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They fought to the death for family honor — or even just the best steaks 

January 4th, 2014
Bartee Haile: Early Texans settled their differences with duels

This Week in Texas History: A column

Gravely wounded in a Christmas Eve duel at Gonzales, Reuben Ross waited until Dec. 25, 1839 to die.

The deadly dispute began two months earlier, when Ross challenged Henry McCulloch, brother of the famous Ben, to a duel on behalf of an offended friend. Angered by McCulloch’s refusal to fight, the messenger became the antagonist and hounded the reluctant duelist until he finally agreed to meet him on the field of honor.

Ross “won” the chivalrous combat by wounding McCulloch in the right arm. That should have ended the affair, but the victor would accept nothing less than the death of his opponent. Ross was “intoxicated and obnoxious,” according to the Handbook of Texas, when he “drew his pistols” leaving a sober McCulloch with no choice other than to kill him.

Although the dueling ritual was brought to Texas in the 1820’s by southern expatriates, formal face-offs rarely occurred before the Revolution. The most famous duel of that day involved representatives of two prestigious families.

At a well attended dinner in 1834, William H. Wharton’s brother John made a spiteful toast. “The Austins,” he snarled. “May their bones burn in hell.”

With Stephen F. Austin away on business, defense of the family name fell to William T. Austin, a distant but devoted relative. He unhesitantly dared Wharton to put up or shut up.

Though admittedly unfamiliar with firearms, the lesser known Austin must have been a quick learner with his life on the line. In the memorable encounter, he settled the matter by putting a lead ball through William Wharton’s right arm.

Idle recruits in the Texas Army took to battling each other after the victory at San Jacinto. Petty squabbles often erupted into ceremonial confrontations.

At Galveston two captains fought over beef allotments for their hungry companies. One got a bullet in the head and the other the best cuts. A horse provoked a clash between a pair of majors, and again only one party survived.

Sometimes the contest ended in a dead heat, as in the case of two heroes of the Texas Revolution. Infuriated by the failure of W.D. Redd to stand up to a Comanche band menacing San Antonio, Lysander Wells called his old comrade a coward.

In a lethal exchange the following day, Redd perished on the spot but not before wounding his adversary. After lingering at death’s door for three weeks, Wells too passed away.

During his time in Tennessee, Sam Houston fought his one and only duel. The expert coaching of Andrew Jackson, who had killed a man a generation before in a similar setting, enabled him to walk away the unscathed winner.

As president of the Lone Star Republic, Houston needed a cooler head. Mirabeau Lamar, David G. Burnet and Commodore Edwin Moore of the Texas Navy were but a few political foes who tried to goad him into a sunrise shoot-out.

Houston took it all in stride and with a sense of humor. One handwritten challenge was forwarded to his secretary with the wry notation, “This is number twenty-four. The angry gentleman must wait his turn.”

Dr. Chauncey Goodrich awoke on Jun. 24, 1837 to discover that his life savings, a crisp thousand-dollar bill, had disappeared during the night. There was no shortage of suspects in the crowded Houston hotel room, but the outraged physician selected the least likely culprit — Levi Laurens.

Stung by the insulting accusation, Laurens insisted upon an apology. Goodrich refused and shredded the timid government employee with a vicious tongue lashing. Under the humiliating circumstances, Laurens felt duty bound to demand satisfaction.

The doctor eagerly accepted the challenge, pleased that the choice of weapons was his. Rifles at 20 yards and the sooner the better. The two warriors agreed to meet at dawn.

Alarmed by rumors of Goodrich’s dueling prowess, friends pleaded with Laurens to break the dreadful date. But he feared public ridicule more than an early grave and kept the appointment.

The dispute was decided in the warm morning mist according to the age-old code. Before he could squeeze off a shot, the nervous novice dropped to the ground with wounds in both thighs. Two pain-wracked days later, Levi Laurens died.

The identity of the true thief was uncovered after the funeral. He was none other than the dead man’s closest friend, who had acted as his second on that fateful morning.

Posthumous regrets from Dr. Goodrich did not bring his pitiful victim back to life or appease the wrath of an eloquent Houston editor. In The Telegraph and Texas Register, Dr. Francis Moore condemned dueling as “one of the most fiendish, foulest practices that ever disgraced a civilized society.” The death of Levi Laurens inspired the newspaperman’s successful one-man crusade to stamp out “affairs of honor” in Texas.

San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

COVER: While early Texas Ranger Ben McCullough was battling Indians alongside Capt. Jack C. Hays in 1839, his brother “lost” a duel. Unlike the Pyrrhic victor, however, Ross McCullough lived to fight another day. HISTORICAL PHOTO, ARTIST UNKNOWN

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