Crack of the Pistol:
Dueling in 19th Century Missouri

Lesson Overview:

This lesson, developed by the Missouri State Archives for ninth through twelfth grade students, will instill student appreciation for original documents by introducing them to primary sources that teach about the role dueling played in the social and political dynamics of nineteenth century Missouri. 

Students are provided images of an 1817 posting, an 1853 map of the dueling ground known as Bloody Island, and a challenge to a duel.  Students will also view a set of documents relating to Abiel Leonard, an early Missouri lawyer convicted under a statute against dueling who later rose to prominence and served on the Supreme Court of Missouri.  An accompanying copy of the Code Duello and narratives of political duels in Missouri will help students in their analysis of the relevant documents.


Instructional Procedures:

  • Origins and Traditions of Dueling
  • Glossary of Terms
  • The Age of Political Duels
  • A Brief Biography of Abiel Leonard
  • Original Documents (may be viewed on-line or via PDF files)
  • Original Document Worksheet 
  • Guided Discussion Questions
  • Suggested Readings and Websites
  • Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Social Studies
    Frameworks and Social Studies Strands

Learning Goals:

  • To engage students in an age-appropriate discussion of the tradition of dueling and the effect it might have had on the social and political dynamics of nineteenth century Missouri.
  • To help students understand why some records are deemed to be of “permanent, historical value” to the state.

Learning Objectives:

After this unit, students will be able to:

  • Define terms related to dueling.
  • Trace the tradition of dueling in Missouri from territorial times to the antebellum period.
  • List important political figures in Missouri who engaged in dueling.
  • Develop a timeline of significant duels related to Missouri politics.

Lesson Plan:

Dueling Traditions:

  1. Distribute copies of Origins and Traditions of Dueling and the Glossary of Terms.  Either have the students read these quietly to themselves, or take turns reading aloud in groups. (You might also send this home the night before as homework).

  2. Optional Vocabulary Activity: Ask students to mark glossary terms as they find the words in the text. (The first time a vocabulary word appears it will be italicized.  Terms may appear multiple times.)  Within their groups, students may divide up the vocabulary and write each word in a sentence.  Once they have finished, go around the room and ask each group to share sentences.  Lead a discussion of the relevancy of these words to the topic.

  3. Give each group a copy of the Code Duello.  Ask students to choose five “commandments” within the document that help illustrate the intent of the code or its function for insuring fairness and order.  Ask groups to share choices and explain their selections.  Have students underline examples within the code of the importance of etiquette and politeness in the nineteenth century (beg pardon, apology, etc.).

  4. Distribute copies, project on an overhead, or have students view the 1817 Tharp Posting on a computer.  Discuss the consequences of the Tharp posting as presented in the “Guided Discussion Questions.”  Ask students to imagine their name is on an offensive flyer that has been “posted” throughout the school, around town, or on the Internet.  Have students journal reactions to the situation and possible resolutions or scenarios that might develop.

Political Duels

  1. Read the introduction to The Age of Political Duels to the students and view a copy of the Bloody Island Map.  The map image will be easier to navigate on a computer.

  2. Provide students copies of A Brief Biography of Abiel Leonard to read.

  3. Distribute copies of the original documents from the Abiel Leonard case (the 1822 Anti-dueling Statute, the Leonard sentence, and the Act for the relief of Abiel Leonard) or have students view them on a computer. The documents may be easier    to see and navigate on the computer, if one is available for students.

  4. Divide students into two teams and debate the final outcome of the Abiel Leonard case.  Use the “Guided Discussion Questions,” to facilitate the debate.  Was this a fair verdict?  Why or why not?

  5. Have students take turns reading out loud the dueling narratives and history of   Bloody Island contained in The Age of Political Duels.  Refer to the Timeline of Missouri History to assist in understanding the political climate.  Lead students in a discussion of dueling as a political tool using the“Guided Discussion Questions.”  Have students brainstorm ideas about modern methods for disagreeing with a political opponent, or resolving a conflict, or expressing differences in political views.  Compare and contrast modern media availability with nineteenth century media.

  6. Pass out copies and transcripts of the State of Missouri vs. Ira P. Nash original document or have students view them on a computer.  The document may be easier to see and navigate on the computer, if one is available. 

  7. Explain to students that Nash was found guilty of a challenge to fight a duel and fined $100.  Divide students into small groups and instruct groups to pretend they were on the jury.  Groups need to find clues within the document that this was a challenge to duel, not an invitation to hunt.  Instruct students to consider  information gained from the Abiel Leonard case.

  8. Bring groups together and share the clues that were found and how they indicate this was a challenge to duel.  Discuss why Nash felt the need to disguise his challenge.  (1822 Anti-dueling Statute)

  9. In groups, ask students to complete their “Learning from Primary Sources: Original   Document Worksheets,” one for each original document. As this is a standard worksheet that can be adapted for usage with all original documents, some questions may be more relevant to the sources than others.

  10. Bring all groups together in a discussion of what the documents can tell us about the practice of dueling in early Missouri, and what can be learned from these historical documents. Why are the documents important? Use the questions from the document worksheets to discuss the specific subject matter of each document. Refer to the “Histories” and the “Guided Discussion Questions,” to delve into the possible impact of dueling on the social and political dynamics of nineteenth century Missouri.