.

This new mill would be the crown jewel of Mattox’s milling operations until he decided, in 1889, to venture into textile milling. Built just below the actual ford, one of the major crossing points on the upper river since colonial times, the mill had a mill race of about a mile, running from a diversion dam that stretched from the Georgia bank to McCalla’s Island, lying about midway the river and delivering a drop of sixteen feet at the mill. The water powered five turbines at the mill’s zenith of operations in the 1880s, turning two sets of mill stones that could turn an estimated two hundred bushels of grain a day into flour or meal. For the time and place, it was a large mill in size and capacity.

The mill was only a part of Mattox’s empire, however. By the mid-1880s, his land holdings totaled 3,414 acres, mostly rich bottom lands stretching along the Georgia side of the upper Savannah River and including two islands in the river itself. Records show he employed forty people to operate his mills and farms, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

The ending of slavery had barely slowed Mattox’s farming operations. The postwar Federal Army occupation government had put in place a system of leasing state prisoners. These convicts leased from the state provided a cheap source of labor, especially for owners of large farms, little different in practice from slavery, only without the capital investment.

By the 1880s, Mattox had a well-established convict stockade on his upper Savannah River lands, near his milling operation and on the Georgia side across from Carter’s Island, one of his river island holdings. Mattox seemed to favor leasing black women, presumably because they were less likely to attempt escape than men.

In time he acquired a reputation for cruelty in his treatment of his leased convicts. Unlike the times before the war, after all, with leased convicts there was no incentive to look very much to the well-being of the workers. If one died, for whatever reason, the state would send another to take the dead convict’s place. A man who was one of Mattox’s stockade guards in his youth, “Bud” Hilley, recounted in the 1930s tales of Mattox’s brutality that can still chill the blood.

Early every morning, according to Hilley, the convicts were moved across to the island farms. In one story, vividly related, a convict did not show up one morning at the ferry landing. When found in the bunkhouse that sheltered the convicts she claimed illness; nevertheless, she went to the boat. Mattox himself was there on that occasion and, learning the reason for the delay in starting the workday, he beat and kicked her until she was a bloody mess. Occasionally, in Hilley’s telling, a child would be born to one of the convicts. No time could be spared for a nursing mother, so on Mattox’s standing orders the newborn was simply taken to the river and thrown in.

Mattox’s reputation for cruelty spread far and wide. It even found its way into a black minstrel ditty that made the rounds:

Beef steak when I’se hungry

Likker when I’se dry

Greenbacks when I’se hard up

And ‘ligion when I die

Bill Mattox is yo master

Bill Mattox is yo frin

Bill Mattox totes de long cowhide

He ain’t afraid to bend!

Miss Beck ‘vite yo’ in de parlor

Dey fan ya’ wid’ de fan

Oh mudder, oh dear mudder

I luvs dat gamblin’ man

The words seem harmless enough, but the hint implied in the mentioned “long cowhide” is that they conceal a lot of irony, typical of some minstrel lyrics. John M. McIntosh, who published a history of Elbert County in 1940, recounted that some time during his years of prominence Mattox was walking down Broad Street in Augusta when he heard a black man singing this ditty. When he inquired about it, Mattox was asked, in effect, “Why haven’t you ever heard of ol’ Bill Mattox? He’s the meanest man in Georgia.”

A chase down the street ensued, according to accounts, with the singer narrowly staying ahead of Mattox’s swinging cane. McIntosh wrote that Mattox in later years would tell the tale himself, in good humor.8 An anecdotal profile of Mattox that appeared in the July 23, 1889 edition of the Elberton Star, however, noted that the reporter had managed to coax an old man employed in the Mattox home to play the ditty on a banjo only after he was assured Mattox was nowhere around, the playing being forbidden when Mattox was in the house.

Mattox also made a play at increasing his political fortunes. He was elected as a representative to the state legislature in 1865. He was later elected to the state senate for a term in 1880-81. In between, he was elected as a delegate to the 1877 constitutional convention, which fashioned a post-Reconstruction state government. His biography in the official record of the convention describes him as “a gentleman of large culture and refinement, a forcible and pleasant speaker, and exceedingly popular.” It’s difficult to say whether this accurately reflected the view of Mattox around Atlanta. Even the worse sorts, after all, are likely to be praised by friends and enemies alike in official biographies. In later years he eschewed elected office himself, but he nevertheless remained a powerful political figure in the Democratic Party of Elbert and surrounding counties up through his final financial downfall.

By 1889, Mattox was ready to make the big leap from owning grist mills to building textile mills. That was the theme of a new age for the South. It was only three years after Henry Grady, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, had delivered his famous speech to the New England Society of New York at New York City’s famous Delmonico’s restaurant, to a group that included among others the famous financier

and Wall Street impresario J.P. Morgan. Grady had pronounced the Old South dead. The old way of life, he said, “rested everything on slavery and agriculture, unconscious that these could neither give nor maintain healthy growth.” The New South, he opined, would embody many new ideas, including “a diversified industry that meets the complex needs of this complex age.” On July 23, 1889, Grady visited Elberton, a carnival-like visit to promote his progressive thinking arranged by a committee chaired by Mattox and ballyhooed by the local newspaper echoing the support of all the local boosters. Mattox pronounced Grady’s speech as “the best and most forward thinking I’ve ever heard.” That day’s edition of the Elberton Star also carried the announcement of the intention of Mattox and a group of partners to bring more of the New South to Elbert County.11

Mattox and a group of investors that included his son-in-law, Jeptha Jones Jr., his son-in-law’s father, Jeptha Jones, Sr. and a brother-in-law, John McCalla, purchased a mill site and water rights on Beaverdam Creek. They purchased it, ironically, from the nephew and heir of Mildred Gray, Mattox’s lender during the war. Like the gold specie, Mildred Gray had inherited the mill by way of the Allen family.

The creek along that stretch had a good fall and a steady bold flow. Though the Allens didn’t build the first grist mill there, they had expanded the original mill, dating back to 1811, into a substantial enterprise. Now, Mattox and his partners intended, it would be the site of the county’s first large scale cotton mill. The Heardmont Cotton Mill was incorporated in the fall of 1889, with Mattox, the principal investor, as president and McCalla as secretary-treasurer. The New South, or at least William Mattox’s version of it, would rise on the banks of Beaverdam Creek.

To raise his share of the start up capital, Mattox was willing to make a sizable wager − the lion’s share of his holdings. In 1889, he mortgaged the gristmill and the associated land near Cherokee Ford as well as much of his other land. Mattox himself made a trip to New England to purchase the new mill’s machinery. When the mill opened in March 1890, a new water turbine system provided power to eight cording machines and frames holding 1,000 spindles, producing cotton yarding from lint cotton that was a by-product of the already existing

Elberton Oil Mill. Mattox stated to the local newspaper that the venture was an experiment; if it succeeded and proved profitable the partners planned to expand it into one of the largest mills in the South.12

That was not to be. On June 16, however, barely three months after it began production, the Heardmont Cotton Mill was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm. The resulting fire destroyed the mill, and with it the hopes of the would-be textile barons. There was no fire insurance; the loss was entirely the owners’ to bear. The mill site would   sit idle until 1895, when Thomas Swift, owner of the Swift Cotton Mill in Elberton, purchased the tract and built Pearle Mill, named for his daughter.

William Mattox could only watch from afar as another man’s dreams rose from the ashes of his own. He had bet and lost, and the destruction of the Heardmont Cotton Mill was the beginning of the end for him. The loss of his investment, backed by his mortgaged property, triggered a cascade of financial ruin. He was unfortunate that his and his partners’ personal calamity coincided with one of the major downturns in the American economy, part of a worldwide economic crisis. It all added up to being a bad time to try to stance the bleeding of financial wounds.

A fall off in new building and railroad investment, continued debate over bimetallism and whether gold or silver values would determine money supply, contractions of credit, industrial production and consumption pressures in Europe−all these added up to a depression by 1893, one of the worst in world and American history.

Unemployment in the industrial sections of the country climbed to an estimated 18 percent in 1894 and stayed in the 12-14 percent range until 1898. In the South, where 60 percent of the labor force was agricultural and many farms were mortgaged, prices of commodities plummeted: Cotton, which had averaged over 15 cents per pound since the 1870s, dropped to just over 7 cents, especially since much of the foreign market was lost to the new emerging markets of Egypt and India. Bad judgment or bad luck and bad timing, it’s difficult to say what caused Mattox’s slide downward. But his fall would be even more speedy than his rise. A karmic view might hold that  in some mystical

Ledger of Life he was fated to balance some account by losing all he’d gained on a mill site bought from the estate of a woman he had virtually flimflammed out of $10,000 in gold. By 1898, he was bankrupt. That year the Equitable Insurance Company, a New York City investment bank, sued him for his debts and most of his property was sold at public auction in Elberton for $16,000. The New York company itself bought most of the property.13

As one of the investors in the Heardmont Cotton Mill, Jeptha Jones Jr’s father had also suffered a financial calamity. Jeptha Jr. had suffered as well, but as only a minor investor he was spared the near total catastrophe that engulfed his father and father-in-law. Bad blood developed between Mattox and the Joneses that grew more poisoned as time went on, even more so, evidently, between Mattox and his son-in-law.

The trigger that spilled the blood was a horse, a fine gray horse Mattox had given his daughter. Now, though, for whatever reason, need or simple spite for Jones, Mattox wanted it back. When William Mattox boarded a train in Elberton on that Saturday afternoon of Nov. 17, 1900, heading for Heardmont to confront Jones, he evidently intended to have either the horse or a widowed daughter. What Jones might have known or suspected beforehand is unclear; he left no written or spoken account. But he was already near the station and armed with at least two guns when Mattox alighted at the Heardmont depot.

Heardmont was a collection of stores and houses crowded around the depot, the last train stop before the trestle across the Savannah River into South Carolina. The little village in the red dirt cotton country of Elbert County actually preceded the coming of the railroad, though, and had sprung up at a nexus of a web of roads as the center of a thriving farming community, complete with stores and a school. The land the community sat on, as well as most surrounding it, had once belonged to Stephen Heard. The former governor in fact lay in his family cemetery on a hill overlooking the depot. William M. McIntosh, Mattox’s brother-in-law and former regimental commander, lay at rest there, too, in 1900 dead thirty-eight years since his being cut down by a Yankee bullet. The little community remained a stronghold

of various branches of the Heard and Allen families, which of course included William Mattox and Jeptha Jones. Mattox’s main convict stockade had sat a short distance from the depot, but Georgia’s leasing of convicts had ended earlier that year.

The Showdown

Mattox got off the train from Elberton shortly after 4 p.m., according to the later inquest testimony of M. D. Alexander, who at the time he first saw Mattox was standing in the road beside the depot talking to a local doctor named Lovern. Mattox approached, Alexander related, and asked Dr. Lovern for the loan of a horse, and at some point asked both men if they had seen Jeptha Jones.

Jones had arrived in the vicinity of depot earlier, though how much earlier isn’t clear. The newspaper account of the incident, with testimony from several onlookers, is confusing and some details have to be deduced from between the lines. Local resident George Stewart testified that he had been standing on the steps of the McCalla store when Jones had come by in a buggy, shouting to Stewart that he wanted to see him. Jones continued on to the depot, a gray horse trailing behind the buggy. Stewart doesn’t mention Jones’ young son Allen or Jones’s brother Henry being in the buggy, though both were present at the depot during the shooting. Henry Jones later testified his brother had been at the cotton gin, some distance from the depot, when the passenger train from Elberton arrived and left. Stewart followed Jones’s beckoning to the depot, and began helping switch the gray horse for the horse in the buggy harness.

Alexander in his testimony didn’t explicitly say whether he or the doctor told Mattox that Jones was near, only that Mattox started toward where Jones’s buggy was parked.

Mattox approached, and ordered, Jeppie Mattox, a twelve-year-old black boy standing nearby, to take charge of the horse. If Jones had been out of Mattox’s sight before − and that’s unclear from accounts − he appeared now. “You’ve nothing to do with that horse, that’s mine,” Jones told Mattox. Mattox replied that if Jones wouldn’t give up the horse then they would have to shoot it out.

Jones replied, “Well then, get to it”, and stood with his right hand in his pocket, calmly watching his father-in-law some eight to ten feet away. Jones had a shotgun in his buggy, as was later established, but his pistol was more readily at hand. Mattox said, “I’ll show you, then,” and pulled his pistol and started shooting.

William Mattox fired first. All witnesses agreed on that. Mattox and Jones started toward each other, firing away. How many shots each man fired, witnesses could not agree on. Alexander thought Mattox fired twice and that Jones got off three shots as the two closed the distance between them. Jones later said he thought Mattox fired three times while he had fired five. Jones was correct. Judging from bullet holes later found in Mattox’s coat, three of Jones’s bullets had missed.

Two had hit Mattox, but he continued on apparently unfazed, through rage and sheer will. Mattox dropped his gun as the men reached each other. It was scooped up by Allen Jones but his uncle Henry took it away from him as both watched Mattox and Jeptha Jones grapple hand to hand and fall to the ground wrestling over Jones’s gun.

Alexander and several others had run toward the sound of the gunshots. When they arrived, they saw the two men on the ground, Mattox astride a prostrate Jones, both struggling, and it seemed to Alexander that Mattox was getting the better of the fight. Henry Jones was standing nearby with a gun in his hands. Alexander thought he heard Henry Jones yelling “Give brother a fair chance” to Mattox. Others thought it was Jeptha Jones himself who was yelling for Mattox to give him a chance.

Alexander managed to wrench the gun from the two men’s grasp while a man named Porter pulled Mattox off Jones and to his feet. Mattox said, “Boys, he has killed me,” and started to slump. The men carried him into the depot and laid him on a table.

An examination by Dr. Lovern revealed the severity of Mattox’s two bullet wounds, one near dead center of his chest and the other a bit more to the right. Mattox’s heart had evidently been only narrowly missed and the other wound was through his upper right lung. The internal bleeding was fatal.  Mattox died about fifteen minutes after he was carried into the depot.

Jones suffered a scratch to his head, and witnesses were divided on whether it resulted from a glancing pistol shot or from his gun barrel during the fight. He went to his home, not far away, and told his wife of the shooting. Gip Verdel, a farmworker who witnessed this exchange, later testified Jones told his wife matter-of-factly that he had shot her father, “and had done what he wanted to do.”

Jones and his brother both then surrendered to the county sheriff. The inquest held on Nov. 21 cleared both men, ruling the shooting justifiable homicide.

William Mattox’s body was taken to Elberton and his funeral was held the very next day. His Masonic lodge took charge of the funeral arrangements. According to the newspaper account, “The procession was the largest seen in Elberton in years, showing with what esteem the deceased was held by our people.”14

But it was the end of the barely begun Mattox dynasty.

William Henry Mattox lies in a quiet, nearly forgotten corner of Elberton’s Elmhurst Cemetery. His only grave marker is one of the kind erected by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Compared to the monuments within sight, some those of his one-time business associates, his is practically a pauper’s grave. The marker lists no dates of birth and death, only his name and that he served in Company I of the 15th Georgia Infantry.

And even the marker is wrong, giving his ending rank as a second lieutenant. Nothing remains of his empire except the stories of it, and of him.

Confederate Gold Rush in the Georgia Backcountry

The morning of May 24, 1865, five canvas-covered wagons lumbered northeastward out of Washington, Georgia, bound for Abbeville, South Carolina, nearly forty miles away. The caravan reminded one observer of “North Carolina apple peddlers or an emigrant train.” There was no hope of appearing as ordinary freight wagons to any watching eyes in Washington, however. Twelve U.S. cavalry troopers wouldn’t have escorted ordinary freighters.

The party made only twelve miles that day over the rutted road, by late afternoon reaching the Danburg community farm of William Moss, receiving permission to camp in his farmyard. The wagons were drawn up inside a fenced horse lot. For the teamsters, soldiers and five Virginia bankers with the wagons the farmyard was safer than open country.

The canvas hid boxes and kegs holding about $450,000 in gold and silver specie belonging to the banks of Richmond, where the money was now to return. No one with the party misjudged how hard a task they faced. Washington and the surrounding countryside teemed with paroled Confederate soldiers who in recent days had shown no reluctance to plunder friend and foe alike. But if the money could be put on a train at Abbeville, the odds would improve.

Fires flickered in the distant woods, presumably campfires of paroled Confederates, so for the party in the horse lot it was likely to be a sleepless night.

The events of the next hours would set off arguments all the way to the halls of Congress and provide fodder for innumerable local legends in years to come. More dramatic, though, is how and why a king’s ransom came to be in the Georgia backcountry as the guns of the war were finally cooling.

The Fall of Richmond

By early 1865, the Confederacy’s prospects, on the battlefield and otherwise, were nearly spent.

In Virginia, the skeleton of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia struggled to hold the besieged city of Petersburg and the Confederate capital at Richmond against the Union armies of General Ulysses S. Grant. Meanwhile, the Union forces under Major General William T. Sherman were ripping the guts out of the Confederate heartland. After capturing Atlanta and cutting a path of destruction across Georgia in late 1864, Sherman was now thrusting northward through the Carolinas, looking to join his forces to Grant’s. The Confederacy was hemorrhaging not only its last blood but its last treasure.

The Confederacy owed tens of millions to foreign countries for war materiel. The battlefield reversals of late 1863 and 1864 had dried up further foreign loans and bonds backed by cotton and other commodities were now as worthless as the Confederate currency; by early 1865, it took $60 in script to equal one dollar in gold or silver.

Only more money − and hard money − could buy the Confederacy any hope. On March 13, 1865 the Confederate Congress authorized the treasury to borrow $30 million in gold and silver from banks, companies and private citizens. Four days later, the Congress passed a more realistic approval to borrow $3 million for the immediate needs of the armies. If the $3 million couldn’t be raised by borrowing, the authorization allowed an immediate 25 percent tax on all gold and silver specie and bullion in the Confederacy.

Arranging the loans fell to Assistant Secretary of the Treasury William Wood Crump, a task that he seemed ideally positioned to carry out. A prominent Richmond lawyer and former circuit court judge, the 45-year-old Crump was also president of the Bank of Virginia.

By March 27, Crump had cajoled Virginia banks into lending the Bank of Virginia $300,000 in gold and silver specie, the lion’s share of their specie reserves. The Bank of Virginia would in turn lend the money plus some of its own to the Confederate government. Events intruded, however, before any official transfer to the Confederacy could take place. This would eventually prove an exceedingly lucky happenstance.

On April 2, Grant’s forces finally breached the Confederate lines screening Petersburg and the nearly ten-month siege came to an infernal end. Richmond would have to be abandoned as well. Lee bought as much time as possible for Richmond’s evacuation before putting his army on its last fighting retreat that would end seven days later at Appomattox Court House.

In the Confederate capital, word of evacuation unleashed pandemonium. Government departments readied to flee and the civilian population realized the inevitability of Union occupation. Through this bedlam, treasury officials moved eight wagonloads of money to the railroad depot. Besides millions in Confederate currency and bonds, the treasury included sacks and boxes of U.S. gold coins, Mexican silver dollars, English gold sovereigns, and some gold and silver bullion. Also included was a chest of jewelry donated by Southern women. In all the value of the gold and silver was estimated at about a half million dollars. The secretary of the treasury would accompany Confederate President Jefferson Davis on his flight, but Crump, along with several other treasury officers, was directed to accompany the treasury. Crump was authorized to also take along the specie reserves of his own bank, which included the borrowed money, and those of the Trader’s Bank, the Bank of Richmond, the Farmer’s Bank, the Exchange Bank, and the Bank of the Commonwealth − totaling $450,000 − accompanied by bank officers. When the train carrying the treasury finally rattled out of the chaotic city its immediate destination was Danville, Virginia, the first rallying point for Jefferson Davis and his refugee government.

Officially, the treasure trove was under the command of Confederate naval Lieutenant William Harwar Parker. The 38-year-old U.S. Navy veteran and one-time instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy had been the captain of the gunboat C.S.S Patrick Henry, the floating component of the Confederate naval academy of which Parker was superintendent. His guard force consisted of his academy instructors and fifty of his midshipmen, lads ranging in age from twelve to seventeen. This mainly adolescent force might not at first have inspired confidence, but over the next month the youngsters would prove as steadfast and reliable as any guards the treasury ever had.

Three days later, Parker and Crump were ordered to Greensboro, North Carolina, and then later to Charlotte. They were now actually moving ahead of  Jefferson Davis’s traveling government. Charlotte proved no safe haven. Federal cavalry under Major General George Stoneman was fanning out across the Carolinas, cutting telegraph and rail lines and seaching for the fleeing Davis government. When Parker cabled for further orders, he found the wires to the north had been cut. Surmising that the Federal forces knew of the treasure, he and Crump decided to move their cargo farther south.

They left on April 11, accompanied by Varina Davis, the Confederate president’s wife, who with her children and an aide had preceded her husband and found refuge in Charlotte. Parker also gratefully accepted the offer of one hundred members of a home guard unit, workers at the Charlotte naval yard, to beef up his force.

The rail lines ran out in Chester, South Carolina, just south of Charlotte, so Parker transferred the treasure to wagons for the next leg, southwest toward Newberry. Parker’s line of march carried the caravan through areas Sherman’s armies had passed, lands stripped of food and forage and marked often by the specter of smoke-blackened chimneys marking where a plantation house had once stood. The lieutenant forced a rapid march, looking to average twenty miles a day, “lightening ship” (in Parker’s naval parlance) as necessary by throwing away books, government papers, and millions of dollars in Confederate paper money − anything to speed the pace. Parker also ordered all civilian treasury officers and bankers, including Crump, to arm themselves. Vigilance was necessary, Parker wrote later in his memoirs, because not only was Stoneman’s cavalry thought close behind but word of the money his party was guarding traveled ahead of them, and an attack by renegade Confederates newly freed of any military discipline seemed a clear possibility. Parker expected, though, that “if attacked … we could give a good account of ourselves.”

The party entrained again in Newberry, bound for Abbeville, a main commercial and political center of upstate South Carolina and on the main upcountry route to the Savannah River crossings. Varina Davis left the party in Abbeville but Parker and Crump continued into Georgia, once again in wagons, heading for the railhead at Washington, about forty miles away. They intended to reach Macon, Georgia, where the Confederate treasury department had an office. Reaching Washington on April 17, Parker learned that Macon had fallen to Union forces. He entrained for Augusta, lying on the Savannah River and about fifty miles southward from Washington. In Augusta, he knew, was a naval post with an officer senior to himself. He was determined to follow his orders, but by this point, Parker was, as he recounted, “anxious to be relieved of the moral responsibility of being custodian of the money.” Too, Parker sensed growing danger. “We expected [then],” he wrote, “a fight at any time.”

Confederate authorities in Augusta offered little hope. There Parker and Crump first learned of Lee’s surrender, and the likely imminent surrender of other Confederate forces. Augusta, home of the Confederacy’s largest powder mill, expected occupation. Crump also found that his predicament was not unique. Bank officers of twelve Tennessee banks were hiding about $500,000 of their assets in Augusta and were as fearful as Crump for the safety of the money. The senior Confederate authorities in Augusta warned Parker of growing dangers of attack by Confederate renegades as well as Federal forces, and advised him to “move on.” Complicating that was a waiting telegram from the Confederate secretary of the navy ordering Parker to disband his command.

“Under the circumstances, I declined to do so,” Parker recounted. Instead, he resolved to hand his responsibilities directly to Jefferson Davis. The treasure train would reverse course and hope to find the fleeing president. Parker returned to Washington and then began a march to meet Davis and be relieved of his duty. This he did in Abbeville on May 2. Only then did the intrepid officer disband his corps of midshipmen and homeguard.

Old Bank of Georgia building in Washington, where money was stored and where Davis disbanded his government

Crump and his bankers stayed in Washington with the bank funds in their charge. Washington was safer than open country to await whatever came. It seemed a rational decision. Washington was the political and commercial center of a fairly wealthy farming district that had been little touched by the war, Sherman’s armies having skirted it to the south. However, it lay at the center of converging roads, was on a main route passing over the Savannah River, and was on a spur of the Georgia Railroad. Like a magnet, it drew paroled Confederates bound for home, just as in a matter of days it would draw Union forces.

Crump’s party arrived, in fact, in the middle of a three-day riot by a Texas brigade, during which the Texans looted the local Confederate commissary’s and quartermaster’s stores of anything they could lay hands on. “The square is so crowded with soldiers and government wagons that it is not easy to make way through it,” wrote the Washington diarist and future journalist Eliza Frances Andrews. “It is especially difficult around the government offices, where the poor, ragged, starved, and dirty remnants of Lee’s heroic army are gathered day and night.” The local provost refused to intervene. Each new group of arrivals picked over the leavings of those before. “Nobody seemed to care much, as we all know the Yankees will get it in the end, any way, if our men don’t,” Andrews noted. The homeward bound Rebels especially considered the horses and mules of locals fair game, and the people were powerless to resist. The town was not a quiet and peaceful haven, but at least the gold and silver could be stored in the safes of the Bank of Georgia’s Washington branch.

On April 29, Crump settled in as a guest of Eliza Andrews’ father, Garnett Andrews, a prominent local judge who had remained a staunch Unionist throughout the war despite his sons fighting for the Confederacy. Like other Washingtonians, the Andrews family gave what food and shelter they could to the paroled soldiers and took in refugees like Crump. Eliza Andrews recorded that Crump appeared “in a state of distraction” but was “perfectly delightful in conversation.”

Crump had reason to be distracted. Not only was the money potentially in danger from renegade Confederates, but also from confiscation by Union forces. And on the afternoon of May 3 arrived the man sure to draw them there − Jefferson Davis. Since the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Union forces had pursued Davis and his traveling government vigorously; he dared not dally. On the morning of May 4, Davis held his last cabinet meeting in Washington − in the bank where the Virginia banks’ money lay − disbanded his government, disbursed the official Confederate treasury − some to the care of Confederate officers charged with trying to smuggle it out of the South, other funds given to local commissary officers to provide for the refugee ex-Confederate soldiers returning home. Then, with a small escort of cavalry, Davis rode out of town to a quiet hero’s farewell. He would be captured six days later.

Crump had asked to meet with Davis, but that never came off; Davis saw no reason to take on Crump’s troubles. The banker would soon have more. On May 5, Captain Lot Abraham and his Company D of the 4th Iowa cavalry rode into Washington and the feared Union occupation became a reality. Eliza Andrews describes some looting and abuse, but the Union troops did restore order. Abraham promptly confiscated the Virginia bank funds as suspected Confederate property. Crump may have been relieved, because Davis’s departure had possibly increased the chance of Confederates seizing the money. Davis had arrived with an escort of about 2,000 Tennessee and Kentucky cavalrymen, most of whom had been left to add to Washington’s lawlessness.

Some of them had broke discipline even before that. Soon after Davis’s party had crossed the Savannah River into Georgia, these men had demanded payment from the Confederate treasury funds then traveling with Davis. They were given approximately $108,000 in silver coins, officially as their pay but accounts describe their demand as bordering on mutiny and plunder. One constant worry for the bankers was whether they would recognize that the banks’ deposits were not part of the Confederate treasury. With the money under the control of the Union occupiers, that worry at least now seemed past, but Crump’s new worry was how to regain the money for the banks.

After consulting with Judge Andrews, Crump decided to make his case to federal authorities. On May 8, he left Washington for Norfolk, Virginia, where he met with Major General Marsena Patrick, provost general of Federal forces. Patrick was persuaded the specie in Washington was private funds, and ordered the money released. Crump himself did not return to Georgia, but the five officers from the Richmond banks were instructed to supervise the money’s return. The most logical route seemed a simple reversal of course.

The departure of the wagons from Washington on May 24 did not go unnoticed. Crump’s worst fears were about to be realized.

Lewis Shepard, a Tennessean of Brigadier General John Vaughn’s cavalry brigade, had been part of Davis’s escort from the time Davis left Charlotte. Years afterward, Shepard recounted what happened when word spread of what the wagons carried:

“… Some of the officers and men of Vaughn’s brigade became apprised that a train of specie was being carried North under Federal guard, and they jumped to the conclusion that it was property of the Confederate government which the Federals had captured. They concluded that their hard service entitled them to a share of this gold and silver provided they could … [succeed] in securing it from the Federal guard. … They organized an expedition with the view of capturing this money and followed the [wagon]train until a favorable opportunity of attack presented itself. …”

Some locals apparently joined in as well. Otis Ashmore, one of the first chroniclers of the raid, recalled that a friend of his father’s rode to their home and told the elder Ashmore what was afoot. Ashmore’s father prepared to join the raiders until Ashmore’s mother dissuaded him, fearing for his life. For others, the temptation was too great.

Sometime around midnight at the Moss farm, by later recollections, the bankers, teamsters, and guards were aroused when a rider who appeared to be wearing a Federal army coat rode up to the gate of the horse lot and paused, apparently studying the wagons. The man rode on, and the men in the horse lot settled down again, most drifting off to sleep.

Not long after, the raid broke. Riders − how many, none of the witnesses could guess − burst into the camp, all armed with pistols or carbines. The teamsters fled and the twelve Union guards offered no resistance. The raiders piled over the wagons, splintering open the boxes and kegs. By one description, they “waded ankle-deep in gold and silver. [They] filled their haversacks and pockets. They tied bags of gold and silver to their saddles.” And then the raiders galloped off as quickly as they had arrived, leaving the horse lot littered with coins.

So, too, the surrounding countryside. Some of the heavy sacks tied to saddles had fallen loose or burst, leaving trails of gold and silver for some distance. According to the bankers’ later accounts, locals helped themselves to the scattered money throughout the next day.

At first light the bankers took stock. They managed to recover nearly $160,000, which one of the bankers and the guards conducted on to the Abbeville railhead.

The other bankers were left to recover what they could. They offered rewards for the identity of the raiders They also appealed to Judge Andrews for help. Andrews in turn appealed to the one man in town who was likely to carry weight with renegade rebels, Brigadier General Edward Porter Alexander.

The thirty-year-old Washington native of a respected family had only days before returned from Appomattox. Alexander’s wartime service handling the artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia’s First Corps under James Longstreet was well known. He was a local hero. If anyone could appeal to the raiders, a man with Alexander’s name and gravitas could.

Alexander gathered six members of the local artillery unit who had served under him and rode hard for the Moss farm, along the way collecting eight more recruits and the local magistrate, who if need be could issue arrest warrants on the spot.

“We came upon a party of the guerillas who had about $80,000 of the money in charge,” Alexander said in an 1881 interview. “They said they did not know it was private property; believing it belonged to the Confederacy. They thought they were as much entitled to it as anyone else. But being convinced that it was private property, they were willing to surrender it.”

The confrontation took place with pistols drawn, as Alexander described it, but the money was surrendered without incident. Alexander was sure there was more, but he could see other raiders gathering in the treeline, watching, and knew his force was too small to take back any money not voluntarily handed over. He decided on prudence and took what he had. Together with additional coins the bankers at the Moss farm had collected, about $111,000 was recovered that day. The bankers returned to Washington and placed the specie in the bank once again.

In weeks afterward, Union authorities occasionally arrested a suspected raider but the prisoners all escaped or were freed by friends. The incident also attracted the attention of Union Brigadier General Edward A. Wild, who became especially obsessed with tracking down anyone even vaguely suspected involvement in the raid.

The Massachusetts-born Wild was a Harvard-trained doctor who had opted for a field commission instead of entering the medical corps. As the war wore on, Wild’s reasons became clear: the rabid abolitionist hated Southerners virulently, and on the battlefield was where he could best hand out the punishment he thought their due.

He had come to Washington to investigate am alleged murder of a black woman but soon lost interest in the murder case when stories of the stolen specie reached his ears. One of his first moves was to jail the Richmond bankers still in Washington and seize the money being held in the Bank of Georgia’s vault.

Any idle rumor was enough to bring a local under Wild’s suspicion, sometimes with brutal consequences. In one notorious incident, he had the family of Dionysis Chennault, a local farmer and minister, tortured on the word of a former Chennault slave that the Chennaults were involved in the raid. He jailed the entire family for a time until Garnett Andrews was able to intercede with higher Union authorities. Andrews also persuaded Wild to free the Richmond bankers. But Wild didn’t free their money.

Wild arrested hundreds more locals during his stay in Washington, with the results as fruitless as his terrorizing of the Chennaults. Eventually his zealousness became too much for Union Army authorities. He was relieved of duties and recalled to Augusta.

In July 1865, the remaining bank funds were ordered seized and moved to Washington, D.C., until ownership could be determined. The U.S. Treasury argued that the bulk of the bank funds had belonged to the Confederate government and were, thus, forfeit. Much of the federal claim hung, ironically, on the money having been slated for loan to the Confederacy and its having traveled under the care of Crump, a Confederate official as well as a civilian banker. The administration of President Andrew Johnson pushed the case that the United States government could claim the money as a legitimate war prize, but ultimately Johnson decided to return it to the Richmond banks. Before that could happen, however, Congress voted in March 1867 to seize the money.

In June 1871, the six Richmond banks were declared insolvent by the Federal Circuit Court in Richmond and their assets were sold. The banks’ claims for the money went through a series of receivers until June 1893, when the U.S. Court of Claims decided the banks were entitled to recover $16, 987.88, the portion of the original amount found not to have been loaned to the Bank of Virginia for loaning to the Confederacy.

What of the other roughly $180,000? In hios account, Lewis Shepard claimed to know of raiders who fled with thousands of dollars as far away as California. Local rumors tied several postwar fortunes around Washington to seed capital from plundered money. In years afterward, many locals claimed to find stray coins after creeks flooded and roiled the sandy bottoms, coins dropped by the raiders crossing at various fords. Often in local lore the Richmond bank deposits were confused with the Confederate treasury. The upshot of that is that in the story of the Confederacy’s last days the travails of the mild-mannered banker William Crump are almost totally forgotten.  

Davis about to leave Washington’s square

“Teedie” and Uncle Jimmy: Theodore Roosevelt and James D. Bullock

Theodore Roosevelt speaking in Atlanta, October 1905

 The bite in the fall air didn’t faze the crowd in Roswell, Georgia, on October 20, 1905. The stocky man with the “friendly, peering snarl of a face” and its often caricatured clenched-teeth smile was in town to talk.[i]

Theodore Roosevelt talked boldly, often theatrically, his right fist shooting up to shoulder level to be brought crashing down into his left palm. It’s brash talk to the ears of his foes, and if truth be told, to the ears of no few of his friends as well, their dismay fueled partly by his talking as he does everything else, like “a dazzling, even appalling, spectacle of a human engine driven at full speed − the signals all properly set beforehand (and if they aren’t, never mind!).”[ii] Just days from his forty-seventh birthday, Roosevelt has been president nearly four years, since an assassin’s bullet make him president, and for Americans his talk, whether bold or brash to the ears hearing it, is shaping the new-dawned century.

Roosevelt set out from the start to remake the presidency into an activist reforming role suited to his ideals and temperament. Early on, he attacked the “trusts,” the large monopolistic combines in big business he thought not in the public’s best interests and thought should be broken up. After winning the presidency in his own right, he looked toward other reforms − greater regulation of railroads, conservation of natural resources and more. His expansive view of government even troubles some in his own party. Roosevelt, one of his wary supporters opined, had “no more use for the Constitution than a tomcat has for a marriage license.”[iii]

The United States will become a world power if he gets his way (and he will). One with especial dominion in the Western Hemisphere and supported by a formidable navy of modern warships. He has been a booster of naval power since serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the first McKinley administration in the late 1890s. An American-controlled canal across the Panamanian isthmus will also ease passage from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans for both commercial and naval interests. His covert backing of a 1903 revolution in Panama that gave that country independence from Columbia and the United States a friendly government with which to negotiate rights to a canal zone drew criticism that he had no respect for international law. He turned deaf ears to any complaints. His desire for a strong navy and his outspoken pugnaciousness in foreign policy draw a constant stream of charges that he’s a warmonger bent on imperialistic expansion. To literary icon and ardent anti-imperialist Mark Twain, Roosevelt is “clearly insane … and insanest upon war and its supreme glories.” Yet except for an inherited ongoing insurrection in the Philippines and two instances of gunboat diplomacy defending American interests, one in Morocco, another in Cuba, the Roosevelt presidency has been peaceful. He may talk fondly of war, but he also believes that having the means and the willingness to make war with raw power is the surest guarantor of peace. As for imperial expansion, after ensuring that Cuba would have an independent government he declared that he had “about as much desire to annex more islands as a boa constrictor has to swallow a porcupine wrong end to.”[iv]

His opponents label him “that damned cowboy,” and as “unreliable, a faker, a humbug,” and spread stories of bizarre behavior purportedly signaling an unstable mind, but Roosevelt takes it all in stride. “If a man has a very decided character, has a strongly accentuated career,” he retorted, “it is normally the case of course that he makes ardent friends and bitter enemies.” Maybe not always friends, among his admirers are a few surprises. To former president Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, Roosevelt is “the most perfectly equipped and most effective politician thus far seen in the presidency.”[v]

A complicated man of many disparate parts, he excites interest − and often controversy − wherever he goes. Always, though, with a certain boyish enthusiasm. The Roosevelt of the newspapers is what the Roswell audience comes to see. They see that, and more.

Roosevelt at Bulloch Hall

The New York-born-and-reared Republican president spoke that day mostly like a long lost relative come home. He had arrived in Georgia on the first presidential tour to include any of the states of the old Confederacy since Abraham Lincoln’s April 1865 visit to Richmond, Virginia.[i] His destination in Roswell was Bulloch Hall, the family home of his late mother, Martha “Mittie” Bulloch Roosevelt, the scene of her 1853 marriage to Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., the urbane, blue-blooded New Yorker who had wooed and won her Southern belle heart. Mittie Roosevelt’s oldest son takes no small pride in the place and the family it represents. Indeed, he also owes them much. Some observers hold that the energy and passion the president brings to every situation is more a legacy of the Bullochs than of the habitually staid Roosevelts. On his election as governor of New York in 1900, the New York Sun quoted “a transplanted Southern gentleman” who had known the his mother: “I have always thought, and others who knew Miss Bulloch in Savannah have quite agreed with me, that it is from his mother that Governor Roosevelt got his splendid dash of energy.”[ii]

“It has been my very great good fortune to have the right to claim my blood is half southern and half northern, and I would deny the right of any man here to feel a greater pride in the deeds of every southerner than I feel,” Roosevelt told his listeners.[iii]

He recounted what was common knowledge to his listeners, the stories of his late uncles James and Irvine Bulloch who had served in the Confederate Navy. James had been the Confederate Navy’s agent in Great Britain, a role that has left him regarded in history as head of the Confederacy’s secret service operations in Europe (an overstatement, perhaps, of his position). On one occasion, though, he had made an almost legendary run through the Union navy’s blockade of Savannah, his ship riding low, heavy with armaments for Confederate forces. For his part, Irvine had served on two of the Confederacy’s commerce raiders, the CSS Alabama and the CSS Shenandoah, the latter the last Confederate vessel to haul down her colors. Popular tradition within the Bulloch family held that Irvine fired the sinking Alabama’s last cannon shot in her fatal June 1864 duel in the English Channel with the USS Kearsage. These were stories the Bulloch brothers’ nephew had adored and repeated since childhood.

The speech echoed a theme Roosevelt had signaled from the first stop on his Southern tour in the former Confederate capital of Richmond, where he had praised those southerners who had worn the gray and fought for that they believed right. Roosevelt was not always cordially embraced by some of the Democrat state officials met on his tour, but even Southerners who likely never thought of voting for him a year before warmed to the man. His Richmond speech led one Washington, D.C., reporter accompanying the president’s train to write “wherever the president’s visit is discussed you will hear men who believed in and fought for the Confederate cause speak of him with the affection of a comrade.”[iv]

It wasn’t the first time Roosevelt had inspired men who had worn the gray to put aside old grievances. They recalled that he had resigned as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to eventually command the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry in the United States’s short but bloody war with Spain in 1898. His polyglot regiment of hardy Westerners, Southerners and Ivy League-educated Eastern dandies (the whole dubbed the “Rough Riders,” a name Roosevelt despised at first) had served in the cavalry command of former Confederate cavalryman-turned-U.S. Congressman General Joseph Wheeler, who had caused Sherman no few worries in the 1864 fighting around Atlanta. The old horse soldier’s receiving a command in 1898 was seen by some as helping heal any old wounds remaining from 1865. In a 1901 letter to an Atlanta man, Roosevelt had noted that “I think the time has now come when we can all of us be proud of the valor shown on both sides of the civil war. In my regiment I had more men whose fathers fought in the Confederacy than I had men whose fathers fought for the Union.”[v] Roosevelt had emerged from the war a national hero, which propelled him to the New York governorship and then the vice-presidency. When he won the presidency on his own in 1904, many aged former Confederates were proud to march with their just as aged blue-coated former foes in his inaugural parade.[vi]

It would be easy now over a century later to dismiss Roosevelt’s speeches from his tour of old Dixie as either the cant of a shrewd politician or as sincere views cast under a shadow by modern biases masqueraded as sophistication. But neither view does justice to one of the most curious facets of the complicated man, the close relationship Theodore Roosevelt, every inch the Ivy League-educated New York aristocrat as his father, did have with his kinsmen who had worn the gray. He always believed their cause wrong − describing them in later years as “reactionary” − but he revered them. Especially James Bulloch, his “Uncle Jimmy … as valiant and simple and upright a soul as ever lived … one of the best men I have ever known.”[vii] The relationship was for most of their lives a geographically distant one, for they were together on only a few occasions. But their friendship played a key role in shaping the young Theodore Roosevelt and preparing him for the world stage where 1905 found him a main player. Perhaps the first American president for which that could genuinely be said.

James Bulloch’s first known meeting with his New York-born nephew, called “Teedie” almost from infancy, was in late April 1861. Roosevelt would claim in later years to remember the meeting, but that claim should be taken with a shipload of salt. He was only about two and a half years old at the time. Bulloch, a merchant sea captain, had just days before sailed his ship into New York harbor and returned it to its owners. The country was on the brink of war between North and South and James Bulloch was preparing to join the naval forces of the nascent Confederacy, a fact that he at the time disclosed to no one except, probably, his closest kin.

Before heading south, he visited the 28 East 20th Street brownstone that was the home of Theodore and Mittie Roosevelt, his half-sister, and where his stepmother, Martha Stewart Bulloch and his other half-sister Anna Bulloch also lived (and had since 1856). In his memoir published years later, Bulloch says little about the visit, which with the war brewing likely had the air of a final meeting (as it would be with his stepmother, who died in 1864). No one involved left any recollections, but Bulloch almost certainly tipped the three women to his intentions and explained how they would covertly remain in touch for the duration of the war. Perhaps an uncanny portent of James Bulloch’s role in the war, unknown to him at the time, the method was worthy of any master of intrigue.

Secrecy was critical, because one of the oddest circumstances of the young Theodore Roosevelt’s childhood was that much of it was spent in a household divided by the War Between the States, his father a fervent unionist while his Georgia-born mother, grandmother and aunt remained devout − and active − Confederates in the midst of Manhattan. On the sly from the rest of the Roosevelt family, ardent and outspoken unionists all, the womenfolk sent letters and packages of scarce goods into the South by way of blockade runners. And among themselves they whispered news of James and Irvine Bulloch, who kept in touch with their New York-dwelling kin through a chain of shadowy couriers running through the blockade runners’ locus in Bermuda.[viii]

Years later, Anna “Bamie” Roosevelt, the young Teedie’s older sister by nearly three years, wrote that she and her brother treated it all as a game. Little Teedie may have paraded around in a miniature New York Zouave uniform and repeated as his own the oft-spoken hopes of the older Roosevelt males that the Confederate armies should be “ground to dust,” but smuggling past the blockade was all good fun. The children helped their mother, grandmother and aunt pack parcels of clothing, medicine and money that were handed off to strangers met in Central Park, where the children were taken on picnics as a cover for the clandestine drops. Letters to and from James and Irvine Bulloch often changed hands on these occasions as well. The meetings were always arranged using innocuous ads in New York City newspapers, by which the women either contacted their deliverymen or received word that a letter from the Bullochs or other correspondents in the South needed final delivery. The children did not grasp exactly what was going on involving the packages, Anna Roosevelt recalled, “except that it was a mystery and the box was going to run the blockade.”[ix]

And above all, their father was not to know. The “blockade running” in the Roosevelt household was, in fact, done only when the elder Theodore Roosevelt was out of town, which in the role he took on during the war years was often. What role he would play in the war had been an early bone of contention between him and the Georgia belle he had married. She could not bear it, Mittie Roosevelt held, for her husband to fight against the forces in which her Southern relatives, including two half-brothers and a step-half brother, were fighting. Theodore relented and, like all his brothers also eventually did, hired a substitute when conscription was instituted. (The prevailing rate for a substitute was about $1,000, out of the reach of most conscripted men but easily affordable to the Roosevelts.) A lifelong philanthropist, Theodore poured his commitment to the Union cause into setting up an allotment system so Union army soldiers could divert portions of their pay to the support of their families at home. Having persuaded the Lincoln Administration and Congress on the idea, he was selected as one of the commissioners to run it, and his traveling to pitch the idea to soldiers in the various camps kept him away from home for long stretches.[x]

“Always afterward,” his daughter Anna later wrote, “he felt he had done the wrong thing in not having put every other feeling aside to join the fighting forces.” [xi]That he hadn’t served in the Union Army was a disappointment to his eldest son and namesake as well, a son who in all other ways worshipped him – “My father,” the son would write, “was the best man I ever knew.”[xii] This missing piece in the young Theodore’s iconic image of his father was one he was driven especially to realize in his own life, at least in the view of another of his sisters. His younger sister, Corrine, would write years after the Spanish-American War had made her brother a national hero that his drive to gain a military reputation was “in part compensation for his father’s course in 1861.”[xiii]

That lay ahead for the young Theodore. Through his childhood and adolescent years, though, any thoughts of flesh-and blood military heroes had to center not on his father or any of the other Roosevelts but on his grandmother’s tales of her Southern forebears. “From hearing of the feats performed by my Southern forefathers and kinfolk,” Roosevelt wrote in his memoirs years later, “I felt a great admiration for men who were fearless and could hold their own in the world, and I had a great desire to be like them.”[xiv] And more immediately were the oft-told (if whispered) exploits of his uncles in gray, with “Uncle Jimmy” Bulloch center stage. His mother, he recalled, would “talk to me as a little shaver about ships, ships, ships, and fighting of ships, till they sank into the depths of my soul.”[xv]

James Bulloch, left, and Irvine Bulloch, taken probably during the war. The only known photograph of the two half-brothers and later business partners together.

James Dunwoody Bulloch was born in June 1823, near Savannah. It would be fifteen years before his planter father, James Stephen Bulloch, moved the family to the north Georgia village that would become the city of Roswell, where the elder Bulloch partnered with entrepreneur Roswell King in a cotton mill venture. Young James, though, would spend most of his developing years at a boarding school in Hartford, Connecticut, where his father sent him after the early death of James’s mother.[1]

Back home, meanwhile, his father created in due course what was considered by some no mean social scandal. In May 1832, the elder Bulloch married Martha Stewart Elliot, who had been the much younger second wife and then the widow of Bulloch’s father-in-law, Georgia’s former U.S. Senator John Elliot. She had also been James Stephen Bulloch’s early love, but had turned down his first marriage proposal. It would be said in later years that the move to the north Georgia hills would be as much to escape the wagging tongues of Savannah society as to gain business opportunities. Their remaining Savannah family remained close nonetheless, and long visits to Savannah were the rule. Bulloch Hall in Roswell was their home, however, and home to their three surviving children, Martha “Mittie” Bulloch, Anna Bulloch and Irvine Stephens Bulloch. James Stephen Bulloch died of a heart attack in 1849, after which the family’s fortunes went into a gradual decline. (Scarce finances were the main cause for Martha and Anna Bulloch’s 1856 move to Theodore and Mittie Roosevelt’s New York City home.)[2]

Young Jimmy Bulloch as he came of age opted for a life far away from plantations and mills and family gossip. The seas beckoned. Entering the U.S. Navy as a midshipman, he served for fifteen years, part of it detailed to the mail service, before resigning his lieutenant’s commission in 1854 to captain a vessel in private shipping. The seafaring life and its endeavors suited James Bulloch right down to his keel. He was in fact the ideal American naval officer, according to writer Richard Henry Dana (best known for Three Years Before The Mast), who once sailed with Bulloch and profiled him in his To Cuba and Back.[3]

April 13, 1861 found him the captain of the U.S. mail and passenger steamer Bienville, docked in New Orleans. Word had reached New Orleans overnight that Confederate forces in Charleston, South Carolina, had the previous morning fired on the Federal garrison of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. For Bulloch, the event and its almost certain aftermath forced him to take action he had already decided was inevitable.

South Carolina had seceded from the union the previous December, followed soon after the turn of the year by other states, including Georgia. Bulloch had seen no need to jump too quickly in abandoning his employment, but now war seemed certain and he faced no quandary at all over where his duty lay. Like many Southerners who had no direct interests in the political matters at the heart of the war on the horizon, his own and his family’s native soil drew his loyalty. “I had never concealed or even disguised the fact that in respect to the issues at stake my heart and my head were with the South,” he reflected on the decision years later. “My sympathies and convictions were both on that side, although my personal interests were wholly, and my personal friendships were chiefly, in the North. Whatever had happened, neither friend nor foe could have said with truth that I was not ready to act in harmony with my convictions at the proper time.”[4]

From New Orleans Bulloch wrote Judah P. Benjamin, the prominent New Orleans lawyer and planter serving as the new Confederate nation’s attorney general in the temporary capital of Montgomery, Alabama, and offered his services to the Confederacy. He would be free to serve, he told Benjamin, after he had sailed the Bienville to New York City, returning the vessel to its owners, to him both a final duty of his employment and a matter of honor. After some wrangling with Confederate authorities in New Orleans who considered seizing the Northern-owned vessel, Bulloch sailed for New York City, arriving on April 24.

A response from Judah Benjamin awaited Bulloch in New York, summoning him immediately to Montgomery. He set about winding up his affairs in New York, all the while making his plans to go South with all the cunning and wiliness he would later display in carrying out his assignment in Great Britain.[5] He announced plans to travel to Philadelphia and then to Cincinnati. His return of the Bienville to New York City had allayed any immediate concerns about his loyalties, and he perceived his friends and acquaintances thought he was likely to remain neutral. But still he was cautious, taking ten days to conclude his business affairs and other arrangements before leaving. “Subsequent information has assured me,” he wrote almost a quarter-century later, “that if I had shown any haste in my movements, I should have been arrested.”[6]

He found that acquaintances met on his way southward, including once fellow naval officers, generally avoided discussing the national crisis, either out of tact or some disbelief that even after the firing on Fort Sumter a general war was at hand. One Northern-born former shipmate met declared, in fact, his intention to request duty in the Pacific. He wanted to avoid having to fight against the South, he said, wishing “no professional honor or preferment that might be gained in such a struggle.” It was a view Bulloch found common among regular Army and Navy officers in those heady days, he recollected nearly a quarter of a century later, a sentiment that “if not with reluctance, at least with the feeling that they were performing a painful duty” would they face in battle Southern men with whom they had served. All this, however, was against a backdrop wherever he went − North and South − of newly formed state army units with recently civilian volunteers learning drills and various others making excited preparations for war. It was a contrast he found ironic at the time and even more so in the war’s aftermath − the professional military men were remorseful of war even before it started; the civilians could hardly wait for it to begin.[7]

From Cincinnati he crossed into Kentucky and made his way to Montgomery, finding the city hot with the same “feverish excitement, the same hastening to prepare for the now inevitable conflict” as in the North. His meeting with Judah Benjamin, the cherubic, excitable new Confederate attorney general, in Bulloch’s words, “took me aback.” He had assumed that he would be sent back to New Orleans to help improve that critical port’s defenses, an anticipated task to which he had already given considerable thought. Benjamin, however, had radically different plans for him: “I want you to go to Europe. When can you start?”

Great Britain, and the port of Liverpool in particular, was Bulloch’s destination. The next day Bulloch met with Stephen Mallory, a former U.S. senator from Florida with experience in naval matters and now the secretary of the Confederate Navy. Mallory outlined Bulloch’s mission, its scope, and its critical importance to the Confederate war effort. The Confederacy faced the need to create a navy almost out of thin air, Mallory explained. There were few ships available for conversion to warships. The Confederacy also lacked the shipyards, shipwrights and machine shops, and even many of the necessary materials for shipbuilding. The logical move, then, was to have Confederate ships built in Great Britain, which relied on the Southern states for 80 percent of the cotton that fed its textile mills and whose shipyards had helped make the British rulers of the world’s oceans. Managing this complex operation would be Bulloch’s main task.

A key part of Mallory’s plan called for fast, well-armed (for their size) commerce raiders to prey on U.S. shipping, with a secondary mission as coastal raiders threatening to bring the war to the coastal towns of the northeastern seaboard. The idea was not only to disrupt shipping but, it was hoped, to draw the U.S. Navy away from blockading Southern ports. Another idea was the building of warships outfitted with rams to aim directly at the Federal blockaders. A third part of Mallory’s general plan was a Confederate government-owned fleet of blockade runners to transport cotton to Great Britain and France and bring back war materiel. It was only the first part of the plan − commerce raiders − that made significant headway, and realizing that occupied most of Bulloch’s time and talents. It also called for expertise in skullduggery and diplomacy as well as naval logistics.

The diplomacy was necessarily tricky. Mallory emphasized that from the start. Because until such time as Great Britain recognized the Confederacy, Bulloch would need to take especial pains to avoid violating British neutrality laws. In all this he would work closely with the Liverpool office of Fraser, Trenholm and Company, the Charleston, South Carolina-based cotton brokerage and trading firm tasked as the Confederacy’s commercial agents and bankers in its foreign transactions. These diplomatic travails never abated while Bulloch acted as the Confederate Navy’s man in Great Britain. Despite some currents of sympathy for Confederate independence in British government circles and the upper reaches of British society − together with a desire just to see the Yanks pipped − the British government never found it diplomatically expedient to formally recognize the Confederacy. So Bulloch’s next four years would see one diplomatic wrangle after another as U.S. diplomats worked to throw stumbling blocks into his efforts, all the while using a small army of paid operatives to watch Bulloch’s and other Confederates’ every move on British soil.

Bulloch left Montgomery by train that very night, May 9, taking pains before he crossed into Kentucky to destroy all notes and other writings related to his purpose. From Louisville he traveled to Detroit, where he crossed into Canada. He caught a train to Montreal and booked passage on a steamer for Liverpool. He arrived in Great Britain on June 4.[8]

He carried no official portfolio, but the Confederate commissioners in Liverpool, who had not themselves been granted diplomatic status, accepted him at face value, as did the local representatives of Fraser, Trenholm and Company. “When men are moved by a common sympathy,” he recollected, “and their minds are earnestly set upon the same object, the powers of discerning seem to be quickened, and they recognize each other by intuitive perception.” The confidence of the Fraser, Trenholm representatives, and with it the company’s reputation and credit, was essential because, as Bulloch quickly learned, the Confederate government itself had no funds in Great Britain with which he could buy war materiel or contract the building of ships. Nevertheless, within a month of setting foot on British soil he had acquired a warehouse full of naval supplies and seen laid the keel for the ship that would become the CSS Florida.[9]

Bulloch was aided by the tacit decision of British shipbuilders to ask no questions whose answers they did not wish to know. Of the CSS Florida’s builders, Bulloch later asserted, “the contract was made with me as a private person, nothing whatever being said about the ultimate destination of the ship, or the object for which she was intended.” The builders may have harbored thoughts the ship might eventually fly a Confederate naval ensign “but they never mentioned their suspicions, and they undertook nothing more than to build and deliver in Liverpool a screw steamer … fitted for sea in every respect, but without armament or equipment for fighting of any kind whatever.” (The fitting out for war was done after the ship had left British waters.) The story Bulloch circulated in the Liverpool shipyards had the ship slated for a firm doing business out of Palermo, Sicily. However many of the dockyard denizens or the U.S. minister to Great Britain’s hired watchers this tale actually fooled is anyone’s guess. About the CSS Alabama (built by a different firm), he avowed, “… [The builders] did not know for what purpose the ship was intended when they agreed to build her.” The matter was simply never discussed, he noted, until after the Alabama was afloat under a Confederate flag, all pretenses abandoned as the ship cut its storied swath through U.S. shipping.[10]

In September 1861, with months of wait ahead before any of the Confederate cruisers would set sail, Bulloch undertook his most daring venture of the war, one that would burnish his star in Confederate government circles and later provide his nephew with a favorite story.

He decided to make his report on his progress in person, and to return he would buy a ship and run in a load of war materiel past the U.S. Navy’s blockade. He bought the Fingal, a nearly new screw steamer capable of thirteen knots in good weather, built for trade among the islands of northern Scotland. When she sailed for Savannah under Bulloch’s direction (but not captaincy in fact), however, the Fingal would never see her home waters again. She would also be the first blockade runner solely owned, if indirectly, by the Confederate government.

From the Confederate purchasing agents’ warehouses the ship’s cargo included 10,000 British-made Enfield rifles for the Confederate government (plus another 4,000 for the state of Georgia), a million ball cartridges for the rifles, two million percussion caps, 400 barrels of gunpowder, plus clothing and medical stores. Two heavy naval cannon and two breechloading rifled cannon suitable either for vessels or army field artillery, plus ammunition, also went into the ship’s hold. It would be in fact the single largest cargo of purely military materiel the Confederacy ever received. Three Southern civilians whom the war had left marooned in Great Britain also shipped on the Fingal, including a Texas doctor and a Confederate Army colonel who had tasked with inspecting armament purchasing arrangements in Liverpool.

Bulloch handled the preparation for the Fingal’s voyage with all the intrigue he invested in building the Confederate Navy’s raiders, necessary with all the prying eyes. The ship stayed under a British flag and nominally had a British-certified captain, though as the voyage played out Bulloch made most of the command decisions.

The voyage proceeded not without incident, but without any serious threat from Union forces. Approaching the mouth of the Savannah River from down coast, Bulloch made a high-speed run for the river’s mouth timed so that the ship was screened by morning fog. The ship reached Savannah on November 12. After making his report in Richmond, Bulloch was ordered to return with the Fingal to Great Britain, carrying a cargo mainly of cotton. By this time, however, Union forces had captured Tybee Island and Fort Pulaski at the river’s mouth, finally sealing the port of Savannah. (The Fingal would have a second life after a refitting as the ironclad CSS Atlanta.)

Bulloch shipped out from Wilmington bound for Liverpool on February 5, 1862 aboard a Fraser, Trenholm and Company steamer. Eventually he was joined by his half-brother, Irvine, who at age 19 had left the University of Pennsylvania at the start of the war. Getting the cruisers to sea would occupy James Bulloch for most of the rest of the war. Before the war was over, ships for the Confederacy would be obtained not only from Great Britain but from France and Denmark as well.

When Bulloch years later wrote his memoir The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe the subtitle, How the Confederate Cruisers were Equipped, told more of the story than the main title. The Confederacy had no organized secret service, only several loosely coordinated bureaus carrying out espionage and attempting what would now be called “black operations.” Only in late 1864 was legislation introduced into the Confederate Congress to unify the various secret bureaus, but the legislation wasn’t enacted until March 1865 and never really became effective. So “secret service” in the term’s usual meaning is an overstatement in describing Bulloch’s operations. Nevertheless, some 20th century historians have attempted to link Bulloch indirectly with a far-ranging plot by Confederate operatives to kidnap Abraham Lincoln. This plot never came close to taking form but it did in fact help give rise to the plot by John Wilkes Booth and his cohort that resulted in Lincoln’s assassination. Bulloch’s role, however, seems incidental.

In late 1864, Bulloch received orders from Mallory to give funds from his accounts to Patrick Charles Martin. Martin, a New Yorker by birth, had become a blockade runner early in the war but by late 1864 was firmly established as one of the Confederacy’s main covert agents operating out of Montreal, which was so well-stocked with Confederate operatives that it was dubbed “Little Richmond.” The money Bulloch supplied was to fund an operation hatched by Martin and his frequent compatriot Booth to kidnap Lincoln as the president took one of his often lightly guarded rides on the outskirts of Washington. There is no evidence, however, that Bulloch knew what the funds were intended for. The kidnapping attempt never took place, but it left Booth with a full knowledge of the network of contacts among the Confederate underground in and around Washington, D.C. Later he used these in his escape after his own apparently rogue operation to assassinate Lincoln. In late 1865, John Surratt, a known Confederate operative, also a cohort of Booth’s, turned up in Liverpool, but there is no evidence that Surratt and Bulloch ever met. Surratt was the son of Mary Surratt, owner of the Washington boarding house where Booth and his compatriots plotted, a fact that led to her being hanged as one of Booth’s conspirators. Bulloch’s “secret service” operations not involving ships, then, was evidently limited to providing funds for activities of which he likely knew little to nothing.[11]

Owing to Bulloch’s position, however, neither he nor Irvine was included in the general amnesty of 1865, so they did not return to the United States for fear of arrest. They remained in Liverpool and parlayed the contacts Bulloch had amassed during the war into a cotton brokerage business, which prospered, and Bulloch was joined by his wife and children. In 1868, he met at least once in Liverpool with former Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Davis, recently released from U.S. government custody, had traveled with his family to Europe. No known recollections of the meeting exist, but Davis’s two sons were left to attend the same school outside Liverpool attended by Bulloch’s sons and it seems safe to assume that Bulloch was asked to exercise some oversight of the boys.[12] (That set the stage for young Theodore, ever the Union man even at 10, though with the war over for four years, to get into a fight with Jefferson Davis Jr. when the Roosevelt family visited James Bulloch and his family in 1869.)[13]   

  Irvine made one covert visit to New York City in 1867, traveling under an assumed name, contacting his kin by way of an anonymous note and meeting them in Central Park for one hour before rejoining a Liverpool-bound ship. James Bulloch, however, isn’t known to have visited the United States again until 1877. But it was in 1869 in Liverpool when the young Teedie met James for likely the first time he actually remembered.[14]


When Teedie Roosevelt was 10, his family set out on what would be a year-long tour of Europe. His mother later recalled that the ocean voyage from New York to Liverpool had not impressed him. When he wasn’t seasick, he spent most of his time either with his head in a book or talking with an older gentleman knowledgeable on natural history. Aside from his siblings, Teedie took little interest in other children.[15]

Certainly his upbringing had been sheltered. All of the Roosevelt children had been tutored at home, first by their Aunt Anne Bulloch and then by hired tutors. Teedie had been plagued by asthma from infancy, the attacks at times seeming life-threatening (and calling for such then commonly advised emergency treatments as dosing with ipecac or strong black coffee and the forced smoking of cigars). That curtailed many typical childhood activities, though as far as possible he imitated his father’s regimen of vigorous athletics, developing his body and setting a habit he would keep all his life. Young Teedie found much solace in books, with special interests in history and natural history. This was the nephew James Bulloch and his family, with Irvine Bulloch in tow, met on the Liverpool dock.[16]

The first meeting with his uncle that young Teedie remembered was mostly a reunion for the adults, as Mittie Roosevelt hadn’t seen her oldest half-brother since April of 1861. Nevertheless, here for the 10-year-old Teedie were the men, James and Irvine, of his grandmother’s and mother’s stories in the flesh. The impression left by the big, quiet, reserved and modest man with the muttonchop whiskers and upright bearing was deep, and the seed of their future friendship was planted during the days the Roosevelts stayed with James Bulloch and his family in Waterloo, near Liverpool, before setting off on the rest of their European tour.

During the young Theodore’s adolescence he and his uncle developed an intimate correspondence, which continued as Theodore headed off to Harvard in September 1876, and assumed an even greater place in his life following the death of his father in early 1878.[17] In between, the uncle and nephew spent some time together in the summer of 1877, much of which James Bulloch spent with the Roosevelts. Twelve years after the war and eight years after the settlement of the diplomatic and financial wrangling between the United States and Great Britain over the CSS Alabama’s cost to American shipping, Bulloch no longer feared harassment by American authorities. He was in fact becoming thoroughly British, in mind and manner as well as acquired nationality. Theodore would later describe him as “a Tory of the most ultra-conservative school.” Bulloch, his nephew reflected, was “forgiving and just in reference to the Union forces, and could discuss all phases of the Civil War with fairness and generosity. … Lincoln and Grant he could admire, but he would not listen to anything in favor of Mr. (William) Gladstone.”[18]

Theodore would later say he took little worthwhile away from Harvard, dismayed as he was by the dry and rigid treatment of some of his favorite subjects, the sciences. During his senior year he developed a fascination with the naval battles of the War of 1812, a fascination that seemed to have little more seed than his long interest in history and the heroic tales he had heard in childhood about his seafaring uncles. “When the professor thought I ought to be on mathematics and the languages,” he later wrote, “my mind was running to ships that were fighting each other.” He resolved to write a book on the subject and began his research and writing even before graduation.[19]

Work on the book continued after he entered Columbia University Law School. In October 1880, he married socialite Ann Hathaway Lee and they embarked on a European honeymoon, with Theodore taking along his notes and draft manuscripts and his problems drawing it all together. “I have plenty of information, but I can’t get it into words,” he wrote his sister Anna from Holland. “I am afraid it is too big a task for me.” What was lacking was the flavor of a seaman’s experience, the insight of someone who knew the handling of sailing ships firsthand, knew the tactics of ship-to-ship fighting. These the newlywed Theodore found when he and his bride spent several weeks with “Uncle Jimmy” in Liverpool.

Theodore steeped in “advice and sympathy from this blessed man,” and from this collaboration emerged three books. Theodore published The Naval War of 1812 in 1882, with an acknowledgement to Bulloch “without whose advice and sympathy this work would probably never have been written.” And in 1883, James Bulloch would publish the first of his two volumes of The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe. (The second volume followed the next year.) “I have persuaded him,” Theodore had written his mother, “to publish a work which only he possesses the materials to write.”[20]

Theodore’s book won praise as a work of excellent scholarship despite some failings in style. It is, according to one of his biographers, “often dry and tedious in the extreme − but also scrupulously thorough, accurate, fair, and it remains a definitive study.” It was a good first book from someone who would later describe himself as “a literary feller.” Other books would follow from Roosevelt’s adventures yet to come, along with magazine articles, making him one of the most widely read writers ever to become president.[21]

James Bulloch’s volumes remain in a class by themselves over 130 years after his manuscripts first met a printing press. He wrote in detail of how he had carried out the task given him to make the Confederacy a threat on the high seas. He also used a lot of ink defending the British shipbuilders’ actions and denying any complicity on their part to violate their government’s neutrality. This was, he felt, the least that he do considering what he thought the unwarranted postwar claims the U.S. government lodged against the British government related to the CSS Alabama’s raiding. The claims were settled, finally, by the British government anteing up an amount of reparations. In fact, the American claims and the settlement were front page news in Great Britain in 1869 when Roosevelts’ ship docked in Liverpool for the Bulloch-Roosevelt family reunion. (The controversy would sour U.S. – British relations for decades.)

Other parts of  Bulloch’s volumes, wedged in among the narrative and exposition, preached the virtues of a strong navy and took issue with the lack of political commitment or will on the part of the U.S. government to build a strong navy during his own years under the American flag. In many ways Bulloch’s writings struck the first sparks in his nephew for advocating strong naval power as a way onto the world stage. The sparks would be fanned to flame by the 1890 publication of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1663-1783 by American admiral and naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose thesis was that naval power determined the power and destinies of great nations. Mahan’s book would become Roosevelt’s bible as when he became Assistant Secretary of the Navy, but James Bulloch’s nephew was already primed for Mahan’s theories.

Roosevelt made his first foray into elected politics in 1882, at 23 winning a seat in the New York State Assembly, its youngest member. He dropped out of Columbia Law School, giving up any thoughts of being a lawyer (he tended to find the law irrational, he later claimed) and never looked back. Reelected twice more, he gained a reputation as a foe of corruption, even aligning himself in that fight with New York’s Democratic governor Grover Cleveland. His political career seemed on the rise − he even spoke at the 1884 Republican National Convention − before frustration set in with the Republican establishment that had nominated for the presidency James G. Blaine, a man he could not endorse (though he later did issue a boilerplate statement of support). He had lost some political support, but that same year he had suffered two crushing personal blows: his wife had died on February 14, two days after giving birth to their daughter Alice. His mother died the same day.

He retired to North Dakota, where he already had ranching investments, and built another ranch, beginning the brief “cowboy life” that he would write about at length and carry with him in spirit and cultivated image all his days. By late 1886, however, he was spending more time in the East, and keeping well abreast of politics. (Overgrazing and a dry summer threatened an already tenuous ranching operation.) In the fall of 1886, he was asked to run for mayor of New York City. He lost. In early December 1886, he and his sister Anna sailed for England, where he married childhood friend Edith Carow, then living in London, with whom he had renewed acquaintance. (James Bulloch was in attendance.) He would be on his European honeymoon when he learned that the extremely harsh winter of 1886-87 in the Dakotas had wiped out over half of his herds. But he was ready for a renewed life in the East.

Having lost a lot of money in ranching, Roosevelt was at least partly dependent on his pen to support his new family and maintain his lifestyle. He had written a biography of Thomas Hart Benton, the iconic U.S. senator from Missouri, while in the Dakotas, as well as a book on hunting and a biography of the American Revolution figure Gouverneur Morris. From 1888 through 1895, however, between writing magazine articles he turned out six books, with the four-volume work, The Winning of the West, making his greatest literary mark. The last volume was published in 1895, about the time that his political career was beginning to flourish anew.[22]

He had never abandoned politics altogether after his 1886 losing bid in to become New York City’s mayor. After campaigning hard for Benjamin Harrison in the election of 1888, he was rewarded by President Harrison with an appointment to the United States Civil Service Commission. The position let him indulge his bent for reform as he battled against the patronage spoils system and demanded enforcement of civil service laws. This occasionally brought him into conflict with others in the Harrison administration, but Harrison’s successor, Democrat Grover Cleveland, whose reforms Roosevelt had supported in the New York State Assembly, was so impressed that he reappointed Roosevelt.[23]

In 1895, Roosevelt accepted a position on the New York City Police Commission, which he shortly became president of. Once again his reforming nature came to the fore when he confronted what he described as the city’s “largest and most corrupt department.”[24] Regular inspections of men and firearms became a standard abided, as well as the setting of physical and mental qualification standards for officers and an end − so far as was possible − of jobs by political patronage. He became infamous among the city’s police officers for walking officers’ beats late at night and in the early mornings to ensure they were on the job. He had earlier met Jacob Riis, the reform-minded New York journalist who high-lighted the conditions of New York City’s poor, and was sympathetic. Roosevelt looked now to aid Riis’s reform goals. “No one ever helped as he did,” Riis recalled. “There is very little ease where Theodore Roosevelt leads, as we all of us found out. …for the first time a moral purpose came into the street. In the light of it everything was transformed.” Roosevelt’s reform-mindedness and determination to enforce laws was so successful, in fact, that it played a large part in spawning a successful effort by the city’s Tammany Hall politicians to have the police commission legislated out of existence.[25]

He did not support William McKinley for the Republican nomination in 1896, but when McKinley won the spot that pitted him against the Democrat William Jennings Bryan, Roosevelt campaigned vigorously for McKinley. He considered many of Bryan’s followers dangerous fanatics, and believed (along with other Republicans and Democrats such as Grover Cleveland) that Bryan’s key platform goal pushing the free coinage of silver was especially dangerous to the American economy. When McKinley won, U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, long a Roosevelt friend and knowing his interest in naval affairs, urged McKinley to appoint Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He was positioned for whatever fate had in store for him.[26]

That day in Roswell, despite all that he had done, many of his most remembered accomplishments still lay ahead.

His Uncle Jimmy, from their correspondence in some ways a substitute father, lived to see his nephew elected vice-president, but not to see him take office. James Bulloch died in Liverpool on January 7, 1901. He was buried in Liverpool’s Toxeth Park Cemetery under a stone reading: “An American by birth, an Englishman by choice.”

Roosevelt’s trip to Roswell was, in some ways, an homage to the legacy of his Bulloch kin and, he must have hoped, to finish binding up any old wounds.

“Men and women, don’t you think I have the ancestral right to claim a proud kinship with those who showed their devotion to duty as they saw the duty, whether they wore the grey or whether they wore the blue?” he said.  “All Americans who are worthy the name feel an equal pride in the valor of those who fought on one side or the other, provided only that each did with all his strength and soul and mind his duty as it was given to him to see his duty.”[27]

[1] Miller, Nathan. Theodore Roosevelt: A Life (New York: Quill, William Morrow, 1992) p. 9. The quoted description of Roosevelt originated with British writer H.G. Wells.

[1] Morris, Edmund. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (New York: Random House, 1979) xxi, Prologue.

[1] Ibid, xiv.

[1] Ibid, xv-xvi

[1] Ibid, xv

[1] Washington Times, Feb. 7, 2006.

[1] McCullough, David. Mornings On Horseback (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981) p. 365.

[1] The Washington Times, Feb. 7, 2006.

[1] Ibid

[1] Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to J.R. Nutting, of Atlanta, dated June 4, 1901 The Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard University Library.

[1] Miller, p.11

[1] McCullough, p. 76.

[1] Miller, p. 35.

[1] McCullough, p. 36.

[1] Miller, pp. 33-35.

[1] McCullough, p. 33.

[1] Ibid. p. 32.

[1] Ibid. p. 33.

[1] Ibid. p. 74.

[1] Morris, p. 588.

[1] McCullough, pp. 41-42.

[1] Ibid. pp. 41-46.

[1] Ibid. p. 73.

[1] Bulloch, James Dunwoody, The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe: How The Confederate Cruisers Were Equipped , vol. 1 (New York:G. P. Putnam and Son, 1884) p. 32.

[1] Ibid. pp.30-38.

[1] Ibid. pp. 38-39.

[1] Ibid. pp. 39-40.

[1] Ibid. pp. 40-48.

[1] Ibid. p. 52.

[1] Ibid. pp. 52-61.

[1] Steers, Edward, Jr., Blood On The Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (The University Press of Kentucky, 2001) pp. 71-74.  That Bulloch transferred the money to Martin as instructed is undeniable. But nothing in the account detailed about Lincoln’s assassination draws any direct connection to Bulloch’s

activities in Europe. Despite the attempts by less credible claims to connect him, there seems no grounds at all.

[1] Washington Times, Sept. 8, 2006, “The Missing Files of a Confederate Officer.”

[1] McCullough, p. 76.

[1] Ibid. p. 72.

[1] Ibid. pp. 69-71.

[1] Ibid. p. 30.

[1] Ibid. p. 165.

[1] Roosevelt, Theodore Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography (New York: De Capo Press, 1985) p. 381.

[1] Morris, p. 588.

[1] Miller, pp. 115-116.

[1] McCullough, p. 248.

[1] Miller, pp. 156-185 for the summary of Roosevelt’s life between the death of his wife and mother and his reentry into politics.

[1] Miller, pp. 203-209.

[1] Ibid. p. 230.

[1] Ibid. pp. 230-234.

[1] Ibid. pp. 240-248.

[1] Washington Times, Feb. 7, 2006.

James Bulloch in his later years.

“… More honorable than the life led by the average politician” −

The Life and Death of “Soapy” Smith, King of the Old West’s Con Men

The last known photo of Jefferson “Soapy” Smith in life, taken as he led the Skagway July Fourth parade in 1898. Four days later he would be dead.

The pale, stocky man rode a dapple gray horse down Broadway Avenue of Skagway, Alaska Territory, waving his broad-brimmed white hat. The grand marshal of Skagway’s 1898 Independence Day parade, Jeff “Soapy” Smith was followed by a band comprised in good part of musicians who usually played in the saloons and dance halls of the wide-open boomtown that was a gateway to the Yukon gold rush fields. The band was followed by the nattily uniformed Skagway Military Company that Smith had founded and funded ostensibly as a result of the United States’s current troubles with Spain. He was the company’s captain. The company also had a role slightly nefarious in Smith’s business enterprises, but from afar his forming it seemed a gesture more symbolic than anything else, the kind of thing a prominent citizen was expected to do.[i]

And the soft-spoken Smith, the accent of his native Georgia still very much a part of him nearly twenty years after his leaving, was a prominent man in Skagway, though some towns people might dispute the definition of “prominent” as it applied to him. He was a more recent arrival to the new Alaska frontier than many, arriving not much over a year before from Colorado. But there, in Denver and in Creede to be exact, he had built an empire, and he was determined build another in Skagway. As in Colorado, it would be an empire based on preying on the foibles and weaknesses of human nature, especially the desires of victims for quick and easy money. “Soapy” Smith was a crooked gambler and a confidence man. And not just any confidence man; he was king of the West’s confidence men. And he would be among the first to tell you that himself.

It was a line of work that what officialdom developed in cities and towns of the less urbane West often not only tolerated but used to advantage. Wherever Smith operated the agreed upon rule was that Smith’s gang of crooked faro dealers, card sharps and bunco artists never preyed on the locals, only on the transient trade. And Smith was very generous in spreading the bounty not only to the pockets of some of those same officials but also to local civic organizations, churches and charities. In Denver the city police had even once approached him to aid some of the local down-and-out population that might otherwise turn to petty crime. He had. He was a friend to the downtrodden as well as to mayors, sheriffs and police chiefs, judges, even to governors and senators. In a way, he considered himself a cut above some of these more socially acceptable citizens. As he once told a newspaper reporter, “I consider bunco steering more honorable than the life led by the average politician.”[ii]

Smith was following the same strategy in Skagway. So that July 4 his procession through the bunting-lined street to a speaking platform where the territorial governor waited was followed by a great many who cheered the up-and-coming man of the town. Some did so with bellies warmed by whiskey he had supplied to the day’s festivities. In four days time, however, all “Soapy” Smith’s hopes for an empire in Skagway would end. He would be dead. Shot dead. And a lot of people in Skagway, no doubt including some of his boozy feigned admirers of just a few days before, would cheer that too.

The Early Years

Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith II didn’t invent the swindle that gave him his nickname, but he raised it to an art form and followed it to dubious fame and rapidly spent fortune.

Jeff − as he would always prefer to be called − was born in Coweta County, Georgia, in November 1860 just as the building storm of the Civil War was about to break. The Smiths of Coweta County were locally prominent. Jeff’s grandfather had been a planter and state legislator. His father was a planter and lawyer. Like most Georgians of their class, the Smiths came out of the war with their antebellum lifestyle a thing gone forever. All his life, however, no matter what nefarious scents clung to him in his criminal career, Jeff Smith would also maintain an air that many who knew him likened to that of a Southern gentleman, with the soft accent of the Georgia piedmont to match.[iii]

In 1876, like others in the postwar South had, the Smiths sought new opportunities in Texas, moving to Round Rock, near the state capital of Austin. The next year, after the death of his mother, Jeff Smith left his family to seek his own fortune. He went to Fort Worth, where his first known forays into grifting and confidence games took place along with his first gathering of associates in the same cause. He had, according to his most studious biographer (his great grandson, also named Jeff Smith), a talent for organization and leadership that likely surfaced very early in his circle.[iv] The loose gang traveled from town to town, the tricks of their trade mainly three-card monte and the pea-and-shell game, along with the odd crooked card game. The first two games especially depended on teamwork. Anyone actually finding their chosen card among the three or finding a pea under the chosen shell was most likely a shill; the operator’s magician-like sleight of hand eliminated any chance of the mark winning. It was a “sure thing game” and Jeff Smith was a “sure thing man,” both phrases whose coinage would be credited by some to Jeff during his Denver days after the Clerical Association of Denver had called him out in the local newspaper. “I’m no ordinary gambler,” he retorted brazenly to a newspaper reporter. “An ordinary gambler hazards his money in an attempt to win another’s. When I stake money, it’s a sure thing that I win.”[v]

It’s likely he had played some variation of the soap game before he and his associates settled in Denver in 1880 or shortly after (according the most reliable research), but it’s for certain that in Denver he became a past master of the swindle that brought him his nickname. It was simple. Smith would set up a “tripe and keister” (display case on a tripod-supported table), pile it high with bars of soap and start hawking the soap to passersby. Once he had the attention of onlookers, he would start wrapping selected bars with greenbacks of various denominations, including at least one $100 bill. Then he would wrap all the soap bars in paper to make them indistinguishable, and then offer them for sale, along with the chance of a cash prize. Some lucky buyers would unwrap their bars to find money. These would be Jeff’s associates. His magician’s touch ensured that no bar with a prize found its way to anyone else in the crowd. When most of the prize bars had been found − with the notable exception of the $100 bill, usually − Smith auctioned off the remaining bars. On rare occasions it wasn’t always a sure thing. And when on one instance early in the Denver days Jeff was arrested for running the soap game, the city policeman recording his arrest couldn’t recall his first name and simply wrote “Soapy.” The name stuck, both to him (but never to his face) and to his associates, rendering them all the Soap Gang. So they would be in both public talk and local newspaper stories for years to come.[vi]

Creede, Colorado, as Soapy Smith knew it. After he was temporarily run out of Denver, he made the mining boomtown his stronghold.

Close to the silver mining boomtowns, the more urbane Denver was still a wide open town for gambling and other vices when “Soapy” and his cohort arrived, and he would end up staying as long as it remained that way. And he did his best to help it stay that way, including near the end of his tenure some extraordinary measures. From its beginning with him hawking bars of soap and hopes of easy money to willing marks on Denver street corners, his organization grew. The Soap Gang would come to include over one hundred crooked gamblers and “bunco steerers,” not including the policemen, public officials and everyday citizens who acted as informers for the con men, all of them on “Soapy’s” pad.

With its expanding pool of talent, the gang’s operations expanded beyond the small-time con. Over time the cons would include not only rigged card games and other crooked gambling in saloons but also land swindling and phony mine leases (a specialty of Soap Gang member “Professor” William Jackson, who could convincingly pass himself off as a geologist and mining expert), a phony stock exchange office, phony lotteries and auction houses that offered fine jewelry and other supposedly quality recognized name merchandise that were instead genuine fakes. And since such an enterprise needs adequate protection from rivals and upstart competitors, “Soapy” added gunmen to his associates. One of his most notable hired guns, for a time, was “Texas Jack” Vermillion, who was also variously associated with Wyatt Earp and John “Doc” Holliday around Tombstone, Arizona. By 1884 “Soapy” was able to publicly acclaim − for in wide open Denver he seldom shied from publicity and seldom needed to − that he was the undisputed king of the Denver underworld and its organized crime.[i]

The lower part of Denver belonged, in effect and in some cases by actual deed, to “Soapy” and the Soap Gang. That part of the city between the Union Station train depot, one of the main gateways for new arrivals in town, and Larimer Street was their hunting ground, with “Soapy” headquartering his own operations on Seventeenth Street. Since Denver townspeople were off-limits as prey by unwritten agreement, newcomers arriving at the Union Station depot would be targeted some member of the gang and “steered” to one or more of the gang’s swindles or crooked gambling games. One of the best at it was “Reverend” John Bowers, who played the role of a humble minister anyone would be inclined to trust, all the while he was guiding victims into the gang’s snares. Others not in the gang proper could make a little on the side as a spotter. A newcomer visiting a barber, for example, and while in the chair asking about mining property or other local opportunities might find the barber knowledgeable but careless. The stranger would leave the barber shop with names of men who could help him and also with a tiny but visible razor nick on his neck, a mark to the Soap Gang steerer that here was a stranger looking to invest money, literally marked as prey.

It all worked. And it did because “Soapy” and the gang spread enough of their ill-gotten gains around in direct bribes and charitable contributions to make it worthwhile for the police, local politicians and ordinary Denver citizens to leave them alone. Occasionally some minister or reformer would take umbrage and raise a stink. “Soapy” would crow his own case in public, as in his famous quote of any gamble he took being a “sure thing.” And the minister’s or reformer’s effort would peter out to little effect. Some ministers even reached an accommodation with the gang’s activities. One of the main beneficiaries of the charitable largesse “Soapy” generously handed out, for instance, was the Reverend Thomas Uzzell of Denver’s People’s Tabernacle church. On one noted occasion the reverend happened upon “Soapy” while showing guests around Denver. The reverend introduced him as “The most infamous confidence man in America … and my friend.”[ii]

By the late 1880s, the Soap Gang was even more open in its operations, owning gambling houses outright instead of running crooked games in saloons and kicking a piece of the take to the saloon owners. In 1888, “Soapy” opened the Tivoli Club at the corner of Market and Seventeenth Streets, one of several gaming emporiums he would come to own. A combination saloon and gambling club, the Tivoli Club was noted for having “Caveat Emptor,” Latin for “let the buyer beware,” posted over the entrance to the stairs leading to the upstairs gambling club. This bit of showmanship may have helped in one of the few instances “Soapy” was called to account. He was charged with bilking two visitors out of $1,500. His defense before the court was masterful, if odd to modern ears. His establishment, he argued, was not really a gambling hall at all, but instead was an institution for public betterment. Unlike a traditional gambling hall, visitors to his club had no chance at all of winning. They would lose, every time, and thus many of his patrons, broke and disheartened, resolved after their experience at his club never to gamble again. Whether it was this argument’s perverse logic or whether “Soapy” had spread enough money around in the right pockets that was the decider in the case isn’t known. But anyhow, “Soapy” was acquitted.[iii]

The Decline Begins

It took more than a silver tongue and spreading enough money in the right places to hold a criminal empire together. On occasion it took some violence, and “Soapy” and his gang members went about plying that part of their trade whenever it was needed. Some victims cleaned out by their crooked games and cons, after all, didn’t take it all in stride. So when the individual irate victim had to be handled roughly, he was. But it wasn’t always a quiet affair. One incident near the beginning of the Soap Gang’s decline became a public spectacle. In what was called the “Logan Park Brawl” on July 21, 1889, “Soapy” and his gang battled perhaps as many as forty of their gathered victims in a fight that involved bare hands, clubs and at least one ax.

“Soapy” himself was known to have a violent temper, especially when he drank, which was often and often unsparingly. And also when he lost at gambling, which was often and heavily (at his favorite faro).  It was not a good combination, this brazenness of his operations and his own weaknesses. Especially by 1889, when some solid citizens in Denver were tiring of the Soap Gang’s influence and events developed that should have cautioned “Soapy” to keep a cool, sober head.

An 1889 trial involving voting fraud in Denver’s municipal elections laid bare for all to see the corrupt connections between the mayor, the police chief and “Soapy” and his gang. The mayor and a few other officials were turned out of office, but “Soapy” and his activities came through that part of the uproar unscathed. Another part, however, caused him more problems.[iv]

During the height of the corruption trial, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News printed a series of articles about “Soapy” and his gang, and for the first time mentioned that he had wife and six children. His family “Soapy” had kept well out of his business and even well out of Denver. He maintained them in St. Louis, Missouri, supporting them well but venturing to see them on sporadically. His response was to walk into the newspaper office and severely − and publicly − beat the newspaper’s editor. Violent outbursts on his part became more common. So did attempts on his life. In August 1889, he and several members of his gang fought off another gang bent on killing him when the train on which they were traveling stopped in Pocatello, Idaho. Denver was slowly slipping from his grasp.[v]

By 1892, it appeared to slip completely. Reform efforts, fueled in good part by the public exposure three years before of the extent “Soapy” had held sway in Denver, finally began to gain ground. “Soapy” sold the Tivoli Club and other properties and he and his gang members moved to the rough and ready silver mining boomtown of Creede, then called Jimtown.[vi]

Compared to the more urbane Denver, this new locale was a thrown-together settlement of perpetually muddy streets lined with flimsy buildings of rough-sawn lumber. Tents sufficed until houses and buildings could take shape, and saloons-cum-gambling halls and brothels numbered at least as many as the stores and other establishments catering to the miners. It was a lot like Skagway would be when “Soapy” reached it a few years later, when the experience in Jimtown stood “Soapy” in good stead. But in the there and then this Rocky Mountain backwater was rich grazing land for “Soapy” and his confidence tricksters and he quickly acquired a number of buildings on the main street for the gang’s operations, including his own headquarters, the Orleans Club saloon and gambling hall. (Among the usual attractions, the Orleans Club had on display “McGinty, The Petrified Man,” some poor unfortunate who had probably been buried in a rock slide years before he was eventually found, for which one paid one dime to see.) From this base, and with his brother-in-law installed as the deputy sheriff, “Soapy” recreated his Denver operation in miniature, including being just as generous with his money as needed to gain popular acclaim and grease any difficulties with upstart city fathers. He even made a show of keeping public order by expelling the more blatant troublemakers. Like most mining boomtowns of the Old West, Jimtown, or Creede, was fated to have a brief and passing season. In time, “Soapy” would have faced slim pickings in this new field, but as events panned out that never became a concern.[vii]

In what seems something out of a comic opera now, across over a century of hindsight, Denver’s political leaders soon invited “Soapy” and his gang back to town. The closure of so many businesses, regardless of their being fronts for organized crime, and the dampening of the flow of circulating money from the Soap Gang’s graft and free spending had left a hole in Denver’s economy. Reform was off. Wide open drinking and gambling were back on again, along with whatever else “Soapy” and the boys could get away with − just keep it out of the papers as much as possible. Which “Soapy” didn’t do on at least one occasion. Once again holding court at the Tivoli Club, “Soapy” admitted freely to a newspaper reporter that he was a confidence man and took some pride in it. It was in this interview that he made a comparison often quoted over the decades since on the confidence having superior virtues to the average politician. That might be difficult to argue against at any time, but what’s a sure thing is that politics and politicians started “Soapy” on the end of his career in Colorado.[viii]

The Denver City Hall War

In 1893, Denver, like the rest of the United States, was hit by a depression. Jobs and money were scarce and government jobs and the security from the market they brought were highly prized. The deciding of who got any available jobs was not infrequently the stuff of political graft.

Davis Waite had been elected governor of Colorado on the Populist Party ticket, with promises to clean up corruption a key campaign promise. The municipal government of Denver was a boil in need of lancing. Waite had appointed three men to the city’s police and fire board, which was tasked with the hiring and firing of police officers and firefighters. It was position ripe for patronage and graft − especially with the Soap Gang’s known links to the city police − and Waite soon had reasons to question the integrity of his chosen men. In early March 1894, Waite decided to remove two of his appointees from the board, as well as a number of other political appointees in the Denver city hall. Joined by other city employees who feared for their jobs, the targeted men gathered weapons and barricaded themselves in the city hall. The governor called out the state militia. By March 14, before the state militia could act, the men in the city hall had been joined by the entire Denver police force and a number of Arapahoe County deputy sheriffs. Only some of the deputies, however, were genuine. The others were more used to being on the other side of the law − these were “Soapy” and his boys.[ix]

“Soapy” really had more to lose from the governor’s reforms than the political grifters and place holders in city hall who had traded him protection for a price. As “special deputies,” he and a number of the Soap gang joined the defense of the city hall, manning the roof armed with rifles and bombs fashioned from dynamite. For days the state militia laid siege to the building with troops, two pieces of artillery and a Gatling gun. An order to storm the building was given and rescinded several times, but no attack took place. On March 25 a state court ruled that the governor had the authority to remove the police and fire board members but not the authority in this instance to call out the state militia. The siege ended, and on April 18 the targeted board members gave up their jobs. The ending was a blow against the city’s business-as-usual corruption, which made Denver it a bad place for “Soapy” to do business.[x]

The governor followed up by ordering the closing of all saloons and gambling halls in the city. It was a staggering blow to “Soapy,” one from which he couldn’t recover. In the short term, however, he found an ingenious way to soldier on. Their deputation forgotten in the uproar, he and his men still held badges and commissions. They staged “raids” on the gang’s own now-illegal gambling parlors, “arresting” their marks. Commonly, those arrested would offer a roll of bills in return for the deputies forgetting about the whole situation. (If they were a little slow to think of it themselves, they would soon take the strong hints.) The malefactors found that attempts at bribery always worked. Naturally, any money on the tables during the raids was seized.

“Soapy” was more vulnerable in Denver than he had been in years. His drinking and resulting violent temper, as virulent as ever, grew worse. When he and his brother Bascomb, who had joined him in Denver several years before, severely beat a rival they were charged with attempted murder. Bascomb was tried and sentenced to a year in prison, but “Soapy” escaped trial only to become a wanted man in Colorado. His hold on organized crime in Denver was gone, now in the hands of rivals his gang’s size and political protection had in the past held at bay.[xi]

Denver, during the City Hall War in which Soapy tried to protect the politicians he owned.

North to Alaska!

Gold! The stuff a lot of dreams are made of had been mined in northwestern Canada’s Klondike region of the Yukon Territory at least since the early 1880s, but the first big strike was made in August 1896. The real chaos that came to be called the Klondike Gold Rush didn’t begin until almost a year later, however, in July 1897, when word of the strike reached Seattle, Washington state, and San Francisco, California. From then until 1899, nearly 100,000 people tried to reach the gold fields. By some estimates, only about half succeeded, and of those the same estimates are that only one in five actually became a prospector. It meant, though, that the North American frontier got an extension on its lease as a haven both for the adventurous and the predatory.[i]

At Chicago’s 1893 World Exposition, the eminent historian Frederick Jackson Turner had delivered to audiences his famous essay that pronounced the frontier closed. The American West was mostly settled. Civilization and all its trappings had conquered. So far as “Soapy” Smith was concerned, the part of the “civilizing” of the West that called for law and order and considered public corruption an enemy had brought nothing good.

After Denver, “Soapy” had tried several schemes, one even involving an attempted swindle of the president of Mexico based on a promise to raise a large unit of American mercenaries to support the president, but he had nowhere near the power he had once held. The news of the Klondike gold strike opened new vistas, however. After some exploratory trips to Alaska, “Soapy” and a handful of his original Soap gang decamped for the territory, where he hoped to rebuild his empire of vice and influence. He finally settled on the port town of Skagway, one of the main entry points for would be prospectors on their way to the gold fields.[ii]

Skagway was more developed than some of the towns that had more recently sprung up, but it seemed ideal for “Soapy” because it wasn’t developed enough to be in danger of law and order breaking out anytime soon. Its wharves and streets were a hive of  both residents and those just passing through. The naturalist John Muir, one of those who passed through, described it as “a nest of ants taken into a strange country and stirred by a stick.” The air rang often with gunshots, and saloons and bordellos competed in numbers with stores outfitting those feverish to reach the gold fields, and nearly anything could be had for a price. Sam Steele, a visiting Canadian superintendent of the Northwest Mounted Police and a man who would come to know “Soapy” well, described it as “little better than hell on earth … about the roughest place in the world.” But by the summer of 1898, when “Soapy” Smith died, this “hell on earth” would be a hive of between 15,000 and 20,000 people.[iii]

“Soapy” and his gang, eventually to number between two hundred and three hundred, set up shop in Skagway in the late summer of 1897, when lot of the town was still a tent city. He partnered with two brothers from Seattle, John and Frank Clancy, in their already established saloon and eventually he opened three more saloons and gambling halls of his own, including Jeff Smith’s Parlor (the building still exists in Skagway). Jeff Smith’s Parlor was too small for much of a gambling operation and, according to research by his great grandson and namesake, “Soapy” used it as his headquarters and as a stage on which to appear as an upright businessman and civic leader. As in Denver, he paid careful attention to the Dr. Jekyll side of his public image. He was a soft touch for any charity, including efforts to feed and house the destitute of Skagway, often those who had risked and lost everything trying to reach the gold fields, and even to feed Skagway’s population of stray dogs. And when money was collected to build Skagway’s first combined nondenominational church and school, the largest single contribution, $200, was from “Soapy.”[iv]

Skagway, Alaska Territory, May 1898. Soapy Smith was determined to rebuild his empire of corruption here.
Soapy Smith at the bar of his saloon headquarters a few days before his death.

Behind that public image, of course, it was business as usual as in Denver and Creede. Crooked gambling and flimflam. One of the most ingenious cons was a phony telegraph office with lines that stretched off into the Alaskan wilderness. Dupes paid premium rates to send messages that were merely tapped out on a key. And occasionally the senders might receive a reply, phony, often with a request that they send back money − which would never reach its intended destination either. (Skagway would not get a genuine telegraph line connecting it with the outside world until 1901, three years after “Soapy” was dead.) There was no need to worry about the law interfering with the swindles. The most visible local law enforcement, Deputy U.S. Marshal Sylvester Taylor, quickly came on the Soap Gang’s payroll. Skagway had a city hall, but before long Skagway’s accumulating collection of solid, upright citizens was referring to Jeff Smith’s Parlor as the real city hall.[1]

Skagway wasn’t Denver, however. It wasn’t even Creede. The less established and more fluid politics of the territorial town made it harder for “Soapy” to be a gray eminence than in Denver. And with its size Skagway was harder to gain a firm hold on its wildness and wide openness than in the smaller scale Creede. Opposing “Soapy” and his gang in Skagway was another group of confidence tricksters. More loosely organized, these were the land grifters, sellers of phony mining claims or of real claims to which they held dubious deeds. Though “Soapy” had run similar scams in Denver, in Skagway he was largely cut out of this hustle. The land grifters were in some ways more insidious than the Soap gang. They were less blatant, and often came across as more booster than buncombe. Nevertheless, “Soapy” did gain the upper hand on his just as shady rivals. But when the concerns about the influence “Soapy” and his gang that the decent and upright citizens, as well as officials of the larger interests such as the developing White Pass and Yukon Railway, began to grow, they found they had a natural and cooperative ally in the land grifters, con men with a more polished patter.

By March 1898, a vigilante group, the “Committee of 101,” the muscle supplied mostly by the land grafter faction, had formed in Skagway intent on driving “Soapy” and his gang out. On March 8, the group posted a handbill in Skagway urging all “confidence, bunco and sure-thing men and all other objectionable characters” to leave Skagway posthaste or they would face unnamed “prompt action.”

“Soapy” took prompt action of his own. He formed his own vigilante committee, in keeping with a tactic he had used in Creede to position himself visibly as a bringer of law and order out of chaos. His committee, the “Committee of 317,” like their foes the number indicating membership, replied with a handbill of their own:

                           “ANSWER TO WARNING

The body of men styling themselves 101 are hereby notified that

any overt act committed by them will be promptly met by the Law

Abiding Citizens of Skagway and each member and HIS PROPERTY

will be held responsible for any unlawful act on their part and the law

and order society consisting of 317 will see that Justice is dealt out to

its full extent as no Blackmailers or Vigilantes will be tolerated.”

“Soapy” had a powerful tool on his side. When the USS Maine blew up in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, on February 15, 1898, allegedly caused by Spanish sabotage or mines, leading to the a declaration of war against Spain, “Soapy” had responded to the call to the colors by forming the Skagway Military Company, which he funded, with himself as captain. He had written to both the War Department and President William McKinley offering his company’s service in the war. From the War Department came an official imprimatur for his company. “Soapy” framed the letter and hung it in Jeff Smith’s Parlor. The military company never left Skagway, but its control by “Soapy” carried with it the vague threat that he could use it to declare martial law in and around Skagway to deal with any organized effort against him that could be labeled a threat to law and order. This possibility coupled with the handbill of the “Committee of 317” led the vigilantes to seek the tall grass.[2]

The Final Run

In hindsight, it was a rude form of justice that the direct chain of events that led to the killing of “Soapy” stemmed from a con, and one of his oldest cons at that.

On July 7, 1898, John Douglas Stewart returned to Skagway from his mining claim in the Klondike. Originally from British Columbia, he had been one of the lucky ones in the Klondike fields, and carried with him gold with a value estimated at between $2,600 and $2,800 plus $87 in cash. The gold, he stashed in the room he took at Skagway’s Mondamin Hotel.

Early the next morning, July 8, he met Soap Gang members John “Reverend” Bowers and W. E. “Slim-Jim” Foster, almost certainly not by accident. The outwardly fine upstanding citizens offered the usual assistance to the grateful newcomer − by one account of that morning they passed themselves off as gold assayers, kindly advising the lucky miner where he could get a better rate of exchange − and the hook was well on its way to being set.  They lured Stewart into the alley beside Jeff Smith’s Parlor, where they were joined by another of the Soap Gang, Van B. “Old Man” Triplett, who set up a three-card monte game that Bowers and Foster began to play, at first winning (of course). When Stewart started playing it didn’t take long for him to lose his $87. Trippet returned the cash to him so that he could continue playing, but demanded proof that Stewart could make good on any more losses. His proof was his gold, which he fetched.[3]

The gambling went on with Stewart predictably losing, until at some point he began to suspect he was being swindled and balked at paying off any debts. At that, Foster grabbed the bag of gold, tossed it to Triplett, said, “Git,” and when Stewart lunged for Trippett, Foster and Bowers grabbed him and held him as Trippett made the getaway. They warned Stewart not to make trouble. Stewart didn’t scare so easily. His first move after Foster and Bowers fled after Triplett was to look for someone wearing a badge.

Finding Sylvester Taylor, though, gave him no hope of ever seeing his money again. The deputy U.S. marshal, who would eventually be arrested for being in the Soap Gang’s pocket, simply told Stewart that if he kept quiet about the incident he (Taylor) would look into it. Stewart’s next move was to go to the town of Dyea, just five miles away, and make his complaint to the U.S. commissioner for Alaska. In Charles Augustus Sehlbrede he found someone over whom “Soapy” Smith held no sway.[4]

Meanwhile back in Skagway, trouble was rising that offers some clue why it was so important for first the three Soap Gang swindlers and then Taylor to try to keep the dispute quiet. It wasn’t so long since the whole controversy with the countervailing vigilante committees and the open desire of the legitimate city leaders and their allies the land grifters to see the Soap Gang driven out of town that “Soapy” could afford any public brouhaha. But it was coming. And the more the trouble stirred, by accounts, the more “Soapy” Smith’s temper rose and the more he drank. He would meet the crisis with his most dangerous weaknesses at full pitch.[5]

His first move against the growing unrest was to go out and about through Skagway, to all acquaintances, and denying that there had been a robbery, that instead Stewart was just a disgruntled loser in a fair card game. Several townspeople, probably with some illicit connection to “Soapy,” according to a later newspaper account urged him throughout the afternoon to “disavow the robbery and give up the men.” He refused out of apparent anger, according to one newspaper account stating that “that if Stewart had not ‘hollered,’ he [Smith] would feel like going out and getting him a piece of the money.” Cracks began appearing in his story, fueled by the combination of temper and the bottle, perhaps laced for the first time in his life by fear. Also according to a later account, “Soapy” said that if no “roar” was made in the newspaper the gold would be returned by four o’clock that afternoon and that he would use his influence on the Skagway streets to ensure that returning miners were not preyed upon in the future. It was an attempt at the kind of silver-tongued guile that had worked so well in Denver and Creede but which the past few months had shown was suspected in Skagway. It was probably even less persuasive when the silver tongue was slurred by whiskey. Four o’clock came and went. When a reporter at hand from the Daily Alaskan, the reporter maybe one of several on the Soap Gang’s pad, had earlier told “Soapy” there would be trouble if the gold wasn’t returned, the drinking “Soapy” reportedly replied, “By God, trouble is what I am looking for.”[6]

When Charles Selhbrede arrived in Skagway, he set up shop in Sylvester Taylor’s office and sent for “Soapy,” who by accounts deigned to show up about six o’clock that evening. Selhbrede’s position was simple: the money must be returned and the alleged thieves surrendered. “Soapy” stuck to his original story; the card game had been honest, there had been no robbery, and Stewart was just a sore loser looking to welch on his wagers. Furthermore, he added, he had over a hundred men who would back him in seeing no harm came to Bowers, Foster and Triplett. A man who had gained for himself the visible prominence Smith had in Skagway, Selhbrede pointedly told him, could not align himself with a pack of thieves. At that, “Soapy” slammed his fist on the table between them and shouted, “Well, Judge, declare me in with the thieves. I’ll stay with them.” He then stalked out of the room.

Events then began to move even more quickly. Selhbrede asked others gathered in the marshal’s office whether if he issued warrants that they were willing to arrest “Soapy” Smith and his cohort. Yes, they would. They would gladly bring in Smith and every one of his gang. Selhbrede issued the warrants, along with the conditions that “he wanted the men … alive if possible, but dead if necessary.”[7]

When word of the warrants hit the streets of Skagway, two vigilante groups, the Citizens Committee and the Merchants Committee, sensing their moment, organized rallies calling for removal of “Soapy” and his gang. Both groups were holdovers, though with less bravado and fanfare, from the “Committee of 101” days and numbered many of the same faces. The Citizen Committee’s rally attracted several hundred, overflowing the building where it was called, leaving many gathered outside in the street. When a rumor circulated that members of Soap Gang had wormed their way into the meeting intent on disrupting it, another meeting was hastily arranged for a building on the Juneau Wharf. The chairman of the meeting, owner of a Skagway hotel, appointed four men − Frank H. Reid; Captain Josias M. Tanner, a 48-year-old barge and steam ship captain who would eventually be appointed deputy U.S. marshal after Sylvester Taylor’s arrest; Jesse Murphy, an Irish immigrant railway employee; and John Logan, about whom little is known − as security for the meeting, to make sure no Soap Gang members broke in. Only Reid would be armed.[8]

The 54-year-old Reid, originally from Illinois and in his younger years a trained engineer and school teacher, had once worked as a bartender for the Clancy brothers at the Klondike Saloon when it was partly under “Soapy” Smith’s control. He had later been appointed Skagway’s city engineer, among his tasks the surveying and laying out of city lots. He had also been a member of the Committee of 101. Accounts of the fatal night then brewing later tried to cast Reid in the best possible light, as a paragon of law and order going up against the leader of a gang of cutthroats. More diligent probing in recent years, however, makes a prima facie case that in his position as Skagway’s city engineer Reid had thrown in with the land grifters who had reasons other than a desire for law and order to want the Soap Gang wiped out. In any case, Fate had decreed that that night “Soapy” and Reid would have clash that would be the death of both.[9]

Word of the meetings had reached Jeff Smith’s Parlor on fleet feet. “Soapy” was applying himself diligently to a bottle of whiskey. At about nine o’clock, William Saportas, a Daily Alaskan reporter and associate of the Soap Gang, came in and handed him a note, ostensibly from one of the Soap Gang who had managed to infiltrate the meeting at the wharf. It read: “The crowd is angry. If you want to do anything, do it quick. S.” “Soapy” was probably already carrying the 1889 model Colt .41 caliber double-action revolver he customarily packed, but after jamming the note in his coat pocket he hefted a .44-40 Winchester Model 92 and stalked out of the saloon, headed for the wharf six blocks away. At least half a dozen of his men followed.[10]

The Juneau Wharf jutted out into the bay about half a mile. But for a good part of its run the 15-to-20 feet wide wharf was six to 10 feet above mud and pebbly beach. When “Soapy” and his crew hove into sight sometime likely near 9:30, John Lander and an unidentified man stood at the wharf’s entrance. About 60 feet farther along, Josias Tanner and Jesse Murphy stood, leaning against the railings. Farther on still stood Frank Reid.

“Soapy” ordered his men to stop short of the wharf’s entrance while he, rifle over his right shoulder, muzzle upward, continued on. Reaching the entrance, he ordered Lander and the other man off the wharf. They responded by leaping over the side to the beach six feet or so below. He continued on by Tanner and Murphy, they not challenging him and him apparently ignoring them. Then he came abreast of Reid.

Eyewitness accounts later produced accounts that conflict on some points, but onlookers agreed that after Reid challenged “Soapy” with “Halt, you can’t go down there” the two men stood only feet apart and argued for several seconds, with loud cussing heard. It’s believed that at that point Reid still had his .38 caliber revolver holstered.

Some accounts have Reid drawing his weapon first and other say he drew only after “Soapy” moved to shoot him, but there came a point when onlookers saw “Soapy” swing his rifle down from his shoulder in a sweeping motion that could have been either an attempt to shoot him or just an attempt at clubbing him out of his way. Reid blocked the rifle barrel with his left arm, then grabbing the rifle barrel and pushing the muzzle downward. By then Reid’s own gun was evident in his right hand and he pointed it at “Soapy.” According to witnesses, “Soapy” yelled out, “Please God, don’t shoot,” but Reid pulled the trigger. His gun misfired on a dud cartridge, but he tried to fire again as “Soapy” wrenched the rifle barrel away from Reid’s grasp and moved on his adversary.

Both seemed to fire together, the first shots as one, this followed by from five to nine shots, according to witnesses. Reid was hit once in the leg but got off two more shots. One of his bullets hit “Soapy” in the left thigh with a clean through-and-through wound above the knee while the other grazed his left arm. Jacking another round into his Winchester, “Soapy” fired another heavy .44-40 bullet into Reid’s lower abdomen and groin. Reid tumbled facedown onto the wharf’s plank flooring. Most accounts have “Soapy” left still standing.

The Soap Gang members who had accompanied “Soapy” rushed the wharf with weapons drawn. Jesse Murphy rushed and grabbed the rifle away from the wounded “Soapy” and took aim at the gang leader. Some witnesses later said that “Soapy” once again said “My God, don’t shoot,” but Murphy fired once, sending a killing bullet through his heart.

The approaching Soap Gang was met by members of the Citizens Committee pouring out the meeting at the sound of the gunshots. Murphy turned the rifle in the direction of the Soap Gang but did not fire again. At least one of the Soap Gang took aim with a pistol at the unarmed Josias Tanner. Someone (it was never established who) yelled in the direction of the Soap Gang, “They have killed Soapy, and if you don’t clear out quick they will kill you, too.” Outnumbered and with their leader dead, the gang members beat a hasty retreat.[11]


“Soapy” Smith was dead. Frank Reid would die of his wounds twelve days later. Some official accounts would try to credit Reid with killing “Soapy,” mostly the accounts that present Reid as an untarnished representative of law and order intent on ridding his town of the criminal element. That was the result, regardless of how pure the motives of those involved.

The Soap Gang was broken. Members were rounded up and unceremoniously banished from the town. The U.S. Army, pushed by Selhbrede, threatened to impose martial law − without using the Skagway Military Company − and to try to render that unnecessary is why some historians, most notably “Soapy” Smith’s great grandson and namesake Jeff Smith, believe the effort was made to credit Reid with the shooting instead of Jesse Murphy, who gave his own statement of admission to Sam Steele, the commissioner of the Northwest Mounted Police. When Murphy shot “Soapy” the gang leader was wounded and perhaps even unarmed, at least with no weapon drawn, so the act could have brought Murphy a murder charge. To the U.S. authorities it would have been evidence that they town was too unruly for any local control. So Reid got the credit and any glory from killing “Soapy.” Reid’s funeral was the biggest Skagway had ever seen, and his tombstone carried the epitaph: “He gave his life for the honor of Skagway.”[12]

The funeral of “Soapy” Smith, by comparision, was hardly noticed.

Samuel Graves, president of the White Pass and Yukon Railway delivered in the press after the Juneau Pier shootout that could have stood as “Soapy” Smith’s epitaph as well as throwing the railroad’s weight behind the “official” account (and giving the railroad more than due credit for pushing events to their conclusion):

“The criminal element had the advantage of being thoroughly organized and armed, and skillfully led by a man named “Soapy” Smith, who was the uncrowned King of Skaguay. He was not a constitutional monarch, but his word was all the law there was. [Thus,] the criminal element … had things all their own way, until the railroad builders began to oppose them on behalf of decency and order, and to form a nucleus round which the law-abiding element could rally.”[13]

Nowadays, though, Frank Reid is largely forgotten. But every year since 1974 July 8 marks one of Skagway’s largest festivals, the Soapy Smith Wake. And on the same day, hundreds of miles to the south, Hollywood’s Magic Castle hosts an annual Soapy Smith Party with an Old West costume ball and charity gambling to mark the anniversary of the shootout. “Soapy” Smith has also been portrayed numerous times over the years on television and in films.

Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith II would probably make few lists of Georgia’s favorite sons, but he makes every list of the Old West’s most intriguing characters. And in this instance, it seems, history has given not the contrived hero but the genuine scoundrel the last laugh.

[1] Smith, pp. 480-481.

[2] Smith, 483-484, Preservation Trust biographical files.

[3] The Tacoma Times, December 27, 1898.

[4] Preservation Trust biographical files.

[5] Skagway News, July 15, 1898.

[6] Skagway News, July 15, 1898.

[7] Daily Alaskan Extra, July 11, 1898.

[8] Daily Alaskan Extra, July 11, 1898.

[9] Preservation Trust biographical files.

[10] Smith, pp. 532-533.

[11] Details of the incident at the Juneau Wharf are drawn from Smith, pp. 534-570.

[12] Preservation Trust biographical files.

[13] Smith, p. 524.

The Skagway pier where Soapy Smith met his end.

Georgia’s Merry Minstrel, “Doc” Tommy Scott

“Doc” Tommy Scott in his Eastanollee home

     The slim, wiry man gave off the glow of the pure joy of life. He had just passed his ninety-fifth birthday and had spent the better part of eight decades on a stage, somewhere. Just hours before I met him, he had driven his motor home over the mountains to his Eastanollee, Georgia, home from Owensboro, Kentucky, where he had appeared at a festival honoring the 100th birthday of one of his oldest friends, the late bluegrass legend Bill Monroe.

     “Doc” Tommy Scott and his famous medicine show no longer traveled at the time I met him in 2012, but he was nowhere near ready to leave the road. He’s worn out ten motor homes in his life, he told me, but number eleven “had a lot of good miles in her yet.”

     As Georgia’s merry minstrel, Tommy Scott knew all the world as his stage.  He left home at age seventeen for his first real job in music, traveling with a medicine show. That was in 1934. The medicine show led to regular work performing with other musicians on radio, then to his own shows and albums, his own traveling shows, and then finally to his legendary “Doc Tommy Scott’s Last Real Old Time Medicine Show.”

     Along the way, Scott wrote more than 300 songs, appeared in more than 25 movies with the likes of “Sunset” Carson, and befriended and shared the stage with most of the legends of bluegrass and country and western music.

     In his lifetime, Scott reckoned he’d played about 30,000 towns. “Often going seven days a week for about 80 years,” he said. In the years when he, his late wife Frankie, and his medicine show were on the open road, they would head out right after New Years Day and return to Eastanollee just before Thanksgiving.

     Scott passed away in 2013, about a year after I met him at his house in Eastanollee, which was a packed museum to his life onstage. From the outside, the house looked like the world’s most sprawling Chinese restaurant, and most of the rooms inside showed a definite Oriental motif.  “The house was Frankie’s idea,” Scott told me.  “I told her to do it up any way she wanted.”

     A room inside told a story of country and western music as both a profession and a performed art. The story was of the music of the rural American soul, the music of front porches and country dances. It was Tommy Scott’s story.

Scott with “Luke McLuke”

     In this room, the walls and even part of the ceiling were covered with artifacts and memorabilia:  photographs of Scott with the likes of Johnny Carson, Oprah Winfrey, country music impresario Ralph Emery, famed journalist Charles Kuralt, David Letterman, and the hosts of a Russian television show who ventured all the way from Moscow to interview Scott in his front yard; photographs of him with old friends, such as movie star Tim McCoy and David “Stringbean” Ackeman; still photographs from some Saturday-evening-western-style movies he’d appeared in, such as The Guns of Obadiah Crawford; framed letters from fans who have lived in the White House, including one from the office of President Richard Nixon signed by Nixon’s secretary, Rosemary Woods, who gained her own fame in political history thanks to 18 minutes of missing tape recording; posters from his medicine show; and at least one of his trademark shiny red top hats.

     “There’s a lot of work and a lot of history in this room,” noted Scott. “But I’ve had a lot of fun over the years.”

     Tommy Scott was born June 24, 1917, the first child of Clifton Scott and Elizabeth “Lizzie” Collins Scott, on their farm at Eastanollee, just outside Toccoa. Nine years later sister Cleo, who would be his first performing partner, was born. The Scotts were small farmers and had been for generations.  From an early age, Tommy knew that his father wanted him to continue the tradition of scratching his living from the red Georgia soil.

     Tommy had other ideas.  He discovered a passion for drawing and, in time, for music. Music was as much a part of his childhood as the long rows of cotton.  The land fed the people, but hillbilly music, as Scott would later call it, sustained the soul. That’s how it had been as far back as anyone could remember, as far back as the first Scots-Irish settlers clawing their places in the Appalachian Mountains and lower hill country. Whenever the people gathered, Scott remembered, “someone always brought out fiddles and guitars.”

     In time, he would join them. “When I was 10 years old, I made my first public appearance in a fiddling contest that whet my taste for more and more music. I kept playing and writing my own songs, sure that one day I would be a performer.”

     With six dollars saved by the nickel and dime, he bought his first guitar at a pawn shop and learned to play. His six-year-old sister, Cleo, also learned to play on the sly, sneaking his treasured instrument out when he was at school. When she was seven, she received a guitar of her own. Tommy was soon playing at cake walks and other affairs for a few coins, and later he and Cleo performed regularly on WTFI, a radio station operating from the basement of the Presbyterian church in Toccoa.

     “We often went to the radio station and sang and played our hillbilly music over the air,” Scott remembered. “They were glad to have us, and I suspect it greatly encouraged my desire to work around music, whether it was writing songs or playing the guitar.”

     Scott’s love of drawing and painting continued, and his high school teachers encouraged him to consider it as his life’s work. But Tommy knew he wanted to play his music. His parents seemed to have “soft hearts” toward his wanting to draw or play music, but Tommy sensed there was something else behind their feelings.  “I suspect,” he would later write in his memoirs, “it had something to do with the way Daddy Scott would sometimes stop working and look beyond him, face clouded, with what might have been unborn dreams.”

     Shortly before high school graduation, Tommy turned down his father’s offer of $500, a fortune for a Georgia cotton farmer to save in 1934, for tuition to art school in Atlanta.  A few weeks later, the medicine show came to town.  Tommy entered the singing contest and won.  The medicine show owner, “Doc” M.F. Chamberlain, offered Tommy a job. The medicine show moved on to Elbert County, and Tommy decided he would move with it. The decision led to the hardest morning of the 17-year-old’s life.

     He left before dawn on a rainy morning, slipping out of the house, carrying his guitar and a cardboard suitcase. “I could not bear to go through the goodbyes again, as the last night home had been difficult enough,” he recalled. It was hardest on his little sister, Cleo, and it would be years before he knew she had gotten up to watch him go, sobbing as she watched him fade into the dreary darkness. He paused to look at the whitewashed house that had been his only home and at the cotton stalks sprouting from the red clay farm his father loved.  He thought of everything and everyone he was walking away from. He left Cleo with a note for Mary Frank “Frankie” Thomas, the girl who already owned his heart. The note said simply, “Someday …”

     When he missed the bus, Tommy began the 35-mile walk to Elberton in the drizzle, but the driver of a truckload of chickens gave him a lift. He arrived wet, smelling of chickens and manure, and his feet chafing to bloody blisters in his wet shoes. For most of the way he wished he had stayed home, but he found the medicine show’s camp around two trucks, sides streaked with the red dirt and mud of many a country road. Chamberlain remembered the job offer made in Toccoa and followed it up with the promise to pay Tommy six dollars a week and board. He told Tommy he had tried to hire a lot of guitar players, but Tommy was the only one ever to take him up on it.

     M.F. Chamberlain, an Englishman of evident education and some refinement, started his medicine show in 1890, traveling to wherever a crowd could be expected, even some public hangings in the early days. The more entertainment, the bigger the crowds. “The medicine shows were really the beginning for (talent shows and beauty contests),” Scott said. “They were the beginning of the country music industry. People who wanted to play music got the chance to earn a little money, enough that you could live on it.”

     During the shows, Chamberlain would pitch his Snake Oil liniment and Herb-O-Lac, a herbal laxative. He brewed these from recipes he claimed he’d gotten from the Cherokee. A typical show lasted about an hour and a half, but for about 45 minutes of that Chamberlain would preach the virtues of his potions. “He could charm the skin off a snake’s backside,” Scott recalled.

     Tommy played his music but also watched and learned.  “He treated me like a son,” Scott recollected of Chamberlain. “I felt he saw in me a continuation of his life’s work, somebody who would carry on the herbal and entertainment show long after he was dead and gone.”

     As part of the show, Scott came up with characters that he would portray, one called “Horsefly” and another, done in blackface, called “Peanut.”  “The black faces and rube characters were accepted as a part of our act in the North and South, and by all races of people,” he recalled. It was a time of innocence, according to Scott, “when we did not wholly understand that our actions might have been labeled cruel. … I was a black-face comedian and I make no apologies for it. I can only apologize for not knowing and for innocence.”

     Chamberlain also taught Tommy ventriloquism and urged him to make his own dummy. The result was “Luke McLuke,” one of Scott’s most enduring creations, whose head he carved from a piece of cypress. “When I look back,” Scott said, standing in the room of his house that showcases his career, looking at early photos of him and the dummy, “It always goes back to me and the guitar and the doll.”

     After about two years, Chamberlain decided to retire. Tommy packed his clothes and guitar − and Luke McLuke − for home. At their last parting, Chamberlain drove Tommy to the bus station and bought his ticket to Toccoa. “The last thing ol’ Doc said to me was, ‘I want you to carry on the business. I have written down the formulas for the medicines for you. It is yours. I think you will make a great showman,’” Scott recalled. The old medicine show man had tears in his eyes, Scott noted, for the first time since he had known him.

     Tommy walked eight miles of dirt road from Toccoa to Eastanollee in another rainstorm, just as he had left that morning he’d headed for Elberton. He had come complete circle. He also did not have the money to hit the road with his own medicine show. If that was what fate had in store for him, it would have to wait.

     Raleigh, North Carolina, still showed clear signs of the Great Depression when Scott arrived by bus some weeks after his arrival back in Eastanollee. Many store buildings stood empty and looked as if they had for years. But what caught young Tommy’s eye were the men who stood on some street corners with guitars, playing for whatever coins passersby could and would give. He knew he was lucky to have the prospect of a job.

     WRAL in Raleigh had set out to be one of the major regional stations in those days and Tommy Scott, not quite 20 years old, joined the station’s lineup. He would be working both on his own and with “Uncle Pete and Minervy,” as performer John Ray and his wife billed themselves. They did comedy skits, not unlike some of those done on the medicine show stage, but also 15-minute radio segments that resembled soap operas. Scott played his guitar and sang. Sometimes he did an act with “Luke McLuke.”  As radio performers did in those days, the Rays and Scott also performed in the community, with the Rays doing their comedy and melodrama routines on stage while Scott performed during set and costume changes.

     He missed his family and Frankie mightily, Scott told me, but it was a time he remembered fondly. He developed his stage persona of “Texas Slim,” picked up the nickname “Rambling Scotty,” and formed early friendships that carried him through the years. One was with early Western movie hero Roy Rogers, whom he met when Rogers was a guest on Scott’s radio show while in Raleigh on a promotion tour for his first big movie playing himself, “Under Western Skies.”

     The Monroe brothers from Kentucky, Bill and Charlie, were two other friends from the Raleigh years. Charlie Monroe, in fact, had been one the first people Scott met after stepping off the bus in Raleigh, and he had directed Tommy to a good boarding house that only charged three dollars a week for a room and meals. Bill Monroe, of course, would in time be dubbed “The Father of Bluegrass.”  “By the time I met them, Bill and Charlie were no longer speaking to each other,” Scott recalled. “It was funny yet sort of sad in a way to see them perform without so much as a polite word between them.”

     Scott also spent time writing songs. It had become a lifelong habit.

     When the Monroe brothers broke up their act in 1939, Charlie Monroe took an offer in Wheeling, West Virginia, and asked Tommy to come along and be part of his new band, The Kentucky Partners. The band would operate out of Wheeling’s station WWVA, which blasted 50,000 watts, the same broadcasting power with which WSM in Nashville sent the Grand Ole Opry to several million listeners. It didn’t take Scott long to decide, he remembered.

     Charlie Monroe could be a difficult man to work for, even for his friends. He wasn’t generous with pay and, when on the road to out-of-station play dates, wouldn’t allow his band to stay at the same hotel as he, taking his image as a radio star very seriously, by Scott’s recollection. For the most part, the band slept and ate on the road, always having to return on schedule for performances at the station, highlighted by the weekly Saturday night Wheeling Jamboree.

     “Our eating habits were terrible,” Scott recalled, “Most of the time usually consisting of stopping at some little gas station or country store for cheese, crackers and bologna, with a grape or orange pop to wash it down with.” Still, when he wrote his memoirs, thoughts of the time prompted Scott to sum them up with “Those, my friend, were the days!”

     Those were the days when the success of bands playing for radio stations depended on finding sponsors who paid to have the band hawk their products between songs and skits. Charlie Monroe’s band began running into problems finding sponsors. During the time Scott worked with him, Monroe moved his band from Wheeling to WHAS in Louisville, Kentucky, then on to WFBC in Greenville, South Carolina, and concurrently WBIG in Greensboro, North Carolina.

     “Bill (Monroe) was doing fine, but sponsors didn’t see Charlie as an asset by himself,” Scott recounted. Patent medicines and herbal remedies were common sponsors for radio programs and therein lay an idea: Tommy Scott still had Chamberlain’s recipes.

     Monroe offered to put up the funds to make Herb-O-Lac, which was renamed Manoree, and Scott would develop distribution through drug stores and general stores. Manoree would become the new sponsors of The Kentucky Partners and any profits would be split evenly. An Ohio laboratory concocted the potion and shipped it in bulk to a Greensboro, North Carolina, drugstore for bottling. The Manoree network soon included 15 radio stations that carried The Kentucky Partners’ show “Brought to you by Manoree, the makers of the tonic laxative that keeps everybody hale, hearty and healthy.” At its peak, about 10,000 bottles of the potion a week were sold for $1 apiece.

     Before long, Scott realized that Monroe had no intention of dividing Manoree’s profits, so he called it quits with Charlie. There was one big dividend from it all, though: Tommy Scott was, in a manner of speaking, back in the medicine show business. He would never be out of it again.

     By this time Scott and Frankie had married and were expecting a child, their first and only as it turned out, Sandra. His long ago promise of “someday” had come true when he and Frankie married on June 23, 1940. Frankie had been modeling clothes and jewelry in Atlanta when Tommy, mindful of the world war apparently in the winds, asked her to set a date.

     Tommy was playing at WAIM in Anderson, South Carolina, where he had first appeared on big time radio as a 16-year-old. Joined by Curly Seckler, a good friend from the Charlie Monroe days, the duo was sponsored by another locally made herbal remedy, Vim Herb. Scott and Seckler soon began a tent show, “Ramblin’ Scotty and Smilin’ Bill,” based out of WAIM and stations in Augusta, Spartanburg, and Toccoa. In time, Tommy’s sister, Cleo, joined the show and would continue with Tommy until she married.

     Frankie also became a key part of the group, carrying on the role of “Clarabelle,” a “little naïve mountain girl from Flintsville,” as Scott described her.  He likened her character to Grand Ole Opry star Sarah Cannon’s “Minnie Pearl.”  The cast would grow to include others.

     When WRLC radio began in Toccoa, owner R.G. LeTourneau offered Tommy a job. He and Frankie moved from Anderson to Toccoa, but Scott continued working for WAIM as well. Frankie in time became a host and an operator at the Toccoa station. Meanwhile, the world war had become a reality, and Tommy Scott, ineligible for military service due to some early injuries, supported the war effort in the only way he could.

     “We did a lot of free concerts for the soldiers,” Scott told me.  Many of those shows were for the paratroopers training at Camp Toccoa, just outside town. When “Band of Brothers,” an HBO miniseries based on the wartime exploits of Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which trained at the camp, premiered in Toccoa in 2001, Tommy and Frankie were honored guests.

     In 1942, Scott abandoned the Vim Herb sponsor and resumed promoting Herb-O-Lac, this time under “Doc” Chamberlain’s original name for the concoction. “I had had one goal that was with me from the time ‘Doc’ Chamberlain put me on that bus,” Scott recalled. “I wanted to get my own medicine company up and running.” But it was also evident to him that there was no real future going on the road, from town to town, “selling a bottle here and a bottle there” at a dollar a bottle. The small traveling troupe that by now was “Ramblin’ Tommy Scott’s Big Radio Show” was on the way to becoming the medicine show he dreamed of, and Tommy was laying the groundwork for an Herb-O-Lac empire.

     “It cost me 33 cents to make a bottle of Herb-O-Lac,” Scott noted.  “I sold it to the stores for 66 cents and they charged a dollar.”

     Scott would consign a batch of the tonic to stores and then plug the locations and the tonic curing his radio show. Deals with stations in Gainesville and Athens, in Greenville, South Carolina, and in Gastonia, North Carolina, started a small network of stations that carried his show over a telephone line as it was performed live. Before long, an average of 100 requests for the potion were arriving in the mail every day in addition to what was sold in stores. Then, in late 1943, Tommy Scott got a call from the Grand Ole Opry.

     That call was something Scott had to carefully consider.  The Opry was performed live for Nashville’s WSM every Saturday night, which was also the biggest night for his own program.  Too, in those days the Opry didn’t pay performers. Nevertheless, he auditioned, singing at first, which didn’t seem to overly impress the Opry’s legendary impresario, “Judge” George D. Hay.  “We have a lot of singers around here. We need something different,” Scott recalled Hay saying.  Then Scott auditioned with Luke McLuke at hand. He and his cypress-headed creation were a hit, and he was booked for the early show that next week.

     Scott was on the Grand Ole Opry every Saturday night for a year, making more lifelong friends such as legends Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb and Minnie Pearl, but the routine often stretched him to the limit. “Wherever we were on the road, we’d have to leave where we were, go to Nashville, do a show and go back to our next stop on the road,” Scott said, wistfully. “After a while they paid you six dollars a show, but it was worth a lot more than that just to be on the Grand Ole Opry.”

     The late 1940s were good to Tommy Scott. He had built on his earlier successes, learned from some of his early failures, and was knocking at the door at what turned out to be his greatest popularity.  More radio stations carried his show, through live feeds or recorded transcriptions. Herb-O-Lac became a household word. And record contracts, to which Tommy was no stranger, came more often. Then, in 1948, he got an offer to make history with a new medium, television.

     The chance came when the wife of a Dallas, Texas, film producer saw one of his shows during his troupe’s swing through Texas theaters. There were 27 television stations on the air in 1948, with an estimated 350,000 Americans owning a set. The producer saw the potential and was looking for a way to make his own mark in the emerging industry. The result was “The Ramblin’ Tommy Scott Show,” the first country music television show in television broadcasting – or, as Scott preferred to call it – “hillbilly music.”

     Each program was about thirteen and a half minutes long, so that local stations could insert a minute and a half of commercials. Filmed on small sets − a Western living room scene, a barn set, and a radio disc jockey’s booth − the shows were filmed in independent segments that could be mixed and matched according to time and theme. The living room scene was designed to put viewers at ease, to create the impression that Scott was singing just for them.

     “I wore a plaid shirt and sang largely to Frankie, who wore a pretty dress with a small square pattern,” Scott recollected in his memoirs. “Baby Sandra would sit on the floor patting a kitten as everyone sang and played. I’d sing songs to Frankie like my ‘You are the Rainbow of My Dreams,’ or perhaps to Sandra “Little Baby Girl’.”  The producer also marketed three-minute segments to movie theaters.

     Scott recalled that the first run of television shows in 1948 was thirteen episodes, for which he was paid $500. But the success of the shows meant that when he returned in 1949 to film more, he got $600 − per episode.

     An opportunity for short films followed, such as “Hillbilly Jamboree,” “Southern Hayride,” and “Hobos and Indians.” But through it all, Scott remained at heart a medicine show man.  “It was the success of the medicine that allowed me to build a good stage show, pay my performers a good wage for that day and keep building so I could increase my performance area,” Scott recalled.

     The medicine show continued to roll, moving across the United States and Canada in a caravan of trucks and motor homes, with Frankie a key part of the business.  Among others who became part of Scott’s performing family were Tim McCoy, Lash Larue, Al “Fuzzy” St. John and Gaines Blevin. Some came and went over the years, but all remained part of Scott’s extended family and were never far away.

     In time, Sandra Scott joined the show, performing circus acts. Later, after she married, she took over part of the business management of the operation. The show had several names over the years, such as the “Hollywood Hillybilly Jamboree” and “The Georgia Peanut Band” before becoming “Doc Tommy Scott’s Last Real Old Time Medicine Show,” the only fulltime medicine show in the world that actually sold a patent medicine.

     As our 2012 interview drew to a close, Scott grew wistful about the shows and the years, but the glint of humor never left his eyes as he talked about them.

     “All places are just about the same,” he told me.  “And some small towns just got monotonous. What you recall is the time that a door wouldn’t open when it was supposed to, or when you got locked in a room, but you don’t always remember where it was.

     “Or sometimes you’d forget from show to show in a place what you had done in the last show,” Scott said. “I’d wonder ‘Did I tell this joke last night or earlier in this show?’ Sometimes I’d go ahead and tell it and the people would say ‘You done told that!’

     “But I’ve got ways of getting around that,” he said, laughing. “That’s just showmanship.”

     When Frankie became ill, the traveling medicine show gradually slowed and then came to an end.  She was as much a part of the show as she had been of Tommy Scott’s life. He lost her in 2004. As Scott put it, “Frankie left me little by little. But some of her last complete sentences were, ‘I have a good husband’ and ‘I love you’. …I had a wonderful lifetime with that precious woman.”

     Scott died September 30, 2013, some months after our meeting at his quirky house in Eastanollee.  He was 96, and his death was the result of injuries suffered in a car accident more than a month earlier.  He was a man of great warmth and humor. On meeting him for the first time, I felt like I’d met a longtime friend.  It’s not hard to imagine that quality came through to countless audiences for more than eight decades.  It had to be the foundation of his worldwide acclaim.

     Tommy Scott wrote what could serve as his best epitaph in his memoirs, published in 2007, about how he loved performing for an audience:

     “I have often said that when my time is up on this earth, I hope the big Medicine Man in the sky will push a button and allow me to hear all the applause again … heaven!”

“I’ll be in Georgia”: John C. Calhoun, Thomas Clemson, and the north Georgia goldfields

     “I would like to visit it immediately, if my duties here would permit me to leave my seat,” United States Senator John C. Calhoun wrote from Washington, D.C., on May 22, 1842. Known for his measured self-control during the most heated debates, Calhoun made no effort to hide his exuberant wish to visit Georgia. (1)

Calhoun was writing his friend, John Mathewes of Clarkesville, about Calhoun’s goldmining enterprise in the Georgia mountains. For nearly nine years, the much regarded − and much despised −  political lion from South Carolina had owned the Obarr1 goldmine a few miles outside Dahlonega, but without glittering success. Now it seemed as if he might have struck the mother lode. (2)

     Just eighteen days after the discovery of the main vein of gold, the Dahlonega branch of the United States Mint had received and assayed nearly 217 troy ounces of gold from the Obarr mine. Valued at more than $6,000, this was more than Calhoun had paid for the entire property.( 3)

     Calhoun wanted as much news about the mine as soon as possible from “some friend in whose judgment I have entire confidence.” His letter asked Mathewes to visit the mine and make a report. Calhoun added that he would also ask his son-in-law to visit. The son-in-law was Thomas Clemson, a Pennsylvanian by birth but a South Carolinian by adoption after his 1838 marriage to Calhoun’s daughter, Anna. Nearly 35 at the time of the rich strike at the Obarr mine, Clemson already was a well-known authority on mineralogy, metallurgy, chemistry and mine engineering. Developing the Obarr would be the first major collaboration between the two. The result would be one of the longest-producing mines − and possibly the richest—in the Georgia gold fields.

John C. Calhoun, from an early oil painting of the young statesman.
Calhoun as captured by the camera in his later years, more as he appeared on his visits to his Georgia gold mine

     A photograph of Calhoun taken several years after the gold strike shows a man strikingly changed from the one depicted in earlier woodcuts and paintings. The full face and leonine mane of dark hair had given way to a shaggy, graying mop framing a face going to gaunt. But the eyes burned with a fierceness unseen in those earlier impressionistic likenesses. By the time of the strike, he was in his early sixties, his most heated political battles were over, and he no longer held the political sway he once held even in his own state. But his eyes reflected a man still spoiling for a fight. He was a Calhoun, and Calhouns were born to fight.

     Born in 1782, as the American Revolution was winding down, John Caldwell Calhoun was one of four sons of a Scots-Irish father, Patrick, who had settled in the Long Canes area of upcountry South Carolina. Patrick Calhoun recognized in his fourth son the potential for political leadership so important to the planter class as the debate over slavery and states’ rights gained momentum. John received the best classical education, first at the hands of his brother-in-law, minister and educator Moses Waddell, and later, after his father’s death, at Yale University. He then studied law, also in Connecticut, and was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1807. He also learned to manage a plantation, which remained a troublesome pursuit all his days.(4)

     The cliché “meteoric” seldom truly applies to political careers, but it does fit John C. Calhoun’s. Elected to Congress in 1810, Calhoun became a leader of the War Hawks during the War of 1812. He served as Secretary of War in James Monroe’s administration, a fervent nationalist who favored high tariffs and a strong central government. Soon he had a place among men like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and Georgia’s William Crawford. One colleague described Calhoun as “the most elegant speaker that sits in the House … His gestures are easy and graceful, his manner forcible, and language elegant; but above all, he confines himself closely to the subject, which he always understands, and enlightens everyone within hearing.”(5) President John Quincy Adams described Calhoun as “a man of fair and candid mind, of honorable principles, of clear and quick understanding, of cool self-possession, of enlarged philosophical views, and of ardent patriotism. He is above all sectional and factious prejudices more than any other statesman of this Union with whom I have ever acted.” Calhoun would serve as Vice-President under both Adams and Andrew Jackson.

     While Calhoun and Andrew Jackson shared birth states and many similarities, they were never close socially or politically. They shared an arm’s-length respect at first, but political differences left them bitter enemies. Over the years, Calhoun shifted from fervent nationalism to absolute states’ rightism, spurred by the issues of slavery and federal tariffs. He and Jackson came to loggerheads during the Nullification Crisis, when South Carolina threatened to secede and Jackson countered with threats to hang those fomenting rebellion, including by implication Calhoun.

     The Nullification Crisis ended in compromise in 1833, but Calhoun played small part in bringing the matter to a close. He had resigned from the vice-presidency in late 1832 to take one of South Carolina’s seats in the U.S. Senate. Even then, amid political tempests that roiled the country, Calhoun’s thoughts often turned to gold in Georgia.(6)

     Andrew Pickens Calhoun, the senator’s oldest son, had purchased property in Georgia’s gold fields from several owners, including banker Joseph Rucker of Elbert County, reputed to be Georgia’s first millionaire.(7) The trail of ownership is difficult to trace, but on June 25, 1833, John Calhoun bought the 239- acre Obarr mine property for $6,000. (8) Andrew Calhoun hints that one of the mine’s owners had tried his hand at skullduggery: “The mine I purchased in Georgia has once again fallen into father’s possession,” he wrote on July 7, 1833. “He found that Gibson purposely decried the reputation of the mineto procure it for himself, and that it bids fair to become one of the best in the region.” (9) That would prove an accurate assessment.

     An examination of John Calhoun’s correspondence and papers shows why the discovery of gold in north Georgia in 1828 drew his attention. Like most southern planters, he was rich in land and slaves but poor in cash. He needed money, and finding gold offered a quick solution.

     The Obarr mine, lying about three miles south of Dahlonega, may have been the site at which gold was first found in north Georgia. According to one legend, Benjamin Parks found gold while hunting here. In October 1828, Parks leased the property from Reverend Robert Obarr, pastor of Yellow Creek Baptist Church and the owner of the land. Obarr, it is said, scoffed at the idea of gold on his land.The scoffing stopped once the find was verified. Obarr tried to buy back the lease, but Parks declined. So Obarr sold his remaining interest in the property to a third party for $1,600, sixteen times what he had paid for it.

     By August 1829, the Georgia Journal, a Milledgeville newspaper, reported that two gold deposits had been discovered in Habersham County (an area later to become Lumpkin County). Within a short time, the hills flooded with miners looking for quick riches. Some estimates place the number of “29ers” at more than 10,000. By 1833, the settlement of Licklog had become Dahlonega (from the Cherokee word for “yellow”) and had nearly 1,000 residents. (10)

     Within a few months, the Obarr mine was yielding a promising return on Calhoun’s investment. In December 1833, the director of the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia notified Calhoun that a gold bar from the mine had assayed at 33 troy ounces, four pennyweights and eight grains in weight at 22-½ carats fineness. It was worth $603.93. A draft would be sent to Calhoun in care of the branch of the Bank of the United States in Charleston. (11)

     Under Calhoun’s ownership, 20 slaves from his South Carolina plantations worked the Obarr mine, using traditional pans and cradles to wash flecks and nuggets of gold from ore broken by hand. Calhoun had at least two temporary partners who leased portions of the property, each contributing additional slaves to the operation. In correspondence, Calhoun wrote of a hope that three pennyweights of gold per day per “hand” [slave] would yield a good profit. That would return a profit of $120 per hand per year.

     There proved to be more hope than glory in Calhoun’s estimates, though. The ore extracted from the mine fell far short of the desired amount. He wrote his brother-in-law in September 1835 that the yearly average was about 500 pennyweights per slave, or less than two pennyweights per day. The Philadelphia mint sent him a paltry $110.62 in 1835, leaving him to wonder whether his workers or others might be pilfering some of the gold. (12)

     Wishing to learn as much as possible about his mining operation, Calhoun spent what time he could around Dahlonega and Clarkesville. He became a familiar figure in both towns, much sought after as a guest at local gatherings. But regional and national affairs often pulled him back to Washington.

Thomas Green Clemson, one of the top mining engineers of the 19th century would be his father-in-law’s greatest asset in working the north Georgia holdings.

     His goldmining enterprise deepened Calhoun’s longstanding interest in the national currency and coinage. Supporting the continuation of the charter of the Bank of the United States in March 1834, he called for measures to elevate the price of gold to at least the level of silver, at the time more highly valued for coinage. Then, in February 1835, he spoke in favor of establishing branches of the United States Mint, since transportingbullion to the Philadelphia mint, and the delay between the mint’s assay and payment worked a hardship on the mine owners. Branch mints, he argued, would speed the gold into coinage and get it into circulation, benefiting the economy faster. When branch mints were authorized, one was established in Dahlonega. (13)

     Calhoun wasn’t shy about using his influence for his own benefit. In early 1838, Matthew Stephenson, the assayer at the Dahlonega mint, asked Calhoun to work through diplomatic channels to find out about a new Russian method for extracting gold. It took years, but in 1842 Calhoun had information about the smelting process, which was ten to twenty times more efficient than the American method. Thomas Clemson wasn’t impressed by the information. He wrote Calhoun that smelting the smelting the Russian process required wasn’t financially feasible at the Obarr mine without extensive testing of the local ores, something that couldn’t be done with the limited facilities available in Georgia. (14)

     Years earlier, the Obarr mine had brought Clemson into the Calhoun family. Clemson was born in Philadelphia in July 1807. Raised by a widowed mother, he developed interests in mineralogy, geology, and basic chemistry, later adding soils and agriculture to the mix. In 1826, at age nineteen, he went to Paris, where he attended lectures in physics and chemistry at the Sorbonne. Then, in 1828, he enrolled as an auditor − a special category for foreign students − at the School of Mines, then one of the foremost training schools in the world for mining engineers. In 1831 the Royal Mint certified him as an assayer.

     Clemson didn’t confine himself to his studies or laboratories. He was active in Parisian society and intellectual salons, some of which were stewpots for radical politics. There is some evidence that Clemson took part in a July 1830 uprising in Paris − led by university students, veterans of the Napoleonic Wars and the National Guard − that resulted in the overthrow of King Charles X and the rise of King Louis Philippe I. By mid-1833, Clemson was back in Philadelphia, working as a mining engineer. (15)

     The next year, a group of Missouri investors hired him to assess a lead mine. The managing partner for the investors was Louis Linn, a former U.S. Senator. In the spring of 1838 Clemson went to Washington, D.C., to finalize the deal. His association with Linn led to an introduction to Calhoun, a pivotal event in Clemson’s life, for it led to an introduction to Calhoun’s daughter, Anna Marie. By most accounts, theirs was love at first sight. Two months after meeting, Ann Marie accepted Clemson’s proposal. They married at Calhoun’s plantation, Fort Hill, later that year. (16)

     At Calhoun’s request, Clemson went to Georgia to assess the Obarr mine’s prospects. Calhoun met him there, leaving Washington while Congress was in session for the first time in his political career. When satisfied that the mine was in good hands, Calhoun left the banks of the Chestatee and returned to those of the Potomac.

     Clemson saw great promise in the Obarr mine. “I have often taken from two to five hundred dollars from a single pan full of ore,” he wrote his brother-in-law in 1856. “I found whilst at the mine heaps of ore which had been rapidly culled over and only the richest portions selected and yet the remainder were still rich in visible gold.” He also discovered that some of the local population had been helping themselves to the ore. (17)

     He reported that some pans of ore yielded “from forty to fifty pennyweights [sic] of loose gold. I have seen a good deal in the way of mining but this specimen of the capability of the mine passes everything I have heard of − & if it continues as I think it will for reasons I shall assign, you may really say that money is no object.”

     But the breaking of the gold ore by hand for panning, and extraction by washing, were inefficient. Clemson believed it gave “occupation to too many hands, which must be avoided for the accumulation of persons will decrease the yield, few can resist the temptation of gold.” He proposed building a water-powered stamp mill to break up the ore − ”three or four stamps will do all the work we want.”

     Then Clemson found another vein of gold. “I cannot say if the present ore will continue,” he reported to Calhoun. “But if it does it will be the next richest vein, to that already discovered, that has been found in the country. The ore is very hard and white. When the gold is visible it occurs in solid roundish pieces often continuing from one end of the specimen to the other. … My present impression is that it is entirely a distinct vein from the one we are working & which is so rich.” (18)

     Clemson wrestled with the problem of water in the mine shaft, which impeded work. Over the course of 80 feet, the shaft dropped 26 feet, following a vein that meandered down at a 21-degree angle. The water flowed down the shaft, pooling and interfering with ore extraction and making working conditions disagreeable. He solved the problem by digging an alternate shaft from lower down, angling upwards to the gold vein. (19)

     In September, Clemson issued a gloomy update about the Obarr. “Expenses will destroy the profits without an income beyond what we are getting at present,” he cautioned Calhoun. “I have done a good deal of work since your absence & with your presence we may be able to make some changes & come to results without disappointment.”

     In the autumn of 1842, Clemson moved back to Fort Hill, leaving the day-to-day mine operations in the hands of a manager, Matthew McDonald. In December, Clemson reported to Calhoun that the stamp mill was in operation and that McDonald had received a quantity of mercury, used in the processing of gold ore, increasing the trace amounts that could be recovered. It was then that Calhoun gave Clemson details about the Russian smelting process, which Clemson rejected as too costly for the mine. (20)

The entrance to the Obarr-Calhoun mine, the photo from the early 20th century
Water-powered stamp mills to crush the ore for precessing, earlier models than shown, were one major contribution Thomas Clemson brought to the north Georgia goldfields.

In January 1843, McDonald boasted of stamping 150 bushels of ore per day, but Clemson figured that such a rate could not be sustained in dryer weather. Changes were needed, Clemson wrote, but “the arrangements of the whole affair works well & notwithstanding the small number of hands there is no mine in the country doing the same amount of profitable business.” Clemson lauded McDonald as a capable manager and an honest man − ”which is not a thing daily to be met with anywhere in the gold region.”“ (21)

      Angered by an anti-Southern drift in federal policies, as Calhoun viewed it, he resigned from the Senate in March 1843. He planned to pursue the presidency, but when those aspirations withered, he served as Secretary of State under President John Tyler. During his tenure, the biggest diplomacy issues he addressed involved the annexation of Texas and the dispute with Britain over the border between Canada and the northwestern territories of the United States.

     In his twilight years, the old lion completed essays about his political philosophies, voicing strong opposition to the Mexican War and any compromise on the issue of slavery. He believed that the war with Mexico stemmed from an unsavory appetite to create an American empire, contrary to the nation’s republican principles. He spent his last days battling the Compromise of 1850 and its concessions over slavery. Suffering from the last stages of tuberculosis and heart disease, Calhoun died March 31, 1850, in Washington, D.C. His remains were brought to Charleston for burial.

     While his father-in-law had been Secretary of State, Thomas Clemson was appointed charge′ d’affaires to Belgium, a post he held until early 1852. He continued serving as a mining consultant, but more and more his interests turned to applying science to agriculture. This led to a position as Superintendent of Agriculture during the James Buchanan administration.

     At the beginning of the Civil War, Clemson joined the Confederate Army and served with the Bureau of Mines, mainly in Arkansas, looking to develop sources of nitrates for use in making gunpowder. He and Anna took possession of Fort Hill and more than 800 acres in 1872. He outlived her and then, following his death, bequeathed the property to establish Clemson Agricultural College. Founded in 1889, a year after Clemson’s death, the school opened in 1893. In 1964, it was renamed Clemson University. The college maintains Calhoun’s Fort Hill mansion as a museum.

     Thomas Clemson’s January 1843 visit to the Obarr mine may have been his last, but the man and the mine made an indelible mark on the Georgia gold rush. Clemson brought to Dahlonega an expertise in geology and mining that hadn’t been seen before in the state. His “Gold and the Gold Region” article in The Orion magazine in 1844, was the first indepth  appraisal of the Georgia gold fields. He referred to evidence that some of the earliest Spanish explorers had mined gold in the area, especially around Mount Yonah. For the gold seeker and the scientist, he wrote, “the region offers much & it holds the venturer in awe.” (22)

     Yet gold mining never actually yielded the returns that Clemson and his Calhoun family had hoped. In a letter to Patrick Calhoun six years after John Calhoun’s death, Clemson noted that the Obarr mine’s prospects had been as promising as any he had seen − ”among the richest gold mines ever discovered.”

     Yet, he confessed, the difficulties in extracting the ore required investments that had never returned a profit. “I thought it unwise,” he admitted, “for him [John Calhoun] to go deeper into the matter as he would necessarily have to trust to the judgement and honesty of other persons and the proceeds already realized might then be jeopardized or entirely lost.”

     Over the years, the Obarr mine became known as the Calhoun mine. It continued to supplement Calhoun family income until the family sold it in 1879. Through about 1939, the mine yielded occasional modest finds of gold. Today the Calhoun mine is on privately owned land, a hole in the ground all remaining of it its legacy.


  1. At least three spellings of name associated with the mine property have found their way into writings about the mine—Obarr, Obar, O’Bar—including in the transfer of deeds. For this article, Obarr was used for uniformity.
  1. The Papers of John C. Calhoun, Vol. XVI, edited by Clyde Wilson (The University of South Carolina Press, 1978) pp. 254-255.
  1. Calhoun Papers, Vol. XVI, p. 255. A notation cites a letter published in the Milledgeville, Ga. Southern Recorder that had been forwarded to Calhoun.
  1. John C. Calhoun: A Biography, Irving H. Bartlett (W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London, 1993) pp. 26-38.
  1. Ibid, p.93.
  2. Calhoun Papers, Vol. XI, p. 602. Calhoun’s first mention of his interest in the Georgia gold fields is in a letter to his brother-in-law, James Colhoun, dated July 8, 1832.
  1. Calhoun Papers, Vol. XI, pp. 650,
  2. On September 7 and September 29, respectively, Andrew Calhoun bought one-third interests in the property from John Banks of Oglethorpe County and Joseph Rucker of Elbert County, in each case the men were paid $2,000. The holder of the remaining third wasn’t named, and may have originally been Andrew himself.
  1. Calhoun Papers, Vol. XII, p. 158, is an agreement dated June 25, 1833 in which Calhoun purchases the mine property from David Gibson for $6,000.
  1. Calhoun Papers, Vol. XII, p. 160. Andrew Calhoun letter to his uncle, James Colhoun.
  1. “The Georgia Gold Rush” entry by David Williams in the online New Georgia Encyclopedia and a further Williams article republished by the Lumpkin County Historical Society.
  1. Calhoun Papers, Vol. XII, p. 194. Letter from mint director Samuel Moore, dated Dec. 20, 1833. Gold is weighted in troy ounces rather than the avoirdupois used for more common commodities. The troy scale lends itself to great precision in dealing with small quantities. Each troy ounce is composed of 20 pennyweights. Each pennyweight, in turn, is composed of 24 grains.
  1. Ibid, p. 353, letter from John C. Calhoun to brother-in-law, James Colhoun lays out his hopes for the mine’s yield. P. 364, letter to son Andrew holds out that mine isn’t as promising as Calhoun hoped. P. 379, mint director notifies Calhoun of $110.62 due him from latest gold assay.
  1. Bartlett, p. 207. Banking historian Bray Hammond considers Calhoun virtually alone in his time in his understanding of banking and monetary policy—”… not for more than a century would such an understanding of the subject be expressed again in Congress.”
  2. Calhoun Papers, Vol. XIII, p. 254, April 1836 letter to Matthew Stephenson, assayer of U.S. Mint branch in Dahlonega. Calhoun Papers Vol. XVI, pp. 372-374.
  1. “The 1807-1838 Life and Education of Thomas Green Clemson,” Jerome V. Reed. Thomas Green Clemson, edited by Alma Bennett (Clemson University Digital Press, 2009) pp. 15-24.
  1. “Anna Marie Calhoun Clemson,” Ann Ratliff Russell. Thomas Green Clemson pp. 28-29.
  1. Letter from Thomas Clemson to Patrick Calhoun, June 1856, Thomas Clemson Papers, Clemson University.
  1. Calhoun Papers, Vol. XVI, pp. 288-291. Letter from Clemson to Calhoun, dated June 28, 1842.
  1. Ibid, pp. 349-351. Letter from Clemson to Calhoun dated August 5, 1842.
  1. Ibid, pp. 444-445. Letter from Clemson to Calhoun dated September 6, 1842.
  1. Ibid, pp. 635-637. Letter from Clemson to Calhoun dated January 29, 1843.
  1. “Thomas Green Clemson: Scientist and Engineer,” by Chalmers M. Butler, Thomas Green Clemson, pp. 124-125.
The prospect of gold still brings tourists to Dahlonega, here to the Crisson Gold Mine.

Up From Slave Row: The Education of Bishop William Henry Heard

William Henry Heard, circa 1885

     By Ray Chandler

     Young William Henry Heard got a glimpse of what he could become the first time he saw the man from Augusta. The sights and sounds of the occasion, the awe and wonder of the moment, would stick with him the rest of his days.

     By Heard’s reckoning, it was early 1867 when Reverend William Jefferson White came to Elberton. The Rev. White was the son of a white father and a mixed-race black and Creek mother. As a Baptist minister in Augusta, he was an educator working with the Georgia division of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the agency helping former slaves adjust to a life of freedom in the Reconstruction South. In that role, he urged freedmen to found and support schools. He also worked for fair labor contract terms from white landowners, who often were the former owners of the laborers, and urged freedmen to learn to depend on themselves.1

     In time, the man from Augusta and his admirer became friends. “He was the first colored man I had ever seen who was well educated, and who could use the King’s English readily, accurately and convincingly,” Heard wrote years later. “I was determined from that night to be a man, and to fill an important place in life’s arena.”2

     Heard, nearly seventeen when he made White’s acquaintance, had been free for only a little more than 18 months. He knew little of the world beyond Elbert County, although he had gained a rudimentary education and had worked some months as a schoolteacher for black children. That marked him as a freedman of some distinction, but White gave him a glimpse of the larger world. From that moment, he had an idea of what he wanted to do in life.

     “To fill an important place in life’s arena” was a tall order for a young freedman, but he would go on to hold a bishopric in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and to serve as an American diplomat to Liberia. With a good deal of justification, he allowed a few wisps of pride to seep into the sparse and generally self-effacing memoir he penned six decades later, near the end of his life. The stamp of the time and place of his upbringing in the upper Savannah River valley was there, too, and deep. That upbringing had been his crucible.

     William Henry Heard was born “in corn plowing time” of 1850 (June 25, as near as he could reckon) on the plantation of Thomas Jones in the Longstreet community of Elbert County, about 10 miles east of Elberton. His mother, Parthenia, was “a breeder,” as Heard later put it: a slave woman who had children regularly and was given work in the fields near enough to the slave quarters so she could nurse and care for children. She would bear five children by the time she died of typhoid fever in 1859, when he was nine.

     Heard’s earliest memories centered around his mother’s cabin, a simple one-room house of pine logs with a puncheon floor. In winter, cracks between the logs were daubed and chinked with mud to keep out the cold. In summer, the chinking was knocked out so breezes could cool the cabin. The price for this luxury was admittance to frogs, lizards and snakes as house guests. “At night you were just as likely to find a snake curled up in your bed taking his rest as you were to take your rest,” Heard recalled.3

     Heard’s father was George Heard, a blacksmith and wheelwright on the plantation of his owner Thomas Jefferson Heard, about three miles from the Jones farm. Thomas Jefferson Heard was the son of local Revolutionary War hero and Georgia governor Stephen Heard and was also very likely George Heard’s father. At least that is the story William Henry Heard related in his memoir, and there seems no reason to doubt it in light of circumstantial evidence that the Heard family aided George Heard and William Henry Heard after the war freed them. 4

     George Heard was able to visit his children’s mother twice a week, on Wednesday nights and Saturday nights, with a standing pass to be away from the Heard plantation until Thursday and Monday mornings. Such passes for slaves weren’t unusual, but the regular visitation arrangement suggest that George was regarded with some level of trust or favoritism by Thomas Heard.

     William Heard recounted his childhood in just seven scant paragraphs in his memoir, laying out just the basic facts. What seemed to stand out foremost in his mind were the two occasions before he was ten years old that he, his mother, and his siblings were sold. The first time was when he was about five. His mother and her three children, including William, were sold as part of an estate. The buyer, Lindsey Smith, owned a plantation in the Flatwoods community of Elbert County, a few miles from the plantation of Thomas Jones. By  grow.

     In 1857, after about two years on the Smith plantation, William’s mother and her children − four by then − were bought by John Trenchard, founder and headmaster of Elberton Academy, a preparatory school in the county seat. After years of working the fields while also bearing and caring for children, Parthenia was to be a cook at the boarding house Trenchard kept for students who came from some distance away.5 “Professor Trenchard was an Iowa man, and what we considered a fair master,” Heard remembered.

     But Heard’s time in his new surroundings would be short. In1859, typhoid fever claimed his mother and oldest sister, leaving him the oldest of the remaining children, including five-week-old George. Heard was sent to plow on a farm and his siblings were dispersed to other slave families. Heard spent more than five years as a field hand, the entirety of the war years.

     He couldn’t recall the exact date when he made himself free but did recollect it was about four weeks after he saw a troop of blue-coated cavalry pass in the distance as he plowed. That would likely have been about May 1865, as Union cavalry fanned out across northeast Georgia in pursuit of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. “I was stacking hay one day, and the ‘boss man’ came out where we were at work,” Heard recollected. “He was under the influence of drink and he beat everybody. That night I took all my belongings, put them in a pocket handkerchief and ‘went to freedom.’ Thus ended slavery with me.”6

     Heard went to live with his father, who had already established a blacksmithing and wheelwright shop near Elberton, very likely with assistance from Thomas Jefferson Heard. It would have been difficult for a newly freed slave to have established such a shop otherwise.

     There were no schools for freed slaves in Elbert County yet, as the efforts by the Freedmen’s Bureau were still in their infancy. That was a key reason the Rev. White came to Elberton in 1867: to encourage the freedmen to see to the education of their children.7

     Throughout the war years, Heard had attended a Sunday school for black children at the Methodist Episcopal Church in Elberton. “In this Sunday school we were taught the Bible and Catechism, and committed much to memory by having the same repeated to us in the Sunday school, and then some member of the white family carried this out during the week; so that there were those of us who could repeat whole Psalms and chapter after chapter in the Shorter Catechism,” he recalled. He could not read or write, but he’d tasted enough of education to know that he wanted more. His father paid a white youth ten cents a lesson to teach Heard, using a Webster’s Blue Back Spelling Book. ‘I studied spelling, reading, and arithmetic all in this one book.”8

     Toward the end of 1865, Heard went to work for “a farmer named William Henry Heard, from whom I received my name.” By their contract, 15-year-old Heard was paid five dollars a month and received a nightly school lesson from his employer. It was a fair bargain in times when Freedmen’s Bureau guidelines, put in place by the Georgia bureau in June 1865, specified pay of at least seven dollars a month for an adult freedman field hand.9

     Work on the Heard plantation was “from can to cain’t”; from sunup till dark; but work for young William Heard wasn’t finished when the sun went down. He then went to the main house, waited until his employer had finished supper, and received his lesson. Farm laborers were given an hour at midday to eat and rest, but Heard used that time to study his lessons. His clothes had no pockets, so he removed the coverboards from his lesson book and carried the rolled book under his cap.

     What the young Heard fails to mention in his memoir, but which he surely must have known, is that his employer William Henry Heard was also the son of Thomas Jefferson Heard, and thus most likely his uncle. Just as the Heards had likely aided George Heard with money to establish his blacksmith and wheelwright shop, the younger Heard might have felt some responsibility to educate his nephew. In any case, the young William − the bishop writing years later doesn’t mention if he went by “William” before this − took his employer and teacher’s name as his own. He continued to work for William Henry Heard until early June 1866, when he went to live again with his father.10

     Heard worked in his father’s shop in the morning and late afternoon and, for six weeks, attended a newly established school for freed slaves during the midday hours. “I studied spelling, reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography. At the end of this time I could spell words of five or six syllables, compose, and write a letter and understood the four rules of arithmetic: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.” At the end of that month and a half, Heard took an examination to become a teacher. That fall, he and an assistant taught at another black school in Elberton. He was paid by his pupils’ parents, a dollar a month per student, earning a total of more than $300 over the course of the three-month term. “That was big money in those days, and it gave me a start in the world of economics,” he later reflected.

     He also continued his education. From a white teacher named James Lofton, he took additional lessons in grammar, mathematics and history. “I saw opening up along the intellectual horizon things I never dreamed of,” he recalled. “I was a man of good memory, they said, and I got much from my studies, so that I went on teaching and in the second year I received a second grade certificate, taught the public school and was rewarded as before.”11

     Events in his corner of the Reconstruction South began pulling Heard in another direction − the politics of the freedmen. That led indirectly to his first connection with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In early 1867, Heard ventured to Augusta, where he heard a speech delivered by Henry McNeal Turner, a minister, political organizer and firebrand for the cause of the freedmen. It was a fateful meeting. During the war, Turner had served as a chaplain for the 1st U.S. Colored Troops. Afterwards, he returned to evangelizing in the South, mostly in Georgia. By 1867, he began organizing the Georgia Republican Party. At the same time, he became active in the movement encouraging freedmen to emigrate to Africa. Between 1865 and 1877, nearly 1,000 freed slaves would move from Georgia to Liberia.12

     The Turner speech that Heard attended, “The Negro in All Ages,” limned some of the thoughts of this developing movement and fanned Heard’s desire to become involved. “My life,” he would later recall, “is largely what it is because of the impressions of that meeting.”13

I     n Elberton, Heard became a secretary of the local “Colored Methodist Episcopal Church,” as he referred to it. He got involved in politics, partly through his acquaintance with Amos Tappan Akerman, a white Elberton resident who was probably the most despised man in the county. Heard, who mistakenly referred to him as James Akerman, noted that he played a crucial role in his life.14

     Born in New Hampshire and an 1842 graduate of Dartmouth College, Amos Ackerman came South in search of teaching positions, first as a headmaster at a school in North Carolina and later as a tutor in Savannah. He gained admission to the Georgia bar in 1850, and by the late years of that decade was well established as an attorney in Elberton. He also acquired a substantial acreage and enough slaves to work them. Akerman had opposed secession but served in the Georgia state troops during the war, including one stint in a cavalry unit under Robert Toombs. After the war, Akerman joined the Republican Party and worked on behalf of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Neither action made him especially popular in Elbert County.15

     As early as January 1866, federal troops occupied Elbert County at the request of the Freedman’s Bureau after bureau agents found local landowners were making labor contracts with former slaves for as little as two dollars a month. Akerman was a major instigator of the Bureau’s actions, and was duly given the blame by locals. In the end the Freedmen’s Bureau got its way. By February 1866, the officer commanding the federal troops in Elbert County reported that “a majority of the planters are sufficiently persuaded to make honest contracts with the freedmen.”16

     The November 6, 1866, issue of the Elberton Gazette described an attempt by Akerman to organize the freedmen’s vote on behalf of the Republican Party. Federal forces headquartered just off the square were present on voting day. Akerman spoke for two hours to a crowd of freedmen gathered in front of the headquarters, “haranguing them with great vehemence…with much effort to influence the minds of his dusky audience, no doubt with the intention of provoking ‘a fat outrage.’” At the end of his speech, Akerman distributed voting tickets, formed the crowd into a column of two ranks and marched at the head of the column to the polls, under the eyes of the rest of the townspeople. “On entering the square, the ranks began to dissolve; one by one, and two by two, the Negroes fell out and went to white men and got [Democratic] tickets and went up and voted like honest men.” Akerman was alone by the time he reached the voting box and asked the county sheriff for protection while he cast his vote. 17

     Heard, under Akerman’s wing, became involved in local politics. By 1872, he was chairman of the county’s Republican Party. By then, Akerman had moved on, serving from 1870 to 1871 as U.S. Attorney General in the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant, where he led the fight against the rising Ku Klux Klan. In the election of 1872, Heard ran as a candidate for the state legislature on theRepublican ticket, but lost. He blamed the defeat on the hijacking of the Republican voting tickets shipped to the Elberton post office.

     A year later, he was ready to leave Elbert County. He took a teaching job in Mount Carmel, South Carolina, just across the Savannah River. It was a six-months-a-year school, and he would earn $40 a month.18 Heard was nearly 23, and it was the first time he had been out of Georgia. He would teach at Mount Carmel for four years, while also continuing his studies with the help of the teacher from the local white school. Abbeville County was allotted five scholarships to the University of South Carolina, decided on a competitive basis. Heard won a scholarship and enrolled in the classics department. He would not finish his studies there, however.19

     Heard was turned out of the university in 1877 when Reconstruction ended. This was one of a series of hard blows he suffered when federal authorities left the South, ending their oversight and protection. In addition to losing his place at the university, He lost his seat in the South Carolina legislature, won in the election of 1876. He also came close to losing his life.

     Heard was appointed Deputy U.S. Marshal to help keep order at the polls in the 1876 election. When local Democrats took the documents with the election results, Heard tried to collect affidavits attesting to the information. He was hogtied and taken across the river to Elbert County, ending up at the Ruckersville farm owned by the father of a man, Ed Starke, whom Heard believed to have been involved in the hijacking of the Republican voting tickets from the Elberton post office four years earlier.

     Heard’s captors wanted Ed Starke to kill him, but the idea was vetoed by Starke’s father, who wanted no killing on his land. That night, his captors took Heard to the Broad River and put him across. He walked to the county seat of Washington, took a train to Augusta using money he had hidden, crossed into South Carolina and made his way to Columbia, where he made an affidavit of the Abbeville County precinct results.20

     He moved to Athens, Georgia, where he founded a school at a local AME church, Pierce Chapel, and taught for nearly four years. By 1879, he was co-publisher and editor of the Athens Blade, a newspaper aimed at black readers, all the while continuing to teach and to study law under the tutelage of a sympathetic Athens attorney. Aside from newspaper editorials, politics took a backseat during most of his time in Athens, though he did eventually participate in one campaign that earned him a plum appointment in 1880 as a railway postal clerk, working the lines from Atlanta to Macon and from Atlanta to Charlotte.21

     Also in 1879, Heard decided to turn to the church, a move that seemed inevitable given the roles that White and Turner had played in his life. In the spring of that year he attended a “protracted meeting” of the AME Church in Athens. He went every evening for five weeks.

     “One night before the services began,” he later wrote, “I reached the conclusion that open confession of my sins and acknowledgement of Christ as My Saviour was the thing to do. But I lacked Faith to do this, because I had felt nothing to assure me that I was saved. So I carried out the idea by getting up in [sic] seat and undertaking to make this confession and acknowledgement.

     “After some time standing on my feet, being unable to speak, FAITH CAME, my mouth flew open and I shouted for joy, and then I openly acknowledged that I was a sinner and that Christ was my Saviour, and that I was willing and ready to surrender ALL to Him.”22

     In a memoir written in steady, work-manlike prose, Heard’s writing of that moment has energy and passion missing in his tales of his earlier days as a slave, student, and political worker. Heard soon decided to quit teaching and abandon his plans for the law to become a minister. In June 1879 he applied for and was approved to be an “exhorter,” the first step on this new road. He couldn’t yet preach but he could read Bible passages before groups and discuss his interpretations. After three months of doing this, he preached a trial sermon before an examining board. He spoke for six minutes, earning a license as a local preacher, the lowest rung in the AME Church’s ministry. Three months later, he was licensed as a traveling preacher.

     In 1882, he was given a congregation in Aiken, South Carolina. To that point, most of his preaching had been at missions around Atlanta, where he had worked for the railroad since 1880. He resigned from the railroad job that had paid nearly $1,200 a year to take one that paid less than $400. Except for his future diplomatic post, he would never again hold a job outside the church. That same year, he married Josephine Henderson in Athens.23

     The freshly minted pastor rose steadily through a succession of congregations − Aiken and Charleston in South Carolina; Philadelphia; Baltimore; New York City; Boston; then back to Pennsylvania, with some additional duties in Delaware. He left each congregation, he reported with unconcealed satisfaction, larger and more financially sound than he found it.24

     Heard’s path led him far from Georgia, but on at least one occasion he took an interest in matters in his home state. In 1887, he was part of an unsuccessful legal action against the Georgia Railroad Company over its practice of charging black passengers full fare for accommodations that were less spacious and inferior to those for whites.25

     Though the years, he never lost touch with Henry McNeal Turner. By then a bishop, Turner had become a zealot promoting black emigration to Liberia through his International Society Migration. The society’s objective was to move former slaves and their progeny out of the United States to Africa. Turner went to Liberia for the first time in 1891, combining missionary work with politics, meeting and befriending many Liberian officials, among them General R.A. Sherman, a Savannah-born Liberian of mixed race who commanded the Liberian armed forces. The Liberians regarded Turner as an informal diplomatic envoy. To him they made known one of their chief complaints: American diplomats to Liberia seemed to be officious, condescending fools. “The leading men, or a large number of them in Liberia, are disgusted with a majority of the representatives that our government sends over here,” Turner wrote the editor of an AME church newspaper in December 1891. “They say if our government cannot find sober, coolheaded, dignified and intelligent representatives of our own color to send here, ask the president to send white men.” Turner had somebody else in mind. It took more than three years to work his will, but in February 1895, President Grover Cleveland appointed William Henry Heard the American minister resident and consul general to Liberia.26

     Heard accepted the posting on condition that he could transfer to the Liberian conference of his church and continue his missionary work. With this arrangement, he sailed for Africa by way of England. London enthralled him. St. Paul’s Cathedral, he wrote, was the “greatest church in the world,” and the wonders of the British Museum, the “attic” of Great Britain’s far-flung empire, was his first glimpse of the relics of times and places he had only read about. On later trips tomEurope, he would travel through France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland, but none delighted him like this first experience wandering through the city that was the heart of the British Empire.

     Heard sailed from Liverpool with Turner, bound for Liberia, with a stop in Sierre Leone, where he took his first steps on the African continent. It was an experience unlike any other for him. “We ‘American Daddies’ were welcomed by the natives,” he recalled. “They followed us by the hundreds and rejoiced at our coming.” That was the beginning of a few days of meeting with other missionaries and being feted by government officials who were acquainted with Turner. It was an overture that would be repeated when Heard and Turner moved on to Liberia, 240 miles south and 26 hours away by ship.27

     Heard remained in Liberia four years, with at least one trip back to America. Diplomatic affairs seemed to take little of his time, most of which he devoted to preaching and building a church in the capital, Monrovia, funded mostly by the Liberian government and contributions by him and Turner. The Eliza Turner Memorial Chapel, named for Turner’s first wife, was the first AME church in Monrovia (and is still active as of this writing). Heard and his wife returned to the United States in 1899, where he resumed itinerate life as an AME minister.

     In 1908, he was elected a bishop. His bishopric was West Africa, to which he and his wife returned in January 1909, accompanied by eight missionaries. He would be there nearly eight years, called home by the church only when it seemed that the United States would be drawn into the world war that was touching parts of Africa.28

     A succession of posts followed until Heard finally settled in Philadelphia, a city he had come to love. He died there September 12, 1937, and his death was reported worldwide. William Henry Heard had come a long way from the slave cabin in Elbert County where mice, frogs and snakes vied with him for bed space. In his memoirs, he expressed awe and a sense of adventure that hearkened back to when he was a seventeen-year-old seeing and listening to a man he admired and hoped one day to emulate. The closest he came to writing an epitaph for himself spoke to his resolve: “I go forth in the name of Him who sent me, ‘knowing not what may befall me and would not if I could.’”29



  1. Paul A. Cimbala, Under the

Guardianship of the Nation: The

Freedman’s Bureau and the Reconstruction

of Georgia, 1865-1870 (University of

Georgia Press, 1997), p. 45.

  1. William Henry Heard, From

Slavery to the Bishopric in the A.M.E.

Church (privately published by the AME

Church, 1924), p.89.

  1. Id. pp. 19-20.
  2. Id. pp. 22-23.
  3. Id. p. 24.
  4. Id. pp. 28-29. Heard identifies

Trenchard as “an Iowa man”. The 1860

Census lists the then 37-year-old

Trenchard as born in Georgia.

  1. How long George Heard operated

his shop near Elberton isn’t clear. The

1870 Census for Elbert County lists him

as 57 years old, mulatto, employed as a

wheelwright, with an estimated net

worth of $50. He continued as a blacksmith,

wheelwright and carpenter until

his death, which Heard’s memoir suggests

may have been about 30 years after

the war.

  1. Heard, pp.31-32.
  2. Id. p. 32.
  3. Id. pp. 33-24.
  4. Id. pp. 35-36.
  5. New Georgia Encyclopedia,

online: Henry McNeal Turner.

Falechiondro Karcheik Sims-Alvarado,

“The African-American Emigration

Movement in Georgia During

Reconstruction,” Ph.D thesis, Georgia

State University Department of History,

2011, pp. 3-4.

  1. Heard, p. 90.
  2. Id. pp. 39, 90.
  3. Ray Chandler, The Last Days of

the Confederacy in Northeast Georgia

(History Press, 2014), pp. 22, 105.

  1. Cimbala, pp. 142, 320.
  2. John McIntosh, The Official

History of Elbert County, 1790-1935

(Published by the Stephen Heard

Chapter of the Daughters of the

American Revolution, 1940), p. 124.

  1. Heard, p. 40.
  2. Id. pp. 36-37.
  3. Id. pp. 41-43.
  4. Id. pp. 38, 44.
  5. Id. pp. 64-65.
  6. Id. pp. 67-69. Heard’s marriage

was his second, per his memoir. He made

no mention of his first wife. The 1880

Census data for Athens lists William

Henry Heard as married to Amanda

Heard, with a son, Wyatt Robinson.

Whether the son was his own or a stepson,

and why he doesn’t mention either

in his memoir, is unknown.

  1. Id. pp. 71-77.
  2. The New York Times, July 30,

1887, “No ‘Jim Crow’ cars.”

  1. Henry McNeal Turner, African

Letters (Privately published by the AME

Church, 1893) Turner letter of

December 9, 1891, p. 73.

  1. Heard, pp. 49, 55.
  2. Id. pp. 78, 83-84.
  3. Id. p. 88.

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