Illinois Town--Early History A.W. Moore


About 1800 a small sandbar arose in a river opposite St. Louis. Seasonal floods and depositation rapidly increased the bar's size until it assumed island proportions. A mile in length and five-hundred yards wide, screened by cottonwood trees and beyond the jurisdiction of local authorities, the island offered an ideal site for duels, cock fights, and illegal boxing bouts. Numerous St. Louisans fought minor duels within its secluded shores, and the appelation Bloody Island was well marked. Among the more important duels fought on Bloody Island were the Benton-Lucas duel, the Barton-Rector duel, and the famous Biddle-Pettis duel.

The Benton-Lucas duel of 1817, was engendered by harsh language used by two lawyers, Mr. Charles Lucas and Col. Thomas H. Benton, at a trial in St. Louis, and aggravated by a political controversy during the general election of 1817. Mr. Lucas challenged Col. Benton and the two combatants met at dawn on Bloody Island. In the exchange of shots that followed, Benton was grazed on the leg, and a vein was severed in Lucas' neck. Mr. Lucas, although not mortally wounded, could not arise for a second fire and the duel was halted. Three months later, Mr. Lucas having recovered, the gentlemen met again on Bloody Island. At the first fire Col. Benton's ball struck his opponent in the left breast, and Mr. Lucas died in twenty minutes.

In 1823, Joshua Barton, U.S. District attorney, accused General William Rector, U.S. surveyor of Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas, of corruption in office. General Rector was absent from St. Louis at the time, but his brother, Thomas C. Rector, immediately challenged Mr. Barton, who promptly accepted.

On June 30, 1823, Rector and Barton met on Bloody Island, and Mr. Barton was slain at the first exchange.

The Biddle-Pettis duel was generated by statements spoken by the Hon. Spencer Pettis, member of the 21st Congress from Missouri, during the senatorial canvass of 1830, Mr. Pettis, an opponent of the U.S. Bank, made charges against its President, Mr. Nicholas Biddle. Major Thomas Biddle, brother of Nicholas Biddle and paymaster of the U.S. Army, infuriated by the remarks of Mr. Pettis, went to the hotel of the Congressman and cowhided the unfortunate man as he lay sick in bed. Subsequently, Mr. Pettis, having been re-elcted to Congress by a large majority, issued a challenge which the Major accepted. Major Biddle, having the choice of distance by being the challenged person, fixed it at five paces because of his short-sightedness. On August 27, 1830, the gentlemen ment on Bloody Island, and both were mortally wounded at the first exchange. Mr. Pettis died the following day, and Major Biddle three days later.

Bloody Island seems to have been expressly created for duelists. The island appeared during the era when formal dueling was incorporated in the American gentleman's code, and disappeared when swords and pistols ceased to be the conventional means of settling differences.

Bloody Island continued to grow throughout 1830, forming a wedge in the Mississippi which threatened to ruin the harbor at St. Louis. Split by the tip of Bloody Island, the river current was steadily filling in the Missouri side and deepening the Illinois side. Shoals appeared downstream from the island and destruction of the river commerce at St. Louis seemed certain. In 1836 Congress made an appropriation of $15,000 "with which to build a pier to give direction the current of the river near St. Louis." An additional $50,000 was voted and Capt. Henry Shreve, was engaged to carry out the project. Capt. Shreve was in charge of the force clearing snags from the bed of the Mississippi, and his numerous duties prevented him from taking immediate action. Meanwhile, Robert E. Lee, a young army officer at the time, disgusted with the official life of Washington, volunteered his services and came to St. Louis in 1837. Under Lee's supervision two dykes were constructed in 1838, one diverting the current from the Illinois shore past Bloody Island, and the other directing the water toward Duncan's Island and the shoals below St. Louis. Lee's plan was quite successful. At the end of the construction season over 700 feet of the shoals had washed away, the Missouri harbor had deepened, allowing boats to dock at St. Louis and the Illinois side of the channel became ten feet shallower. Subsequently, Lee was promoted to Captain of the engineers, and returned to Washington. As time passed, Duncan's Island and the shoals below St. Louis disappeared. The St. Louis harbor was deepened and as the Mississippi filled in the Illinois side, Bloody Island was joined to the mainland, becoming the residential and industrial center of early East St. Louis. Today it is called "The Island," leaving off the name "Bloody" which disappeared when this independent piece of land was connected with the Illinois Territory in 1838.