Approximately twenty-five miles from St. Louis, Missouri—smack-dab in the Mississippi River— is a lovely fishing/picnic/nature-rich park called The Lincoln-Shields Recreation Area. Unfortunately, there is no marker on the property to explain the park’s name or its historic significance. For that, you have to cross the river to the Alton, IL shore and find the two information markers.
During my research for ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S DUELING WORDS, I visited the “island”, camera in hand, and found only a few park goers casting their lucky lures into the Mississippi. To each of them, I asked the same question: Do you know where the park’s name originated? Not one person knew the answer—that Abraham Lincoln faced a duel on those shores, long before he knew that he was risking the future of this great country.
Both human intervention and the brushes of time and nature have changed the area a great deal during the 176 years since the duel. For one, channels and roadways have been added to the Missouri side, so the island is practically a peninsula today. It is impossible to know for certain where the original “field of honor” was, but it’s easy to imagine. I walked the trails, made note of foliage, and generally got a feel for the place. I imagined being on the ferry boat—operated by horse-powered windlass— with Lincoln and Shields as they made their way from Alton, IL to the island and an unknown fate.
At the time of the duel, Bloody Island was a one-mile-long sandbar in the middle of the Mississippi River between Illinois and Missouri. Considered outside the jurisdiction of both states, it became a popular location for duels—hence the menacing name.
Over the generations, the island has been referred to by many names, including Sunflower Island and McPike’s Island. During the Civil War, it was renamed Smallpox Island because Confederate soldiers with smallpox were quarantined and later buried on the island.
Bonus trivia: Five years before the 1842 Lincoln-Shields duel, the U.S. Army sent an officer engineer to help solve the problem of shifting soils that expanded the island and narrowed the shipping channel. The man’s name was Robert E. Lee—who later led the Confederate forces during the Civil War.
That may be a tribute area to Lincoln and Shields, but it’s nowhere near Bloody Island. What once was Bloody Island is now part of East St. Louis lying between the downtown area and the river where the major train hub used to be. It begins around Popular Street Bridge and continues north about a mile. There’s nothing there now but mostly abandoned buildings and train tracks that have long been out of use.
Email response to commenter:
Good afternoon, Mr. Seper,
Thank you for commenting on my blog post about Bloody Island. I am intrigued by the information you shared. Would you mind sharing the source for your information? Do you have expertise on the subject? While the island itself was not the focus of my own research, I was flummoxed by the lack of consistent information. The markers on the Alton side of the river seemed to further confirm the Lincoln-Shields site (note the signage) as formerly-named Bloody Island. If your information is more credible, I will certainly change my blog post on the topic.
Thanks so much,
Robert E Lee drew a map of the sandbars in the St. Louis area of the Mississippi that included Bloody Island. Just search for it. It’s easy to find. I was born a half mile from there at St. Mary’s Hospital in 1959. You’ll find there are several places in the USA that are called Bloody Island. It could be the one in Alton (which I never heard of until I read your article) is yet another, but I would trust the Lee maps to be one where Lincoln went. I believe there are still some signs down there commemorating the old Island. Here’s a web page about the history of East St. Louis that talks a bit about Bloody Island that you may have missed:
Sorry but I read that the south end of the island was under the Popular Street bridge.
You say it`s across from Alton.
Really WHERE it? lol
The information I found indicated that the land now used as The Lincoln-Shields Recreation Area is the former location of Bloody Island. Another commenter has cast some doubt about the location. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to reopen the research at this time. If Mr. Seper is correct, it means that Alton, IL has misplaced their historical signage.
I did a lot of research in advance of the C-SPAN re-enactment of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates several years ago. You’ve got the location of the island Lincoln and James Shields boated to for their duel correct. But its name in the 1840s was McPike’s Island, then later during the Covil War it was nicknamed Small Pox Island because of the mass burials of prisoners from the Confederate Prison located in Alton right across from it. The island was almost entirely obliterated in the early 20th century when the US Corp of EngIneers dug it out to make a footing for the Missouri side of the Alton Lock and Dam no. 26. The river and current eddies from the dam reshaped the old island into that point on the Missouri side where the Lincoln-Shields Park is. It was never Bloody Island. (By the way, Lincoln and Shields chose the island because dueling was illegal in Illinois in 1838, but still allowable in Missouri. Since both men had political aspirations (Shields was State Auditor at the time), they didn’t want a criminal record to smear their ambitions. Also, it was a young and very sassy Mary Todd who wrote the anonymous letters to the editors of the Springfield Sangamo and the Alton Telegraph that infuriated Shields. Lincoln took the blame for them because he was courting her at the time)
Thanks for your comment. The island has an interesting history that was not the focus of my book but certainly worth knowing.
As for the author(s) of the Sangamo letter, scholars have examined the writing styles and determined that the Rebecca letters/Letters from the Lost Townships, were written by the editor of the Sangamo Journal, Abe Lincoln (one letter), and Mary Todd and Julia Jayne (two submissions). Lincoln acknowledges his involvement in a later reference. The curator of the Lincoln Presidential Library vetted the book for accuracy.