John Seldon Roane was one of the early leaders of Arkansas in the period just after statehood. He arrived in Arkansas in its formative years and led the state in time of war and in time of peace. He would eventually serve as a lawyer, general, and governor.
Roane was born in Lebanon, Tennessee, in January 1817. His father was a well-known merchant, and his family was fairly wealthy and had many political connections. One of his uncles had served as the state’s governor. As a young man, Roane attended and graduated from Cumberland College, a small, Presbyterian institution.
Not long after his graduation in 1837, Roane headed to Arkansas in pursuit of the opportunities the new state promised. He settled in Pine Bluff where his older brother, Samuel, was already one of the most successful planters and lawyers in the state. He studied law and was quickly admitted to the bar. He soon settled in Van Buren in the western part of the state and was elected Prosecuting Attorney for the Second Judicial District in 1840.
He ran for the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1842. He won re-election easily in 1844 and was elected Speaker of the House.
When war erupted with Mexico in 1846 over the disputed boundary of Texas, Roane, along with tens of thousands of other men rushed to join the army. Roane gave up a potential third term for the opportunity to fight. Arkansas volunteers organized the Arkansas Mounted Infantry Regiment. Congressman Archibald Yell, a former governor and popular politician, resigned his seat to take command as colonel, while Roane was named lieutenant colonel. The unruly men soon became known as “Yell’s Mounted Devils.”
At the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847, American forces met the Mexican Army in northern Mexico in one of the fiercest battles of the war. The armies clashed for two days. On the first day of the battle, Yell was struck down and killed while repelling an attack. Roane stepped forward and assumed command. By the end of the next day, American forces had prevailed. Within months, Roane was back in Arkansas after a resounding American victory.
However, Albert Pike, a captain in the regiment and a widely-known lawyer and writer, wrote a blistering letter to the editor to the Arkansas Gazette questioning how well the regiment fought at Buena Vista and further insinuated that Roane’s position as lieutenant colonel was given to him for political reasons rather than for his military skills. Roane was deeply offended by Pike’s comments. A court of inquiry was held in May and seemed to settle the matter in Roane’s favor, but the matter escalated further when a series of letters written by Roane surfaced suggesting that Pike was not even present at the battle.
In a rage, Pike challenged Roane to a duel. On July 29, the two met in the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), not far from Fort Smith. The terms were established by their seconds, and the two would fight with pistols. Roane’s seconds were future U. S. Senator Robert Johnson and future governor Henry M. Rector. Pike and Roane met. They stepped off, turned, and fired. Both men missed their targets. The pistols were reloaded for a second round. They fired, but the shots reportedly only grazed the men and resulted only in the most minor injuries. Instead of a third round, the two decided that honor had been satisfied, shook hands, and walked away.
As dueling was very common in the South at that time, though considered by many to be a serious social problem, little more was said about the matter. There had been duels among prominent Arkansas politicians in the past, but this one did not end in death as so many others had. Instead, Roane’s political fortunes rose further still with his election as governor the next year.