Fans of the musical “Hamilton,” on stage this month in Louisville, know that Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. What they may not know, however, is that Kentucky politicians sometimes used affairs of honor to settle their differences.
That subject is explored in the new exhibit “Dueling Grounds,” which opened this month at the Kentucky History Center.
Dueling Grounds uses artifacts — including a pistol reputedly owned by Burr — to explore duels fought in the commonwealth. While the exact number is unknown, Kentuckians engaged in dozens of formalized fights from 1790 to 1866. Among the participants were several prominent leaders — including Henry Clay, ironically known as the Great Compromiser.
“Artifacts in this exhibit help visitors examine conflict resolution,” said Carol Bolton, student engagement specialist at the Kentucky Historical Society, which produced the new exhibit. “By looking at dueling, we can better understand how interpersonal conflict changed over time and how the practice still affects us today.”
“Dueling Grounds” is housed in the Old State Capitol, one of a trio of sites that make up the history center. In addition to Burr’s pistol and other weapons, the exhibit includes a particularly grisly memento — a ring that contains the hair of a slain duelist.
In 1801, Dr. John Chambers argued with Judge John Rowan at a Bardstown tavern. This led to a duel in which Rowan shot and killed Chambers. According to family tradition, Rowan had the ring — which allegedly contains a lock of Chambers’ hair — crafted as a way to remember the episode. The ring also represents some institutional history for the historical society because Rowan later served as the first president of that organization.
“Examining conflict is a great way to bring the past alive to visitors,” Bolton said. “By having this exhibit in the Old State Capitol — which was a political dueling ground in its own right — we’ve found a great way to make a dangerous part of Kentucky’s history relevant to modern audiences.”
“Dueling Grounds” runs through Oct. 19. Learn more at www.history.ky.gov.