Like the Vikings discovering Canada or Hernando de Soto discovering the Mississippi River, like Lewis and Clark discovering the grizzly bear, I too have recently made a history-changing discovery: the location of the duel between Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickinson. Following the leads of these brave explorers before me, I discovered this location by asking locals for directions.
It’s harder these days to feel like you’re seeing something no one has seen before when you have to ask people who’ve seen it where it is, but I made the best effort I could. I suckered my parents into coming with me. My dad drove because he said I’d be “too busy looking at things.” My mom had a whole history adventure set-up in the back seat — bug spray, sunscreen, three umbrellas, baby wipes (I guess in case we encountered a random historical baby?), a light blanket and her history hat. I’ve known many historians over the years, but with the exception of the librarian/archivist at the Tennessee Central Railway Museum, I don’t know anyone with a designated history hat. But my mom has one. Step up your game, historians.
Long story short, this ends with me looking excitedly into a cornfield in Kentucky while my parents try to be good sports.
But let’s start back in 1806. What we can say for sure is that Andrew Jackson, a man prone to impulsively pissing people off (like when he pissed off his friend, Daniel Smith, by helping Smith's daughter escape out a window to run off and marry Jackson’s brother-in-law) and then fighting them, and Charles Dickinson, apparently also a man prone to impulsively pissing people off, got into a very public fight over Rachel Jackson’s accidental bigamy and/or a horse race, and they challenged each other to a duel.
Dueling was illegal in Tennessee, so they went up to Kentucky. Dickinson almost killed Jackson, and Jackson succeeded in killing Dickinson.
On top of that, there are a lot of legends. It’s said that Dickinson was an exceptionally good shot, and he was ahead of Jackson on the road to the dueling grounds, so he left taunting trick-shot results (like playing cards with holes in them or ropes he’d shot through) for Jackson to encounter. Other accounts say they took two different roads. One of them got the “good” tavern, and the other had to go stay at the tavern down the road. One story says that Jackson’s entourage overheard Dickinson bragging about his strategy for killing Jackson — aim right above his top coat button and hit him right in his heart — so they insisted Jackson leave his coat unbuttoned. That way said button would not be directly under his heart. Another says Jackson was so scrawny he was able to shift himself in his (presumably buttoned-up) coat so that it faced Dickinson squarely but his body inside was turned so that Dickinson could not get a full-on shot.
There are lots of legends about no one even knowing Jackson was hit until he got back to Nashville and someone noticed his boots were full of blood — or everyone on his side knowing he was hit, but him making them all swear to not give the dying Dickinson the satisfaction of also knowing his shot had hit its mark. Then, it is said, Dickinson was carried back to the nearby tavern where he suffered all day and died, only to be brought back to Nashville and then lost and eventually found.
Listen, to some extent, this is just two assholes being reckless with their own lives and the reputations of their friends who went with them. So it’s not too surprising that I couldn’t find anyone here who could point me to the exact location. It was, at best, an embarrassment that many in Nashville just wanted to pretend hadn’t happened.
But I did know that it had happened somewhere near Adairville, Ky., just north of Springfield. So I called up the Logan County, Ky., Archives, and the woman I talked to told me anyone older than 40 in Adairville could have told me right where it was. Then she gave me the address. Then she told me about the Tennessee/Kentucky border.
See, the border between Kentucky and Tennessee was screwed up. One survey had been done in 1780 by, allegedly, two lost drunk dudes. And then another was done in 1826 to try to ascertain the true border between Kentucky and Tennessee. These two lines differed by up to 12 miles in some places, meaning that folks who lived near the state line didn’t know which state they really lived in. And it meant there was a kind of hazy no-man’s-land where it wasn’t clear which state authorities could intervene to stop lawbreaking, at least until Kentucky and Tennessee sorted things out.
This is why Philip Alston and his crew/family settled in the area. Adairville, in fact, was the site of Dromgoole’s Station, the fort Alston’s son-in-law and fellow ne’er-do-well operated. Alston’s station was nearby, down the Red River some, still in the sweet spot of neither state being sure who was responsible for it. This would have been in the 1780s and ’90s. In the early 1800s, a religious revival consisting of, among others, a lot of overzealous Methodists took hold in the area.
God, or His exceedingly annoying followers, did what legal authorities could not, and drove the land pirates out of Logan County. But in 1806, it was still a good place for bad doings, hence why Jackson and Dickinson headed up there.
Logan County is wild. They had land pirates, annoying Methodists, duels, Shakers. The county was known as the Devil’s Campground. And Jesse James’ cousin, Wood Hite, who might have been the guy Robert Ford actually shot, was born there. Literally, to get to the duel site, you drive into Adairville, i.e., Dromgoole’s Station, and turn left at the stop sign. You go past Peter Cartwright’s childhood home (Cartwright was the most prominent of the annoying Methodists in the area before he went to Illinois and founded, among other things, the college I graduated from), past the cemetery, past the Hite houses, and then take a left. The dueling spot is right before you hit the river.
I’m sure that in places like Boston or D.C., you could find more historical sites in one spot, but is there another rural spot in America like this? It’s just cool as hell.
The dueling spot is beautiful. The north side of the river is all rolling fields of corn and wheat. On the south side of the river, there’s a more narrow low spot and then a bluff. Judging from the history books, it’s probably pretty much as it was in Jackson’s time. It’s beautiful. I guess if you were picking a place to maybe die, that would be as fine a spot as any.
But the part that fascinates me is how historical knowledge gets passed on — or fails to be passed on. I mean, I guess you could argue that even Charles Dickinson’s body being lost is a good example of that. But the whiplash of going from asking an expert on the era here in Tennessee who has been searching for a definitive answer for years to getting an address from a Kentuckian was both delightful and concerning.
Like, shoot, maybe someone down here should write that address down and put it in a safe place where Nashville can find it in the future. Shit, I guess that’s me, putting it here. It’s Barren Plains Road west of Adairville, on the east side of the road, right before you hit the river. Look for the spot where it looks like two assholes would have risked abandoning their families and leaving their widows in the lurch in order to prove what men they were.
I don’t know that this “discovery” was a life-changing event. I mean, all joking aside, I didn’t discover anything. I just stumbled across the right person to ask. But it was an example of my favorite thing about living here: You can just go see for yourself. You read about this duel? Go see where it was, see the landscape, experience the journey. And be home shortly after lunch.
How lucky are we to still have these places, this history, that we can discover over and over for ourselves?