When 20-year-old “Lord” Charles Snowden Fairfax left his ancestral Virginia home to travel west, he had gold on his mind. The “lord” referred to his family’s descent from English aristocracy, but now Charlie was among the masses— with plans to get rich, just like some 90,000 other adventurers. Little could he have suspected that he would one day play host to what was the last recorded duel in California history, and that this old-fashioned encounter would lead to the only Civil War “battle” waged on California soil.
Actually, Charlie Fairfax was of no mind to seek his fortune using a pick and shovel in the mother lode. The well-bred young man, who has been described as a “mixture of English and Virginia aristocracy and American egalitarianism,” knew there were other ways to profit from the California Gold Rush. In 1849 he became partners with some like-minded colleagues. Calling themselves the Virginia Company, they invested in a steamship, loaded it with mining supplies and tobacco, and set off for San Francisco.
Their plans for merchant royalty in California went quickly awry. In their haste to get mining supplies to the prospectors, they forgot the potentially valuable tobacco left on the San Francisco wharves, where it rotted. Their ship, Glenmore, proved no more valuable. The gold rush port of San Francisco had become a virtual dumping ground for ships abandoned by passengers and crew alike.
Fairfax shrugged off the setback and plunged into California politics, where an aggressive young man could make not only a name for himself but also a fortune. After first becoming the leader of the Marysville Committee of Vigilance in 1851, Fairfax went on to serve as a state assemblyman (1853), the speaker of the Assembly (1854) and clerk of the state Supreme Court. He soon emerged as a prominent Golden State socialite, but he didn’t put on aristocratic airs. He displayed a robust hospitality, drank whiskey with the boys and insisted that everyone call him “Charlie.” His circle of friends included state Assemblymen Charles W. Piercy and Daniel Showalter, whose paths would cross one final, fatal time at Fairfax’s scenic country home on May 23, 1861.
Bird’s Nest Glen, as Fairfax called his estate, was a wedding present to Charlie and his wife, Ada, in 1855. Situated in west Marin County, across the Golden Gate from San Francisco, the Glen was 32 acres of lush, rolling countryside about five miles from the Mission San Rafael. The location is now called Fairfax.
His Virginia origins notwithstanding, Fairfax counted himself among the overwhelming majority of Californians who were opposed to secession. Already in 1861, the California Legislature had passed a number of pro-Union resolutions.
At the time, assemblymen, rather than individual voters, selected the state’s U.S. senators, and on March 4, a three-way race ensued for a freshly vacated senatorial post. Politically, the state Legislature was split: 24 Republicans, 33 secessionist Democrats and 57 “[Stephen A.] Douglas Democrats,” who supported the Union. One prominent member of the latter group was Charles Piercy, only 24, who declared that he could not support the secessionist candidate, one John Nugent.
Not surprisingly, such sentiments caused no end of anger among Southern sympathizers. One such assemblyman was Daniel Showalter, originally of Pennsylvania. The New York Times’ California correspondent, writing in the July 26, 1861, edition, noted that when Showalter rose in an effort to “explain his vote” for the by-then-defeated Nugent, Piercy objected. Showalter, according to the paper, took umbrage at this perceived slight and “remarked that he held any gentleman who would object under such circumstances in contempt.”
Polite enough these words might seem to modern eyes, but California in 1861 could be a dangerous place to give offense. Indeed, the state’s pronounced swing in favor of the Union could be dated to 1859, when pro-Union Senator David Broderick had fallen dead in a famous duel with state Supreme Court Justice David Terry. The Broderick-Terry duel is sometimes falsely cited as the last public, political duel in California history.
Claiming to be unable to express his contempt at Showalter’s “insult” with mere words, the enraged Piercy challenged his opponent to a duel. Broderick’s death had permanently stigmatized the practice, and the California constitution of 1849 had forbidden duel participants (or, rather, survivors) from voting or holding political office, although it had as yet stopped short of banning duels completely. The official ban on dueling would come in 1872.
Showalter and Piercy chose to take their feud to Marin County. An initial attempt at a duel was foiled by the San Rafael sheriff, inconveniencing both Piercy and Showalter, who, by 3 in the afternoon, had yet to even have lunch, let alone kill each other. The two rode west out of San Rafael and made for the home of their mutual friend, Charlie Fairfax.
Fairfax, always the very soul of tact and diplomacy, served the men a lavish meal and attempted to talk them out of their intention to face off with rifles, which Showalter, as challenged participant, had chosen as weapons. Diplomatic Fairfax might have been, but even he was unable to change the minds of either man. The site chosen for the duel was a mile or so down the road from Bird’s Nest Glen, in an open field near the creek in what is now the city of San Anselmo.
Some 60 spectators showed up to watch, attracted by the “entertainment” so disdained by the Times, and were not disappointed. Showalter’s choice of 40 paces distance, instead of the 20 desired by Piercy, permitted ample space as well as time for a large herd of cattle to meander onto the field of combat, pawing and bellowing and generally doing at least as much as had Fairfax to prevent the duel. The cattle were finally driven off and the field cleared, and upon the word from Tom Hayes, Showalter’s second, both men fired.
Both missed. At 40 paces, surrounded by raucous spectators and spooked cattle, that couldn’t have been especially surprising, but rather than accept a draw, Showalter called for the weapons to be loaded again. His second shot caught Piercy directly in the mouth, and the Douglas Democrat collapsed to the ground, dead.
With Piercy’s interment in a San Rafael cemetery, Showalter saw his own political career buried as well. The Times suggested: “The more frequent expression was one of grief that two instead of one had fallen. Public sentiment had been forming fast in this vicinity. The dead man will only be remembered as a suicide; the living will be henceforth an outcast, shunned and abhorred.” Showalter fled south from San Francisco with a handful of supporters, intending to join with Texan Confederate sympathizers, said to be congregating in the San Gabriel Valley. After disappointments at raising recruits for the Stars and Bars in California, he decided to head to Mexico.
Groups of Confederate sympathizers such as the “Knights of the Golden Circle” had aspired to take over California’s gold fields, to aid the South’s cause. By the summer of 1861, however, most such citizens had already begun leaving the state. Indeed, the trail of secessionists heading south in the early days of the war was so conspicuous that Union soldiers under Brig. Gen. George Wright fortified Fort Yuma, on the California side of the Colorado River, precisely to curtail the movement.
Among the outposts overseen by Wright was a camp established on November 22, 1861, near the Oak Grove area, with a Major Edwin Rigg in command. Camp Wright, named in honor of the department commander, had been in service no more than a week when the fleeing Showalter contacted one E.E. Cable, an alleged sympathizer, to take a message to one of Showalter’s followers. Cable instead delivered it to Major Rigg at Camp Wright, whose 1st California Volunteers promptly captured Showalter and his 18-strong Confederate band in the only Civil War “battle” to take place on California soil. As battles go, it barely qualified. According to Colonel Herbert M. Hart of the California State Military Department, “California’s only Civil War battle was fought by Camp Wright troopers, but the honor is somewhat minimized because no shots were exchanged and the rebels were civilians.”
Civilians they might have been, martyrs they were not. Under questioning by Rigg, Showalter and his party adamantly denied their Confederate sympathies. While insincere, his pledge was convincing enough to get Showalter released from Union captivity at Fort Yuma after six months. Predictably, he immediately took off for Texas, where he officially enlisted in the Army of the Confederacy. A soldier at last, he saw action, most notably in the Battle of Galveston, where his performance merited him speedy promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
In an 1864 letter to a friend, Showalter wrote as a man well-satisfied that he had found his rightful place, fighting for the Confederacy. Describing his life in the wake of Galveston, he boasted of having “organized a fine regiment and been in several engagements in Arkansas and the Indian nation.” Even more telling, he said, “My brothers in Pennsylvania have gone in the Northern Army; if so I can only pity; I have no desire to see them again.”
Once the Confederacy was defeated, Showalter fled south into Mexico, his original destination in 1861. In 1866 Daniel Showalter died in a barroom brawl in Mazatlan, Mexico. Of the three principal participants in California’s last duel, only Charlie Fairfax, the transplanted Virginia bon vivant, would die of natural causes, succumbing to tuberculosis while serving as a delegate to the Democratic convention in Washington, D.C., in 1868, a mere 40 years old.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.