By Mark Gutglueck
Charles W. Piercy holds the distinction of being San Bernardino County’s sixth sheriff and the youngest person ever to hold that position. He was also among the youngest members of the California Assembly and a participant in the last political duel in California.
An individual of considerable dynamism, Piercy achieved all of that before eclipsing his 28th birthday. The full range of his potential was never achieved, however, as he perished in a gunfight in which his opponent was the equally dynamic Daniel Showalter.
Charles Wesley Piercy was born in Decatur County, Iowa on June 11, 1833 to Nathan Piercy and Elizabeth Scott Piercy. In 1852 he came to California in a wagon train which counted among its members Daniel Showalter, who had been born in Greene County, Pennsylvania in 1830 and was some three years older than Piercy. Though their paths were very much one and the same during that sojourn to the Golden State, whatever interaction they may have had at that time has been lost to history and they went their separate ways once they were in California. Showalter settled in Coulterville, where he worked claims he made in the gold fields in Horseshoe Bend in Mariposa County.
Piercy went further south, settling in El Monte.
El Monte at that time was a crossroads between Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and the natural harbor at San Pedro. Given its location along the San Gabriel River and its fertile soil, it offered land valued for its agricultural potential, and homesteaders were flocking there. Cattle rustling and poaching accompanied the influx of settlers, and El Monte was soon known as a rough town where men often settled disputes with knives and guns in its gambling saloons. Defense against Indian raids and the crimes of bandit gangs, such as that of Joaquin Murrieta, led to the formation of a local militia company/vigilante squad called the Monte Rangers in February 1854. In this atmosphere Piercy burnished for himself a reputation as a sure shot if not an outright gunslinger, being quite accomplished in the use of a rifle. In 1857 posses from Los Angeles, San Diego and San Bernardino converged on the area around El Monte in pursuit of a gang of bandits lead by Juan Flores and Pancho Daniel. Aided by the Monte Rangers and other El Monte vigilantes, the lawmen eventually ran Flores and Daniel to ground and the two were hanged. The manhunts for Flores and Daniel brought San Bernardino County Sheriff Robert Clift and his men, along with a volunteer militia unit assisting them known as the San Bernardino Rangers organized by Captain Andrew Lytle, to El Monte, where Piercy made their acquaintance.
In the winter of 1857/58, the leader of the Mormon Church, Brigham Young, anticipating war between the United States and the sect he headed would soon break out, in an edict called upon all of the Mormon faithful to return to Salt Lake City for an apocalyptic last stand. Though that war never came about, large numbers of Mormons abandoned their settlements, pulling up stakes to make a mass exodus back to Utah. That included the wholesale departure of Mormons from San Bernardino, where they accounted for well in excess of three-fourths of the population there at that time. Piercy moved to San Bernardino, where he took advantage of the opportunity that had presented itself as he prospered buying and reselling the lands of Mormons returning to Utah to wage the Utah War, affiliating and aligning himself with a syndicate of speculators that included Bethel Coopwood who were so engaged. In September 1859, he was elected sheriff of San Bernardino County, and he assumed that post the following month. He was 26 years old. A year later, Piercy, described variously as a Breckenridge or Douglas Democrat, resigned as sheriff to run for a seat in the California Assembly.
The 1860 race, in which Abraham Lincoln was elected, was a bitterly fought one. Even before the election’s outcome was certain, alignments with regard to whether California should support the North or the South in the question over slavery and the anticipated upheaval that would just some months later become the life and death struggle between the Union and the Confederacy were evident. Piercy’s campaign against the incumbent, W. A. Conn, was an intense one. Piercy won, but the result was immediately contested, with charges of fraud being circulated. In particular, it was alleged that a Piercy supporter, James Greenwade, at whose residence the polling place in the Temescal Valley in what was then San Bernardino County and is now Riverside County was hosted, had kept the ballot box open for three weeks after the election and that whenever Piercy fell behind in the count, more votes materialized from the Temescal precinct. The matter was removed to a court of local jurisdiction to be adjudicated, with H. M. Willis arguing on behalf of the Republican Conn and Bethel Coopwood representing the Democrat Piercy. Coopwood had Confederate leanings as he was an Alabama native, the son of a slave owner and later himself a cavalry captain, major and lieutenant colonel who commanded troops in the battles of Canada Alamosa, of Albuquerque and of Peralta as well as the Fort Thorn Skirmish that occurred in Confederate Arizona during General Henry Hopkins Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign. Coopwood in addition would head a Confederate spy ring. Before they were over, the proceedings broke into a physical altercation between Willis and Coopwood, with Willis getting the better part of Coopwood, who sustained an injury. Though Coopwood lost the fight, he prevailed in the legal proceedings, and Piercy was declared the winner.
At that point, Piercy became reacquainted with Showalter, who had successfully run for the 6th District seat in the California State Assembly representing Mariposa County in 1857–1858 and 1861–1862 and had acceded to the position of Assembly speaker pro tem.
The major political issue roiling California during Piercy’s tenure in California’s General Assembly was the coming Civil War and then the position that California was to take once the war broke out.
Both Piercy and Showalter were Democrats. Nevertheless, they were on opposite sides of the secession question.
Barely a month-and-a-half after Lincoln’s election, South Carolina on December 20, 1860 seceded, followed in rapid succession by six more states joining the Confederate States of America. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces led by General P. G. T. Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The following day, Major Robert Anderson, Sumter’s garrison commander, surrendered the fort. The Civil War was under way.
By May, a political struggle was ongoing within the California legislature as to whether the state would remain loyal and support the Union, declare itself neutral or support the Confederacy and perhaps even secede itself. While there were supporters of the Confederacy both among California’s population at large and its politicians, the majority of Californians and their political leadership were opposed to secession, some stridently so. That did not prevent the secessionists in the legislature from seeking to persuade their colleagues to align California with the gray rather than the blue.
According to the May 18, 1861 edition of the Sacramento Daily Union, on the previous day, May 17, 1861, resolutions were passed in both the State Senate and the Assembly “expressive of the devotion of the State to the Constitution of the Union, and her readiness to respond to any requisition of the Federal Government to defend the Republic against foreign or domestic foes.” The Daily Union reported that Showalter was among the 12 Assembly members who opposed those resolutions against 49 Assembly members who endorsed them. The Daily Union account noted, “The resolutions were introduced by Senator Chase, and are short, patriotic and to the point. They did not pass, however, without evoking the bitter comments and complaints of the avowed Secessionists on each floor. In the Assembly, there was a personal altercation between Showalter and Piercy, which resulted harmlessly, however.” During the debate, Piercy prevented Showalter from stating the reasons for his opposition.
On the same day as that newspaper article appeared, Saturday May 18, 1861, pro-Confederate California legislators attempted to pass a resolution calling for the secession of the Confederate States to be recognized. During a debate over this, an argument over a procedural issue broke out and after some bitter back and forth between Piercy and Showalter, Piercy challenged Showalter to a duel.
Dueling was officially illegal in California, but both agreed to meet for just such a confrontation in Marin County, three miles west of San Rafael near the residence of Charles S. Fairfax on Friday, May 24, 1861. According to an account of the events that ran in the New York Times on June 26, 1861, the two assemblymen arranged “to fight it out in Marin County, where the courts always let off murderers easy.” As it turned out, however, the Marin County sheriff intervened on May 24, and they rescheduled the duel for 7 a.m. the next morning.
The Daily Alta California on May 25, 1861, reported in a story filed the previous day, “Mssrs. Showalter and Piercy left this town this morning for Saucelito, where it is proposed they fight a duel. Up to this hour no intelligence has been received from them, but I am informed that they will fight tomorrow morning at seven o’clock. My informant is certain they did not fight to-day.”
When Saturday May 25, 1861 dawned, the morning duel was delayed, perhaps because a herd of cattle wandered onto the place where it was to take place, a level field through the center of which a gentle stream flowed and which was surrounded by hills covered with dense chaparral, such that it was shut in from view on all sides. Piercy and Showalter then went to lunch together, and agreed the duel should nevertheless proceed later that day at 3 p.m. Both showed up at the appointed time. The weapons were rifles, to be fired at a distance of forty yards.
Piercy’s seconds were Senator Henry P. Watkins and Samuel Smith. His surgeon was Dr. Wake Brierly. Showalter’s seconds were Thomas Hayes and Assemblyman Thomas Laspeyre of San Joaquin County. His surgeon was Dr. Hammond. On tossing a coin for the choice of ground, Hayes won the flip for Showalter. In attendance were some 60 spectators, including several friends or associates of both men, as well as Senators Gallagher and Williamson, Assemblymen Chandler, Gregory and Gillette, as well as John Kelly, Charles Minturn, James Moore, Edward Birne and Frank Schell. Some sought to dissuade both parties from consummating the duel.
Piercy and Showalter took their places and the rules of engagement were read by Watkins to the effect that if either fired before the word “fire” or after the word “stop,” his opponent’s second would fire upon him. Hayes asked if they were ready. Both said they were. Hayes gave the word, “Ready,” and the count “one, two, three, stop.” Both fired at the utterance of “two,” with Showalter slightly in advance of Piercy. Neither was injured. Showalter then called for the weapons to be reloaded. Upon the guns being reloaded, Hayes again inquired if they were ready but then ordered, “Stop,” and instructed Piercy to hold his gun perpendicular, which brought a rejoinder from Watkins that “He can hold his gun as he pleases until the word ‘ready’ is given.” A moment later Hayes again inquired of their readiness and both responded, “Ready.” Hayes called, “Fire, one, two.” Both fired simultaneously at the word “one.” Piercy was struck and fell to the ground, blood gushing from his mouth and nose. The bullet had struck him in the mouth, slightly to the right. According to a contemporaneous account, “His eyes stared wide, and there was a twitching of his right arm for a single instant, but he was dead at the moment Hayes called the word two.” The surgeons attended him immediately, shortly after which his corpse was conveyed to San Rafael, where a coroner’s inquest was held.
In short order, a rumor spread that Piercy’s seconds had sold him out and that his gun did not contain a bullet, as both Watkins and Smith were “rank secessionists” who wanted him out of the Assembly.
In a letter dated May 26, 1861 to his brother, A. Showalter, Dan Showalter wrote “Enclosed you will find an account of that fatal duel between C.W. Piercy and myself. Deeply as I regret the necessity which compelled me to meet this man and kill him on the field, still I had to choose between that and disgrace and dishonor. I could have killed him on the first fire but I told my friends that I would not do it hoping that he would be satisfied with one shot, but he had bad advisors who were determined to have me killed or dishonored. When I saw this I ordered the weapons to be loaded again. I knew from the precision of his first shot that one or both of us must fall at the next fire. I determined to make mine tell. His last shot passed directly over my head and it could not have missed me more than an inch or two. To prove that I did not desire an advantage I chose rifles when I knew well that my opponent was one of the best shots in the state with this weapon and after the ground was measured off and I had won the position I offered to exchange positions with him if he thot there was any difference in them. I am well satisfied that parties on the outside who had not courage to meet any honorable man in mortal combat forced Mr. Piercy into the fight with the vain hope of disgracing me or the satisfaction of seeing me fall at the hand of my opponent. Should fortune ever point out those men to me there shall be a day of reckoning. I know how you all view matters of this in the old states. There a man may without dishonor refuse to fight, but here such a refusal would subject him to the insults of the whole community and the jeers of a corrupt press which apparently condemns dueling but always brands the man who refuses to fight as a coward. I intend to return to Marin County and stand my trial and I have no fears for the results. I know that it will give me a great deal of trouble and cost me all and much more than I am worthy, but nevertheless I will not attempt to avoid a trial. I would not have written you about this unfortunate affair, but I know very well that an account of it would reach you at some time. I would much sooner you should have the whole truth. Remember me kindly to all my friends. Your Brother Dan Showalter.”
Showalter, the Assembly speaker pro tem, was for a time in a state of limbo, as the duel he had engaged in was technically illegal, but had been engaged in freely by Piercy and was attended by more than a score of prominent California citizens, including members of the legislature. He made no attempt to mask his Confederate leanings and as California over the next several weeks and months grew ever more strongly affiliated with the Union, he was eventually declared a fugitive. Showalter made his way south to near El Monte, where he linked up with other secessionist sympathizers who wanted to go east to join the Confederate Army.
With the war on in earnest, Southerners and Confederate sympathizers were seeking to leave California and reach the seceded states and help with the war effort. Those loyal to the Union sought to stop them and have them arrested for disloyalty and treason. Garrisons of California volunteers stationed themselves along the most logical and heavily traveled overland routes through the Southwestern deserts to New Mexico and Texas.
In November 1861, Showalter and about a score of other Confederate sympathizers braved the overland trail, purposed to reach Texas. Union informers, however, alerted Union soldiers of the group’s intentions and cavalry patrols set out from San Bernardino and Camp Wright to patrol and search the hills of the Southern California’s back-country. After Showalter and his companions spent the night of November 27, 1861 in Temecula, they departed the following morning and headed into the southeastern hills. A patrol commanded by Lieutenant Chauncey R. Wellman from Camp Wright picked up the pro-Confederates’ trail as they were headed toward Warner’s Ranch. At 8:30 on the morning of November 29, 1861, Showalter awoke surrounded by Wellman and his men. Thinking on his feet, Showalter claimed he and his party were miners intent on establishing and working claims in Sonora. When further reinforcements arrived, Wellman insisted Showalter and his group accompany him to Camp Wright, where that installation’s commander, Captain Hugh A. Gorley, made clear he did not buy Showalter’s assertion that he was headed to Mexico. Showalter and his men remained under guard. In December 1861, Showalter took an oath of allegiance to the United States, but Gorley was unwilling to release Showalter on the strength of that, and instead sent him to Fort Yuma, where he was held prisoner until he and his men signed second loyalty oaths in April 1862.
After his release, Showalter eventually made his way to Texas, where, breaking his oath, he signed on as a Confederate cavalry commander. By February 1863, Union authorities knew where he was and had put a bounty on his head as a traitor. By March 1864, Showalter had achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel and in tandem with forces under Colonel John Salmon Ford led his regiment in fighting around Brownsville, Texas, driving the Union troops out of South Texas. After the Union troops evacuated, Showalter occupied Brownsville on June 30, 1864. Later, when Colonel Ford fell ill, Showalter was put in charge of the Ford’s troops. Shortly thereafter Showalter was found drunk and unable to command his soldiers. On May 12, 1865, Showalter was again drunk when forces under his command were attacked at Palmito Hill. Without anyone in command, his unit, the 4th Arizona, panicked when it came under enemy artillery fire. George Henry Giddings, the head of a volunteer Texas militia, came up with his battalion, rallied the disorderly unit and stabilized the defense some miles east of Palmito Hill, relieving Showalter of his command, which was thereafter entrusted to Major F. E. Kavanaugh.
After the war, with the Union bounty yet on his head, Showalter went to Mexico in August 1865, and managed a hotel in Mazatlán. From a wound he sustained during a bar fight in Mazatlán in 1866, Showalter contracted tetanus and died of lockjaw.