The Sandbar Fight, also known as the Vidalia Sandbar Fight, was a formal one-on-one duel that erupted into a violent brawl involving multiple combatants on September 19, 1827. It took place on a large sandbar in the Mississippi River, near present-day Vidalia, Louisiana. American pioneer and folk hero Jim Bowie was seriously injured in the fight.
Though the site of the brawl was originally a neutral island in the middle of the river, the main course of the river has since changed, and the site is now located west of the modern river on Giles Island. The river's original path, however, still serves as the border between the states of Mississippi and Louisiana, and the site of the brawl is therefore within Mississippi.
The Sandbar Fight followed prior conflicts that had occurred in central Louisiana. Members of the wealthy and established Wells and Cuny families, who were close relatives, were engaged in ongoing feuds with many of the region's newer families. The subjects of the disputes included competing financial interests, allegations of vote-fixing in a sheriff's election, dishonored notes (bad loans), denied bank loans, and, it is rumored, the honor of a woman. Several participants in the brawl had engaged in prior duels, fist fights, and exchanges of gunfire. Two prior attempts at resolving disputes by dueling had ended without resolution, either because they devolved into shouting matches between seconds or because one party failed to appear.
The duel that became the Sandbar Fight was initially arranged over grievances between Samuel L. Wells III and Dr. Thomas H. Maddox, both of Alexandria, Louisiana. They agreed to a duel at a neutral site, eventually choosing a wide, sandy shoal in the middle of the Mississippi River because it was considered outside the jurisdiction of local law enforcement and thus less likely subject to anti-dueling laws. Both Wells and Maddox, the primary duelists, were attended by seconds and several friends and supporters. Norris Wright, in particular, was known to be violent. In a previous encounter, Wright shot Bowie; the intervention of observers prevented Bowie from then killing the smaller Wright. Afterward, Bowie carried a sheath knife in preparation for a rematch, which occurred in the Sandbar Fight.
Participants and eyewitnesses
|Wells Partisans||Maddox Partisans||Role||Injuries|
|Samuel L. Wells III||Dr. Thomas H. Maddox||Duelist||No Injuries|
|Major George McWorter||Colonel Robert A. Crain||Second||No Injuries|
|Dr. Richard Cuny||Dr. James A. Denny||Surgeon (nonparticipant)||No Injuries|
|James "Jim" Bowie||Alfred Blanchard||Supporter||Both Badly Injured|
|General Samuel Cuny||Carey Blanchard||Supporter||Cuny was Killed|
|Jefferson Wells||Major Norris Wright||Supporter||Wright was Killed|
Dr. Denny was a local surgeon and relatively non-partisan to the conflict.
Of the twelve listed participants, the duelists and surgeons played minor or pacifist roles during the brawl. The seconds and supporters were all active brawlers; half were killed or badly injured. There were also at least five additional local witnesses: two plantation owners, two additional doctors, and a guide. Some unnamed slaves likely witnessed the brawl as well.
On Wednesday, September 19, 1827, at mid-day, Wells and Maddox, accompanied by their seconds and supporters, met on a sandbar near the town of Natchez, Mississippi. Jim Bowie supported Wells, while Norris Wright favored Maddox. In total, seventeen named men were present. The Wells party arrived first by a small boat from the Louisiana shore. The Maddox party and local observers then arrived by horse from a nearby Mississippi plantation house, fording a bayou. The duel was conducted by formal rules of the time, with a lengthy delay between exchanges of fire. The noncombatant witnesses (including the surgeons) kept a reasonable distance from the duel for the duration of the fight.
Wells and Maddox each fired two shots, and, as neither man was injured, resolved the formal duel with a handshake.
At the conclusion of the initial duel, the party of six (Wells, Maddox, McWorter, Crain, Dr. Cuny, and Dr. Denny) prepared to celebrate survival. They walked toward the remaining Maddox partisans, because no participant of the duel had a violent relationship with that group. The duel participants were balanced in number (three each) and unarmed with the exception of the seconds. Crain carried a loaded pistol in each hand. The duel participants were intercepted by the remaining Wells partisans; Crain now faced three additional armed men. Seeing this from a distance, the remaining Maddox partisans began running forward to join the group. General Cuny, who had previously fought with Crain, is recorded as having called out to him, "Col. Crain, this is a good time to settle our difficulty." Crain fired, missing Cuny but striking Bowie in the hip and knocking him to the ground. Cuny and Crain then exchanged fire, with Crain sustaining a flesh wound in the arm and Cuny dying from a shot to the chest or thigh.
Bowie, rising to his feet, drew his knife and charged at Crain, who struck him so hard upon the head with his empty pistol that it broke and sent Bowie to his knees. Wright appeared, drew a pistol, and shot at the fallen Bowie, missing. Wright then drew his sword cane and stabbed Bowie in the chest, but the thin blade was deflected by his sternum. As Wright attempted to pull the blade free, Bowie reached up, grabbed his shirt, and pulled him down upon the point of his Bowie knife. Wright died quickly and Bowie was shot again and stabbed by another member of the group. As Bowie stood, both Blanchard brothers fired at him, and he was struck once in the arm. Bowie spun and cut off part of Alfred's forearm; Carey fired a second shot at Bowie, but missed. As the Blanchard brothers fled, Alfred was shot "through the arm" by Jefferson Wells while Carey was shot at by Major McWorter "without effect".
The brief (90-second) brawl left Samuel Cuny and Norris Wright dead, and Alfred Blanchard and Jim Bowie badly wounded. The unarmed Dr. Denny was shot in a finger and a thigh. Others may have suffered minor injuries; Crain claimed that a bullet "grazed the skin" of his arm.
Crain helped carry Bowie away, with Bowie recorded as having thanked him, saying, "Col. Crain, I do not think, under the circumstances, you ought to have shot me." One doctor reputedly said, "How he [Bowie] lived is a mystery to me, but live he did." The five doctors who had been present for the duel managed to patch Bowie's wounds. The dead and wounded (at least, and perhaps all partisans) promptly crossed the river by boat soon after the death of General Cuny.
It is difficult to determine the precise order of events which led to the brawl between Wells' and Maddox's supporters, as the fight was described by at least eight eyewitnesses with significant discrepancies, such as: "Crain and Bowie exchanged fire. Crain missed Bowie, who was later shot in the hip"; "Crain deliberately shot Bowie, who remained standing"; and "Crain shot Bowie in the hip, knocking him off his feet".
On September 24, five days after the brawl, Samuel Wells wrote to the press, claiming that Crain's shooting of Cuny constituted premeditated murder. On October 3, Crain wrote in a letter, "Bowie at the same time was drawing his pistol. I drew away at him; he says now that I did not touch him but drew his fire. He lies; I shot him through the body as he is shot. I could not miss, shooting not further than ten feet and the object is to excuse his conduct for killing our poor friend [Major Wright]." Crain was attacking any claim of self-defense that Bowie might mount with respect to Wright's death. These and other accounts of the brawl by participants were colored by legal considerations. Samuel L. Wells III died within a month of an unrelated fever, so his testimony was not long available to support criminal charges.
Discrepancies also exist in many other elements of the accounts: the number injured, the nature of their wounds, the precise sequence of events. The brawlers themselves provided few and probably biased accounts, and avoided local law enforcement and the press. Unbiased observers, who provided numerous accounts, could not initially reliably name the participants, many of whom were strangers to them. The eyewitness accounts were also embellished with time.
Regional and national newspapers soon picked up the story, which became known as the "Sandbar Fight". Bowie's fighting prowess and his knife were described in detail; he had matched or bested multiple opponents after being severely wounded. Most of the eyewitnesses and a few of the participants provided accounts to the press (Bowie notably did not). Eyewitness accounts agreed that Bowie did not attack first, and that the others had focused their attack on Bowie because "they considered him the most dangerous man among their opposition." Within a few decades, press accounts departed greatly from the eyewitness versions.
Bowie was seriously wounded in the confrontation (according to one account, two bullet wounds, seven stab wounds, and other injuries due to Crain's thrown pistol, or alternatively, three bullet and four stab wounds), and required months to recover. He prominently wore a large sheath knife thereafter. Thanks to the national attention drawn by the Sandbar Fight, Bowie and his knife became well known throughout the country as icons of a rugged frontier lifestyle. Many craftsmen and manufacturers made their own versions of the so-called Bowie knife, beginning with James Black, a blacksmith from Arkansas who designed the original for Bowie in 1830. His fame, and that of his knife, spread to England, and by the early 1830s many British knife manufacturers were also producing Bowie knives and exporting them to the United States for sale. By 1835 (while Bowie was still alive), "Bowie knives" were advertised (without further explanation). By 1838, a newspaper writer from New Orleans assumed that everyone had seen one. Bowie knives remained popular weapons until at least the 1870s, when large-caliber reliable pistols became widely available. The design of the knife evolved into a wide range of blades during the nineteenth century. By the middle of the twentieth century, it was associated with a more specific design: a large sheath knife with a "concave clip point, sharp false edge cut from both sides, and a cross-guard to protect the user's hands".
After the Sandbar Fight, Bowie moved to Texas, married into wealth, searched for a lost silver mine, lost his new family to cholera, and became a leader in the Texas Revolution of 1835–36. He famously perished at the Battle of the Alamo. Bowie was renowned as an early American frontiersman and a legendary knife fighter, though the only knife fight in which he likely participated was the Sandbar Fight.
- Mississippi Department of Archives and History. "The James Bowie Sandbar Fight Historical Marker". Retrieved August 9, 2009.
- Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. "The Sand Bar Fight Historical Marker". Retrieved August 9, 2009.
- Edmondson (2000), p 120
- Flayderman (2004), p 288
- Edmondson (2000), pp 82–85
- Batson (1992), p 7, citing the diary of John B. Nevitt, the plantation owner who housed most of the fight attendees the previous night.
- Hopewell (1994), pp. 28, 30.
Edmondson (2000), pp. 97–98.
- "The Bowies and Bowie Knives" (PDF). New York Times. January 27, 1895. Retrieved 2007-10-15.
- Batson (1992), p. 35, quoting Samuel L. Wells III, "...when Crane drew from his belt another pistol, fired it at and wounded General Cuney in the thigh; he expired in about fifteen minutes."
- Hopewell (1994), p. 31.
- Edmondson (2000), pp. 99–101.
- Hopewell (1994), p. 32.
- Batson (1992), p. 41, citing An Eye Witness.
- Davis (1998), p. 215
- Batson (1992), p. 45, citing Crain.
- Archimedia Interactive Alamo: victory or death 1995
- Batson (1992), p. 7, citing the diary of John B. Nevitt.
- Davis (p 213)
- Edmondson (p 99)
- Hopewell (p 31)
- Batson (1992), p. 34-35, quoting Wells
- Batson (1992), p. 44, quoting Crain
- Hopewell (1994), pp. 33–34.
- Flayderman (2004), pp. 289–291
- Davis (1998), p. 218
- Davis (1998), p. 216
- Batson (1992), p. v
- Hopewell (1994), p. 55.
- Hopewell (1994), p. 56. Edmondson (2000), p. 122.
- Flayderman (2004), throughout
- Hopewell (1994), p 42.
- Davis (1998), p. 638
- Batson, James L. (1992). James Bowie and the Sandbar Fight; Birth of the James Bowie Legend & Bowie Knife. Madison, Alabama: Batson Engineering and Metalworks. Contains extensive quotations from newspaper accounts, letters and diaries of the time. While self-published, the book was listed among the best sources by Davis (1998), p 752 and included in the references of Hopewell (1994), p 145.
- Davis, William C. (1998). Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-017334-3.
pp 209–219 and associated notes
- Edmondson, J.R. (2000). The Alamo Story-From History to Current Conflicts. Plano, TX: Republic of Texas Press. ISBN 1-55622-678-0.
Chapter 10: Mr. Bowie with a Big Knife
- Flayderman, Norm (2004). The Bowie knife : unsheathing an American legend. Lincoln, R.I: Andrew Mowbray. ISBN 9781931464123.
Chapter 10: The Defining Moments: The Sandbar Fight
- Hopewell, Clifford (1994). James Bowie Texas Fighting Man: A Biography. Austin, TX: Eakin Press. ISBN 0-89015-881-9.
Chapter 5: Battle of the Sandbar