Joseph Selden (1787–1824)

Joseph Selden was one of the earliest judges of the Superior Court of the Arkansas Territory, the territory’s highest court. Selden was appointed by President James Monroe in 1820 to replace Robert Letcher, who left the territory abruptly after less than one year in office. Judge Selden served on the court until May 26, 1824, when he was killed in a duel with fellow jurist Judge Andrew H. Scott.

Joseph Selden was born in Henrico County, Virginia, on May 7, 1787, to Colonel Miles Cary Selden and Elizabeth Armistead Selden. He was born on the family estate, Tree Hill, on the James River; he had eleven siblings. One of his younger brothers was William Selden, born in 1791, who became a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and served as the Treasurer of the United States from 1839 to 1850, under six different presidents. Joseph Selden was educated at William and Mary College, entering the college around 1804, and later became a lawyer.

In 1812, Selden was commissioned a captain in the U.S. Army, where he served until his resignation in 1820. During the War of 1812, he served in the Second Light Dragoons until February 1814, when he was promoted to major and went to the Third Rifle Regiment. Units of the dragoons often were assigned to act as escorts, couriers, and scouts rather than fighting as a whole regiment. (One squadron of the Second Light Dragoons under Major James Ball accompanied General William H. Harrison on his invasion of Canada in 1813.) In May 1815, in a letter to President James Madison asking to be retained in the regular army, Major Selden mentioned that he served in Canada during the war.

After the war, Major Selden was retained in the U.S. Army with the Regiment of Riflemen headquartered in Fort Belle Fontaine in the Missouri Territory (fifteen miles north of St. Louis). In those years on the frontier (1815–1821), the soldiers of the Regiment of Riflemen constructed and manned various forts in the Illinois and Wisconsin territories from 1817 to 1819 (Fort Armstrong, Illinois; Fort Crawford, at Prairie de Chien, Wisconsin; and Fort Howard, at Green Bay, Wisconsin).

In July 1817, Secretary of War George Graham ordered construction of a fort on the Arkansas River as a buffer between the Osage and Cherokee tribes. Major William Bradford was picked to lead a detached company of riflemen and team of engineers to construct the fort that was later named Fort Smith, after Colonel Thomas A. Smith, a former regimental commander. Troops for the new post were to come from Rifle Regiment—half from troops at Belle Fontaine and half from detachments under the command of Major Joseph Selden on duty at Baton Rouge and Natchitoches in Louisiana. In August 1817, Selden’s troops proceeded north by keelboat. They met Bradford and his troops near the mouth of the Ohio River on October 1. Bradford transferred the troops to his keelboat, and the company continued down river to the Arkansas. Selden returned north to the regimental headquarters at Fort Belle Fontaine.  He resigned from the army in May 1820.

That same month, President Monroe appointed Selden as a judge on the Superior Court for the new Arkansas Territory to replace Robert Letcher of Kentucky. In September 1820, Selden returned to Virginia to marry Harriett (or Harriet) Gray of Albemarle County. The couple then moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County), arriving to the new territorial capital on December 24, 1820. Selden began service on the Superior Court with its October 1821 term along with Judge Scott and Judge Robert Johnson of Kentucky (who replaced Judge Charles Jouett in June 1821.)

In April 1824, Judge Selden and Judge Scott were engaged in a social game of whist in the home of two women at Arkansas Post. During the game, Selden allegedly insulted Scott’s female game partner, and Scott demanded an apology. Selden refused, and ultimately Scott challenged Selden to a duel. After a few days, Selden sent a letter of apology to the woman, which was accepted, and the matter was presumed settled. However, in later weeks, the quarrel resumed, and another challenge for a duel was issued and accepted.

The duel took place on May 26, 1824, on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River opposite of Helena (Phillips County), as dueling in Arkansas was a crime under territorial law after the duel between William Allen and Robert Oden in 1820. James Woodson Bates acted as a second for Selden, and Dr. Nimrod Menifee acted as surgeon and second for Scott. The weapons were pistols. At the first shot, Selden was hit and killed. The bullet passed through his heart and lungs, killing him within minutes. Scott received no injury. Ironically, Selden’s older brother, Gill Armistead Selden, had also died in a duel. Gill was killed in 1801 near Richmond, Virginia. (Selden would have been about fourteen at the time of his brother’s death.)

Selden was survived by his widow and one-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, who had been born in Little Rock in 1823. At the time of his death, his wife was also pregnant with his second daughter. Within months of the duel, Harriett and Elizabeth Selden had returned to Virginia, where Josephine Selden was born. In 1827, Harriett Selden married Professor George Long of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. In 1828, she and the children moved to England with Long. Harriett Selden Long died in England and is buried along with Jacob Walker, her former slave in America and servant in England, in the churchyard of the Old Parish Church of St. Mary, High Street, Hornsey, in London.

For additional information:
Bearss, Ed, and Arrell M. Gibson. Fort Smith: Little Gibraltar on the Arkansas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.

Fredriksen, John C. Green Coats and Glory: The US Regiment of Riflemen, 1808–1821. Youngstown, NY: Fort Niagara Publications, 2000.

Heitman, Francis B. Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, 1789–1903. Vol. 1. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1903.

Selden, Edna Mae. Selden and Kindred of Virginia. Richmond: Virginia Stationery Co., 1941.

“Tomb of Harriet Long and Jacob Walker in the Churchyard of the Old Parish Church of St. Mary.” (accessed October 7, 2020).

Ed Nelson
North Little Rock, Arkansas


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