Duel in Downieville, and the Woman Who Caused It

But not for the reason you might think.

Miss Sarah Pellet came to California in the autumn of 1854 to lecture on temperance, women’s rights, and political reform. A female lecturer was a rarity anywhere, but especially in California, and Miss Pellet attracted crowds wherever she went.

Some years later, Calvin B. McDonald, who had been the editor of the Sierra Citizen in Downieville when Miss Pellet came to town, told the story of her visit and the subsequent duel. Her lectures to the men of Downieville had an effect that must have gratified the lady reformer. Wrote Mr. McDonald:

Sonsof-TemperanceThrough her exertions a large and flourishing division of the Sons of Temperance was there established, and all the respectable young men temporarily stopped drinking and became enthusiastic advocates of total abstinence. A temperance Fourth of July celebration was projected, and we nominated our friend, Miss Pellet, to make the oration, and notwithstanding a strong prejudice against women orators, succeeded in procuring her the coveted invitation.

Unfortunately, an up-and-coming young politician named Robert Tevis had planned on making the oration. He was given the job of reading the Declaration of Independence instead. His lengthy remarks following the reading drew the ire of the crowd, who set about firing anvils and making a racket to drown him out. Mr. McDonald continues the story:

The event made a great deal of talk, and brought the ambitious young man into very unpleasant notoriety instead of fame. The Democratic Party had procured the use of two columns of the local paper, and had appointed as editor the Hon. Charles E. Lippincott, State Senator from Yuba County. Lippincott had a keen appreciation of the ludicrous, and as Tevis was a Know-Nothing, he took occasion to roast the unfortunate young man in the Democratic corner of the paper, and it created a great deal of fun in the town. The next day Mr. Tevis came to me–I had no jurisdiction in the Democratic side of the paper–and demanded the publication of a card which pronounced the author of Lippincott’s article “a liar and a slanderer.” He was white with rage, and trembling, and would not be reasoned with. Knowing the nature of his antagonist and his deadly skill with arms, I tried to dissuade Tevis from the rash and dangerous publication, and dwelt on the inevitable consequence. But he would hear nothing; he wanted to fight, he said, and would fight, in the street or otherwise.

A location for the duel outside of town was selected and the weapons agreed on — double-barreled shotguns at forty yards. When the time came, the sheriff arrived to intervene (for dueling was actually illegal in California), so the duel was moved over the county line into Yuba County.

Charles Lippincott was an expert marksman. According to McDonald, “He declared he did not wish to kill his adversary, to whom he had never spoken in person, did not want to fight if it could be avoided, but the nature of the public insult and the customs of the time compelled him to send the challenge.” Once an insulting “card” was published in a newspaper, a duel was bound to follow.

The combatants took their places, forty yards apart; the ground was a little sloping, and the highest situation fell to the lot of Tevis. As his second walked away he turned toward Tevis and laid his finger on his own breast, as an indication where to aim, and Lippincott observed the gesture and fixed his eyes on the same place. The word was given; both guns cracked at the same instant. Tevis sank down, shot directly through the heart, and a lock of hair fell from near Lippincott’s ear. The fallen man had not made the necessary allowance for descending ground, and his murderous lead had passed directly over his adversary’s left shoulder, grazing his face.

Lippincott left for Nevada, but later returned to Downieville for a time, but after completion of his term in the State Senate, he went back to his home state of Illinois.

And what of Miss Sarah Pellet?

Miss Pellet, regarding herself as the innocent cause of the duel, stood courageously by her friend [Lippincott], visited him in his exile, exerted all her personal influence to reconcile public opinion to the survivor, and behaved altogether like a brave, true-hearted woman, as she was and still is, in her fancied mission of reform. . . .

Her temperance division at Downieville has melted away; some of her cold-water converts are dead; [and] others have been separated from their families by the foul fiend whom she almost drove from the place.

More on Sarah Pellet and her career in California next time.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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