My book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques is available from Paladin Press. This blog contains additional information about the bowie knife, as well as the fighting knives of other nations.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Jim Bowie's Sandbar Fight

The topic of "document dumps" has been much in the news lately, so I thought I'd dump a large document from my own files. This is an article on the famous Sandbar Fight involving James Bowie and others published in the Louisiana Historical Quarterly, v. 16 (1933), written by G.P. Whittington. This highly informative article was described as Whittington's first draft; he died before it was published. The material has not previously been available over the internet and should be of considerable interest to those like myself who are obsessed with the subject, while causing glazed eyes among those who are not. What intrigued me the most is the explanation of the personal histories of the participants in the Sandbar Fight, which helps to explain the alliances and enmities among them.
THE EARLY DAYS of this section, called Rapides [Rapides Parish, Louisiana], were not unlike other parts of the state in so far as duels and fights were concerned. Many have been forgotten, some are scarcely remembered, but the famous fight between the two factions on the sand bar near Natchez, Mississippi, has acquired a national reputation. The duel that preceded this fight was without damage to either of the principals. The fight was between the seconds and friends of the men who had journeyed to that place to settle their differences. It occurred on September 19, 1827.

This fight did not take place within the borders of this parish, but in as much as all of the participants had their domicile within its limits and the differences that had come between them had their origin in Rapides, it seems but proper that we should tell something of this duel, the fight and the men who took part in it.

It is generally known that the site of the fight was on a sand bar formed by the Mississippi river within the limits of the parish of Concordia, only a few miles from Natchez. The men who were parties to the fight spent the previous night in Natchez and crossed the river the morning of the fight, and after the fight the wounded were carried back to Natchez to receive medical attention. The dead were buried in Vidalia, those who had escaped injury travelled back home after seeing to the welfare of their friends and in some cases relatives. Many in after years became close friends and allied in some cases by marriage.

During the early part of the 19th century when this country was being settled by people from all parts, who were seeking good land that could be purchased for a small sum and in many cases upon long terms of credit, speculation reached its height. Not alone the new settlers but those who had spent the better part of their lives within its limits sought to acquire and sell large tracts of land at a great profit. The banks at first were liberal in their advances, but in time the error of former transactions became evident and more conservative methods became the order of the day. The refusal of loans and notes seemed to be considered causes for challenges to be sent to the director who was considered to be responsible for the failure to obtain the advances or loan.

Another cause of differences was politics. There were two factions in Rapides. One was made up of the old residents and their friends and kinsmen, the other of the new comers. The last named party was in the ascendancy in 1826-1830, and they had succeeded in having one of their number named as Sheriff to succeed the late sheriff William Fristoe, a member of the older group.

To understand the sand bar fight it is necessary to know something of the men who participated and the differences that had come between them. The principal characters were James Bowie, General Samuel Cuny, and George C. McWhorters, followers of the Wells faction; Major Norris Wright, Colonel Robert A. Crain, Alfred Blanchard and Carey Blanchard, followers of the Maddox faction. It is not possible to account for the military titles given these different men but that is the way they were known and so the titles under which they paraded during their lives have been adopted.

I did a Google Image search on "Sand Bar Fight" in hopes of finding some old print that might illustrate this post. This photo was among the first to turn up. As I couldn't find anything that depicted the fight itself, I figured it was better than nothing.
As James Bowie is nationally known, something of his life must be told first and then that of his antagonist Norris Wright, for their stories touch each other in several places and one cannot be narrated without referring to the other.

James Bowie who is best known to the people of this generation for the story that is told of his death in the battle of the Alamo, and for his supposed making of the first "bowie knife," was born in Kentucky in 1796. His father was a native of Georgia and was temporarily living in Kentucky at the time of the birth of this man. Resin [sic] Bowie was somewhat of a wanderer, and in the next few years lived in Missouri, Catahoula parish and St. Landry. About 1814, when James Bowie was yet a minor he left his father's home and came to the parish of Rapides, acquired a tract of land on Bayou Boeuf and proceeded to cut the timber away and make a farm out of his homestead. Of this period of his life many stories are told of his way of making a living and the sports [he] indulged in. While living on Bayou Boeuf he came into contact with the younger generation of the Wells family (large planters) and formed a friendship that lasted during the remaining years of his life. The story is also told that he disposed of his property and entered into the business of smuggling slaves into Louisiana from Galveston, Texas, then the base of operation of Jean Lafitte and his men. The slaves were taken by Lafitte in his piratic raids on the high sea and brought to Galveston. There he offered them for sale and would let the purchaser use his own means of getting them within the United States. It has long been a tradition of this section that when Lafitte was making his headquarters at Barataria that he often brought slaves into central Louisiana and disposed of them to the prosperous planters who were ever-ready to buy a slave cheap. Bowie and his brother are said to have gone to Galveston, purchased the negroes from Lafitte at a price of one dollar per pound, loaded them on a schooner and sailed for the Louisiana coast. There the boat would be beached and abandoned. The nearest customs official was advised of the abandoned cargo of slaves, which would then be seized and sold by the official. The informer (Bowie) claimed the one-half usually received by such an agent. This part of the sales, price of the slaves would be applied upon the bid made, and the cargo was then good merchandise to be carried throughout the state for sale. One of these caravans escaped and reached the neighboring Indians and was never recovered. From this class of business some $65,000.00 was made and with this money Bowie entered upon a career of land speculation. Overflows and resulting failures of crops put Bowie into hard straits and as the banks had adopted a policy of restrictions on loans, he lost heavily. Norris Wright was one of the directors of one of the local banks, and to him was attributed the refusal of the bank to make large loans to Bowie and thus caused an enmity that finally resulted fatally to Wright.

Bowie was making his home in Alexandria. He was the follower of a faction lead by Wells. Norris Wright had been named as the Sheriff of Rapides to succeed William Fristoe who died in 1823. Fristoe had been a member of the same faction as Bowie. In the election of 1826, lines were closely drawn and a bitter campaign carried on. Much hard feeling grew out of the campaign. Wright and his faction were successful.

Norris Wright was from Baltimore. He came south to clerk in the store of Martin and Bryant, along with Robert C. Hynson, and when the old firm went out of business with the death of one of the members of the firm, Hynson and Wright took over the business which they conducted until 1825. Hynson became the cashier of the bank, Wright was the sheriff and one of the board of directors holding both positions at the time of his death.

Bowie was described as a powerful individual accustomed to out-door life, while Wright was slender of build and somewhat frail in appearance. Wright was cool and fearless, as was Bowie. He was noted as one of the best pistol shots in Rapides and had been one of the principals in several duels, in at least two of which he had killed the other party.

For some reason, whether it was money matters or politics does not matter, these men had a difficulty in Alexandria, in which Bowie was shot by Wright, the bullet glanced and though wounded Bowie was able to take Wright's gun away from him and severely handle his opponent. It is even said that had not the fight been stopped Wright would have been killed by Bowie with bare hands. Bowie never forgot a friend nor forgave an enemy. The difficulties of his friends were his troubles. His friends, the Wells, were parties to a duel and he was present on the sand-bar as a friend.

In the Natchez fight Bowie was desperately wounded and was carried to town with the expectation that he would die by morning. He recovered and returned to this section, but the fight and its results were not looked upon with favor here and as soon as possible he disposed of his property both lands and slaves and sought a new home across the Sabine in Texas. In his new home he married the daughter of a former Governor of the province, children were born and apparently he was contented. Then the wife and children died, the war between Texas and Mexico began and Bowie took up the fight of his adopted state. The story of his death at the Alamo is too well known to be re-told.

Contrary to the general belief the knife that was known as the "bowie knife" was not designed by him but by a brother, Resin Bowie. The actual work of making the knife was done by a plantation blacksmith named Snowden. The Bowies claimed that the first time this knife was used in any fight was in the duel about to be described.

Colonel Robert A. Crain, another of the sand-bar combatants was a native of Virginia and had moved to Louisiana making his home on Bayou Rapides near the present Boyce. He seems to have been the type always ready to fight. A question whether he would pay a bill that he had contracted was sufficient cause to take part in a combat. He had killed Dr. John Rippy because Rippy would not accept his note in payment of the rent due on a plantation. It seems that he was never tried for this killing. He was indicted for carrying out of the state negroes belonging to Levin Luckett. Luckett became his son-in-law and the case was dropped, but it was necessary for the legislature to pass a bill authorizing the abandonment of this case before the District Attorney would discontinue it. Crain prevailed upon Richmond E. Cuny to endorse his note for a considerable sum of money. The note was not paid when due and the maker and endorser were sued. It seems that Crain was execution proof and Cuny was compelled to sell some of his slaves to meet this obligation. This was the cause of some trouble between Crain and General Samuel Cuny, a son of Richmond E. Cuny. Crain refused to pay the note, a fight resulted and Crain was wounded by Cuny. Cuny shot him with a shot gun, inflicting a very dangerous wound in the right arm. The Cunys were close friends of the Wells family. Both families had resided in St. Landry and moved from that section to Rapides. Levi Wells was the guardian of the Cuny children. Nothing further is known of Cuny. Crain returned after the Natchez episode to Rapides and seems to have become a peaceful citizen, and died surrounded by his family. In later years Crain and Bowie met and made up as far as their differences were concerned and parted as good friends, Bowie going to Texas where he was killed, Crain to the home of his family.

Alfred Blanchard and his brother Carey Blanchard were also from Virginia and had settled on the upper end of Rapides Bayou or Bayou Jean de Jean. In time the Crain and Blanchard families intermarried. Alfred Blanchard while under the influence of liquor wounded Thomas Jefferson Wells, but not seriously. The cause cannot be learned at this time. Wells was a brother of General Montfort Wells, Samuel L. Wells and James Madison Wells. He was a large planter on Boeuf. In after years he was elected to the legislature on the Whig Ticket and was the candidate for governor against Thomas Overton Moore in 1859. McWhorters was from Catahoula parish. He was Wells' second. In after years he was state treasurer.

These men with Doctors Cuny and Denny had met on the sand bar as seconds, surgeons and friends of Dr. Thomas H. Maddox and Samuel L. Wells who were to be engaged in a duel. Dr. Maddox was a native of Maryland, educated in Edinburgh, and after practicing his profession for a short time in his native state came to Rapides where he entered upon the practice of medicine with Dr. Robert H. Sibley. He was very successful and in a short time had built up a very large clientele among the better class of people. The doctor was given to gossiping with his patients and this was the foundation of his difficulty with Wells. It would seem that the good doctor repeated the conversation of a lady patient, who having discovered that the gossip she had passed on would likely cause trouble got in touch with Maddox and bound him to secrecy as to his authority. He stood fast and declined to tell General Montfort Wells the name of the lady. A few days later Wells meeting Maddox on the public road attempted to get what he considered satisfaction by the use of a shot gun. Wells was a bad shot, missed Maddox and hit another man. Wells in due time was challenged to fight a duel, but for some reason declined the challenge. Crain offered to take the place of Maddox, with like results. When the two challenges had been declined, Crain informed Wells that since they would not fight a duel that his party would make it a street fight the first time Wells came to town. Samuel Levi Wells, a brother of the General and a bachelor, agreed to take the place of his brother and accepted the challenge. The first place named for the duel was Burr's Ferry on the Sabine river in what was long known as the neutral strip. General Walter H. Overton, a friend to both parties, objected to the location, stating that if they insisted upon fighting at the Ferry none of the parties would ever return home. After much ado about where the fight would take place, the sand bar opposite Natchez was selected and both parties journeyed to Natchez to spend the night before the duel. In the Wells party were Thomas Jefferson Wells, James Bowie, General Samuel Cuny, McWhorters, and the surgeon Dr. Cuny. In the other party was Norris Wright, Robert A. Crain, the Blanchard brothers, and Dr. Denny the surgeon. Both parties were ferried across the river. It was agreed that the principals were to be accompanied on the field by the seconds and the physicians, and that the friends were to remain a half mile away from the scene of action. The principals took their places and exchanged shots, both missing.

The pistols were reloaded and discharged and both principals again were unharmed. Then Wells offered his apology which was readily accepted by Maddox and the party started for a grove of willows where refreshment had been provided to pledge new-made peace. About this time Cuny and Bowie had come on to the field in violation of the agreement and as the principals were walking out, Cuny called to Crain that then and there was a good time to settle their little difference, at the same time drawing a pistol. Crain turned and fired at Bowie who was with Cuny. Bowie was struck in the hip, Crain in the fleshy part of the arm. Dr. Cuny tried to prevent his brother from going into the fight and for a time forceably held him, but finally freeing himself he started back at Crain who now fired his remaining pistol, mortally wounding General Cuny. Bowie had not been disabled and drawing his knife advanced upon Crain. When Bowie was within reach of Crain, Crain struck Bowie over the head with his pistol used as a club. As Crain retreated, his friend Norris Wright came upon the scene and attacked Bowie with a sword cane. Bowie was already wounded and bleeding. He attempted to ward off the sword cane, but failed. It struck him in the breast striking the bone and breaking off. Wright was near enough for Bowie to reach him with one of his hands, and gripping him like a vice he stabbed him to death with his knife. In some way Alfred Blanchard was wounded by a pistol ball. This ended the duel and the fight. A friend on either side was dead, two of the other friends of Maddox were wounded. Neither of the principals to the duel had been touched. Wright and Cuny were buried in Vidalia. Bowie was taken to Natchez where he recovered. The others returned home.

After returning home Samuel L. Wells contracted some of the fevers that prevailed in this section at that time and died shortly thereafter. Dr. Maddox lived to be near ninety years of age.

It is not necessary to recount the other duels that took place in Rapides. They were nothing to be proud of.

10 comments:

  1. Well, it might not have been a photo of a Bowie Duel, but I'm not going to complain!! I'll give your "photo research" a BIG Thumbs Up!!

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  2. If you look in the background, I'm pretty sure that that's the actual Sandbar on which the Sandbar Fight occurred. If anyone has proof to the contrary, I'll certainly keep it in mind.

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  3. I stumbled upon this sight by accident but have enjoyed reading the Jim Bowie history. My mother told me last year that we are related to Bowie through my mom's side of the family "Adams". I was honored to be a featured entertainer last year for the Annual Jim Bowie Festival in Vidalia. I will be performing there again this year during the September Festival. Hope to see all Jim Bowie Fans there!

    KC
    www.youtube.com/kevincurtislive

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  4. There's a sandbar in that picture?

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  5. well this is not helping at all with my homework but nice history

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  6. this was very interesting history, and a very good picture

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  7. Does the author fancy himself as living in the first decades of the 19th Century? I can't remember when I've seen a more twisted, agonizing, and awkward writing style. You would do history and the lore of Jim Bowie a great service by eliminating your self-absorbed style and have a real writer do some much needed editing of this piece. Wonderful photo of the sandbar, though.

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    1. speaking of self-absorbed...

      Need to work on your reading comprehension. You might have noticed that this was written in 1933...

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  8. As I mention in the introduction to the article, it is reprinted from the Louisiana Historical Quarterly, published in 1933. I present it verbatim. Sorry you're upset by the authors' style.

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  9. great! need more

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