Historically Yours

By Elizabeth Davis

Election Day in Moniteau County

Early elections in Moniteau County took place on the first Monday in August, but they were much different from today. Treated as holidays, election days served two functions. The first, of course, was to vote. The second was to settle feuds and disputes.

There was only one precinct in each township and, as county seat, California was where all the candidates hung out and where everyone in Walker township voted. Actually, everyone in Moniteau County could vote in California and, many did, just to be in the thick of things. The law in those days did not require a man to vote in his own precinct. All he had to do was swear that he hadn’t already voted somewhere else. 

Today Americans all over the United States enjoy the privacy of voting by secret ballot. No such thing existed back then. There were two judges, two clerks, and a poll book that was arranged to show how each man voted for each candidate. The first judge would call out the office and name the candidates, and the voter would name his choice. The second judge would then say it aloud, the clerks would repeat it, and then record the vote. Anyone who wanted to, could keep track of the vote, and the possibility of fraud was almost non-existent. 

For some, election day was also a time to settle feuds or disagreements—which is to say, they would settle it by fighting. When two Moniteau residents were in disagreement, it was customary to wait until election day to settle it. There would be as many as ten pairs of men waiting their turn to settle their differences. The rules were simple. A ring of about thirty feet in diameter would be scratched on the ground and judges or umpires would be selected. No one was allowed inside the ring except the participants and the judges. Lots were drawn to see which fighters would go first. When called, they would jump into the ring from opposite sides, crack their heels, flap their arms, and crow. Then the fighting began. Queensbury rules did not apply. They could hit, kick, throw, and gouge, using anything God had given them, but no knives or lethal weapons were allowed. The fight was one round and to the finish. It was over when one of the men was entirely disabled or cried “enough”. The judge would cry “hold” and it was done. If a blow was thrown after that, the crowd would “make it interesting for the victor,” but that didn’t happen often. 

Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written HISTORICALLY YOURS for the Boonville Daily News for over ten years. She has covered the Civil War, US history, and Cooper County history. In celebration of Missouri’s Bicentennial, she has syndicated her column statewide and encourages readers all over the Show Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to HistoricallyYours.davis@gmail.com