The Broderick-Terry Duel

The Broderick-Terry duel demonstrated the nation's larger and increasingly violent divisions and pushed the country further towards a civil war.

The Battle for Freedom in California

By the late 1850s, the State of California had become a focus of the heated issue of slavery. Its population stimulated by the Gold Rush, California was now home to people from the North - often referred to as Free-Soilers - who were against slavery, and transplanted Southerners, who supported the institution of slavery and called themselves the Chivs (for chivalry). Many Southerners also passionately felt that, if need be, Southern states should be able to secede from the Union, to preserve slavery and the larger concept of states' rights. The Gold Rush also brought both free African American settlers, seeking their fortunes, as well as enslaved African Americans, who were forced to dig for their owner's benefit.

As new states were added to the Union, Congress tried to achieve a balance by carefully admitting an equal number as slave states and free states. After much bitter national debate, California entered as a free state, part of the so-called Compromise of 1850. However, its vague antislavery constitution was open for extensive interpretation. And because people of color could not testify for or against a white person in a court of law, both African Americans and local Indians were vulnerable to a white-only court system.

The Opposing Politics of David Broderick and David Terry

Photo of Senator David Broderick
Senator David Broderick

David Colbreth Broderick was born in 1820, the son of an Irish stone cutter who moved to the United States to work on the new Capitol. In 1846, after an unsuccessful campaign for one of New York's U.S. House of Representatives seats, he moved to California's Gold Country to seek his fortune. After achieving business successes in minting and real estate, he was elected to the California state senate, serving from 1850-1851. In 1857, he was elected as a Democrat to the United State Senate at a time when the Democratic Party of California was sharply split in two between the pro-slavery and Free-Soil advocates. Broderick was staunchly opposed to the expansion of slavery and worked closely his political friends, including Leonidas Haskell, the real estate developer of San Francisco's prosperous Black Point community, to support the anti-slavery movement.

David S. Terry was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of California and an advocate of extending slavery into the state. Having previously stabbed a political opponent in 1856, Terry was man known for his hot temper and tendency toward violence. Although Terry and Broderick had previously been friends, when Terry lost his re-election bid due in part because of his pro-slavery views, he blamed Broderick for the loss. At a party convention in Sacramento in 1859, Terry gave a searing speech, attacking Broderick and his antislavery stance, to which Broderick responded with an equally unflattering statement. As tempers flared, Terry challenged Broderick to a duel.

The Deadly Duel

Due to a large a group of witnesses and intervention by the city police, the duel had to be rescheduled from its original date. On September 13, the duel finally took place in secret at Lake Merced, just outside the city limits of San Francisco, where duels were illegal. The chosen weapons were Belgian .58 caliber pistols. Broderick was unfamiliar with the gun's mechanism, while Terry, in contrast, spent the days leading up to the duel practicing with the weapon. At the moment of the duel, before the final "one-two-three" count, Broderick's gun misfired into the dirt. Broderick then stood tall as Terry aimed directly at Broderick's chest and fired. While Terry later claimed to have only grazed him with a flesh wounded, his bullet entered Broderick's chest and lung.

The wounded Broderick was rushed to Leonidas Haskell's home at Black Point. Despite the doctor's best efforts, he died in that house three days later, reportedly saying "They killed me because I am opposed to the extension of slavery and a corrupt administration."

Legacy of the Broderick-Terry Duel

Phot of Leonidas Haskell home at Fort Mason
Leonidas Haskell home at Fort Mason, where David Broderick died of wounds from his duel with David Terry

The San Francisco duel drew national attention. Senator Broderick's death turned him into a martyr for the anti-slavery movement. Terry and his southern sympathizers were accused of assassination, though Terry was never convicted of any crime. The Broderick-Terry duel reflected the nation's larger and more violent divisions and many feel that this tragedy pushed the country further towards a civil war.

Senator Broderick's San Francisco funeral was attended by thousands of mourners and Senator Edward Dickinson Baker (destined himself to be killed during the Civil War at the Battle of Ball's Bluff, to this day the only sitting U.S. Senator to be killed in battle) gave the moving eulogy. The City of San Francisco erected a large monument in Laurel Hill Cemetery and named a downtown street "Broderick Street" in his honor. Leonidas Haskell's house at Fort Mason, now known at Quarters 3, still stands today. While the house is not open to the public (park tenants live in the building), visitors can walk down Franklin Street and see the house where David Broderick died in 1859.

Last updated: February 3, 2015