The Tale of Jim Bowie’s Log Cabin (Maybe)

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A couple of years back, the Southwest Collection acquired the papers of Texas Governor Coke Stevenson. While loading up archival boxes at the Stevenson ranch hidden back amongst the cedars near Telegraph, Texas, Stevenson’s daughter revealed to us a hidden treasure. Tucked into a barn on the property was a log cabin that, according to family lore, once belonged to Jim Bowie, inventor of the Bowie knife and hero of the Texas Revolution who died at the Alamo on March 6, 1836.

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The Southwest Collection staff are not only archivists, but also historians. Therefore we listened to the tale with a mix of hope for its veracity, but also our innate academic skepticism. Fortunately, over the years we had tackled similar archeological questions with help from two professors from the Texas Tech University Architecture Department’s Historic Preservation Program: Dr. Elizabeth Louden and Dr. John White. They didn’t just teach undergraduate and graduate students the basics of evaluating historic structures and planning for their preservation. They were prone to lacing up their hiking boots and working in the field, bringing their expertise to claims like Stevenson’s. Louden and White could get to the bottom of this.

stevensoncrosssection1And so they set to work in 2014, applying the standards of the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey to the “Coke Stevenson Ranch Log Cabin,” as the final report titled it. The images here depict some of the results of their survey. Although these are hand-drawn, the Southwest Collection houses many of the digital 3D models and architectural renderings that Louden and White created.

cabin-interiorSo what did they learn? A lot about the structure itself, for one thing. It measured 14’ by 16’, with no interior walls (a “single pen-type,” as they described it.) It had been moved 100 yards from its original site to the shelter of the barn where it still rests atop several vertical log supports. Its roof had been removed, leaving no evidence of its shape or how it had been joined to the rest of the cabin. It also sported an amusing set of painted ducks on its north side.

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But was it Bowie’s? Well, it is likely that Bowie owned more than one cabin during his itinerant days on the US frontier. It is not, however, certain what happened to them after 1836. And so we are sad to report to you that, as with so many archaeological questions, we still don’t have a definite answer. However, we’re happy to repeat the Stevenson family’s story and provide the results of Louden and White’s months of work, so that future researchers can take a crack at the tale of Jim Bowie’s log cabin.