BARDSTOWN, Ky. (FOX 56) – Before the famous 1803 duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, a duel took place in Kentucky between two prominent men.
On Jan. 29, 1801, Dr. James Chambers and John Rowan were out making merry at Duncan McLean’s Tavern, and, after consuming considerable amounts of liquor, an argument broke out between the two.
Chambers, a renowned area physician, and Rowan, a respected rising politician, began arguing over who was the better master of Latin and Greek.
Tensions boiled over and the scholarly debate escalated into a fistfight.
Two days after the fight, Chambers, incited by a slight on his honor and intellect, challenged Rowan to a duel.
Rowan, who was said to have felt shame about his behavior, tried to apologize and repeatedly refused the duel. Chambers was said to continue hurling increasingly nasty insults at Rowan until he eventually accepted the challenge.
On Feb. 3, the two met in the woods around two miles south of Bardstown.
Chambers and Rowan fought with single-shot pistols, spaced 10 paces apart.
Both men fired when prompted and missed their first shots. In the second round of the duel, Chambers missed his mark but Rowan’s aim was true.
Chambers was severely wounded and Rowan was credited with offering his carriage to transport Chambers to Bardstown for medical treatment.
Chambers, in turn, requested Rowan not be prosecuted. He would succumb from complications surrounding his injury and he died on Feb. 4.
After the fatal duel
Chambers’ friends formed a posse and pursued Rowan to his home “Federal Hill”.
Rowan sent a man disguised as him out on horseback to draw away the posse and he escaped. However, Rowan would not escape from the duel completely unscathed.
The owner of the property the two men dueled on demanded a murder warrant be issued against Rowan and he was taken into custody. The local judge claimed there was not enough evidence for the case to be sent to jury and Rowan was released.
His political career took off after the duel.
He was appointed Secretary of State of Kentucky in 1804. That led him to serving in the Kentucky House of Representatives, and the U.S. House of Representatives, and he was later appointed to the Kentucky Court of Appeals.
In his elder years, he was the president of the Louisville Medical Institute and a forerunner of the University of Louisville School of Medicine.
While visiting relatives in Kentucky, Rowan fell ill and was unable to return to Washington D.C. where he was working adjusting land claims of U.S. citizens against Mexico.
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He died from his illness on July 13, 1843, and was buried in his family’s burial grounds at Federal Hill.
A special thank you to Visit My Old Kentucky Home, The Historical Market Database, and Western Kentucky University for their contributions to making this story possible.