Shootout at Austin

 

In 1879,Tunica County was still in a state of unrest after the murder of Sheriff Manning.  Nerves were on edge when a series of events took place which made things even more stressful.  This latest incident started down in Southern Tunica County at the small settlement of Slab Town, which later became Dubbs.  Dave Cowan and his brother William, who had moved from Tate County, operated a store and plantation in the small village.  In 1879, a man named Pyke was employed as a sharecropper by the Cowan brothers.  It wasn’t long though before trouble developed between Pyke and Dave Cowan.

The Pykes were a very poor family, but honest and didn’t take to being cheated. The Cowans hired Mrs. Pyke to keep house and cook for them.  They did not pay her wages regularly and at the end of the crop year they claimed that her wages had been applied to the sharecropper’s debt owed by her husband.  The Cowans also claimed that despite this, that Pyke still owed them.   Mr. Pyke did not believe their accounting and objected.  During the argument that followed, Pyke threatened to sue the Cowans and Dave Cowan vowed to kill Pyke.  Pyke left for Austin and brought a suit against the Cowans with the Justice of the Peace. A constable served papers on the Cowan brothers.  As Pyke was making his way home, he was confronted by Dave Cowan at the forks of the road between Clayton and Dubbs.  Dave shot Pyke from behind a tree.  After shooting the man Cowan came out from ambush and cursed and stomped the man he thought dead. But Pyke wasn’t gone yet and when found, he lived just long enough to tell of the ambush and name his murderer.

The whole county was upset over the brutal murder and Dave Cowan was locked up in jail at Austin to await trial at the next term of court.  There were rumors that Cowan’s brother had gotten together his relatives and friends and were planning to break him out of jail.  Men around town had their pistols and rifles loaded in case something happened.  Everyone was on the lookout for anything strange.

One bright Sunday morning, when most people were gathered in the small Austin Methodist Church for services, a man looked in and beckoned J.D. Parmer to come out.  Parmer ran a drug store and everyone came to him if they needed medicine.  He was told that a boy several miles down the river was sick and needed medicine.  He quickly handled his business and was walking back to church when he noticed a stranger up on the levee.  The man had rode up the levee, but not down, and was watching Parmer.  Suddenly he saw a band of mounted masked men riding into the court house yard.  One of the group was leading a horse. The startled druggist ran to the church for help. Men in Austin had stored rifles in a building for just this situation and they ran for their guns.  Dave Deshler and W.D Kennan quickly handed out the weapons to their fellow Tunica residents who needed them and ran toward the jail.  Deshler ran a retail grocery and Kennan was a clerk where the guns were kept. Reverend Jesse Moody was with them, but he only carried his bible.  By the time the Austin men got to the square, Dave Cowan had been freed from the jail and was mounted.  The desperadoes had started to ride down Coldwater street on the way out of town when the two groups came face to face with each other.  A shootout erupted and both sides were firing wildly.  In a desperate move, the Cowans galloped through the crowd in their effort to get to the Coldwater  River Bottoms and safety.  Horses were falling  dead shot in the street. As the horses fell, their riders would quickly mount behind another member of the party. By that time, other Austin men had started firing from windows of buildings along the street. One of these men was a lawyer named Calvin Perkins, who had been asleep recovering from a bout of malaria when all the firing started.  After being fired at by one of the mounted men when he looked out his window, he grabbed his Smith & Wesson from the bureau and fired back hitting the man.  One of the outlaws jumped off his horse to run for the fallen friend when a group of local citizens also made a dash to capture him.  The Cowan compatriot quickly jumped back on his horse as the gunfight continued in it’s severity. While this was all going on, Reverend Moody had reached the fallen masked man in an attempt to help him.  As Moody tried to remove his mask, the man died.  The Cowans finally were able to extricate themselves and galloped out of town leaving the carnage and wreckage behind of their evil deed.  Deputy Jasper Neblett led a posse after the Cowans, but was not able to capture them.  No townspeople were killed in the melee and the only casualties were three horses and one Cowan gang member that nobody recognized. It was over. Dave Cowan had escaped.

Years later, a young man came into the circuit clerk’s office and introduced himself as a citizen of Southwest Texas. He asked E.M. Daugherty who was the clerk at that time if the Cowan case could be settled by paying a fine.  The man quickly left, when the clerk asked for the county attorney. After an investigation, it turned out that the young man was the son of Dave Cowan who had fled to Texas after the gunfight.  Since all the witnesses were dead and no charges had ever been brought to trial, the county decided not to follow up on the matter. The story of the Cowan gunfight at Austin faded into history.

Sources:  Historical Research Project 2984 WPA, U.S. Census Records 1870 and 1880

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One comment

  1. Very interesting. You ought to come to our 9 AM Tuesday morning History discussion at the Tunica Museum. Presently we are discussing “The Battle of Beaver Dam”. S.W. Owen has done a lot of research on the old town of Austin and the neighborhood.

    Liked by 1 person

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