The Sandbar Fight, also known as the Vidalia Sandbar Fight, was an 1827 brawl featuring Jim Bowie. The brawl occurred at the conclusion of a duel, and resulted in Bowie being seriously injured. Bowie was nonetheless the victor. While the site of the duel was originally on the east (Mississippi) side of the river, the course of the river has changed. The site now exists on Giles Island on the west (Louisiana) side of the river; the land is still owned by Mississippi.
The duel and following brawl at the sandbar followed prior conflicts in central Louisiana (half a state away from the Sandbar). Members of the wealthy and well-established Wells and (related) Cuny families (and friends) were in conflict with a variety of recent arrivals. Disputes involved competing financial interests, allegations of vote fixing in a sheriff's election, dishonored notes (bad loans), denied bank loans and the honor of a woman (rumors). 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 (shouting matches between seconds or failure of one party to appear). "The site was primarily chosen as it was thought to be outside the jurisdiction of law enforcement and less likely to be subject to anti-dueling laws." There was little cause for enmity between the duelists (who had been friends), but much between the heavily armed groups that accompanied them.
The relationship between James Bowie and Major (former sheriff) Norris Wright was known to be violent. In a previous encounter Wright shot Bowie; the intervention of observers prevented Bowie from then killing the smaller Wright. Afterwards Bowie carried a sheath knife specifically for a rematch, which occurred in the sandbar brawl.
Participants and eyewitnesses
|Wells Partisans||Maddox Partisans||Role|
|Samuel L. Wells III||Dr Thomas H. Maddox||Duelist|
|Major George McWorter||Colonel Robert A. Crain||Second|
|Dr Richard Cuny||Dr James A. Denny%||Surgeon|
|James Bowie+||Alfred Blanchard+||Supporter|
|General Samuel Cuny^||Carey Blanchard||Supporter|
|Jefferson Wells||Major Norris Wright^||Supporter|
% Dr Denny was a local surgeon, relatively nonpartisan
^ Killed during the brawl
+ Badly injured during the brawl
Of the twelve listed partisans, the duelists and surgeons played a minor or pacifist role during the brawl. The seconds and six supporters were all active brawlers; half were killed or badly injured.
There were at least five additional local witnesses: two plantation owners, two additional doctors and a guide. There were probably some unnamed servants.
On Wednesday September 19, 1827 at mid-day, James Bowie and Major Norris Wright attended a duel on a sandbar outside of Natchez, Mississippi. Bowie supported duelist Samuel Levi Wells III, while Wright favored Dr. Thomas Harris Maddox, both of Alexandria, Louisiana. Seventeen named men were present. The Wells party arrived first by 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 duel itself was attended by the 6 participants only (by mutual prior agreement); the supporters of both parties and local witnesses were distant from the duel and separate.
The duelists each fired two shots, and, as neither man was injured, resolved their duel with a handshake.
The Sandbar brawl was described by at least eight eyewitnesses with some 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"; "Crain shot Bowie in the hip, knocking him off his feet". Discrepancies appeared soon after the event. The brawl occurred mid-day September 19th. On September 24th, Samuel L. Wells III wrote to the press, claiming that Crain's shooting of Cuny constituted premeditated murder. (Batson (1992), pages 34-35, quoting Wells) 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 Norris Wright]." (Batson (1992), page 44, quoting Crain) Crain was attacking any claim of self-defense that Bowie might mount with respect to Wright's death. The accounts of the brawl by participants were colored by legal considerations. Samuel L. Wells III died within a month of a fever, so his testimony was not long available to support criminal charges. Discrepancies exist in many elements of accounts: the number injured, the nature of wounds, the sequence of events. Participants provided few and probably biased accounts; brawlers 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. Accounts were embellished with time.
At the conclusion of the duel, the party of six 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 (3 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 faced 3 additional armed men. Seeing this from a distance, the remaining Maddox partisans began running forward to join the group. 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 with his empty pistol upon the head 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 McWhorter "without effect" (missed).
The brief (90 second) brawl left Samuel Cuny and Norris Wright dead, 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 5 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.
Newspapers (regional and national) 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 (but James Bowie did not). Eyewitness accounts agreed that Bowie did not attack first, and the others had focused their attack on Bowie because "they considered him the most dangerous man among their opposition." Press accounts decades later departed greatly from the eyewitness versions.
A grand jury was convened in nearby Natchez, Mississippi. Bowie was never called to testify. No indictments were returned.
James Bowie was seriously wounded (2 bullets, 7 stabs and wounds due to Crain's thrown pistol) (or 3 bullets and 4 stabs) requiring months to recover. He prominently wore a large sheath knife thereafter. After the Sandbar fight, Bowie moved to Texas, married into wealth, searched for a lost silver mine, lost his new family to cholera and was a leader in the battle to free Texas from Mexico. He famously perished at the Alamo. Bowie was a legendary knife fighter but the only personal knife fight that he provably participated in was the Sandbar fight.
After the Sandbar Fight Bowie's knife became very popular. Many craftsmen and manufacturers made their own versions of it. His fame, and that of his knife, spread to England, and by the early 1830s, many British knife manufacturers were also producing Bowie knives, exporting many of them to the United States for sale. By 1835 (while James 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 knifes were widely used as 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 became specifically 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".
- 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), p 97
- 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.
- Davis (p 213)
- Edmondson (p 99)
- Hopewell (p 31)
- "The Bowies and Bowie Knives" (PDF). New York Times. January 27, 1895. Retrieved 2007-10-15.
- Batson (1992), page 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.
- 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.
- Hopewell (1994), pp.33–34.
- Flayderman (2004), pp 289-291
- Davis (1998), p 218
- Davis (1998), p 216
- Batson (1992), p. v
- Davis (1998), p 638
- Hopewell (1994), p. 55.
- Hopewell (1994), p. 56. Edmondson (2000), p. 122.
- Flayderman (2004), throughout
- Hopewell (1994), p 42.
- 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