May 2008 - hal Roth
Where is Charles Dickinson?
Last month we examined the dispute that grew between Charles Dickinson and Andrew Jackson, climaxing in Dickinson’s death following a pistol duel fought in Kentucky on May 30, 1806.
After the passing of two centuries, pundits continue to spar over certain details of the Dickinson-Jackson relationship, and the greatest challenge of all is again making news in the twenty-first century: Where is Dickinson’s final resting place? A smoldering disagreement between citizens of Tennessee and Maryland may finally be coming to a head.
A Tennessee newspaper article in 1806 left no doubt as to where Dickinson was buried:
“NASHVILLE, June 7. On Sunday evening last the remains of Mr. Charles Dickinson were committed to the grave, at the residence of Mr. Joseph Erwin, attended by a large number of the citizens of Nashville and its neighbourhood. There have been few occasions on which stronger impressions of sorrow or testimonies of greater respect were evidenced, than on the one we have the unwelcome task to record.”
History buffs in Maryland and Tennessee have no problem with that fact; the clash is over where his body lies today.
In 1806, the home and farmlands of Captain Joseph Erwin occupied a large area west of Nashville. Known as Peach Blossom for a time, the property became part of the Whitland neighborhood as the city expanded.
Land records into the twentieth century continued to cite the location of Dickinson’s resting place, over which had been erected what is commonly called a “box tomb,” a raised brick structure covered by a flat stone. Box tombs are customarily empty, the coffin being buried beneath them. For reasons unknown, Dickinson’s gravesite had never borne an inscription.
The tomb was dismantled around 1923 after being struck and severely damaged by a bulldozer during property development. The gravesite, now located in the front yard of a home at 216 Carden Avenue, was never remarked, but reports say that an outline of the grave has been apparent there during times of drought.
At some point, the citizens of Caroline County, Maryland, came to believe that Charles Dickinson’s remains had been disinterred and returned to his native state. Exactly when is difficult to ascertain.
In an 1882 edition of the Denton Journal, a letter to the editor contains this statement: “As to where Dickinson was buried, the ‘oldest inhabitant’ knows not, but it is generally believed he lies alongside his parents in the burying-ground on the homestead.”
By “homestead,” the correspondent appears to be referring to the Dickinson plantation north of Preston, near Harmony, which had been divided into six farms by 1882. The section containing the original dwelling had by then been owned by two generations of the Hubbard family.
On July 25, 1891, a letter to the editor of the Denton Journal takes issue with statements made by a contributor to the Preston Times. Curiously, everything the complaining writer espouses––about which we know the facts––is in error, including the spelling of Dickinson’s name. This is what he had to say:
“A contributor to the Preston Times of the reminiscences of Jackson and Dickerson [sic] is hardly accurate in his statements. The quarrel or dispute was not between Jackson and Dickerson [it was], but between the former and the latter’s father-in-law––Irvin or Irving [Erwin]. Dickerson espoused the quarrel of his wife’s father [untrue], took his place in the duel [untrue] and was killed. He was buried, not where John Hubbard lives, but by the side of his mother, on the farm of William H. Austin, near Linchester, as your reporter has been informed by Jonah Kelley.”
I have not been able to find a copy of the Preston paper to see what that correspondent had to say.
In 1910, the Denton Journal published a story about the Jackson-Dickinson duel that contained this statement: “The body of Dickinson was brought to Maryland for burial. Some of the old negro slaves of the Dickinson family hated the name of Jackson with an animosity exceptional in their race because, as they said, he had killed their ‘young massa.’”
Another story claims that Dickinson, knowing he was dying, asked a servant to return his body to Maryland.
Early in December 1965, newspaper editor Max Chambers and members of the Caroline County Historical Society set out to search for Dickinson’s grave in Caroline County.
Huyette Truxon of Hillsboro, a man in his nineties at the time, had once told Chambers that his grandfather brought Dickinson’s body to Caroline County from Tennessee, sealed in a lead coffin. It was buried, Truxon claimed, on the family’s Wiltshire Manor Plantation near Harmony. An elderly lady, who had once lived on the farm, remembered a cemetery in what was then a cornfield near the house and provided landmarks for the group to follow.
With the modern technology of a metal detector, provided by C&P Telephone Company, Chambers’ entourage showed up at the old Wiltshire property, and good fortune was working overtime for them. The property owner was in the process of demolishing the old farmhouse and sheds to make way for an irrigation system. Had the visit been delayed, their landmarks would have been destroyed.
Within minutes, while sweeping the corn stubble, a C&P employee had a solid reading on the detector’s dial. The group dug frantically, hopefully, and four feet deep in the cold earth they uncovered a lead coffin, the only one of its kind ever discovered in Caroline County.
They lifted the casket from the ground and opened its lid. It contained dirt, particles of wood, a button, hair and bones. Chambers and his group were ecstatic; they had solved the mystery; they had found Charles Dickinson.
Historians in Nashville were less than amused by the discovery. A Nashville Tennessean headline read: “Maryland Historians Bid to ‘Steal’ Duelist’s Grave.”
On May 19, 1966, the Denton Journal boasted this headline and comment: “Dickinson Grave To Be Dedicated. PRESTON––The Charles Dickinson Memorial gravesite will be dedicated May 29 at 4 p.m. The site is on the Wiltshire Manor Plantation, ancestral home of Dickinson, three miles north of Preston, opposite the Grove Cemetery.”
But had they really found the long-sought resting place of Caroline’s famous native son? An analysis of the bone fragments by anthropologists at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington determined that the remains were probably those of a female.
In September 2007, a new owner of the Nashville property at 216 Carden Avenue joined with a Dickinson descendant from Texas and local historians in filing a court petition, requesting permission to conduct a dig to determine whether Dickinson was buried there or not.
Permission was granted and an excavation was conducted on December 15, 2007. In the following day’s edition of the Tennessean, staff writer Natalia Mielczarek reported the event:
“A four-hour archeological dig Saturday morning left one family’s front yard torn up and a 200-year-old Nashville mystery still intact.
“Several local historians, archeologists and neighbors braved the cold and rain looking for the remains of Charles Dickinson, the only man ever killed in a duel with Andrew Jackson.
“The excavation took place in Laura and Jim Bowen’s front yard on 216 Carden Ave. in west Nashville. After archeologist Larry McKee called it quits around 12:30 p.m., he said he hoped to return with a shovel in a month.
“‘It’s a little disappointing,’ McKee said, his blue jeans plastered with wet soil from kneeling on the ground. ‘We felt we had pretty accurate information where to dig, but it just wasn’t there.’
“Archeologists last year found enough evidence of soil disturbance on the property to believe the remains were there. On Saturday, a digging crew worked in about 5-foot-long segments, one at a time.
“At about 2 feet of depth, McKee jumped into the holes to scrape off the surface. He was looking for patterns of black-and-dark-orange-colored soil.
“McKee discovered a water pipe and then traced soil patterns that turned out to be rodent tracks.
“More than 800 miles away in Hempstead, Texas, Dickinson’s descendent said he was disappointed.
“‘If they don’t find it there, that means it’s been lost,’ Charles Miller Sr. said. ‘It’s important because I want to have a place where I can put a headstone for him. It’s always been passed down in the family that he was buried on his father-in-law’s plantation. Why would they move his body secretly and not tell anybody?’”
Interest in the controversy has expanded far beyond the boundaries of Nashville and Caroline County. Under the headline: “Killed in a Duel, Then Lost in the Earth,” Theo Emery commented in the December 17, 2007 edition of the New York Times:
“NASHVILLE – On Saturday morning, cars jammed the street outside James and Laura Jane Bowen’s home. Friends chatted in the yard, hands around coffee cups.
“With history buffs and curious neighbors looking on, an archaeologist directed the excavation of the Bowens’ lawn in search of a 201-year-old grave and, possibly, the resolution of a long-standing historical puzzle.
“The dig’s goal was to solve a mystery over the grave of Charles Henry Dickinson, who was killed in an 1806 duel with a future president, Andrew Jackson. The location of Mr. Dickinson’s final resting place has been in contention since the 1960s, when historians in Maryland claimed to have found his coffin.
“The grave is largely a footnote in Jackson’s legacy, but Mr. Dickinson’s place in history presents a dizzying set of what-ifs: had the marksman killed the future president on May 30, 1806, instead of just wounding him, would the United States have won the Battle of New Orleans? Would executive power have evolved without President Jackson? Would the Trail of Tears have taken place?
“‘The ball that Charles Dickinson shot into Jackson, it was only about an inch or two from his heart,’ said Paul Clements, a historian. ‘Clearly, it was a matter of inches that American history unfolded the way it did.’
“Ground radar tests indicated a likelihood that the grave remained. But after hours of digging and the onset of a cold drizzle on Saturday, the excavation failed to find the remains.
“The archaeologist leading the dig, Larry McKee, his jeans streaked with mud, announced to onlookers and his tired crew, “I think we’re going to call it, guys.”
“The Bowens looked out from the porch as workers replaced the sod, saying they might continue after more research.
“‘We should let them dig up the whole yard,’ Ms. Bowen said, ‘just to settle it once and for all.’”
Meanwhile, back in Maryland, in a Salisbury Daily Times article, staff writer Brice Stump talks about a renewed search for Dickinson’s grave in the Free State. In it he quotes Caroline County Historical Society President James Owens Knotts “J.O.K.” Walsh:
“There were two Dickinson plantations down in the south end of Caroline County. One, a little north of Preston, is called Grove. Charles Dickinson’s father bought another piece of property called Wiltshire (where the coffin was found). Wiltshire is where Charles was raised. The other Dickinson property, east, southeast of Preston near Linchester, was the original settlement plantation of the Dickinsons in the county.”
A newspaper clipping has weighed heavily in convincing Walsh that Dickinson may have been returned to Caroline County.
“I got onto this years ago when Easton antiques dealer Bob Shannahan gave me an envelope with an original 1902 newspaper article by Quaker William Kelley talking about a slave, Jerry West.
“Kelley tells the story about how he saw an elderly black man in his 80s or early 90s standing by the graveyard on his property in 1855. He went out to ask him why he was there, and the man told him he was Jerry West, the slave and manservant of Charles Dickinson. West told him he was leaving the Shore forever, going to Baltimore, and wanted to see the grave one last time. He related to Kelley the details of being an eyewitness to the duel,”
Research by Pat Guida has confirmed that West, who was a Dickinson slave, did move to Baltimore, and she also discovered that the property where Kelley lived in 1855 was not Grove but the Linchester plantation.
Huyette Truxon, who told the tale of the lead coffin, has also been confirmed. He was the slave of Col. William Richardson and later of Richardson’s son.
Why would Richardson’s slave bring back the body? It turns out that Dickinson’s father and William Richardson were first cousins, and Col. Richardson’s son was married to Elizabeth, Charles Dickinson’s sister. Richardson raised Dickinson after his father died when he was about nine, and while Dickinson was in Tennessee, Richardson handled his business affairs in Caroline County. Richardson also traded slaves with Joseph Erwin, Dickinson’s father-in-law.
In his recollections in 1902, Kelley made the following statement: “Dickinson was brought home and buried by his mother and father at the homestead on part of the property where I still reside. It was there I met Jerry West, the old faithful servant in 1855.”
Two men remember the approximate location of the graveyard before it was disturbed, and the site has been explored with an archaeologist. A magnetometer detected disturbed soil and there are plans to try to find the grave later this year.
“This is our last shot,” Walsh is quoted as saying. “Linchester is the only other alternative for a burying place.”
Remember the guy in 1891, who got everything wrong in his letter to the editor of the Denton Journal, even referring to Dickinson as “Dickerson? What was it he said?
“He was buried…by the side of his mother…near Linchester.”
If you have any old news to share, you can reach Hal Roth at firstname.lastname@example.org.