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Broderick v. Terry: The Duel that changed California

By California Beat September 11, 2009 No Comments Print Share

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If you were to visit the Lake Merced area on the border between San Francisco and San Mateo counties, you probably wouldn’t expect it to have been the site of anything important, let alone that of a high profile murder. But tucked away in a small residential park behind a private tennis court was the site where a powerful United States Senator was killed by a bullet fired by the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court.

This was no modern day political assassination however. Instead 150 years ago this month, it was all about honor when Sen. David Broderick dueled with Chief Justice David Terry.

David Colbreth Broderick came to California in 1849 and in 1850, was elected to the California State Senate, where he quickly became president. From 1851 until 1852, he served as acting Lt. Governor of California after Lt. Governor John McDougal became governor following the resignation of Gov. Peter Burnett. In 1857 he was elected to serve in the United States Senate.

Kentucky native David Smith Terry came to California following the Mexican War. In 1855 he was appointed a Justice on the California Supreme Court and by 1857, was appointed Chief Justice.

But what could have brought these two important California politicians to their deadly meeting? The answer was the same topic that would later cause a war, slavery. Southern born Terry was a defender of slavery while Broderick wanted abolition. In what was already a heated debate and trading insults along the way, Terry challenged Broderick to a duel originally set for September 12, 1859. Originally stopped by local authorities, the two men would face again the next morning.

Designated California Historical Landmark No. 19, the site today has changed a lot since 1859. The park where it is located can be found behind the Lake Merced Hill private tennis courts off of Lake Merced Blvd in San Francisco and parking should be available. Once in the park, just follow the signs to the duel site. What was once an area covered in sand dunes has become overgrown with plants and trees while the city of San Francisco has now completely surrounded the location.

A short walk away from the landmark plaque, you will two granite shafts, one marked Terry, the other Broderick. One can’t help but feel strange when you think of the fact that one hundred fifty years ago; Sen. Broderick was mortally wounded on this spot.

Following the duel, Broderick was taken to the house of Leonidas Haskell at Fort Mason, where he died three days later. He was originally buried in San Francisco’s Laurel Hill Cemetery, but was later moved to Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma following the outlawing of cemeteries within city limits and buried in an unmarked mass grave. The house where he died can still be seen at Fort Mason, but it is privately owned so you shouldn’t bother the residents.

David Terry left California after the duel and with the outbreak of the Civil War joined the Confederate Army, serving as a Colonel in the Texas Cavalry. After the war, he returned to become a lawyer in Stockton and became best remembered for representing Sarah Althea Hill Sharon, whom he later married, in the case of Sharon v. Sharon. He lost case and would ultimately blame United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Fields, formerly of the California State Supreme Court, for it. Terry was shot and killed in Lathrop, California by Fields’ bodyguard, David Nagle, on August 14, 1889 and was buried in Stockton’s Rural Cemetery.

Though as senseless as the results of that duel may seem today, it did have a major influence in California’s not so distant future. For one thing, it ended public dueling in the state altogether. But even more importantly, it served the Union cause during the Civil War just a couple years later when Broderick’s death in the fight against slavery was used to help inspire a Southern leaning California to remain with the North.

In honor of the 150th anniversary, the History Guild of Daly City – Colma will be holding a reenactment of the duel at the historical site on Sunday Sept. 13 at 2pm.

E-mail Roy Morlidge at rmorlidge@californiabeat.org.

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