John Hickman, A Slave Sent to Retrieve Jim Bowie’s Body from the Alamo, Appeared at the 1930 State Fair of Texas at the Age of 110

by Paula Bosse

hickman_dmn_101230-photoJohn Hickman, 1930

by Paula Bosse

Here on San Jacinto Day, the story of a former slave who was sent to fetch Jim Bowie’s body from the Alamo and lived long enough talk about it into a WFAA radio microphone.

John Hickman was born in 1820 and came to Texas in about 1831 as an 11-year-old slave of Major George Bowie, brother of James Bowie. Bowie “acquired” him as part of his wife’s dowry.

Hickman’s life was an incredible one. Zelig-like, he seems to have been present at so many famous historical events and have come in contact with so many important historical figures that his life story seems almost unbelievable. Among his claims:

  • shined Sam Houston’s boots and was given a ten-cent piece which he kept the rest of his life
  • saw Davy Crockett leave for San Antonio
  • entered the Alamo soon after its fall to retrieve the burned and decaying body of Jim Bowie on orders of George Bowie and Sam Houston, but was unable to transport the body because of its condition (instead, he returned with the Colonel’s gold pin)
  • was sent with Deaf Smith by Sam Houston to bring Alamo-survivor Susanna Dickinson to Gonzales
  • followed his second master into battle during the Civil War and stayed by his side until he was killed in action
  • watched Robert E. Lee surrender at Appomattox
  • fought Indians on the Texas frontier
  • worked as a cook and fighter with several companies of Texas Rangers
  • drove cattle across the western plains
  • knew Billy the Kid
  • etc.

In 1930 — at the age of 110 — he was invited to the State Fair of Texas by The Dallas Morning News to speak to fascinated fair-goers about his amazing life. He gave these talks, appropriately enough, at the replica of the Alamo that The News had built and presented to the city of Dallas in 1909 (and which I wrote about here). He was very popular. He had planned a return engagement the next year, but in August of 1931, Mr. Hickman died on his farm near Fort Worth at the age of 111. Because of his “faithful service” to his master during the Civil War (a master who had won him in a bet on a horse race), his funeral arrangements were handled by the United Daughters of the Confederacy who graciously paid for his funeral, but who also buried him — a former slave who had been a free man for 66 years! —  in a Confederate-flag-draped coffin. …Um, yeah.

His story is an amazing one to read. I suspect it isn’t all true, but even if only a smidgen of it is, it is impossible to deny that John Hickman lived a remarkable life!

I have transcribed four stories about him that appeared in the pages of The Dallas Morning News, and they’re all quite exciting and very cinematic — his life should be the basis of a book or movie. His description of seeing Bowie’s body inside the Alamo is riveting. Click to read these transcribed articles, here.

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Here is the longest of the four articles on “Uncle John” Hickman — from The Dallas Morning News, Oct. 14, 1930:

“Uncle John Hickman, 110 Years Old, Will Relate Tales of Early Texas For Visitors at the Alamo Replica”

The replica of the Alamo at Fair Park that has been a mecca for Texas throughout the years since The News placed it there, and about which during the Texas State Fair periods, succeeding generations of school children have clustered to hear the heroic and tragic story of the fall of the Alamo, this year will have a tenant whose eyes knew Texas before that fateful day. John Hickman, 110-year old negro, who made a pilgrimage to the funeral pyre where reposed the bodies of Travis and Crockett and Bowie and their comrades, and brought back to his master Major George Bowie, the scarf of James Bowie and the little gold star and half-moon pin that Bowie wore, will be the guest of The News during the fair and will appear also at the News, Journal and WFAA Building.

Uncle John Hickman, rugged stalwart and above six feet in height for all the ten years more than a century that he has lived, will tell stories of Texas’ younger days to children and grown-ups, and also arrangements are being made to send his voice out over the microphone of WFAA to relate memories of the Texas Republic.

The better part of his life Uncle John has lived among quality white folk and his speech is clear and enunciation free of most of the racial flavor. His life has been identified with all the stirring events of Texas history. From the tumbled-down shack that has been his home for more than thirty years on the White Settlement Road ten miles from Fort Worth, his undimmed eyes watch the heavens fill with argosies of the air, and not ten miles from there he witness the effects of his last brush with Indians.

More than ninety years ago he blazed a trail from Alabama to San Augustine with his master, Major George Bowie, who marked a military road across a land where there was no human habitation. The Alamo, Goliad and the conventions in which Texas planned for their freedom are all fresh in his memory. He boasts that he brought from Alabama the first bushel of corn brought to Texas and the first demijohn of real whisky. He was near Gonzales when Sam Houston’s Texans routed the Mexicans at San Jacinto.

Worse than all the days that had gone before, the aged negro counts the dark days of the war between the States when he was at the front with Capt. Joe Hickman, into whose charge he was given after the death of Major Bowie. Capt. Hickman was killed just before Lee’s surrender, and John came back to Texas to take the name of Hickman.

He served in Western Texas with half a dozen companies of Texas rangers as cook and Indian fighter. He trailed cattle across the Pecos for John Chisum, the old Lincoln County (New Mexico) cattle baron, and knew Billy the Kid as a trail boss. He worked on a cattle ranch near Corsicana for several years and then was a hostler aboard ship bringing horses from England to establish breeding studs in the range country. Finally he bought a little tract of land west of Fort Worth and established a home where he has lived for thirty-seven years.

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Copyright © 2014 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

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