Tag Archives: John Rowan

The Code

John Rowan; The Code reduced to writing in 1858

John Rowan; The Code reduced to writing in 1858

This week in 1804 saw one of the most famous duels in American history when, on July 11, Vice President Aaron Burr faced down his bitter rival, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton, who died the next day of his wounds, had offended Burr’s honor by attacking him relentlessly during his attempts to secure renomination to the vice presidency and then to win the governorship of New York.

One of Kentucky’s most famous duels occurred on February 3, 1801 between John Rowan, the rising lawyer and politician of “Federal Hill” fame, and Dr. James Chambers.  Both men were prominent citizens, but their affair of honor began with a rather seedy encounter in a Bardstown tavern.  Chambers was irritated that night over his losses at cards, and Rowan, by his own admission, had had too much to drink.  They first argued over the card game; then Rowan, who had excelled in the classics as a student, disputed Chambers’s claim to possess greater proficiency in the “dead languages.”  This was enough for Chambers to issue a challenge, coupled with the threat that if Rowan did not accept, “he would publish him as a coward in every paper in the State.”

On the day of the duel, the men faced each other in the woods outside Bardstown.  Each took careful aim at the other, but missed.  A second round ensued, and Rowan wounded Chambers in the chest.  Then, as Frances Richards notes in her biography of Rowan, “the peculiar code of duelling” kicked in. Rowan gallantly offered to summon his carriage to take Chambers back to town. When Chambers died the next day and Rowan was arrested, even some of Rowan’s fiercest enemies “objected to having a man whose difficulties had been settled according to the ‘code,’ punished by law.”  In a letter to his brother-in-law, Rowan claimed that the dying Chambers himself had “begged his friends not to prosecute me.”   Commonweath Attorney Felix Grundy reportedly resigned rather than bring his boyhood friend to trial.  Ultimately, the charges against Rowan were dropped.  He went on to become Kentucky’s Secretary of State, a member of Congress, a state legislator, and a judge on the Court of Appeals.

Click on the links to access finding aids for collections relating to the Rowan-Chambers duel, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For more collections relating to duels, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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A Family’s Sorrow

Federal Hill, Bardstown, Kentucky

Federal Hill, Bardstown, Kentucky

When John Rowan (1773-1843) married Ann Lytle (1774-1849), Ann’s father, Revolutionary War veteran William Lytle, made a gift to the couple of a 1,300-acre tract near Bardstown, Kentucky.  The Rowan estate at Federal Hill (as it became known) is now famous for inspiring Stephen Foster’s ballad, “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Foster’s song conjures up a bucolic setting enlivened by the Rowans’ nine children, but late in July, 1833 a dark shadow passed over Federal Hill.  Since the previous year, cholera had been stalking the residents of Kentucky, and when it finally reached Bardstown it tore through the Rowan family like a scythe.  Within a matter of days, John Rowan lost a daughter, Mary Jane, her husband William and their daughter, also named Mary Jane; a son, William Lytle Rowan and his wife, Eliza Boyce Rowan; another son, Atkinson Hill Rowan, just back from a diplomatic post in Spain; a sister, Elizabeth Rowan Kelly, and her husband William, who happened to be visiting; and 26 enslaved plantation workers.  Sixteen years later, the disease also claimed Rowan’s widow, Ann.

The Rowans distinguished themselves in law, politics and business, but their correspondence sometimes hinted at the trauma the family had suffered.  Orphaned children and the estates of suddenly departed relatives required attention from the survivors.  In particular, the losses seemed to haunt John Rowan’s daughter, Anne Rowan Buchanan.  “I am very feeble,” she wrote her sister Alice from Covington.  “I am so much affraid of cholera that my apetite has failed me.”  In the summer of 1848, Ann’s husband, Dr. Joseph Rodes Buchanan, became alarmed at the lack of letters from Alice’s family and feared the worst.  “What can it mean — can it be that there is sickness among you which you wish to conceal from us?” he wrote.  “Mrs. B. naturally dreads that such may be the case. . . . Let me beg of you to write immediately and say if you are all well or what is the matter.”  Perhaps the tragedy in his wife’s family contributed to Dr. Buchanan’s belief in spiritualism, mesmerism and communicating with the dead, described in letters written while pursuing his medical career in New York.

A finding aid for the Rowan Family Papers, available in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Special Collections Library, can be downloaded by clicking here.  For several other collections relating to the Rowan family and Federal Hill, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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