"There is war in Texas," Natchez attorney and public servant John Quitman wrote his brother late in 1835. "Were I without family, I would repair there immediately. "
A few weeks later, in early 1836, Quitman opened a letter from Gen. Sam Houston of Texas. A former congressman and the future governor of Texas, Houston thanked Quitman for his recent sentiments of support for Texas in her fight for independence from Mexico. Then he called upon Quitman to join the fight: "We will peril all for freedom."
Quitman and Houston were men with similar traits -- both were ambitious, both loved the military and both were popular among men. Each had grown up in a time in America when Revolutionary War veterans were the heroes of the era. Every boy wanted to grow up to fight for freedom.
Houston had fought under Andrew Jackson in the war against the Creeks, while Quitman had served in the militia back in Ohio where he lived briefly as a young man. In Natchez, Quitman had organized the Natchez Fencibles into an untested but well trained militia force.
Quitman took Houston's request to heart but was torn over what to do. Leaving his wife and family seemed almost cruel. Just two years earlier he and Eliza had lost two sons to cholera.
According to Quitman biographer, the Mississippi historian John F.H. Claiborne, friends remarked that Quitman became anxious and restless. "The conflict was strong between his duty to his young family and devoted wife" Claiborne wrote, "and what he conceived to be his duty of his fellowmen, Americans by birth, then threatened with a war of extermination. At last, about the last of March, 1836, tidings reached Natchez that Santa Anna was advancing into Texas with 10,000 men. Soon followed news of the fall of the Alamo."
Among the dead was 39-year-old frontiersman Jim Bowie, who had grown to manhood in the Louisiana hills and bottomlands of nearby Catahoula Parish.
Bowie would be remembered in many ways – gambler, risk-taker, forger, slave trader, land speculator, adventurer. But three things in his life made him a legend – his death at the Alamo, his participation in a bloody brawl on a sandbar island between Vidalia and Natchez that was best reached from the Vidalia shore, and the knife he used in the fight, a big-bladed butcher knife that became known as the Bowie knife.
That knife would become a common accessory for many men. It would be the cause of countless deaths and injuries. Duels and the Bowie knife would even become the moral center of a trial in Kentucky in which three men were killed in a barroom brawl that was every bit as vicious as the one Bowie took part in along the Mississippi.
JIM’S ‘ANGER WAS TERRIBLE’
Jim Bowie's father, Reason (pronounced Rezin), had served in the Revolutionary War. When his service ended, he was a colonel. Jim's mother was Elve. The family had settled in Catahoula in 1802 on a Spanish land grant when Jim was five. Reason Bowie was a true frontiersman. He had a habit of moving on when frontiers became settled.
The Bowie family had departed Kentucky, where Jim was born, for Tennessee, then Missouri, before moving to Rapides Parish in May of 1801. Months later, they relocated along Bird's Creek outside Harrisonburg. There in the Catahoula wilderness Jim Bowie spent his childhood.
Jim and his brothers hunted and trapped most of what the family ate. Father Reason operated a whiskey still on Bushley Bayou, which flowed into the Ouachita River, for cash and trade, and later cultivated cotton. By 1809, Reason owned 20 slaves, more than any other slaveholder in Catahoula.
While growing up, Jim also became known for his temper. Brother John J. recalled that Jim's "anger was terrible ... and frequently terminated in some tragic scene."
As a man, Jim Bowie loved to drink and gamble, probably no more or less than most young frontiersmen. He made his living in various ways, having floated lumber to New Orleans, trading and speculating, sometimes crookedly, in land. He was reckless and highly ambitious. While his father owned slaves, Jim Bowie took it a step further. He was a slave trader, having bought slaves from the pirate Jean Laffite, who operated a slave market.
Throughout his life, it was not unusual to find Bowie at a Natchez card table. He gambled on the riverboats, too.
In 1832, a young Natchez man returning from his honeymoon sat down at the poker table and lost $50,000. To make matters worse the money wasn't his. It belonged to Natchez planters. The young man had collected it from merchants back east.
When he had lost the last dollar, the honeymooner was so despondent he tried to jump into the river. Among the men who restrained him was Jim Bowie, who had watched the honeymooner lose the last of his money and had noticed that one of the gamblers was cheating.
Bowie talked his way into the game and began winning. When one of the gamblers attempted to pull a card from his sleeve, Bowie pulled his famous knife and shouted, "Show your hand! If it contains more than five cards I'll kill you!" Six cards fell out as Bowie twisted the man's wrist -- a jack, a queen and four aces. Instead of killing the man and his cheating partners, Bowie claimed the pot, $70,000 in all. He gave the young man his $50,000 back and put the other $20,000 in his pocket.
The word "opportunist" might best describe Bowie.
THE SANDBAR BRAWL
What initially made Jim Bowie nationally famous was a brawl in 1826 that had begun as a duel on the sandbar, which became known as the Sandbar “Fight”, although Sandbar “Brawl” would have been a better description. Many of the 16 men there for the contest between Samuel Levi Wells III and Dr. Thomas Maddox carried personal grudges against others present that day.
Bowie supported Wells while Bowie’s bitter enemy, Sheriff Norris Wright of Rapides Parish, supported Maddox. Bowie and Wright had gotten crossed up over several issues. Bowie had supported Wright’s opponent in the sheriff’s race in Rapides Parish. Additionally, when Wright was a banker he rejected a loan application Bowie sought from the bank.
Later, the two men had words on the streets of Alexandria one afternoon. The disagreement escalated. Wright fired a shot at Bowie. That’s when Bowie began carrying his knife. The blade was more than nine inches long and one and one-half inches wide.
In the Sandbar Fight, both duelists – Wells and Maddox -- missed when they fired their pistols. It should have ended there. In fact the two duelists were satisfied and ready to head under the hill in Natchez for a drink. But emotions were so high that outside gunfire erupted.
Bowie found himself in the middle of the storm. During the chaos of the melee, Bowie and Wright came face to face. Wright shot at Bowie and missed, who fired back and may have hit Wright. Wright then stabbed Bowie in the chest with his sword cane. As Wright placed his foot on Bowie’s chest to retrieve his sword, Bowie grabbed Wright by the shirt, pulled him down and fatally disemboweled Wright with his knife.
Bowie had been shot in the lower chest and thigh and stabbed numerous times. Yet he survived. No one could believe it.
Already Bowie's reputation was that of man not to be riled. His skill with the knife he carried to defend himself became well respected and feared after the Sandbar Fight. Descriptions of the furor with which he fought caused men to back away when they saw him. But he became mean only when provoked, according to some.
His knife would soon be known as Bowie's knife and in time immortalized as the "Bowie Knife." News of his strength and his big knife spread up and down the Mississippi River. Immediately the brawl became a national story in newspapers in the nation.
In the years to come, Bowie moved to Texas and interests there, especially in land, and finding silver and gold, held his attention until he joined the small force of Texans assembled at the Alamo.
Ten years after the brawl, news of the Alamo's fall, and the death of all inside, including one of their own, Jim Bowie, enraged Natchez. After the slaughter, it was reported that Mexican leader Santa Anna asked to see three bodies, those of William Travis, Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie.
A public meeting was assembled, chaired by John Quitman, who was captain of the Natchez Fencibles. Serving as secretary of the meeting was Gen. Felix Huston.
A judge and a colonel from Gen. Houston's Texas army addressed the packed house. Following the emotional meeting, a resolution was passed: "Resolved, That the proud dictator, Santa Anna, must fall like the Alamo, and the blood there shed for liberty and glory must be avenged."
Historian Claiborne said the meeting closed with an "impassioned speech" from Quitman, who declared he was heading west in five days. His friends thought his decision foolhardy, and questioned him on what he thought "his handful of boys" could do against Santa Anna. At the worst, said Quitman, "We will die." Not even Eliza's protests could change his mind. Claiborne wrote that Quitman's "moral convictions were stronger even than his affection for her."
On April 2, Quitman and Felix Huston put out the word in the newspaper and through public notices that "Captain Quitman will embark up the Red River in the beginning of next week, and General Huston will follow with those who wish to travel with him in about two weeks afterward. Those who desire to accompany us will furnish themselves with a good horse, rifle or musket, and pistols, with the understanding that each man who accompanies the expedition embarks on his own responsibility, at his own expense, and subject to no other rules than may be adopted for the convenience of traveling." The notice indicated that the citizens of Natchez had chipped in to "aid the cause of Texas" and that the funds would be used to buy provisions and supplies.
Two days later, on the morning of April 5, men, women and children from throughout the region began arriving in Natchez. They came on foot, by horseback and in wagons. From Concordia, they crossed the river by ferry. At the top of the bluff, the Fencibles stood in formation, Quitman at their head, while volunteers from throughout the region stood ready.
They would never forget the Alamo or Jim Bowie.