Two men visited the site of the duel between Broderick and Terry in Daly City, circa 1920. California State Library

The Last Notable American Duel

In a wooded ravine just south of San Francisco, a pair of stone pillars, 10 paces apart, commemorate the last notable American duel.

U.S. Sen. David Broderick, a Democrat who made a fortune in Gold Rush San Francisco, was once friends with the Chief Justice of California, David Terry, but slavery tore them apart.

Broderick opposed it. Terry, allied with the Democratic Party’s proslavery faction, accused Broderick of following the “wrong Douglas,” meaning the Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass rather than Democratic Party leader Stephen Douglas, who helped open more of the West to slavery.

Broderick called Terry a “damned miserable wretch.” Terry, enraged, demanded satisfaction. As was the custom among many self-styled aristocrats in early America, the next parlay would be at gunpoint.

Dueling had been outlawed in San Francisco. So in September 1859 the men — along with about 200 spectators — met at the edge of Lake Merced just beyond the city line. They each held Belgian .58-caliber pistols. “Gentleman,” an officiator asked, “are you ready?” At that moment, a witness later recounted, Broderick’s body seemed rigid, his grip on the pistol awkward. “Ready,” both men replied. On the count of three, Broderick shot early and into the dirt, leaving him exposed. Terry coolly fired into Broderick’s chest.

David Broderick, left, and David Terry.
California State Library; UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

Terry was tried and acquitted of murder. Historians say national outrage over the killing helped hasten the spiral toward Civil War two years later, during which Terry would fight alongside the Confederacy.

After the war, in 1889, Terry saw another judge with whom he had fueded in a dining hall outside Stockton and slapped him in the face. The judge’s bodyguard shot Terry dead.

In death, Broderick was remembered as a martyr for the antislavery cause, his funeral attended by thousands. San Francisco’s “Broderick Street” was named in his honor. Terry was recalled much like the wretch of Broderick’s description, a man who stood on the wrong side of history and cut down a U.S. senator who stood on the right side.

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