The Dueling Grounds

On the morning of July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr left Manhattan in small boats with their companions. They were heading to New Jersey to duel with pistols. The rules of the affair were well-established, as were the dueling grounds where they would meet. After the shots rang out below the rocky Palisades, Hamilton fell mortally wounded while Burr was left standing.

While it is well-known that Burr killed Hamilton in a duel, fewer people realize that the deadly meeting occurred not far from the Lincoln Tunnel, a busy traffic artery where thousands of people travel between New York and New Jersey each day, usually for less bloody purposes. In fact, the dueling grounds are marked on Google Maps.


There are even some reviews, but they don’t all seem legit.


Historians differ on exactly where the dueling grounds were, but the Google location is at least close. It is difficult to determine exactly where the grounds were because the ledge where gentleman went to prove their willingness to fire pistols at each other was long ago leveled to make way for a railroad between the cliffs and the shore.

River Road

Hamilton and Burr were certainly not the first, nor the last, to duel in Weehawken. They knew exactly where the challenge would take place. While dueling was illegal in both New York and New Jersey, resourceful gentlemen found a great spot to conduct the affair hidden from view and with a convenient escape back to their homes. About twenty feet above the shore of the Hudson River was a grassy ledge about 60 by 100 feet in area. The steep slopes of the Palisades sheltered it from view.

A historic marker on top of the Palisades gives an idea of how well-known the dueling grounds must have been. This is where the most respected men in society came to fire pistols at each other over perceived insults.

Weehawken Dueling Grounds Marker

The marker sits next to a large bust of Alexander Hamilton. The town of Weehawken was not interested in raising a monument to Jersey-born Aaron Burr, despite the advocacy of the Aaron Burr Association.

Hamilton Bust and Flag

Even Alexander Hamilton’s oldest son died after being wounded at the Dueling Grounds, three years before his father would meet the same fate. It almost seems like a mean joke that the markers are on a street called Hamilton Avenue.

Hamilton-Burr Duel

In 1804, Hamilton and Burr were two men who had made major impacts on the American government but were past the apexes of their political careers.

alexander-hamiltonAlexander Hamilton was born out of wedlock in the West Indies in 1757. His intelligence and drive attracted benefactors who sent him to New York for education, where he attended King’s College, later renamed Columbia University. He was an aide to George Washington during the American Revolution and showed his courage in many engagements, including the siege of Yorktown.

After the war, Hamilton became a prominent advocate of a more centralized national government. He collaborated with James Madison and John Jay on The Federalist, a series of letters advocating the adoption of a new Constitution. When Washington assumed the presidency, he appointed Hamilton Secretary of the Treasury, the first person to serve in this post. Hamilton put the federal government on a more solid financial foundation while strengthening its power and its ties to wealthy merchants. He later again worked with Washington to reorganize the army during a crisis with France in late 1790s.

aaron-burrAaron Burr was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1756. His father, who died when Aaron was young, was the president of the College of New Jersey, which is now Princeton University. Aaron Burr began his studies at the College of New Jersey at the age of 13 and he graduated at 17. He had many roles in the American Revolution, the last of which was protecting territory in New York against loyalist guerrillas. After the war he became a well-to-do attorney and entered politics.

The presidential election of 1800, when the highest office passed from Federalist hands to Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans, proved to be the undoing of both Burr and Hamilton. Or rather, it presented both men with opportunities to wreck their political careers – and they grabbed the opportunity as hard as they could.

Party politics were new to Americans, and some of Hamilton’s poor decisions in the Federalist campaign to re-elect John Adams could be excused. But writing, signing, and circulating a secret letter trashing Adams, which, not surprisingly, was found and published by the opposing party, was an insult that caused his influence in Federalist circles to wane.

Aaron Burr should have fared much better. He was on the ballot as Jefferson’s running mate, and the two of them won the election partly due to Burr’s ability to hold New York. But because Jefferson and Burr got the same number of electoral votes, the presidency could legally go to either one of them, and Congress would have to choose the victor. Even though Republicans had clearly intended Jefferson to be president, Burr withdrew to his home instead of conceding. He may have hoped that Federalists in Congress would give him the presidency because they really did not like Jefferson. Hamilton tried to lobby for Jefferson, but his effectiveness was probably limited by his recent bungling.

Hamilton’s attitude is revealed in a letter.

Mr. Jefferson, though too revolutionary in his notions, is yet a lover of liberty and will be desirous of something like orderly Government. – Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself – Thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement – and will be content with nothing short of permanent power.

But Congress was convinced to go with Jefferson. Naturally, Jefferson no longer trusted Burr and didn’t give him a major role in the administration. He chose Burr’s rival George Clinton as his 1804 running mate.

Burr, seeing that he was on the outs, tried to get his career going again with a run for governor of New York in 1804. Again Hamilton campaigned against him. Though it is unclear how powerful Hamilton’s influence was, he would soon draw Burr’s wrath.

Burr read a letter in a newspaper that said “General Hamilton and Judge Kent have declared, in substance, that they looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government…I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.”

Burr may have been looking for an excuse to challenge a man he saw as a rival or an impediment to his political comeback. Whatever his motivation, he demanded Hamilton answer what “despicable opinion” he may have expressed or disavow the remarks in the letter. Hamilton dodged Burr’s questioning and on June 27, 1804, a challenge was given and accepted. Amazingly, both men attended the July 4 banquet of the Society of the Cincinnati while the days to the duel counted down.

While many men died in duels, many more lived through the deadly ritual to uphold one’s honor. Typically a few shots would be fired by each opponent, and honor was restored before anyone got seriously hurt.

Accounts differ as to whether Hamilton or Burr fired first on July 11, but it was Burr’s bullet that found its mark. Hamilton fell with a mortal wound. Hamilton’s shot went high. He may have fired involuntarily after being hit by Burr’s bullet or may have misjudged the trigger pull. He may have intentionally fired high to avoid killing Burr. It has even been suggested that he tried to cheat by setting a hair trigger on his pistol which he then miscalculated.

Hamilton was carried back to his boat and died at home. Burr was portrayed as a bloodthirsty man who killed a noble statesman. He was charged with murder by New York and New Jersey prosecutors. He fled to the South, then resigned as vice president and headed west.

Perhaps proving Hamilton’s charges of being overly ambitious and self-serving, Burr soon became embroiled in a failed conspiracy to take over some of the lands of the Louisiana Purchase and was charged with treason. After his acquittal, Burr went to Europe in 1807 and returned to new York to practice law in 1810. He was able to get his murder charges dropped and died a private citizen in 1836.

The death of Hamilton prompted greater outcry against dueling. The practice was condemned more vocally by opponents and many gentleman’s societies passed resolutions against it. A monument to Hamilton at the dueling site was destroyed in the 1820s by locals who saw it as glorifying a barbaric practice. Another monument to Hamilton was destroyed by vandals in the 1930s, and the current bust was placed at the top of the cliff in 1935. Behind the bust sits a stone that legend claims Hamilton rested against after being shot.

Hamilton Stone
But tradition died slowly. According to Joseph Fulford Folsom, the last confrontation on the Weehawken dueling grounds occurred in 1845, and nobody was hurt because the duelists’ seconds had loaded their pistols with cork. Too bad they didn’t have little flags with “BANG!” written on them.

The Hamilton-Burr monument is a good stop along the scenic Palisades – though it would be easier to access if a stairway north of the monument wasn’t locked shut.

Palisades Stairs

When America was a young nation, a little ledge that no longer exists served as a field for a violent and illegal social ritual popular among the most respected men in society. The duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr is one of the stories along the road, one event that sticks out in a record of change.



“The Duel,” The American Experience, PBS

Folsom, Joseph Fulford. “The Burr-Hamilton Duel.” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, January 1929, Volume XIV, No 1. Newark, NJ

Larini, Rudy. “Dueling Over Burr: Society, Weehawken at odds over bust,” The Star-Ledger, May 16, 1993. Weehawken Public Library, Local History, Burr-Hamilton Duel File.

Letter from Edward J. Kirk to Harry B. Weiss, July 29, 1960. Weehawken Public Library, Local History, Burr-Hamilton Duel File.

Letter from Alexander Hamilton to Harrison Gray Otis – 1800. Dec 23, 1800. Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

Risjord, Norman K. Jefferson’s America, 1760-1815, Second Edition. Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

Van Winkle, David. Old Bergen: History and Reminiscences with Maps and Illustrations. 1902.

Bonus Ruins

A few days after my post about Roaming in the Ramapos, I went back to the Ramapo Mountains to get some fall foliage views and photos. I also decided to head farther down the road from where I turned back last time to see if I could make it to the border with New York.

Not more than a minute down the road from where I had stopped on my last trip, I spotted a large stone structure poking out from behind the brush.

Stone House

When I went around the back of the house I saw a cellar built into the hillside behind.

Cellar at Abandoned House

There was nothing inside the cellar except for graffiti. There wasn’t a whole lot of graffiti, but the spray paint on the walls read like a checklist of rural delinquency: penis drawing, swastika, satanic or occult signs, and a couple of sexually explicit and violent messages.

Much more interesting was the inside of the big house. It had once been several floors high, but all that remained of its height were the walls and chimney.

Chimney Stack

The easiest way into the house is through one of the windows, but there is a stairway in front.

Old Stairs

And just like the other house nearby, there is an abandoned car out back.

Overturned Car

I am pretty sure that I did make it to the border of New York after I left the abandoned house, because I got to a place with features and road junctions that looked right based on my map. However, I wasn’t sure if the land on the New York side of the border was private property, so I didn’t mill around and take pictures. Regardless, it was another cool hike in the Ramapo Mountains.

Scarlett Oak Pond Morning Mist

Roaming in the Ramapos

I don’t always know what I will discover when I head into the woods. My plan to look for a small mine hole I wasn’t able to find on an earlier hike turned into a day of unexpected discoveries.

Ramapo Rock

Back in January I went to check out an area of the Ramapo Mountains I had never hiked in before. I set two mines on my map as destinations. I found the Nickel Mine, but missed the Pierson Exploration. I then got distracted by boulders and photography before finding the trail back and getting to my car just as the parking lot closed.

I later checked out a valuable handbook, Iron Mine Trails by Edward J. Lenik. The Pierson Exploration did not sound like a spectacular place: an exploratory hole eighteen feet long, twelve feet wide, and three feet deep. The prospectors were looking for iron ore but apparently did not find any. The place is marked on an 1862 map of the Pierson Estate, so it must have been dug before then.

The destination itself might not have been exciting, but the search would be. I also wanted to explore the unmarked trails and woods roads around the Pierson Exploration. My map showed a few ruins nearby as well. It all sounded like a good plan for a history adventure.

Along a marked trail in Ramapo Valley County Reservation was a spot called Halifax Ruins. That would be my first stop. As I neared its location, I came across an interesting artifact.

Overturned Car

I’m not a car expert, but judging by the taillights I’d say this car is from the late 1950s or 1960s. It has some serious springs on it. Just drag it home, and it could be yours!

In the woods nearby were the ruins of an old farmstead. The most visible traces I found were a few rusty pieces of metal and some stone foundations.

Stone Foundation

The hillside was crossed with stone rows. The number of rocks piled in them gives an idea of how much work it must have been to establish a farm in this area.

Ramapo Stone Fences

I kept moving, and arrived at a junction with the woods road that was supposed to run next to the Pierson Exploration. When I got to the junction, the marked hiking trail was obstructed by a huge pile of soil from a pipeline construction project.

The woods road that I took was the route of the old Hoeferlin Trail, according to Lenik. Faded yellow dots were still visible on a few of the trees.

The area is apparently inhabited by snakes.


Don’t worry – the snake has to be bigger than the skin it just shed, so you would probably be able to see it in time.

It certainly would have been difficult to find the Pierson Exploration without directions from Lenik: About 1,100 feet down the road you are supposed to be able to see the mine opening about 50 feet up the hillside. I actually did not see it until I left the trail and got right on top of it.

Pierson Exploration

It is a small hole with a pile of rocks on the south side. There are also drill holes in some of the larger rocks.

Pierson Exploration Drill Hole

Success! It wasn’t a major discovery, but it felt good to locate something so small in the forest.

I still had time to reach my third destination, a spot on the map marked “Ruins.” I smiled as I walked farther down the woods road.

I was really excited to see where the road would lead. Although well-maintained and managed parks are nice, there are things I like about less-managed areas. Finding your way down unmarked woods roads past the occasional part of a vehicle that didn’t make it through unscathed might offer a less ideal version of nature than a pure hiking trail would, but it can sometimes offer more wildness.

Ramapo Path

Sometimes when a place is cleaned up for recreational use, something gets lost in what amounts to gentrification of wilderness.

Here there were no trail markers to follow, just a path with the occasional fork or side trail.

I was not expecting to see a car.

Ramapo Rusty Car

Clearly it had been a while since this machine drove through here. Surprisingly there was still chrome and wiring to be found in the motorless pile of metal. The rear end kind of reminded me of a 1970s taxicab, but the car looks like it only had two doors.

Ramapo Rusty Car Rear

Farther down the path, more cars!

Ramapo Cars

Some people who encounter an old car in the woods prefer to shoot it with a shotgun instead of a camera. To each his own.

Ramapo Car Shot

I felt a strange sense of belonging here, but as I got deeper into the woods, the sheer number of cars I was encountering started to get weird.

Crushed Hatchback

I have no idea what even happened to this hatchback. My best guess is that someone crushed it with a tractor bucket. I think it’s safe to say that the needle on the speedometer hasn’t moved much for a while.

Whoever owned this car must have liked America and thought South of the Border, a giant highway attraction in South Carolina, was worth at least a sticker.

South of the Border

Shortly after these cars the road came to a clearing. I saw the walls of an abandoned stone house before the pile of ashes and the wooden cross.

Ramapo Abandoned House

It looked like a place locals would go to drink and party, except for the big cross. I was unsure what to think of the place, but I felt like I should take off my hat for a moment.

Emil Mann Memorial

This seemed like a strange place for a memorial, but someone saw fit to leave a can of beer for the deceased.

There was a smaller building up the hill.

Ramapo Farm Bldg

The main house had nothing inside except litter. This is not something I enjoy about less-managed areas. Please, leave places clean for the next folks who want to drink and set off fireworks.

Ramapo Abandoned House Inside

All in all, it was a strange place.

Ramapo Abandoned House Shadows

But at least there were pieces of cars around to make it fit with the surroundings.

Car Front

I headed back, determined to find out more about this place called “Ruins.”

At the Mahwah public library I found a 1941 trail map on display that marked the place as a farm, with KO for “keep out.”

Old Ramapo MapBut I was shocked when I did a Google search for the name on the monument.

Emil Mann was shot in the Ramapo forest by a State Parks Police officer on April 1, 2006 and died nine days later. I had a vague memory of this case being in the news and should have connected it with the name on the monument.

Mann was a 45 year-old father and heavy-machine operator. He was at a cookout at the abandoned house when three State Parks Police officers arrived to arrest a man for riding an ATV through state and county lands, a prohibited but apparently common practice. Park police had already arrested one local man for riding an ATV – after chasing him down with their own ATVs – and had found a .22 caliber handgun on him.

Accounts differ as to what happened after the police arrived at the cookout, but some kind of physical confrontation began when a Parks Police officer tried to pull an ATV rider off his vehicle. In the commotion, two shots were fired by another officer, Chad Walder, and Mann was hit twice. No weapons were found on any of the party-goers at the house. Forensic evidence showed that Mann had been shot from at least four feet away.

Walder retired after the shooting and received a full disability pension. He was indicted for reckless manslaughter but found not guilty. A jury in a later civil trial found that Walder acted in a “malicious or wanton” manner when he shot Mann and awarded $2.2 million in compensatory damages plus $150,000 in punitive damages to Emil Mann’s family.

Emil Mann was part of a small, tight-knit local ethnic community called the Ramapough Indians. Outsiders sometimes call them Jackson Whites, a term they find very offensive. A variety of legends attribute their racially-mixed appearance to multiple waves of refugees joining the community – Lenape and Tuscarora Indians, fugitive slaves, Tories, Hessians, and escaped British Army prostitutes. In the 1960s and 1970s David Steven Cohen conducted historical and genealogical research and concluded that the Ramapo Mountain People were mostly the descendants of free black landowners and the people who married into their families, which probably included Indians and whites. They moved into the Ramapo Mountains in the first decades of the nineteenth century, possibly to avoid bigotry from white people.

The Ramapo People generally identify as Native Americans. The New Jersey state government recognized them as a tribe in 1980, but they have never received recognition as a tribe from the federal government.

Many people in surrounding communities continue to think of the Ramapo People as backwards hillbillies. It is not clear what role prejudice might have played in the tragic death of Emil Mann. It is clear that the incident is connected to a conflicting understanding of who makes the rules in the woods, and it is a sad demonstration of what can happen when authority feels threatened.

Looking up an unexpected grave can provoke a somber feeling of reflection. The wilderness is by no means a place immune from tragedy – man made or not. However, the wilderness will continue to be a place of adventure and discovery, and a place where people have an opportunity to challenge themselves, reset their viewpoint, and interact with the rest of the planet in a way that is difficult in more extensively civilized places.

On my way home from the ruins I stopped for a snack next to a large boulder with not another person around. I thought that this was a place I would like to come back to. Who knows what triumphs and questions the next trip will bring?

Ramapo Boulder


Rocks on Mountains is about the January Head First trip to the Ramapos:

Cohen, David Steven. The Ramapo Mountain People. Rutgers University, 1988.

Hikers Region Map: No. 15 Southern Ramapo Mts., 4th Printing. Wanderbirds, 1941. In display case at the Mahwah Public Library, Mahwah, NJ.

Lenik, Edward J. Iron Mine Trails: A History and Hiker’s Guide to the Historic Iron Mines of the New Jersey and New York Highlands. New York: New York – New Jersey Trail Conference, 1996. Pages 66-68.

Markos, Kibret. “Jury awards $150,000 in punitive damages in shooting death of Ramapough Indian.” The Record, November 30, 2011. of_Ramapough_Indian.html

McGrath, Ben. “Strangers on the Mountain.” New Yorker, March 1, 2010.

North Jersey Trails: Trail Map 115. New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, Inc. 9th Edition, 2009.

Sullivan, S.P. “Family of Emil Mann, Ramapough Indian killed by park ranger, awarded additional $150k in punitive damages.” December 1, 2011. _awarded_additional_150k_in_punitive_damag.html

High and Dry

Southeast Asia includes a large area of rugged peaks and ridges that have long been home for people of various ethnic backgrounds. A nice place to begin exploring the highlands is northern Thailand.


We headed out of Chiang Mai in a rugged Toyota van packed with 11 people. As we got farther from the valley city, the road got progressively rougher, steeper, and narrower.


Our hike began at a Hmong village. We would travel through forest and farmland, all on mountain slopes.

Since we visited during dry season the ground was very dry and dusty even though green plants were all around.


The forest gets so dry that fires are sometimes caused by bamboo branches rubbing against each other in the wind. It was a little odd to walk by smoldering ash, but our Thai guide was clearly not concerned.


The air was not dry, however. A thick haze hung over the mountains.


Fortunately there was a nice place to cool off under a waterfall.


After a swim and a lunch we walked through a number of agricultural plots. We were told that opium and marijuana were major crops in the area before a combination of government sticks and carrots changed the situation. There are also serious efforts to get local kids attending official schools.


In his book The Art of Not Being Governed, James C. Scott argues that the history of upland Southeast Asia has been a history of various peoples deliberately avoiding state control. An important force in regional history has been the relationship between the lowlands that were easier to control and the highlands that typically offered refuge from rulers. Scott also writes that the upland-lowland dynamic has changed in the latter half of the twentieth century as states have employed modern technologies to bring the periphery under control, diminishing its role as a frontier refuge.

Scott uses the term Zomia to describe the vast upland region stretching across parts of Southeast Asia, southern China, and eastern India. He credits his use of the term to Willem van Schendel, who argued that the region was distinctive enough to merit its own designation and labelled it with a word meaning “highlander” in several related upland languages.