Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Who Shot Whom?

Just as I hoped, finding the biography of King Stockton, the once-enslaved boy on the McClellan plantation in Wellborn, Florida, has become an opportunity for me to explore the pressing issues shaping the lives of my ancestors in territorial Florida. While the King Stockton story may be disappointingly brief, its encapsulated vignettes open up the possibility for in-depth exploration, if only by virtue of the many names mentioned in the text.

Not that all the names were entirely accurately reported. We have to remember that King, coming to Florida from the Tison property in southern coastal Georgia as an infant, experienced as a young boy much of what he later reported to his biographer, A. L. Lewis. It is no surprise that some of the names offered in the booklet were not quite what they should have been.

Take, for instance, the portion of the book describing the incidents leading up to the second Seminole War. In the midst of describing the raids and retaliations of that era in Florida history, the narrative diverts to mention some of the foibles hampering military action. Though the text names some of the military leaders called to battle there—providing me an excellent chance, by their names, to seek further recordings of their movements and actual battles—it gives me names which produce no research trail. With what I'm supplied in the book, I immediately smash into a research brick wall.

Here, for example, is one passage in the King Stockton book, nestled up against sentences in a paragraph concerning battles in the second Seminole War:
General Lee Reed then came to try to subdue the Indians, but he had an enemy, Willis Austin, with whom he fought a duel. Austin was killed by Reed, so [Austin's] brother killed General Reed. Austin's brother fled to Texas, but the spirit of being a bully was in him, and in a short time he had killed six men. He was finally tied to a stake and shot to death.

While the brutality of that passage can't be avoided, what we also can't neglect is pursuit of a correct version of that history. But alas, no mention of any General Lee Reed that I could find. Nor was there any result when I searched the name of a Captain Martin, mentioned earlier in that same paragraph in the Stockton booklet. It wasn't until I searched for anyone named Willis Austin from that time period that a winding research path led me to the actual story—and opened my eyes to just what was facing my third great-grandfather in the midst of his own political aspirations.

Keep in mind, as we explore this story in the next few days, that a broader understanding of local history—including the social, cultural, psychological, and political pressures of the time period—will help us more fully understand what kind of people our ancestors once were. I had always known, for instance, that my third great-grandfather was one of the signers of the first Florida constitution—and that that document, in being duly transported to Washington, D.C., in the process of requesting admission for Florida as a state in the union, had been mysteriously "lost." Just that episode, in and of itself, tells me there is far more to that story than has been offered to the general public.

As for "General Lee Reed" and "Willis Austin," it turns out theirs was a story which filled the newspapers of that time period—and makes me appreciate more fully just why my ancestor might have thought better of continuing his political activity.

I first found evidence of a "General Lee Reed" in the testimony of a Mr. Douglas, reported in the Legislative Blue Book for 1917, compiled by Pat Murphy. According to that Mr. Douglas,
"At that time," said he, "there was a worse feud raging here in Florida than ever at any time; there was more bloodshed and violence than I ever wished to see again. It grew up between the Democratic and Whig parties, and led to the assassination of General Lee Reed in the streets of Tallahassee by a man of the name of Willis Alston."

Wait! Alston? But I thought it was Austin.

There may be a reason for that slight shift in surnames—and not simply one on account of mispronunciation—but we'll explore that explanation tomorrow. As the testimony went on to explain,
"Alston belonged to the Whig party and Reed belonged to the Democratic party, and they were both turbulent, violent men. At that time it was a very common thing for a man to shoot another in Tallahassee and almost anywhere else in Florida."

So, who might this Alston have been? As it turns out, it was not Willis Alston who initiated the furor. The difficulties started with another Alston, by the name of Augustus. It was this son of a cotton planter in Leon County, Florida—Robert West Alston—who had originally challenged another man to a duel. That man, George Taliaferro Ward, fared rather poorly in the contest, though at least he lived to tell of it.

Apparently, dueling was rampant in Florida during that time period. Several newspapers in recent decades have recounted the many duels from the state's history, with one noting,
those in office were expected to be fearless. They often settled their disputes and differences in the old-fashioned way by provoking an enemy then engaging in a duel.

Talk about the good ol' days...

Disputes of honor or politics were thus settled with dueling pistols. Thus the reigning party leader—the Whig party's Augustus Alston—felt obliged to address an issue with his political opponent, Florida Militia Brigadier General and Democrat, Leigh Read.

This, of course, was not the first time such challenges had surfaced in Florida politics, especially in regards to one particular Leigh Read. Another Whig party leader, by the name of William Treadwell, had been miffed during a recent campaign, by "insults" attributed to General Read—thus, the challenge publicly placed in the local newspaper. Read had ignored that public taunt, but unfortunately was unable to resist a subsequent challenge by another Whig, Augustus Alston.

A date was set for the event, December 12, 1839. Ironically, the place set for their meeting was outside the state line in Georgia, as territorial law made it illegal to engage in such activities in Florida.

It was not, as King Stockton's recounting had it, Willis Alston who was killed by Leigh Read, but his brother, Augustus, who had originally been killed. As legend has it, Augustus' mourning sisters dug the offending bullet out of their dead brother's body and sent it to their brother, who at the time was living in Texas. Willis did indeed understand the message implied by his sisters and returned to Florida, though it took a series of attempts before he successfully dispatched the "murderer" of his brother. Fleeing back to Texas, Willis Alston eventually met his own demise by similarly violent means.

That, as it turns out, was not one of the stories shared with the McClellan children by my grandmother's Aunt Fannie, as you can imagine. Learning of it, thanks to that brief mention in the biography of King Stockton, opens my eyes to the nastiness of politics in the nascent state of Florida—and the irreconcilable differences between the powers behind two opposing political parties. Small wonder my McClellan ancestor sought a less exposed role in local politics than he could have. Even larger wonder he didn't get caught up in the political hysteria of the dueling factions of his day.

Above: Insert in a 1839 Tallahassee newspaper, provided by a volunteer at the Find A Grave memorial for General Leigh Read.




  1. Verbal dueling was vey prevalent In Florida's political races during the 2018 campaigns. Thank goodness the perceived insults are now litigated in the media rather than by gunfire in the streets.

    That noted, gun violence is still in our newspapers almost every day. Florida has more than its fair share of high profile cases of mass shootings like the ones at the Pulse night club in Orlando and at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Senior High School in Parkland. Add to that, Stand Your Ground shootings like the Trayvon Martin case in Sanford. Then there are other threats including the series of explosive packages mailed to Democratic politicians all over the country from a seemingly staunch Republican citizen in Florida. Just today the news is reporting that Roger Stone is apologizing for a possible perceived threat to a sitting federal judge in Florida.

    Florida has come a long way from duels in the streets, but still has a long way to go. It seems comical, but a popular minister in Miami invited a politician at a particular board meeting to meet him outside. Gratefully, there was no fight and definitely no duel.

    1. With all the political strife in recent news, I tend to agree with you: glad that, for the most part, the "dueling" is kept to the pages of newspapers and other media.

      Reading these eyewitness reports and history of the time period when my third great grandfather had been active in politics--as part of the original delegation that wrote Florida's first constitution--gives me a different take on what must have been behind his pulling away from a continuing--and escalating--role in that arena. A wise move of self preservation, perhaps.

  2. Except for the formality of public notices, these events sound like today’s news.

    1. It certainly seems like it, Wendy. At least, now they restrain themselves to dueling with words, not fiercer ammunition.

  3. Replies
    1. It's often amazing to see what we can find when delving deeper into the context of our ancestors' lives. I certainly never expected to stumble upon this.

  4. This is very interesting history, and your skill at writing is considerable. Kept me enrapt. I notice the way Florida seems so much more "wild west" than other localities of the time - SC, GA, and etc. I suppose there were fewer people, and Florida is so huge - that it was harder to patrol. Fascinating story.

    1. It was fascinating, Lisa, and it did make Florida sound like the wild west. However--and I avoided the lure of this rabbit trail--I did run across reports of such goings on in some of those other states, as well. Apparently, being a "gentleman" in those times and in those locations included much more risk than we assumed...

  5. Duels or gunfights... it seems that they lived by the gun and died by it...I believe almost everyone had a gun back then:)

    1. It certainly was an eye opener to see those times in that place for what it really was. We think we can assume the worst on behalf of our ancestors, when perhaps we never really had any such idea...


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