In 1879, Tunica County was still in a state of unrest after the murder of Sheriff M.J. 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 and William Cowan, who had moved from Tate County, operated a store and plantation in the small village. In 1879 a man named J.T. Pike was employed as a sharecropper by the Cowan brothers. It wasn’t long though before trouble developed between Pike and David Cowan.
The Pikes were a very poor family, but honest and didn’t take to being cheated. The Cowans hired Mrs. Pike to keep house and cook for them. They didn’t pay her wages regularly and at the end of the crop year they decided to settle up. J.T Pike owed them $30 and they owed her $50 so they decided to take what he owed them first. Mr. Pike objected. During the argument that followed on February 20th, Pike threatened to sue the Cowans and Dave Cowan vowed to kill him. Pike went to Austin and brought suit against Cowan. As Pike was returning home, he was confronted by Dave Cowan who shot him with a double barreled shotgun and stomped the wounded man. Pike managed to make it to a Mr. Martin’s house nearby who immediately went to Austin and told the authorities what had happened. Sheriff McKee gathered together a posse and captured Cowan at O.K. Landing. They also arrested another man named Sanderson who was soon released. J.T. Pike passed away though.
Several months passed as the county readied for a trial and David Cowan remained in jail. There were rumors that Cowan’s brother had gotten together his relatives and friends and were planning to break him out of jail, but nothing had happened yet. Men around town carried their pistols and rifles just in case. One bright Sunday morning on August 20th, when most people had gathered in the small Austin Methodist Church for services, nine masked men rode into town. They were armed with shotguns and revolvers. Six stationed themselves outside while three, armed with crow-bars and sledge hammers, broke down the jail’s front door and freed Cowan. All the men remounted and the ten men began to leave town.
J.D. Parmer, a local druggist, happened to see what was going on and 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. Reverend Jesse Moody was with them, but he only carried his bible. By the time the Austin men got to the square, 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 shot in the street and one of the masked men fell as well. His name was Collins and was rumored to be the son of a widow living just outside Senatobia. By that time other Austin men had started firing from windows of buildings along the street. The Tate County men then split up, with Cowan and two others going east and the rest going south. Deputy Jasper Neblett led a posse after them and caught Cowan’s group near Matthew’s Ferry and the Coldwater River. Cowan’s horse was shot out from under him and another lost his mule. All three men escaped into the cane though and were not caught.
Three of the outlaw’s horses lay dead in the streets of Austin along with the young man Collins. No townspeople were killed in the melee and Dave Cowan was free. Papers around the area soon carried the story of the Austin shootout.
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 clerk at that time, if the Cowan case could be settled by paying a fine. The man quickly left when the clerk asked for an 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.
Historical Research Project 2984 WPA
U.S. Census Records 1870 and 1880 Anestry.com
The Vicksburg Herald, Vicksburg, MS. Friday, February 28,1879 – page 1.
Memphis Daily Appeal, Memphis, TN. Wednesday, August 27, 1879- page 1