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The Madera Tribune

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Judge had his dueling pistols ready

February 2, 2019

Madera County Historical Society
At  one time a small country store stood next to the Borden Depot, shown here. It was on this site in 1874 where Judge R.L. Dixon issued a challenge to a duel to Dr. Joseph Borden.

In 1868, a group of former Confederates made their way to what is now Madera County. They were in search of a new home, safe from Reconstruction.


Within a short time, two of the most prominent families of the group were entangled in such an imbroglio that they almost squared off in a duel that could have come straight out of Dixie.


And it all almost happened at Refuge, the Mordecai Ranch.


The principals in the conflict were the Dixons and the Bordens. The former had established a 2,000-acre ranch along Cottonwood Creek and called it Refuge. (When they sold it to George Washington Mordecai in 1880, he kept the name.)  


The patriarchs of both families were staunch Southern gentlemen who held to a rigid standard of honor. By 1874, this colony of Southern expatriates had staked out their claims and were tilling the soil.


All was going along nicely until young Rhodes Borden decided to file for a preemption on a piece of land that was adjacent to Refuge. This made Judge Richard L. Dixon nervous because Rhodes was not of age and could not gain full title to the land. With all of the claim jumping going on in those rough and tumble days, Judge Dixon feared that some scalawag might dispossess young Borden before he could actually own it. That would put an undesirable too close to Refuge.


In order to ease his anxiety, the Judge had his son, Edward Dixon, buy a piece of land some distance from Refuge, comparable in size with Borden’s tract but with better soil. Dixon then went to Rhodes and offered to exchange his property for Borden’s so that Refuge could be expanded. Rhodes naively accepted the bargain.


At about the same time, Judge Dixon hired Rhodes to do some plowing for him on Edward’s new parcel. It is not clear what happened, but a misunderstanding developed between the two men.


As was the custom in the colony, the disagreement was submitted to three neighbors to arbitrate: Major Dennett, Gus Hall, and Maj. C.A. Reading. Whatever the problem was, the trio ruled against Judge Dixon.


In a day or two, Judge Dixon discovered that young Borden had poisoned the well before the arbitration by meeting secretly with Hall and convincing him that he, Borden, had the better case.


The Judge took immediate action. He sent Rhodes a check for $113.12 in compliance with the arbitration ruling. He also wrote that the land exchange was off. Edward was going to keep Rhodes’ preemption as well as the other piece he had bought. Young Rhodes was left landless.


On March 22nd, Rhodes Borden wrote Edward to complain about what had happened in the land deal. When he got the letter, Edward caught the train to Borden from Merced.


The next day, it just so happened that Judge Dixon rode out to the Borden railroad depot, which stood beside a small store. When he went inside the store, he found Rhodes Borden with his brother. In a moment their father, Dr. Joseph Borden, entered the store, and in passing Dixon said “get out of my way you land thief.”


Dixon turned on him immediately to chastise him but Mr. Borden drew a pistol. At the same time, Rhodes drew a pistol. The judge was covered.


Judge Dixon thought for a moment and then told  Borden that although he could go ahead and shoot him, if he decided not to, they would settle the matter at another time. Borden knew he had been challenged to a duel.


The next day he wrote to Dixon, “I have neither the money to take me out of the state nor the health to go; and the laws in California are too stringent for me to think of engaging in a duel in the State of California.”


The judge then wrote to Rhodes, “Should you hereafter molest me in any manner, I will hunt you as I would a wild beast.”


By this time, the elderly Dr. Borden had had enough.  He wrote: “Sir: When I met you yesterday I was laboring under a sense of injustice done me and my family. I now feel that I did you an injustice, and hereby fully and freely retract the offensive language used on that occasion and regret that such should have been uttered.”


A short while before his death, old Dr. Borden was in Fresno and met Harry, the Judge’s son, on the street. He stopped bent over in a stately bow and said, II would be glad if we could for the few days remaining to me, pass and salute each other as gentlemen.”


Harry replied, “No, Dr. Borden. I can never speak to any man to whom my father does not speak.”


And so it went. There never was a duel at Refuge, but there could have been if Dr. Borden had been willing. He probably knew, however, that his opponent, Judge Richard Lawrence Dixon, lived unyieldingly according to one principle, “Give no insult and take none.” It would have been difficult to face that kind of resolve on the field of honor.

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