Remastered: When Duelers Sailed the Great Lakes

US Brig Niagara. Sailing from Lake Erie to Port of Erie, Pennsylvania. Photo taken from Presque Isle State Park. (Photo taken in 2010’s. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Updated July 1, 2021

My blog’s most popular post is about the time that Jonathan and I accidentally sailed into Misery Bay off of Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Presque Isle State Park now features a monument to the War of 1812’s American naval hero Oliver Hazard Perry. The monument at the end of a little peninsula sits next to Misery Bay. In fact, when my husband and I sail, we try to use the Perry Monument as a landmark to prevent ourselves from sailing into Misery Bay.

Here is a photo that I took on my iPhone of the Perry Monument on Columbus Day Weekend in 2019. An organization associated with the National Guard decorated the monument minutes before I took the photo.

iPhone photo. Perry Monument, Presque Isle State Park, Erie, Pennsylvania. Circa October 14, 2019.

I took an interest in the Perry Monument that sits next to Misery Bay when I visited Erie for the very first time around the age of 10 or so. I was actually born in Perry County in Central Pennsylvania. I lived there for the first seven years of my life. So, after we moved to Western Pennsylvania, I was very excited to see a monument dedicated to the namesake of my original home. I had my parents take a photo of me standing next to the monument. On this same trip, I took a pontoon boat tour offered through Presque Isle State Park. I learned about the folklore surrounding Oliver Hazard Perry and his experiences with Misery Bay and Graveyard Pond during the War of 1812.

Here’s what I didn’t learn on this boat tour:

Some of the American Naval heros of the War of 1812 era – including men who sailed the Great Lakes – dueled. Some of them died in duels.

I learned this much later by reading Wikipedia. So, I trust that Wikipedia and many published books about U.S. Naval history will satisfy you much more on the particular details of this subject than I can in a 1,000 word (or whatever) blog post.

But for example: In 1818, Oliver Hazard Perry fought in a duel. He and his opponent survived. However, Perry chose for his “second” a man who actually did die in his own duel just a few years later. That man was Stephen Decatur.

I don’t remember learning about Stephen Decatur in school. However, I don’t remember a lot of things from my U.S. History classes, even though it was my favorite subject.

I liked to read biographies of famous people from the American Civil War. I noted that a lot of the biographies mentioned various other people who had the first and last name of “Stephen Decatur.” For instance, the writer Mary Chesnut’s father was Stephen Decatur Miller. A bunch of other famous people from the early 1800’s had relatives or acquaintances named “Stephen Decatur This” or “Stephen Decatur That.”

I thought, “This Stephen Decatur guy must be pretty special if a whole bunch of people named their kids after him before the Civil War happened.

So, I looked up Stephen Decatur on Wikipedia. I learned that he – and his fellow Naval officer Oliver Hazard Perry – and a bunch of their other fellow officers got themselves into duels. Often.

So many duels happened before the Civil War, that the Washington elite journeyed to a designated dueling grounds (the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds in Maryland). In fact, I learned from Wikipedia that Francis Scott Key’s son, Daniel, died after a duel that started over a dispute about the speed of a boat.

Stephen Decatur served as an officer in the United States Navy from 1798 – 1820. I’ll make this quick because anyone can just read all of this on Wikipedia. Decatur fought pirates along the Barbary Coast of North Africa. He witnessed his own brother, James’s, burial at sea. He earned a Medal of Honor.

Here’s an example of how highly folks regarded Decatur: I listened to  Episode 9:  A Devil on the Roof from the Lore podcast by Aaron Mahnke.  This episode told the myth of the Jersey Devil in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. According to the folklore, Decatur saw the Jersey  Devil as he tested cannon balls in Burlington, New Jersey. The legend maintains that Decatur fired a cannon at the Jersey Devil but that the Jersey Devil flew away. This myth implies to me that if such a decorated hero as Decatur saw and reacted to the Jersey Devil, then us common folk should believe that the Jersey Devil actually existed.

I don’t know if Decatur actually saw the Jersey Devil and fired a cannon at it.

However, in 1818 Decatur did actually build his residence in Lafayette Square in Washington, a very short walk from the White House. Before this, Decatur married Susan Wheeler. I am very much under the impression that his bride was from the most well-connected tier of American society. (Aaron Burr and also Napoleon’s brother allegedly attempted to court her.) Decatur and Susan entertained the elite in their gorgeous Lafayette Square home. (In fact, you can still visit this “Historic Decatur House.”)

So, after all of the struggle and success, Stephen Decatur agreed to duel another Naval officer, James Barron, in 1820. Decatur shot Barron. Barron shot Decatur. Decatur died at the age of 41. Barron survived for several more decades.

Dueling declined after the American Civil War. I learned on Wikipedia that the last Bladensburg duel occurred in the late 1860’s. I read in a book of Maryland folklore that a suburban housing development now sits on most of Bladensburg’s “dueling grounds.”

I reworked this blog post because later this year I want to blog about that time that Stephen Decatur allegedly saw the Jersey Devil and tried to kill it. So, here’s some context about Stephen Decatur’s fame in the 1800’s. He, and Oliver Hazard Perry, and others were America’s heros. They sailed the Great Lakes in the 1800’s. Some of them also dueled – at great personal cost.

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