Wise As It Was: What’s in a name?

By Messenger Staff | Published Saturday, February 17, 2018

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The county seat of Wise County was originally named Taylorsville. But in 1858, Absalom Bishop, an early settler and member of the Texas Legislature, opposed naming the town after a Whig Party member, and arranged to have the name changed to Decatur, in honor of naval hero Stephen Decatur.


Stephen Decatur Jr.

Stephen Decatur Jr. was born in January 1779, in Sinepuxent (now Berlin), Mass., the son of a revolutionary naval commander. He was born during the American revolution and raised to “defend the right, and if need be to protect it with his heart’s blood.”

Despite his mother’s protests, he became a midshipman in the U.S. Navy in April 1798, commissioned by President John Adams on the same day that the Department of The Navy was created.

In 1804, he became well known for his role in the First Barbary War against North African pirates. He led a mission to recapture or, if necessary, destroy a captured frigate.

His force snuck up to the frigate at night disguised as Maltese sailors and overpowered the pirates. Since the frigate was not seaworthy, Decatur destroyed the boat.

He was promoted to captain at 25 years of age. He still holds the distinction of being the youngest person to attain that rank in the history of the U.S. Navy.

Decatur added to his fame during the War of 1812, when he captured the British frigate HMS Macedonian. He continued to serve in the Navy during the Second Barbary War and was named to the Board of Naval Commissioners in 1815.

Decatur married Susan Wheeler of Norfolk, Va., in 1806. They had no children.

Decatur is famed for having said, during a toast given in April 1816: “Our County! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!”

During his years in Washington, he was a prominent and popular figure in political and social circles.

He died from an injury in a duel in 1820, at age 41. He was challenged to the duel by James Barron, for slights to Barron’s character. Barron was a Naval captain who had been court-martialed for ineffective leadership during the War of 1812, and when seeking reinstatement some years later, Decatur loudly opposed it. This was apparently duel-worthy behavior. Both men were wounded. Decatur died after 12 hours; Barron eventually recovered.

The duel itself is controversial. Decatur asked a man to be his second who held resentments against him. Decatur’s widow would proclaim for years that the duel was set up to assassinate Decatur.

His friend and future president, John Quincy Adams, said Decatur was “warm-hearted, cheerful, unassuming, gentle in deportment, friendly and hospitable.”

Adam’s wife, Louisa Catherine Adams, had an additional assessment. “Surely this man threw his life away,” she wrote to her father-in-law.


Decatur was one of the U.S.’s first post-revolutionary heroes. He enjoyed widespread admiration and notoriety. His death was a huge blow to the Washington community, and his funeral was overwhelmingly attended.

His fame had not diminished by 1858 and beyond. Much has been named after Stephen Decatur Jr. Five warships have been christened the USS Decatur. In addition to our Decatur, there are many towns named after Decatur all over the country. Tennessee has a Decatur, a Decatur County and Decaturville. There are seven Decatur Counties named for him across the U.S. There’s also an island in Washington, multiple lakes, schools and parks.

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