In 1808, the first Methodist church constructed in Louisiana -- a log cabin -- was raised in Catahoula Parish following the arrival of two Methodist missionaries from Kentucky. 

Construction began after one of the ministers drew the ire of Captain Rezin Bowie Sr., who lived on the outskirts of present-day Harrisonburg. He was the father of Jim Bowie who years later would earn national fame – or infamy – as the epitome of an American frontiersman. 

Construction of the state’s first Methodist church followed a journey the two preachers had made to the Ouachita Post (Monroe) and environs to spread the Gospel. They had spent less than a week there before heading south through a pine hill forest and arriving at Catahoula Lake. 

Catahoula Lake had been the early center of white population in the region. Dr. A.R. Kilpatrick, a Concordia Parish resident, wrote in Debow’s Review in 1852 that the “early settlers clustered around Catahoula Lake and prairie, and along the principal creeks in the pine hills, where the soil laid well and was productive.” 

In the late 1790s, the Lovelaces came from Red River to settle on Bayou Louis at Sicily Island while other settlements were begun in the Harrisonburg area and Hemphill’s Creek in the Jena and Nebo areas near the lake. The Bowies settled at the foot of the hills and along Bushley Bayou and Bird’s Creek. 

On Little River above Catahoula Lake, David Jones raised cattle and opened a ferry and a public house for travelers. 

Supplies were often brought in on packhorses and boats. 

Bear’s oil was a wonder – it was used rather than lard or butter, which wasn’t immediately available -- to cook. And it also was used to lubricate machinery. Settlers used the skins for blankets and coats. 

Kilpatrick wrote that hatters would shape a man’s hat from fox or raccoon skins. It took a number of skins from either animal to make one hat. 

CAPTAIN BOWIE’S LOG CABIN 

 “Here {at Catahoula Lake} I parted with our beloved brother Axley,” Young wrote in his book (Autobiography of a Pioneer). “I left him bathed in tears. I dropped a few, but dried them soon, and went on my way rejoicing.” 

While Young returned to Natchez to oversee Methodist outreach in Mississippi, Axley followed the trail along the edge of the hills toward present-day Harrisonburg. The trail has been upgraded many times over the decades. Today, La. 8 follows most of the old path. 

Axley, a rugged frontiersman who was muscular and stout, was in charge of the northeastern Louisiana circuit. His was a big job in a vast wilderness filled with tiny settlements and frontiersmen who didn’t much enjoy being preached to. 

He developed a friendship with the family of Captain Bowie, who arrived in Catahoula with his wife and children a few years earlier. The captain’s most famous son – Jim – was 11 years old at the time the preachers arrived. He would one day become famous for his gigantic knife and his participation in a deadly duel that turned into a brawl on a Mississippi River sandbar at Vidalia. He was mourned nationally following his death at the Alamo. 

Jim Bowie’s life was still celebrated in Catahoula Parish two decades after he died. Dr. Kilpatrick wrote in the 1850s that Jim Bowie “evinced that coolness and courage so peculiar to him, and whichever characterized him, even in his last hours at the storming of the Alamo, where his eventful life was brought to an honorable and glorious termination.” 

In addition to preaching the Gospel and starting congregations, the Methodist circuit riders were also tasked with building churches. But before that could be done, they held services wherever they were allowed. And for a while, Rezin Bowie had opened up his home to Axley to minister to local settlers. Bowie’s big log cabin became a Methodist church for a while. 

Captain Bowie was a slave owner and distilled whiskey by the barrels. The preachers were opposed to both. The whiskey the captain didn’t sell to local settlers or to those passing by, he transported by boat to other markets. He also grew cotton. 

When only a teen, the captain had served in the fight for Independence during the Revolutionary War. When involved in an attack on the British at Savannah, Bowie was severely wounded in the hand when he deflected the sharp edge of a saber wielded by a British officer. 

Taken as a prisoner, his wounds were tended by the women of Savannah, including Elve Jones. The two fell in love and married in 1782. 

Elve was a Methodist. The preachers adored her. But Captain Bowie, though friendly and accommodating at first, was an unrepentant sinner and temperamental. 

CAPTAIN BOWIE’S LAND 

While Jacob Young left Catahoula Lake for Natchez, James Axley continued preaching at Bowie’s before the two had a falling out over Bowie’s log cabin. The property on which the structure was built as described in the American State Papers when during the early 1800s the U.S. Government settled land claims. 

Evidence provided in 1812 by Thomas Hubbs revealed that Hubbs’ land was “situated near the big prairie, about three miles from the Washita (Ouachita) river, and about four or five miles from the Catahoula courthouse {Harrisonburg}, adjoining lands originally owned by Resin Bowie, now the property of Abraham Bird.” 

Follow La. Hwy. 8 to the Bird’s Creek Baptist Church and you have arrived at the old Bowie property. In fact, not far from the church you cross Bird’s Creek, which apparently gets its name from early settler Abraham Bird mentioned in the previous paragraph. 

From the asphalt highway atop the old trail at the foot of hills is the big prairie where Bushley Bayou flows. The Bushley (pronounced “Burseley”) once entered the Ouachita a mile below Harrisonburg before a dam was built during a flood protection project last century. 

In the 1800s when the water was high, a boatman could travel the Bushley to Little River and Catahoula Lake. The Bushley watershed stretches from Sandy Lake to Catahoula Lake below the hills and is now part of the Catahoula National Wildlife Refuge. 

Another early settler, William Mock, provided the same description of the Bowie property as Hubbs. Mock added that Rezin Bowie “actually inhabited” the land and had it “in cultivation” by December 1803. 

By 1808, the captain had been farming and moonshining for five years and had become more and more irritated with Brother Axley apparently because the preacher was quite good in the ministry. 

Young recalled that he and Axley “concluded, upon the whole, that religion was very low throughout the Louisiana territory. Brother Axley was much discouraged – out of money, and his clothing very ragged. By this time the waters had risen, and he was confined to the Catahoolah settlement.” 

And now Axley had no place to preach. 

“Captain Bowie,” Young wrote, “had fallen out with him, and would not let him preach any longer at his house.” Bowie complained that Axley “‘had preached so much about hell, that his chimney had fallen down, and he would have him (Axley) there no longer.” 

AXLEY BUILDS A CHURCH 

In addition to this problem, Young said Axley had “met with great opposition, and was sorely persecuted by the Universalists, Dunkards, and Catholics.” 

Axley handled such adversity well. Physically, there was nothing he couldn’t do. 

But if he felt he wasn’t effectively bringing settlers into the church, it affected him deeply. He would sometimes weep over it. In the meantime, he suffered economically. 

Methodist preachers never made enough to make a living. Who would come to a wilderness like Catahoula for a few dollars a year? That didn’t cover the scantiest of supplies. A man who preached the word in the territories along the lower Mississippi in the early 1800s did so because God inspired him. 

Young wrote that he and other preachers “made him up some money to buy him some clothes, and sent it to him.” 

But now without a church, Axley determined to build one himself. He used the money Young sent to buy flooring boards. 

Axley sawed and chopped down long-leaf yellow pine that the timber industry would one day crave. He “hewed them with his own hands,” and hauled them with “a borrowed yoke of oxen.” 

“Finally, he called the neighbors to raise the house, which he covered with shingles, made with his own hands. He built the pulpit – cut out the doors and windows – bought him boards and made seats.” 

Once the church was ready, Axley invited the people to attend. 

“They all flocked out to hear him,” Young wrote. 

Axley went over the general rules of the church with the congregants. All who agreed to the rules were taken in, but he warned them that they must conform to the rules. 

At his first service in the church, 18 were enrolled as members 

But one of the members, described only as “an old man,” later reportedly stole a slab of bacon. Axley “lectured him severely” and removed his name from the church membership. 

“There was a mischievous Dr. Green in the neighborhood, who tried to put the old man up to sue the preacher for slander,” but nothing came of it, Young wrote. 

Where then was the church located? 

It is noted in Methodist archives that the church was located along the Bushley Creek close to Catahoula Lake. Possibly the location can be generally determined by the name of Dr. Green, the man Young described as “mischievous.” Green’s Creek flows beneath a bridge along La. Hwy. 8 at the Alexander Cemetery at the Rhinehart community and onward to the Bushley, less than five miles from Catahoula Lake. 

A friend wrote Young that “Axley conducted himself with so much propriety, that neither man nor devils could find any fault with him.” 

The Louisiana United Methodist Church notes today that this little church – known then as Axley’s Chapel – was the first Methodist Church built in the state. 

‘HE COULD NOT TALK FOR WEEPING’ 

After months in Catahoula, Axley returned to Mississippi where he, Young and the other Methodist preachers planned to head back to Kentucky as a new group of missionaries entered the region. 

The toll on Axley in Catahoula during a period of high water, conflict with Captain Bowie, and the physical exertion of personally building a church from the ground up was great. 

Young wrote that when Axley went to Catahoula “he was a fine-looking man, but his flesh had since fallen off, and he looked quite diminutive. His clothes were worn out, and when he saw his brethren he could not talk for weeping. 

“The people soon clothed him, his health restored, his spirits revived.” 

Axley, who married in 1821 in Tennessee at the age of 45, died in that state in 1838 when he was 61. 

Were it not for the memory of Jacob Young about his friend James Axley, the story of Louisiana’s first Methodist Church, and the part played by Captain Bowie – good and bad – would have been lost forever. 

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