DAVIDSON HISTORY

Local Desperado

by | Apr 14, 2018 | Davidson History

Arkansas’ Elkhorn Tavern in the 1800s, representative of the kind of place Nixon Curry frequented. (photo courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas)

Charlotte’s Western Democrat for July 28, 1868, includes an interview with the elderly sister of Nixon Curry, a son of northern Mecklenburg County who was apparently one of the better-known desperados of the early 19th century. According to her account, Curry’s father was a “respectable citizen” named James Curry, who “owned and lived on the place now known as the Springs place, four miles south of Davidson College.” Land records reveal that James Curry received a grant for land at the head of McDowell’s Creek (between Huntersville and Cornelius) in 1784, and his 1805 will mentions a son named “Nickson.”

Horse racing was extremely popular in the early 1800s, and young Nixon Curry became a skilled rider. While racing, he met Dovey Caldwell, daughter of a prominent local man. Dovey was also being pursued by Benjamin Wilson, who was deemed much more acceptable. Nixon triumphed, however, and after they married, Wilson was found dead and Curry was suspected of his murder. After hiding with friends for several weeks, Curry turned himself in. He was tried and acquitted, but, in the course of the trial, he was accused of helping a slave escape while they were on a trip to Georgia. He was convicted in Iredell County in 1822 and sentenced to ten years in the state penitentiary. Before he could be taken to Raleigh, his friends helped him escape; he fled to Kentucky to stay with his sister, and his wife soon followed.

The couple relocated to Arkansas Territory, which was, at that time, an undeveloped frontier. Dovey soon died, and Nixon married Mary M. Bollinger in Phillips County in 1825. They eventually settled in St. Francis County, where they had two daughters and a son. Curry was well-liked in the region, and he served in the territorial legislature in 1833 and 1835. In 1836, some travelers from North Carolina recognized Curry, and he was arrested on July 23. He escaped, and in late July the county sheriff published an ad offering a $300 reward, describing Curry as fiddle-playing gambler and drunkard who “is fond of joking, and makes a great many shrewd remarks – is good company, and a pretty smart man.” According to the November 3 North Carolina Standard, he was arrested once again in early September, after “trying to alarm the people of St. Francis county…with a gang of desperadoes, threatening the life of the sheriff and several respectable citizens.” He escaped again, and apparently this time, the authorities declined to pursue him further.

According to Arkansas historian William F. Pope, Curry “became a very hard drinker and quarrelsome,” and went around armed with a Bowie knife. On March 30, 1841, he and his farmhand Vincent Hutton (who was also engaged to his daughter) went to Norristown in nearby Pope County for supplies. He and Hutton began to quarrel in a tavern, and when Curry tried to draw his bowie knife, Hutton grabbed it and stabbed him to death. The grand jury deemed it a “justifiable homicide.”

Nancy Griffith

Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. After a career as an archives and special collections librarian, she retired to Davidson in 2015. She has published a number of books and articles on local history, and has just completed a history of the Ada Jenkins Center.

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