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Bloody Island, Illinois

The Legal Genealogist has made the point before: by looking at the early laws of an area, we can understand an awful lot about our ancestors who lived then — what mattered to them enough to pass a law about it.

So… looking at early Illinois laws in anticipation of Saturday’s 2018 Family History Conference of the Genealogical Society of Southern Illinois, we have to ask — what exactly does it say about Illinois at the turn of the 19th century that one of the earliest laws its legislature passed after Illinois became its own territory was this one:

WHEREAS, experience has evinced that the existing remedy for the suppression of the barbarous custom of duelling is inadequate to the purpose, and the progress and consequences of the evil have become so destructive as to require an effort on the part of the Legislature to arrest a vice, the result of ignorance and barbarism, justified neither by the precepts of morality nor by the dictates of reason, for remedy whereof:


Be it enacted by the Acting Governor and Judges of the Illinois Territory, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same: That any person who shall hereafter wilfully and maliciously, or by previous agreement, fight a duel or single combat with any engine, instrument or weapon, the probable consequence of which might be death of either party, and in so doing shall kill his antagonist, or any other person or persons, or inflict such as that the person injured shall die thereof within three months thereafter, such offender, his aiders, abettors and counsellors being thereof duly convicted, shall be guilty of murder and suffer death by being hanged by the neck, any law, custom or usage of this Territory to the contrary notwithstanding.1

That statute goes on and on and on: it barred any duelist from holding public office, required an oath that the person hadn’t ever dueled, and made it as much a crime to duel outside the Territory as within it.

Now what in the world led to that?

The answer lies in the history — and the geography — of the area.

And a sandbar that came to be known as Bloody Island.

Bloody Island

If you look at the map above, of the plan for St. Louis, Missouri, in 1796, you’ll see a sandbar circled in red. The notation on the map, at that time, said it was uncovered only in the dry season. The problem is, it didn’t stay that way. By 1798, it had grown to the point where the riverboat traffic on the Mississippi River was being affected.2

By about 1800, “it assumed island proportions. A mile in length and five-hundred yards wide, screened by cottonwood trees and beyond the jurisdiction of local authorities…”3

Now read that last part again: “beyond the jurisdiction of local authorities…”

Yep: located in the river, not legally in Missouri (then technically the Louisiana Territory) and not legally on the other side either (originally Indiana Territory and then Illinois Territy), “it was technically outside of both … and beyond the jurisdiction of local authorities. This made the island an ideal site as a secluded ‘field of honor’ for dueling. … Nothing more than some trees and dense vegetation, it quickly became notorious and earned its colorful name of Bloody Island.”4

And the good people of Illinois Territory were appalled.

It didn’t matter one bit to them that they didn’t have jurisdiction to stop duels on Bloody Island — they spoke out in their laws and enforced the ban on residents of Illinois who used Bloody Island as their venue.

And, of course, the law didn’t stop the dueling at Bloody Island at all. Even Abraham Lincoln engaged in a duel — bloodless in his case — with James Shields there in 1842.5

What did stop the dueling? Turning the island into part of the mainland. In 1837, the Army Corps of Engineers figured out how to wash out the channel on the west site of the island, and eventually what had been Bloody Island became part of the Illinois shore.6


Image: Collot & Tardieu, “Plan of St. Lewis…” (1796), via, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

  1. Act of 7 April 1810, Bulletin of Illinois Historical Library Vol. 1, No. 2 (June 1906): 25-27; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 7 Aug 2018).
  2. How did Bloody Island get its name?,” St. Louis Magazine, posted 15 Mar 2018 ( : accessed 7 Aug 2018).
  3. Bloody Island, Illinois State Museum ( : accessed 7 Aug 2018).
  4. Crack of the Pistol: Dueling in 19th Century Missouri,” Missouri State Archives ( : accessed 7 Aug 2018).
  5. Kelsey Johnston,“ Abraham Lincoln’s Duel : Broadswords and Banks,” Civil War History, American Battlefield Trust ( : accessed 7 Aug 2018).
  6. Wikipedia (, “
    Bloody Island (Mississippi River)
    ,” rev. 4 Aug 2018.
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