A confrontation had been brewing for a long time. But when a duel resulted in the death of a congressional representative, it would shock Arkansas.
The duel would take place years before Arkansas statehood between Territorial Secretary Robert Crittenden and Territorial Delegate Henry W. Conway. Crittenden had guided the territory for years in the powerful combination treasurer and secretary of state. Conway was the nonvoting congressional representative for Arkansas. In 1827, Conway ran for re-election against a Crittenden ally, Robert Oden, who claimed Conway had stolen $600 from money given to him by Congress to deliver to Arkansas for the Quapaw tribe, helped with information from Crittenden. Conway said that Crittenden had given him his approval to use the money for personal use during his trip back to Arkansas and had repaid all of it. Conway won the election easily, but the arguments and insults between them intensified. Claiming his honor had been tarnished, Crittenden challenged Conway to a duel.
Dueling was banned in Arkansas after a judge was killed in an 1820 duel. The idea of personal honor and defending one’s own reputation was too powerful for many men to ignore in the early 1800s. Though the practice had been outlawed in many states, dueling still continued, particularly among the upper classes. And with it, many young men were killed or maimed over the slightest insult. The death toll is unknown. Preachers railed against the practice, and anti-dueling societies emerged. Prominent politicians had been injured or even killed in duels. President Andrew Jackson and Vice-President Aaron Burr had both killed men in notorious duels. The usual gun used in a duel was a single-shot, .54 caliber pistol. However, rifles, swords, and revolvers would sometimes be used. The seconds would always arrange the location and details of the fight.
The fight would take place in Mississippi. Because of the risk of murder charges, most duels by took place at dawn. This duel would be no different. At sunrise on October 29, 1827, the two met, both confident in their fighting abilities and confident in their sense of honor. The two stepped off. They turned. They fired. Conway just grazed Crittenden. Crittenden’s shot bore into Conway’s chest. Conway died in agony 11 days later.
Though for the moment, Crittenden was satisfied his honor had been avenged, the duel would destroy his political career. Conway’s brothers, cousins, in-laws, and extended friends and allies banded together into a tight political alliance called the Family, or the Dynasty, worked to destroy Crittenden and his allies, rallying around Henry Conway’s death. The election of Andrew Jackson, an ally of the Conway Family, meant that Crittenden would not gain reappointment as territorial secretary. Crittenden would die in disgrace in 1834, and the Dynasty would control Arkansas politics for the next generation.
Other duels would come afterward and the practice would die out after the Civil War. But no other duel would so define Arkansas politics again.