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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Bowie

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
James Bowie trafficked in slaves, participated in land fraud and drank too much – but he did not lack for grit.

Eight years after his death in the Alamo, the New Orleans Picayune carried an article titled “Col. James Bowie” that offered insight into his personality and preserved for posterity an incident reflecting on his mettle.
The author of the newspaper piece, a roving Irish-born adventurer and journalist named Matt Field, did not get off to much of a start: “We are in possession of a little anecdote highly characteristic of those remarkable men…Bowie and his brother Rezin, which has never, we believe, yet appeared among the various printed relations of their battles, dangers, bravery, etc., that have met the public eye.”

Field went on to relate the tale, which after his telling languished for another century before John E. Sunder collected Field’s literary productions for the 1960 University of Oklahoma Press book, “Matt Field on the Santa Fe Trail.”
The story Field told about Bowie happened “among the wild prairie regions of Texas.” Field does not offer a more specific location or date, but his anecdote is an artifact of a fight Bowie and his brother, along with six other men and a boy, had with Indians on Nov. 21, 1831 in what is now McCulloch County. The Bowies had left San Antonio earlier that month in search of the fabled Lost San Saba Mine.

Not only did Field back into his story, he rambled on a good bit about Bowie before he got to the finally got to the point. In doing so, he did at least offer some insight into the famous man’s character.
Texarkana Tx - James Bowie Centennial Statue
James Bowie Statue in Texarkana
Photo courtesy Barclay Gibson, 2010
Field viewed Bowie as “undoubtedly a man of vigorous intellect, as well as of firm and flintlike nerve. His character is one of bold and captivating individuality, and would form a magnificent study for some native novelist.”

Despite a well-deserved reputation as a fighter, Field continued, Bowie came across as “bland and gentle, so much so as to heighten materially the interest of his character. He spoke with slow and impressive intonation, nicely articulating every syllable he uttered, and with strict yet easy politeness observing every form of delicacy and good-breeding.”

Unless he had a drink or three under his belt, or faced an enemy.

Bowie and his brother, at the head of a “brave little band” in the “Texan wilds,” ran into a large number of Indians. Field called them “Camanches,” but Bowie reported them to have been Tawakonis. (Their leader was Tres Manos, a moniker he picked up because of the mummified hand that hung from his neck.)

Seeing that the Indians badly outnumbered his party, Bowie “maneuvered his men as completely to conceal his inferiority of force, and, securing a position for defense, he very coolly awaited the moment for action.

Field continued:

“A favorable chance for execution soon occurred, and a few American rifles began to blaze away upon the savages in such a manner as to convince them that the party told about double its actual number. Still the Camanches were appearing in all directions, flying about in great force, and the condition of the little American party became extremely critical.”

Though all the Americans possessed long rifles, Rezin Bowie had the best weapon, “a perfect prince of shooting irons.” Not only that, Rezin “was as sure of his mark as of lifting food direct to his mouth.”

When James noticed that Rezin had propped his rifle across a log, had his eye to the sight and his finger posed on the trigger, he drew an imaginary line with his eyes from the end of Rezin’s rifle to his target: The obvious leader of the Indian war party. Near him rode an Indian who, judging from his plumage and bearing, carried equal or nearly-equal rank.

“Brother Rezin,” Bowie said, “do you not see these two red rascals wheeling about there, near each other? Why don’t you pull one of them down from his horse?”

Rezin told his brother not to hurry him.

“If I pull one…down, brother, the other…will get out of my reach,” he continued. “But wait till they lap, and then I’ll pull them both down….”

Rezin waited patiently until both Indians lined up on an imaginary line extending from the end of his rifle.

As James Bowie later told it: “Rezin pulled the trigger – and, as I am an hon-est gen-tle-man, they both fell from their horses!”

The Indians had managed to kill one member of the Bowie party, but both brothers left the field with scalps intact, living “to pass through many perilous adventures after that.”

© Mike Cox

"Texas Tales" October 19 , 2006 column
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