Community Columns

A duel, a death and the birth of Stanislaus County

Sen. David C. Broderick was at Lake Merced, outside of San Francisco's city limits, to meet with fellow Democrat David S. Terry, the chief justice of the California Supreme Court. The senator had already lived a remarkable political life and had played a significant role in bringing Stanislaus County into existence.

It was Sept. 13, 1859, and soon Broderick's remarkable life would come to an end.

Born in Washington D.C. in 1820, Broderick spent his early years in New York City where he worked, like his father, as a stonecutter. But he also developed an interest in politics. By the age of 26, Broderick ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives but lost. That meant he would have to put his overriding ambition in life, to become a U.S. senator, on hold.

Three years after the defeat, he had moved to California and was making a fortune in gold -- not mining it, but smelting it. Relaunching his political career, he met with success and by 1851 Broderick was president of the California senate.

The success in business and politics Broderick achieved was not the end but a means to his real goal -- reaching the U.S. Senate. He faced just one major obstacle, his own Democratic party. While the Democrats were the state's dominant party, California like the rest of the country was trying to deal with the major issue of the day: slavery. Democrats in the state were divided between pro-slavery and abolitionist factions; Broderick was an abolitionist.

Then, the state Senate chose who would represent the state in the U.S. Senate. With an even split between the Democratic factions, Broderick realized that one way to break the impasse was to create more votes in the senate. The best way to do that was to create a new county. Broderick hoped any new senator created by this move would give him a majority and send him to the U.S. Senate.

In early 1854, Broderick's bill easily passed the Assembly but was defeated in the Senate after an epic fight. A revised bill removed provisions that would ensure Broderick's election, such as giving the county a state senator, but still called for the creation of a new county. It passed.

The new county was supposed to be named "Merced," but it was decided to name the place after one of the area's rivers -- the Stanislaus. While Stanislaus County came into existence, Broderick, however, was thwarted again in his dream of becoming a U.S. senator.

In 1857, Broderick finally achieved his goal and was sent to the Senate. It was during the run up to the Civil War and politics in the state, like the rest of the nation, were becoming more vitriolic and violent; friendships were broken. One of Broderick's close friends had been California Supreme Court Chief Justice David S. Terry, a pro-slavery Democrat. But Terry blamed Broderick for a recent political setback and soon they were engaged in a war of words; it escalated and Broderick challenged Terry to a duel.

During that fateful meeting at Lake Merced, Terry's aim was true and he shot Broderick. Three days later, on Sept. 16, Broderick died from his wounds. It was the end of Broderick, but it marked the end of Terry's career, too. A few years earlier, Terry had stabbed a member of San Francisco's vigilantes and would later be killed in Lathrop by the bodyguard of a judge he tried to assassinate for ruling against him.

The 1850s in California was a tumultuous era, filled with violence and Machiavellian maneuvering. But there was one positive product of those times -- the creation of Stanislaus County.

Source: Sol P. Elias, "Stories of Stanislaus" (1924)

McAndrews is a docent at the Great Valley Museum. E-mail him at