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THE LOW DOWN ON JIM BOWIE

By EDWARD S. SEARS

THE 28TH DAY OF APRIL, 1828, the parish church of San Antonio, which since has become a cathedral, was brilliantly lighted and the smoke from hundreds of thick wax candles rose to the roof of the nave. The most important merchant and politician of the day, Juan Martín de Beramendi, was standing near the altar with his wife, Josefa Navarro, as sponsors for a baptism which was about to begin. The ceremony was hailed as an event of importance because an apostate of another faith was about to embrace Catholicism.

And, if rumors could be trusted, the apostate was a person of importance. He was twenty-eight, tall, broad-shouldered, mustachioed and blond. Jim Bowie was entering the society of San Antonio, then known as San Fernando, with the most distinguished sponsorship obtainable.

If other qualifications were lacking, there was one which never failed. The new convert had been ushered into the Province of Texas after he had, so the reports ran, converted a large number of Negro slaves into $60,000.

Bowie's sponsor in baptism, and later his father-in-law, had inherited wealth, had lost it, and then had made and lost several more fortunes. He left an estate in excess of $30,000, a considerable sum in those days.

Naturally a man whose estate is pilfered by a dozen different armies, gradually acquires a chameleon kind of loyalty which readily assumes the complexion of the winning armies or their generals. When San Antonio was captured by the rebels under Gutiérrez de Lara in April, 1813, and was recaptured by the Spaniards under Arredondo in August of that year, political principles were donned and doffed as quickly as light to heavy clothing when the northers begin to blow. On the appearance in San Antonio of General Gutiérrez, Juan Martín Beramendi could say with all other liberal citizens, “Welcome to our city.” But in a few months when General Arredondo led the Spaniards into the city, with the fire of revenge in his eye—for rebels had beheaded not only three generals of the Spanish army, but had also hacked off the heads of the two Spanish governors with rusty swords—Juan Martín suddenly recalled that he had important business in the United States.

Naturally Arrendondo assumed that all citizens who did not await his coming were rebels, and therefore the fine palace of stone, brick and adobe which Juan Martín owned in Soledad Street was confiscated to quarter soldiers, and the large herds which Juan Martín owned were converted into what in those days passed for hamburgers.

Juan Martín de Beramendi was the son of Fernando de Beramendi and María Josefa Granados. Born in 1777 in San Antonio or San Fernando, where his father was alcalde in 1783, Juan Martín himself became alcalde in 1825 or 1826. In 1832 he became Lieutenant Governor and acting Governor of the State of Coahuila and Texas.

Fernando Beramendi, who came to Texas from a suburb of Pamplona, the capital of Spanish Navarro, known as Beramendi, had been killed by the Indians in June, 1783, and had been buried on the Rio Grande with his neighbor, Antonio de las Bárcenas. María Josefa Granados, Juan's mother, was a woman of unusual business acumen. She conducted the largest general store in San Fernando and the inventory of her merchandise shows that she carried everything from a pin to a saddle, from a diaper to a party dress, and a chamber pot without a handle. But she was a free and easy storekeeper, for the list of debtors is a good census of San Antonio for the year 1787.

The will of María Josefa Granados contains family history of an enlightening sort. She relates how the Lord had saved her from the clutches of the devil, and how she had been twice married. She names as the sons of her first husband, Fernando de Beramendi, José de Beramendi and Juan Martín de Beramendi. She also states that she has a daughter Josefa, who is the child of her second husband, Juan Martín de Amonderain. On the baptismal record of the parish church it is stated that on the given day baptismal rites were celebrated for Josefa Beramendi, the posthumous daughter of Fernando de Beramendi. The Spaniards always left their wills until they were pretty certain they were dying. So, María Josefa's mind may have been wandering, although it is possible she knew what she was saying.

II

The year 1828 was a year of promise for Jim Bowie. In that year the Territorial Court of Arkansas had decided a case in which one hundred nineteen land titles were validated. Every one of these cases represented a sale of a large tract of land in the territory, all or nearly all of which had been conveyed by John James or James Bowie, and apparently lawful title had been conferred to a very large portion of the area of Arkansas. These titles had been purchased by nearly every lawyer, judge, banker, and business man in Arkansas, making any interference with their validity a matter likely to arouse the anger of most of the men of consequence in the territory.

In the year 1803, when the United States completed the Louisiana Purchase, provision had been made for the validation of the titles of persons already settled in that vast territory known as Louisiana, which then included Arkansas. And this brought up some involved legal problems.

It was left to James Bowie and his brother, however, to breathe into a legalistic Frankenstein myth the life which permitted it to determine to a great extent the disposition of thousands of arpents of Arkansas land, to say nothing of interminable law suits and the expenditure of vast sums of money to prove the falsehood of his myth.

In 1783 a person with one of the strangest names in the world applied to Governor Miró, at that time Governor of Louisiana for Spain, for large tracts of land in Arkansas. The governor, apparently, was very gracious to this wierd person, for he granted a vast expanse of Arkansas land to Bernardo Sampayreac, who thus became one of the most important landholders of the day.

No document gives any clue to the identity of this Bernardo Sampayreac. Indeed, if the name is to be considered for any length of time, the impression grows that it has a definite meaning. Reflecting on the indiscriminate and careless use of vowels and consonants in old hand-writing, and the French or Gascon twist in the name, “sam” can be read as “sans” “pay” as “payer,” and “reac” as “rien,” so that from some strange family name the poor Bernardo Sampayreac was actually baptized “Bernardo who pays nothing.”1

Bernardo, perhaps moulting in his old age, conveyed some 60,000 arpents of land in Arkansas to John James and James Bowie. They in turn sold the land to various individuals, who pressed their claims in the Territorial Court of Arkansas for confirmation of title.

So, when Bowie was baptized in the Catholic faith in 1828, he knew that the territorial court of Arkansas had decided in favor of the titles acquired through Bernardo Sampayreac, or Bernardo sans-payer-rien. Then too, he may have had a notion that there was something wrong with the titles conveyed by that acrostically named Spaniard or Frenchman, and that a residence in Texas, which was Mexico, where extradition was unknown, might be indicated. For the ink was scarcely dry on the decision of that Arkansas judge when William Wirt, then the Attorney General of the United States, very caustically reprimanded Sam Roane, the United States Attorney for Arkansas, for losing the land fraud cases on which the Government had set a very high value.

Then Sam Roane also lost his temper and set out to prove fraud in a substantial manner. Little of these doings seem to have filtered into Texas, and Bowie continued his courtship. But until he acquired citizenship it was impossible for him to conduct any business in the state of Coahuila and Texas.

III

As this story is largely concerned with land titles and land frauds a few words must be devoted to the manner in which the old Spanish titles to which the Sampayreac grant belonged were acquired. The first step was to petition the Governor or other proper authority for the land desired. If grazing land was wanted the Governor granted one or two or more sitios, a sitio being a square league, or about eight square miles. If you wanted a site for a house, corral and garden he granted a solar, generally eighty varas square, or about two hundred and thirty feet square.

A vara was accepted as 33 1/3 inches. American land speculators bought varas of 33 1/3 inches and in surveying measured them as meters; that is as 39.37 inches. That is why scarcely any two city plats in San Antonio ever measure the same even though titles show the same number of varas.

After the Governor had granted the land a survey was necessary, after which the title was completed by an act of possession in which the grantee threw rocks, shouted at the top of his voice, dug holes and placed monuments to show that he was now vested with complete ownership.

When Sampayreac in 1827 filed his petition to quiet title in the Arkansas court he alleged that Governor Miró of Louisiana had granted the land to him in 1787 and had issued an order of survey to the Surveyor General October 11, 1789. He alleged a return of the survey vesting the title in himself. October 22, 1828, a deed from Sampayreac to John James Bowie was recorded in Hempstead County, Arkansas. Bowie transferred his title to James Stewart in December 1828.

Stewart filed with the registrar of the land office at Little Rock an application for the title to N. E. 17, 11 S., 26 W. and E. one half, S. E. 17, 11 S., 26 W. and W. one half, N. E. 13, 11 S. W., which was admitted by the registrar December 12, 1828.

When this case was forced to trial in 1828, a witness named John Heberard swore to all the facts necessary to establish the claim, and the Territorial Court of Arkansas then decreed that the said Sampayreac recover of the United States the said 400 arpents of land. Thus sturdy old Bernardo, all myth that he was, won his case against the United States and validated all the remaining cases dependent on his title.

When Louisiana was ceded to the United States in 1803 a provision was inserted in the treaty to the effect that settlers in this expanse of territory would be protected in their titles. The federal government in 1806 began an investigation to determine which land titles were entitled to preference. This was an ambitious undertaking but by 1820 practically all the valid land claims had been confirmed.

Lobbyists were not unknown in 1820. They assailed Congress between 1820 and 1824 with howls of injustice and cries that their titles were as perfect as any that had been approved. An Act of Congress of May 26, 1824, authorized the Superior Courts of the territories to try these new claims. For a couple of years nothing happened.

But in this interval the mysterious Bernardo Sampayreac was laying an egg, or rather hatching about 119 eggs. For in 1827 there were filed in the Superior Court at Little Rock 126 land claims, the holders of which were fiercely demanding confirmation of their titles. Every claim was based on a Louisiana title sold by John James or James Bowie or some representative to men who lived in Arkansas. Typical of the kind of men who had acquired these titles were Major Bradford, Robert Crittenden and A. H. Sevier. General Arbuckle bought up $2,400 worth of these land claims after the first favorable decision of the Arkansas court.

The trial of these cases began in December 1827, with a notice from Sam C. Roane, the United States District Attorney, that he wanted time to study Spanish and Spanish law and also time to visit Louisiana to obtain evidence. Judges Johnson and Eskridge, who were sitting in court at the time, rejected the motion. When the case was forced to trial Roane cited the case of Soulard vs. the United States, offering it as a bar to the present suits. The court disregarded the precedent and between December 19 and December 24, 1827, confirmed 117 of the 126 claims.

Naturally the lawyers and the bench of Little Rock were overcome with joy. And that joy was not marred by the fact that Sam C. Roane, who had so bitterly fought the land fraud cases, received a letter of terrible rebuke from William Wirt, the Attorney General of the United States. Wirt asked if Roane were unacquainted with the case of Soulard vs. the United States, which the Arkansas Territorial Court must have followed. The first case of Soulard's Widow vs. The United States was reported in 1829 in 44 Peters Reports, page 511. It was not conclusive of the question raised, but Chief Justice Marshall did rule that there was not enough evidence before the Court to permit a decision. This made it the duty of the Arkansas Territorial Court to grant Roane's plea for a continuance until he could procure the proper evidence.

When the case of Soulard again came up for decision the Supreme Court found that Soulard's widow could not receive the land claimed under a Spanish grant in Missouri because it had already been sold to third parties. The Supreme Court of the United States then held that Soulard's widow could be awarded the same quantity of land in other parts of Missouri and of as good quality. (10 Peters 100.)

The principle pronounced by Chief Justice Marshall in the first case was that without the proper records of the Spanish Grant the court could not render a decision that would satisfy either the parties or the public.

Roane assured William Wirt that every principle of Spanish law known to him or his assistant Richard Searcy had been cited to the court; that efforts had been made to obtain a postponement in order to learn more of these principles and to obtain evidence confirmatory of his suspicions. He also informed Wirt that he had thrown the case of Soulard into the argument time after time but that the court had ignored the citation.

Now the decision of the validity of the first Sampayreac claim produced a flood of such claims, all claimants clamoring for validation. The nature of the charges which Bowie and his brother might have had to face was clearly stated in the government's answer to the first petition. The answer filed to a subpoena issued December 24, 1827, alleged that Sampayreac was a fictitious person, or was a foreigner, and then dead, that is dead before the land was granted to him. December 19, 1827, Roane moved for a postponement but the court proceeded to hear the case. Upon the deposition of one John Heberard, the Court entered a judgment in favor of the said Sampayreac for 400 arpents of land.

A deed dated February 14, 1828, purporting to be a decree executed by Sampayreac, transferring his claim to the clerk's certificate of the existence of this decree, and of all his right, title and interest in said decree, to John J. Bowie, was proved and admitted to record on October 22, 1828, in the office of the Circuit Court of Hempstead County in the territory of Arkansas, which title was transferred by Bowie to Joseph Stewart in December, 1828.

IV

Now, if the chronology repeated once or twice above has made any impression it is very clear that from December 19, 1827 onward Jim Bowie was well aware that Sampayreac's mythical character had already entered the record. Roane at that time was not certain whether Sampayreac was real, dead or a foreigner. That he was non-existent did not come out until later. But Bowie's nerves must have been staunch. He had a large number of the Sampayreac grants to make good, but the procedure in the Stewart Case seemed to indicate the way out. For here is that gallant old myth Bernardo Sampayreac strutting around Arkansas winning court decrees. But he was merely giving the Bench and Bar of that territory a taste of his mettle. More was to come.

We can imagine Sampayreac whispering into Jim Bowie's ear: Look here Jim, I'm not going to let you down. I can't do much with John J. and brother Rezin but you're brighter than they are. Why don't you marry that good looking Mexican girl whose dad has all the potatoes in Coahuila and Texas? Doubtless Bowie had entertained that thought, especially after December 19, 1827, when the Arkansas Court had validated his Sampayreac claims.

But with the claims validated, pesos were easy to get and he was in no great hurry to rush the courtship. Perhaps indeed, he was required to show where the customary dowry was to match the large estate of his future father-in-law.

In April, 1830, at a session of the territorial court, the United States Attorney for Arkansas filed a bill alleging that the decree entered by the court December 19, 1827, was obtained by surprise and fraud and that the court erred in proceeding to the trial of said cause at the said December Term, without having set said cause for hearing and without affording the United States time to prove the injustice of the claim. The bill charged that the original petition to Governor Miró and the order of survey were forgeries, knowledge of which had come to the United States Attorney since the decree of 1827 was made; that Sampayreac was a fictitious person; or, if he ever did exist, was dead; that Heberard and the other witness committed pejury in this case; and that the petition and order of survey were made after 1789, the date of their supposed issue.

Now that the existence of Bernardo Sampayreac was denied, it began to look dark for Jim Bowie. One thing he could and must do. He could make himself a citizen of Mexico. He had joined the church and been baptized and now was qualified. So on September 30, the Constitutional Congress of the Free, Independent and Sovereign State of Coahuila and Texas decreed:

“Decree No. 159. The foreigner James Bowie is hereby granted a certificate of citizenship upon the assumption that he will establish a mill in this state as he promises, for spinning and weaving fabrics of cotton and wool.”

Three days later with Decree No. 160, the same congress passed a law granting a concession for the establishment in the Department of Monclova of a textile plant, which was to be called the Compañía de Manufacturas de Coahuila. The capital stock was limited to 1,000,000 pesos divided into 2,000 shares at 500 pesos each. The empresario was required to open a book for subscriptions to the capital stock. Business could begin when 1,000 shares had been subscribed.

While it is certain that Bowie was informed of the course of the litigation in Arkansas and in the Supreme Court of the United States, none of this information could have been generally known in Texas. Bowie acted, and apparently with reason, as if no one had the slightest inkling of the kinship between himself and Bernardo Sampayreac, who for the moment was having a very tough time.

In reply to the bill of review sought by the United States Attorney in Arkansas, Sampayreac was proceeded against as an absent defendant. A decree pro confesso was entered as to him October 28, 1930, after Joseph Stewart had been made a defendant in the case and had been permitted to file his answer. It was not charged or contended that Stewart purchased with a knowledge of the forgery either of the original grant or of the transfer from Sampayreac to Bowie.

A final decree, reversing and annulling the decree entered in favor of Sampayreac December 19, 1827, was delivered by the court February 7, 1831, as follows: “It is therefore adjudged, ordered and decreed, that the former decree of this court in favor of the defendant Bernardo Sampayreac against the United States, for four hundred arpents of land, pronounced and recorded at the December Term of this court in the year of 1827 be, and the same is hereby reversed, annulled and held for naught.”

It became increasingly clear to Bowie that, having been properly baptised and made a citizen, his courtship should take a more active turn. The Sampayreac titles were annulled February 7, 1831. April 22, 1831, James Bowie executed a very remarkable agreement to pay dowry, in favor of his future wife, Ursula Beramendi. He says he is 32 years old, the son of Rezin Bowie and Elvy Jones, Rezin Bowie being dead and both parents natives of the United States. That he was about to contract marriage in accordance with rites of the Catholic Church with María Ursula de Beramendi, a maiden who is a resident of this city (San Antonio) and legitimate daughter of Juan Martín de Beramendi and María Josefa Navarro, both of whom were born in said city; in consideration of the virtue, integrity and other praiseworthy qualities with which his future wife is endowed, he therefore pledges her by way of dowry and in payment of prenuptial gifts or donations to use at her pleasure if the said marriage shall be consummated and in no other event, the sum of 15,000 pesos, to be chosen from the most valuable of his property which he lists before the Alcalde as follows:

“In the territory of Arkansas, United States of North America, 60,000 arpents of land at the minimum value of 4 reales each.” (Here was $15,000 right off the barrel head, if it existed.)

“In legal obligations payable at various dates by Walker and Wilkins Brothers, residents of Natchez in the said United States, 45,000 pesos.

“In good and valuable legal obligations payable in the Court of Law at Natchez, 20,000.

“Due him by the Government of the United States according to documents executed to him showing the debt, 32,800 pesos.

“In the possession of Angus McNeil to whom he has entrusted the purchase of machinery and apparatus for a cotton and wool mill in the State of Boston, 20,000 pesos.” (That “State of Boston” is a tribute to the sad neglect of geography which obviously existed in San Antonio at the time. It is entirely possible that Bowie didn't know any better.)

Bowie further offers or gives his future wife various valuable articles of furniture of his personal use and in his house, certain lands and contracts for land still pending for the purchase of lands in this country which cannot be appraised. He reserves the right to declare at the latest, two years after the marriage has been consummated, which part of the capital sum of this dowry shall be excluded because he has only recently immigrated to this country under the protection and support of the general laws of the Mexican Federation and the special laws of the State which he has selected as his newly adopted country.

He also binds himself not to dissipate, injure, mortgage or subject to his debts, crimes or excesses the capital sum or property conveyed in this contract, and he likewise binds himself to deliver the said property, and that in all events his wife shall have full enjoyment of this gift of dowry.

In addition to the property described above, Bowie declared that he owned by good title at least 15,000 arpents of land on the shores of the Colorado River and on the Wichita in the State of Louisiana, which are appraised at their minimum value at five pesos per arpent, which totals 75,000 pesos.

The Alcade, José María Salinas, signs and Bowie signs beneath. The court fees were 20 reales which required a First Stamp, the highest fee charged for stamped paper.

Witnesses were José María Flores and Ignacio Arocha. Bowie's administrator, J. L. Hood, was notified of the existence of this document October 11, 1838. It was filed in court October 26, 1840.

Bowie and Ursula Beramendi were married in the Church of San Fernando in 1831, and after that Bowie's myth took over. Here were 30,000 pesos in land in Arkansas, 45,000 pesos due in Natchez, 32,800 pesos due by the United States Government, 20,000 pesos in the hands of that dour Scotchman Angus McNeil, who being in the non-existent State of Boston was probably as non-existent as Bernardo Sampayreac. In fact the entire fortune offered to his future wife was in the highest degree apocryphal, but with so tough a character as Bernardo Sampayreac to conjure with, Bowie was established as a man of wealth; and with such a background could easily obtain what he needed. For his father-in-law was known to be wealthy and whatever he may have thought of his son-in-law he could scarcely refuse anything that would make for his daughter's happiness.

The lavish spending of that honeymoon in New Orleans was financed from the mythical properties described above only in the indirect manner, the myth establishing credit for extensive borrowing.

V

Now, the various purchasers of Arkansas arpents were not the kind of individuals to take a beating on the chin. There were suggestions of criminal prosecutions; obviously not against Sampayreac because no one could tell where that elusive myth might be. If he were sought either in the celestial region or in the nether region no one returned from either of those eternities to testify for or against him.

Then Heberard might have been chosen for defendant or possibly one of the Bowies. But a search of the records of the Territorial Court of Arkansas disclosed that all the original documents, such as the assignments from Sampayreac to John James Bowie or the reassignment by Bowie had been removed from the files of the court. Therefore neither John James nor his brother had anything to fear except a demand for reimbursement which neither of them was capable of making or disposed to make. And James was now a citizen of Mexico and the son-in-law of the vice-governor of Coahuila and Texas, who was destined within a year to become acting governor.

It takes money to finance a journey from San Antonio to New Orleans, especially when the journey is a honeymoon. Someone must furnish a nest egg of one sort or another.

Certainly those large tracts of land on the Colorado River, which Bowie claimed, could not be cashed in immediately. But he had wealthy relatives by marriage. From his wife's grandmother he obtained $750. From his father-in-law he obtained 1879 pesos, about equal in value with so many dollars. Which loan came first does not appear, but they were presented as debts against Bowie's estate. So, the honeymoon came off according to schedule and doubtless afforded Juan Martín de Beramendi some satisfaction.

Bernardo Sampayreac was now in the Supreme Court of the United States in an appeal entitled Bernardo Sampayreac and James Stewart against the United States, but the case was not to be decided until 1833, and until that time the myth could flourish like the green bay tree. While the case was pending, Ursula bore Bowie two children, in whom Juan Martín de Beramendi doubtless felt the usual grandfather's pride.

Governor Letona of Coahuila and Texas died in the cholera epidemic in Monclova, and Juan Martín de Beramendi became acting governor, serving until September, 1833, when he became a victim of the same disease. His wife died the next day and Ursula Beramendi de Bowie died the day following. Thus Ursula became heiress to the Beramendi estate and whatever was due to her as Bowie's wife, and on her death Josefa Ruiz de Navarro, mother of Ursula's mother, became heiress to the entire estate. But Josefa Ruiz de Navarro died in 1833 and her children, brothers and sisters of Mrs. Beramendi, Ursula's mother and their children, became heirs, of whom there were six.

Bowie's married life thus ended within two years. It would be a tender note at this point if we could find confirmation for the tales of Bowie's prostration at the loss of his wife and children. But his grief if the records can be relied upon was for another reason. Between 1833 and 1834 he had borrowed $1,000 from Thomas Gay. This loan was not likely to have been based on the existence or non-existence of Bernardo Sampayreac, for in 1833 the Supreme Court of the United States gave Bernardo Sampayreac his passport to Hades or to wherever marauding and double-dealing myths are consigned. That Gay knew anything about Sampayreac is impossible. He was relying on Bowie's share of the Beramendi estate.

Since we have devoted so much space to the antics of Bernardo Sampayreac, it will not be amiss to point out what the Supreme Court did to deprive Jim Bowie of the comfort and encouragement he formerly derived from that mythical character when he had paid so notable a part in scrambling the titles to land in Arkansas.

The Attorney General of the United States, in arguing the appeal of Bernardo Sampayreac and James Stewart in the Supreme Court, declared that the decree entered against the United States in the hearing on December 19, 1827, was entered only twenty-five days after the bill was filed and against the strong resistance of the district attorney, who asked time for the discovery of the frauds and forgeries which he claimed to exist. This furnished sufficient ground for a continuance, and refusal to grant one violated the rule of proceeding established by the court.

This was the ground on which the case of Soulard vs. the United States was cited. There were one hundred and thirty cases of the same description which were validated by this same decree.

Judge Thompson, who delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court, said:

The ground upon which it has been argued that the act of 1830 is unconstitutional is that a right had become vested in Stewart before the act was passed; and that the effect and operation of the law is to deprive him of a vested right. To determine the force and application of this objection, it becomes necessary to look at the claim, as it now appears, before the court. It is found by the decree of the court below, and is admitted at the bar, that Sampayreac is a fictitious person. That the petition purporting to have been presented by him to Miró [sic], Governor of the Province of Louisiana and the order of Survey alleged to have been made thereupon, for forgeries. These are the only evidence of title upon which the original claim rests. And it is proved and admitted that the deed purporting to have been given by Sampayreac to Bowie, under whom Stewart claims, is also a forgery. The bill or petition filed in the original cause alleges that the claim is secured by the treaty between the United States and the French Republic of the 20th of April, 1803. This however, has not been insisted upon in the argument here; and there is certainly no color for pretending that a claim founded in fraud and forgery is sanctioned by the treaty. The title to the land in question passed by the treaty and became vested in the United States; and there has been no act, on the part of the United States, by which they have parted with the title. It is contended that this right has been taken away by the original decree in this case under the act of 1824.

By the fourteenth section of that act all its provisions are extended to the Territory of Arkansas; and it is declared that the Superior Court of that territory shall have, hold and exercise jurisdiction in all cases, in the same manner and under the same restrictions and regulations in all respects as is given by the said act to the District Court of the State of Missouri. And by the second section of the act, it is declared that in all cases the party against whom the judgment or decree of the court may be finally given, shall be entitled to appeal within one year from its rendition to the Supreme Court of the United States, the decision of which court shall be final and conclusive between the parties; and should no appeal be taken, the judgment or decree of the District Court shall in like manner be final and conclusive. No appeal was taken within the year and the question is whether the United States, by neglecting to appeal, have lost their right; and if not, whether the remedy provided by the Act of 1830, to assert that right, is in violation of the Constitution.

If Sampayreac was a real person, and appeared here setting up this objection, it might present a different question; although it is not admitted, even in that case, that the United States would be concluded as to the right. But the original decree in this case was a mere nullity; it gave no right to anyone. The title still remained in the United States; and the most that can be said is that by omitting to appeal within the time limited by the act, the remedy thereby provided was gone and the decree became final and conclusive with respect to such remedy. But the act of 1830 provides a new remedy and it may be added that the act of 1804 declares the decree to be final and conclusive between the parties. And as Sampayreac was a fictitious person, he was no party to the decree and the act in strictness does not apply to the case. But considering the act of 1830 as providing a remedy only, it is entirely unexceptionable. It has been repeatedly decided in this court that the retrospective operation of such a law forms no objection to it. Almost every law providing a new remedy affects and operates upon causes of action existing at the time the law is passed. The law of 1830 is in no respect the exercise of judicial powers. It only organizes a tribunal with powers to entertain judicial proceedings. When the original decree was entered, there was no person in existence whose claim could be ripened into a right against the United States by omitting to appeal. Stewart was not only no party to the decree, but his purchase from Bowie was nearly a year after the decree was entered. Stewart in no manner connects himself with Sampayreac. As it is admitted that the deed purporting to have been given by Sampayreac to Bowie is a forgery, Stewart is therefore a mere stranger to this decree and can derive no benefit from it.

The next inquiry is whether the appellant Stewart, has acquired a right to the land, by reason of his standing in the character of a bona fide purchaser. The record contains an admission on the part of the United States that he purchased the claims of John J. Bowie, by deed, for a valuable consideration, in good faith, some time in November or December 1828. But this gave him no right to be let in as a party in the bill of review; he was not a party to the original bill, nor could he connect himself with Sampayreac, the only party to the bill, he being a fictitious person; and the interest of Stewart whatever it might be, was acquired long after the original decree was entered. He was, therefore, a perfect stranger to that decree. The deed purporting to have been given by Sampayreac to Bowie, is admitted to be a forgery. Bowie of course, had no interest, legal or equitable, which he could convey to Stewart. But admitting Stewart to have been properly let in as a party in the bill of review, the only colorable equity which he showed was the certificate of entry given by the register of the land office, December 13, 1828; and this certificate, founded on a decree in favor of Sampayreac, a fictitious person, obtained by fraud and upon forged evidence of title—this certificate is entirely unavailable to Stewart. He can obtain no patent under it if the original decree (of 1827) should remain unreversed; for the act of 1830 forbids any patent thereafter to be issued except in the name of the original party to the decree, and on proof to the satisfaction of the officers that the party applying is such original party or is duly authorized by such original party or his heirs to receive such patent. The original party to the decree being a fictitious person, no title would pass under the patent if issued. It would still remain in the United States. But Stewart acquired no right whatever under the deed from Bowie, the latter having no interest that he could convey. A grantee can convey no more than he possesses. Hence those who come in under the holder of a void grant can acquire nothing. Upon the whole, we think Stewart was improperly admitted to become a party; but considering him a proper party, he has shown no ground upon which he can sustain a right to the land in question.

The decree of the coure below is accordingly affirmed with costs.

With this decree, whatever cash value the Arkansas lands may have had for Jim Bowie was gone, and the 60,000 arpents which he pawned in his dowry agreement were assets which he dared not go to Arkansas to claim. As a matter of fact that dowry never was paid. Nor apparently did the friends and acquaintances of Bowie know of it even in 1840 when the administrator of Bowie's estate had it proved in court. Apparently it was produced at that time with the visionary hope that it indicated truly the vast holdings of land which Bowie claimed as his own. Furthermore the Supreme Court of Texas received an offer of testimony in 1871 to prove that Bowie owed no debts at the time of his death but that he had sold his lands to pay his wife's or the community debts. This will be discussed in later paragraphs.

VI

It would be pleasant to believe that none of the events in Arkansas and the Supreme Court of the United States were known to Bowie in 1834 when Bowie executed another power of attorney to Oliver Jones to collect from the Beramendi estate the money which Bowie claimed he had given to his wife. If this document could be taken at its face value after the oblique language of the dowry agreement, it would indicate that Bowie had passed large sums of his reputed fortune to his wife. But subsequent events clearly show that it cannot be so taken.

Doubtless, with the exposure that all the titles which Jim Bowie and his brother had unloaded on the Arkansas bench, bar, medical profession and merchants were based on forgeries, the victims not only squirmed but threatened and when the case was argued in the Supreme Court of the United States, the Attorney General of the United States declared that there were 130 cases presenting exactly the same question.

Now, since the original 10 arpents which Sampayreac conveyed to John James Bowie amounted to 400 acres, and since Jim Bowie asserted in his dowry agreement that he owned 60,000 arpents, the area of Arkansas covered by the forgeries is appalling. An arpent is the same length as a rod, 16½ feet, five and one half yards. If every 10 arpents carried the same acreage the total of John and Jim Bowie's holdings would have amounted to 2,450,000 acres or 3812½ square miles. The Sampayreac petition called for ten arpents of the usual depth and the court awarded him 400 acres. On this basis the above calculation was made.

In 1834 Jim Bowie felt called upon to do something and he did it with the power of attorney to Oliver Jones. On June 29, 1834, Domingo Bustillo, Judge of First Instance, states that James Bowie appeared before him and declared:

That he grants a complete and irrevocable power-of-attorney to Oliver Jones, who is Deputy in Congress for this state (of Coahuila and Texas) so that he may demand, sue and collect from the guardian or trustee of the estate of the late Juan Martín de Beramendi the property which is owned by the grantor (of this power) because he placed the property in the hands of his late wife Ursula de Bernamendi de Bowie:

After the formal clauses the power-of-attorney concludes:

In witness whereof the said James Bowie signed and delivered this power-of-attorney in the presence of the instrumental witnesses José María de Cárdenas, Victoriano Zepeda and Bruno Huizar, besides the witnesses to my proceedings with whom I act in the customary manner; to which I bear witness.

It was signed by Bowie and Bustillo, and witnessed by John G. Smith and Ignacio Arocha.

It is quite obvious that Bowie did not issue such a power-of-attorney with the hope of collecting any money, for he knew that he had not paid his wife any money. Any money that was due was due under the dowry agreement and every item in that agreement is equivocal. No one could hold him to performance of anything in the state of Boston; no one but himself knew about the decision in the land cases, for the cases in the Supreme Court show that it was not known even then to any great extent.

But the dupes in Arkansas could read. They had read the newspaper stories relayed from New Orleans of the brilliant marriage he had made, and his brother Rezin even nourished the belief that Jim Bowie had somehow gotten hold of a considerable portion of the Beramendi estate. Well, he did get hold of 1879 pesos from Juan Martín, his father-in-law, but evidently Juan Martín stopped there, for that was in those days a lordly sum. Then from Josefa Ruiz he obtained $750 more and from others, more, so that Rezin was lucky enough if he got away without being asked to take care of some of Jim's high powered financing.

In 1835, on October 15, Jim Bowie sold a league of land which he had received as a married man and a colonist of Austin's colony. This of course was community property. Bowie sold it himself, the first part, amounting to 200 acres, having been sold before his wife's death and the remainder being covered by the title bond which Bowie executed October 15, 1835. In this bond Bowie recited that he had received $5,000 but the value was shown to be not above $500 and that value was assumed for the entire league of land.

This transaction was effected without any allegation of community debts but witnesses were produced in the Hutchins case who asserted that they knew of no debts due by Colonel Bowie. Of course they could not have kept up with the probate court, for the records of that court contain a petition for administration which states that Bowie owed many and large debts.

Reviewing these miscellaneous events, it will be seen that after all a purpose lay back of the entire shifty scheme of the Bowies. The evidence of any large fortune amassed by Jim Bowie, the terrible adventures with Indians and other worthies, except the battle of Concepción Mission, rest generally on letters written by Jim Bowie himself. Undoubtedly the Bowies in the early twenties, when the forgeries were made, had decided on the forged land grants as one means to make a financial killing.

The scheme looked feasible and almost fool proof. Who would ever have occasion to go back to 1789 and inquire into land grants made by the late Governor Miró? The chances were against detection because the old records are filled with petitions asking for the replacement of deeds and contracts which had been lost or destroyed in the various captures of New Orleans or of San Antonio.

Indeed there is one petition which requests a new deed because the owner of the deed had given it to his wife to keep, and she “o por descuido o por falta de conocimiento entítulos lo cortó para moldes”—that is, for lack of knowledge of documents or through carelessness had cut it into dress patterns.

That no action was taken for several years is due to the fact that it took several months for mail to travel from New Orleans to Little Rock. Now once that the titles to the fictitious Sampayreac had been sold to persons who would take every means in their power to make those titles stick, the money so received appeared to be money in the bank. They had no money with which to make refund if anything went wrong.

A clue to Bowie's many wriggling feats of legerdemain to beat off the inevitable catastrophe is found in the reaction of the pioneers of Arkansas, a hardy race and quite as disposed as any other to demand an eye for an eye. It has been remarked that the records of the first appearance of Bernardo Sampayreac in the Territorial Court of Arkansas had been removed when the subject of criminal prosecution was broached.

But the important men of that era were quite capable of taking the law into their own hands. How would men like General Arbuckle, Major Bradford, Robert Crittenden and A. H. Sevier take the revelation that they had bought land in what they hoped would be the State of Arkansas, from a myth, especially when the Supreme Court of the United States had ended all hope of making title by declaring the ubiquitous Barnardo Sampayreac to be a fiction?

Undoubtedly they followed the trail of the Bowies. Undoubtedly the one hope the Bowies had of emerging from this cul de sac of their own creation was by making another killing to replace the losses of the debacle of Bernardo Sampayreac. And with this realization the many shifts of Jim Bowie to create the illusion of great wealth are readily understandable.

In the power-of-attorney executed by Jim Bowie as a guarantee of dowry to his bride to be, he lists lands in Texas the value of which he could not state other than to say it was very valuable. The land in Texas consisted of a lease of 11 sitios of land out of 17 granted to Ignacio Sandya, December 1828. Eugenio Navarro asserted that Bowie had paid $72 for this lease. Another tract of land in Texas was one league and labor of land in Austin's colony granted to Bowie as a settler and a married man. This league also enters into this history.

The one hope of making a killing now lay in Bowie's marriage to Ursula Beramendi. Her father was very wealthy and owned vast herds of cattle, sheep and goats. He had been granted the site of Gonzales and the site of the present city of New Braunfels, which his heirs later sold to Count Solms in 1845, Marcos Beramendi receiving $1,000. Then being first vice-governor of Texas and Coahuila and later acting Governor, his means were much more than ample, and the probate of his estate reveals that he left a lordly patrimony to his surviving children and their heirs.

Then Bowie had recourse to his friend Sampayreac again. He pawned the lands which had been sold to the Arkansas pioneers and the titles to which had already been invalidated and the wedding then became a fact. Cash was scarce with Bowie and the honeymoon in New Orleans demanded lavish entertaining. The account of Beramendi shows where the money came from. The 1879 Bernamendi loaned him would have paid for a honeymoon in Europe.

The news of the decisions in Arkansas and the Supreme Court had evidently not become public property and if the creditors on the land deal were pressing Bowie they were too wise to do anything to endanger a marriage by which they might be able to squeeze something out of Jim Bowie.

In the veracious histories which lend such glamor to the Bowie legend we learn that Jim Bowie invested $15,000 in Texas lands early in the thirties. His actual investment was a lease for which he paid $72; $15,000 in 1830 would have purchased a considerable slice of Texas.

Now while Bowie was in New Orleans on his honeymoon, he was little harassed by his creditors. They hoped from this situation a chance of recoupment. The cotton mills begun in Monclova were operated by Eugenio Navarro and a partner, according to the inventory of his estate in the Probate Court of Bexar County. So the machinery from the State of Boston evidently did not materialize.

In the year 1830, about November 30, the Congress of the Free, Independent and Sovereign State of Coahuila and Texas passed a statute designed to encourage the operation of mills to produce cotton and woolen fabrics. In this act we can see the fine hand of Juan Martin de Beramendi. For the act provides for the issue of a million pesos in capital stock and various other liberal concessions which Beramendi thought might help Bowie's plans, for this was on the eve of the marriage of Bowie with his daughter and the betrothal had probably already been announced.

But Bowie never opened the mill. Fatuous historians are fond of stating that Bowie ceased the operation of the cotton mill in Monclova and left it to the management of his father-in-law. His father-in-law was acting governor of Coahuila and Texas and his own affairs were pressing enough without managing a cotton mill for Jim Bowie. Eugenio Navarro and his partner operated the mill and they had no need of Beramendi's management.

The year 1833 brought the beginning of the final showdown of Bowie with the creditors. If not how can anyone understand the power-of-attorney which Bowie in 1834 executed to Oliver Jones? More of this power-of-attorney later. But in 1833 there was an outbreak of cholera in Monclova and as the Grim Reaper is supposed to have a fondness for ornaments in his garden as well as mere common clay, he mowed down most of the prominent worthies in Monclova, including Beramendi, the acting governor, his successor, the two Bowie children, Ursula and her mother.

This, to Bowie's creditors, meant the day of reckoning. If Bowie was to get anything out of his brilliant marriage, now was the time to cash in. And, despite the pictures of the prostrated Bowie, his scheming mind was not too dull to figure out the terms of the next remarkable document which might have served its purpose, that is to delay any action by creditors or at least to lull them into the belief that payment was just around the corner. This power of attorney—granted to Oliver Jones, a Deputy in Congress for the State of Coahuila and Texas—so that, as representative of the rights and interests of the grantor, he may demand, sue and collect from, the guardian or trustee of the estate of the late Juan Martín de Beramendi the property which is owned by the grantor because he placed the property in the hands of his late wife Ursula de Beramendi de Bowie.

Certainly, this may have afforded some morsel of comfort to creditors who still entertained hopes of collection. But the statement that he had placed, vaguely, property in the hands of his wife, should have warned them, if they had known of the power of attorney and the wedding contract in which Bowie had invested his wife with some of the Sampayreac property.

Now how credulous the human mind is can be gleaned from the fact that when Bowie's estate was offered for probate in 1838, Gay informed the court that Bowie had left large and important debts; yet some years later in other Bowie litigation witnesses were produced who were willing to swear that Bowie left no debts. In a Western town a stranger was arrested for an alleged assault on a citizen. He had important engagements and left $500 with a local lawyer to handle the case. Some months later he returned to the town and asked the lawyer what had happened to his case.

“We won it,” replied the barrister.

“But how,” asked the client, “I certainly socked the guy.”

“Well,” drawled the lawyer, “they had ten witnesses who saw you sock him and I produced fifteen who didn't see you sock him.”

And the judge who, in 1867, refused to accept such testimony, gravely found that Bowie had sold his wife's property for a ridiculously large sum in 1835, because there was a war and no one had any need for money.

The Judge commenting on the bond given Bowie for $20,000 and the consideration placed in the deed years afterward of $1,500 as stated above, stated that the sum named had been placed on the record with no justification.

On August, 28, 1837, Eugenio Navarro, who held power-of-attorney from heirs of Josefa Ruiz, asked for letters of administration on the estate of James Bowie, because Navarro held a note for $750, executed by Bowie to Josefa Ruiz.

In October 1837, an inventory of the estate was filed and it was appraised at $33.11.

In November, 1837, Rezin Bowie of Iberville Parish, Louisiana, gave a power-of-attorney to Juan N. Seguín to administer the estate asserting that he was heir to one fourth of the estate.

In June of 1838, Thomas Gay filed a claim against Bowie for $1,000.

June 25, 1838, James L. Hood suggested that Bowie had no heirs and that Bowie had left large debts.

June 12, an inventory was filed with an order of sale following appraisal of the estate at $33.11, itemized by C. W. Eger, J. L. Enree (Henry?) and George Van Ness as follows:

1 cross cut saw $ 5.00
2 saw mill saws 30.00
2 cranks and one gudgeon 30.00
1 whip saw 10.00
1 trunk old clothes 2.00

Sale of this property netted $47.12½.

December 1, 1840, F. L. Paschal was awarded $5.75 for crying of the property.

August 31, 1840, an inventory was filed showing donation claim for 640 acres of land issued by the War Department, No. 1060, in the name of James Bowie, by F. L. Paschal, sheriff. June 27, 1843, J. W. Smith was allowed $32. 12, attorney fee, and a balance of $36.17 was paid by Paschal to J. W. Smith, guadian of minor heirs of José Angel Navarro.

January 21, 1846, the cost of appraisement and hauling, $27.47, was ordered paid.

October 10, 1850, Paschal was cited to account for the estate.

In the distribution of the small estate the court awarded the property to the heirs of the Navarros, heirs of Ursula Beramendi, not to Rezin Bowie or anyone claiming under Jim Bowie.

One fact stands out in this brief review of the career of one who was selected as a great war hero by hero-worshippers as well as by political adventurers: it was impossible for those first biographers to learn much about Bowie, and therefore it seemed to be safe enough to make him the outstanding figure of the Texas revolution.

Since no one has any actual testimony of those last desperate hours in the Alamo, let us look at the testimony of a Mexican lieutenant who was present.

El Coronel Travis murió como un valiente, un fusil a la mano, estendido sobre el emplacimiento de un cañon, pero el fanfarrón de Bowie murió como una mujer casi escondido debajo de un colchón.”*

“Colonel Travis died like a hero, gun in hand, stretched across the carriage of a cannon, but the boastful Bowie died like a woman, almost concealed beneath a mattress.”

This is quoted in Palacios, México a Través de los Siglos in Volume IV, reviewing the events of 1836.

An Englishman and a Frenchman once had a duel in a closed room and both issued forth very little injured. The Britisher said he could not see the Frenchman and fired up the chimney and the Frenchman fell down. The Frenchman said he fired up the chimney and the Britisher fell down.

But Bowie's name lives better than the Mexican lieutenant intended, in the names of a city and a county.

 

* See Edward Rohrbough, “How Jim Bowie Died,” In the Shadow of History (Texas Folk-Lore Society Publication XV, Austin, 1939), pp. 48-58.

1 The name itself is perhaps not a fiction. Adolphus Sterne in his diary (entry for November 21, 1841) mentions the arrival in Nacogdoches of Emile Sampeyrac. (Editor's note.)

Additional Information

ISBN
9781574410990
Related ISBN
9781574410990
MARC Record
OCLC
45885580
Pages
175-199
Launched on MUSE
2019-12-20
Language
English
Open Access
Yes
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