A Gold Rush Officer's Card Game Feud

Born and reared in Tennessee, Lt. Cave Couts frequently placed personal integrity above all else and a willingness to chastise those opponents threatening his honor. This became evident after an army officer, Major Justus McKinstry, verbally maligned Couts’ new-found novia, Ysidora Bandini. Incensed, Couts sent Lieutenant George Evans, with a note challenging McKinstry to a fight. Declining the summons, McKinstry chose instead to thrash it out with Evans in Old Town Plaza of San Diego , much to the ire of Couts.

McKinstry and Evans were court martialed for their actions. McKinstry suffered “three months suspension of rank, pay and involvements and to be reprimanded by the General Command.” (Letter from Cave Couts to William Emory, January 1, 1851, contemporary copy, San Diego Historical Society, Couts Letter File.) Other primary and secondary sources for the Couts-McKinstry feud include: a letter published in the Missouri Republican, December 1, 1849, p. 2; William H. Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 1803-1863 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), p. 161; and Grant Foreman, Marcy and The Gold Seekers (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1939), pp. 320-321.

The McKinstry-Couts feud seems to go back to a bad debt. In the course of an 1849 card game, McKinstry borrowed seven hundred dollars from Couts of which he would only repay four hundred. As Couts later stated: “… being in want of the money I sent a polite note requesting the difference between us. It was denied me.” Letter from Cave Couts to Thomas Sidney Jesup, Statement Against Justus McKinstry, September 10, 1849, Cave Couts Collection, Huntington Library.

In subsequent years McKinstry’s behavior showed little improvement. After a scandal involving fraudulent administration of his command, he was court-martialed from the army on January 28, 1863, for “neglect and violation of duty, to the prejudice of good order and military discipline.” Thomas W. Sweeney, The Journal of Lt. Thomas W. Sweeney, 1849-1853, ed. by Arthur Woodward (Los Angeles: The Westernlore Press, 1956), p. 260.)

San Luis Rey, Califa

March 1, 1851

Dear [Lt. John] Love,

I recd. your note of 7th Dec. by last steamer. Why did you not tell us something more of the New Regiments? We expect it to be a ten strike for us and of course are materially interested. Also more of our dear regiment? For we are as ignorant of Regimental affairs out here, as though we were in Egypt.

I returned from San Francisco about the middle of the past month, where I had been standing charges prefr. by Bvt. MaJor J. McKinstry, A.Q.M. He resorted to this in consequence of a private difficulty, notified the Judge Advocate that he should put in the presentation of the charges, and here is the findings of the court after find an honorable acquittal): viz

“The court cannot refrain from an expression of decided disapproval of the court which Major McKinstry, the accuser in the case, has thought proper to pursue. His utter failure to prove the charges and specifications, and the circumstances of the case as spread upon the record, constrain the court to believe that these charges have proceeded more from personal ill will, than from a regard to the interest of the public service.”

“The court therefore deems it their duty to make a Public expression of the disapprobation of the course pursued by the accuser, Major McKinstry.”

I mention this because I have understood some 12 or 18 months since he published a letter in a N. Orleans paper (the “Crescent”) where both myself and Evans were placed in an unfavorable light. I have now been able to see this; it resulted from his having found proof upon all gentlemen in the vicinity, that he was a coward & liar and unworthy of their farther attention or intercourse.

I did not have an opportunity of going to Benicia to see Kearny & he was, and had been there sick for some time. Saw Stoneman, who is very well and making a pile of money.

In the event of the “New Regiment” being organized, and a complete Regt. of Dragoons sent to Califa, what say you to making an effort to get all of the 1st out? With a whole Regt here, at least Seven Comp[anies] would be constantly at head quart[ers]: and we would have an infinitely better time on the whole, than any where on the old frontier. In such an event, but little effort on the part of some of our Sr. officers, would accomplish the matter, and one would have the whole Regt., to all purposes together. All who have been to Califa. Would undoubtedly find this strongly. Kind Regards to all friends,

I am, very truly,

Cave Couts

[p.s.] The Maj. [Benjamin Beall?] desires to be remembered.
Present my regards particularly to Col. F[auntleroy] & his family