How Bloody Island Got its Name

Max K. Erkiletian
Jul 22 · 6 min read

Many Went There to Settle Scores, Including a Future President

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Photo by Library of Congress on Unsplash

If you stand on the grounds of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, and look east across the Mississippi River, you will see a slight protrusion of land at the base of the Popular Street Bridge on the other side.

Now part of the Illinois shore, this small lump of sand barely rising above the water was once an island. It was also the site of several deaths.

Growing out of the water in the late 18th Century and becoming a mile-long island by the early 19th Century, Bloody Island got its name as a result of numerous duels fought there.

Because Bloody Island was not part of Illinois or Missouri, it was considered beyond the law of either state.

Dueling was banned by Missouri in 1822. Illinois never allowed dueling, though, during the 1840 sessions of its legislature, one state senator proposed a two-week dueling amnesty “to give full opportunities for the settling all personal difficulties.”

Lincoln Chooses His Weapons

Perhaps because Illinois never allowed dueling, few of its residents rowed out to Bloody Island to settle differences. One exception was a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln served in the Illinois House of Representatives as a Whig and James Shields was elected to the same body as a Democrat. Though on opposite sides of the aisle, the two men forged a working relationship. In 1837, with the legislature stalemated, Lincoln and Shields worked out a compromise that saved the state bank.

Five years later, the state bank defaulted. By this time Shields was state auditor. As such, he adopted a policy refusing to take the state’s currency for payment of taxes.

Lincoln took up his pen in protest. He wrote a fictional account of a farmer working to earn the money to pay his taxes only to have “officers of the state” refuse to accept it. The satire was full of barbs about Shields.

Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel on Bloody Island.

As the challenged party, Lincoln was entitled to set the terms of the fight.

Lincoln’s weapons of choice were “cavalry broadsword of the largest size” because he thought he could disarm Shields with a heavy sword.

Writing about the incident later, Lincoln further explained, “I didn’t want the damned fellow to kill me, which I think he would have done if we had selected pistols.”

One More Thing

As a further precaution, Lincoln specified that a board 10 feet long should separate the two combatants.

Stepping over the 10 feet barrier was forbidden. Lincoln was six feet four inches tall. Shields was five feet nine. Advantage Lincoln.

With the terms set and both men at Bloody Island, disaster was averted when mutual friends persuaded the combatants to stand down.

Lincoln was never again connected to a duel. However, Shields was.

On behalf of a friend, Shields accepted the challenge of a duel by future Confederate President Jefferson Davis. That disagreement was also settled through negotiation.

The only person to almost duel both future presidents of the United States and the Confederacy, Shields went on to be elected to the United States Senate three times. He was first elected from Illinois, then Minnesota, and later Missouri. During the Civil War, he was appointed a brigadier general by President Abraham Lincoln.

If at First, You Don’t Succeed. . .

Thomas Hart Benton dueled Charles Lucas twice on Bloody Island. Benton first challenged Lucas after losing an 1817 court case in which Benton felt his honor had been insulted.

Lucas refused and the matter was dropped until Lucas questioned Benton’s right to vote in an election later that year. Lucas alleged Benton should not be allowed to vote, because the latter had not paid his property tax.

Benton responded he would not answer charges made by “any puppy who may happen to run across my path.”

Those were fighting words to Lucas and he challenged Benton to a duel.

The combatants met on August 12, 1817. From 30 feet away, the pair fired simultaneously. Benton was grazed, but Lucas was hit in the throat.

In most people’s book, honor had been served. Benton hadn’t read that book. He wanted a rematch at 10 paces as soon as Lucas was healed.

With his health restored, Lucas and his seconds rowed out to meet Benton and his friends for a rematch.

Even from 10 feet, Lucas couldn’t hit his target, but Benton’s aim was true. Lucas was shot in the chest and died within minutes.

Three years later, Benton was elected to the United States Senate where he served Missouri for the next 30 years.

Too Close for Comfort

The most bizarre duel fought on Bloody Island has to be the Biddle-Pettis affair.

Late one August afternoon, Major Thomas Biddle and Congressman Spencer Pettis met to settle their differences.

Biddle, a distinguished veteran of The War of 1812, was brother to Nicholas Biddle, president of the United States Bank.

In criticizing the bank, Pettis made several cutting comments about the major’s brother. Many of those criticisms were in letters Pettis sent to a St. Louis newspaper.

At first, Biddle limited his attacks on Pettis to writing letters to the same paper. However, his temper finally got the better of him and he sought Pettis for a personal confrontation.

Pettis was ill and staying in a hotel. Biddle burst into Pettis’ room and beat him with a whip.

When Pettis recovered, he challenged Biddle to a duel.

As the one challenged, Biddle set the conditions of the engagement. It would be pistols and to compensate for Biddle’s nearsightedness, the distance would be five feet.

When the two adversaries extended their arms to fire at one another, their weapons overlapped. You might think someone would step in and point out that what had started as a duel had become suicide, but they did not.

Biddle and Pettis fired simultaneously and simultaneously fell to the ground mortally wounded.

Their seconds pulled the two together where they embraced and forgave each other.

A day later, Pettis died. A county in the western part of the state was named in his honor.

Biddle lingered through the weekend and died on Monday.

In separate eulogies, both men were deemed noble for “choosing death over dishonor.” Neither eulogy mentioned anything about common sense.

The Last Duel

The final duel on Bloody Island was fought in 1856.

Benjamin Gratz Brown, an abolitionist newspaper editor, and Thomas C. Reynolds, a politician who championed slavery, had a running feud over several years.

Their conflict finally resulted in a duel on August 26. Reynolds escaped unharmed, but Brown was wounded in the leg and limped for the rest of his life.

Both men went on to political success.

Reynolds was elected Lieutenant Governor and later was the second Confederate Governor of Missouri.

Brown served Missouri as United States Senator and later as governor.

The End of Bloody Island

Blood Island itself succumbed not long after the last duel.

The island had continued to grow to the point that it pushed silt into the Levey at St. Louis harbor. Blocking the harbor would greatly restrict river traffic and commerce.

In 1837, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent a talented officer to St. Louis to fix the problem. He devised a system of dikes and dams that changed the flow of the Mississippi River. That change kept the levy and harbor open and eventually affixed Bloody Island to the Illinois side of the river.

The Captain who created this ingenious plan was Robert E. Lee.


Originally published at http://docs.google.com.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share…

Max K. Erkiletian

Written by

I am a freelance writer who was born at an early age and is not dead yet. I write articles, content, blogs, speeches and ebooks for money. The rest is for fun.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Max K. Erkiletian

Written by

I am a freelance writer who was born at an early age and is not dead yet. I write articles, content, blogs, speeches and ebooks for money. The rest is for fun.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

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