Who Was James Butler Bonham?
Bonham Daily Favorite, March 7, 1993
Of all the events of the turbulent 1830's in Texas, from the Runaway Scrape, to the Massacre at Goliad,or Santa Anna's defeat on the field at San Jacinto, probably the bench mark of the Texas Revolution began on February 23, 1836, and came to a climax on March 6, 1836. It took only 13 short days for Santa Anna's army, with its superior numbers, to defeat the defenders of the Alamo.
Despite the many heroic acts that have been detailed about those 13 days and some of the more dramatic myths that have been attached to certain of the defenders, notably Davy Crockett and William Travis, other defenders were as much keystones of this event as those about whom we hear so much. Although his contributions were as significant as many others, sometimes it seems that James Butler Bonham is treated as one of the lesser figures of the siege.
I'm curious as to how many natives or relative newcomers to Bonham really know who Bonham was or what he did. How many have stopped to examine the statue on the southeast corner of the courthouse grounds or read the inscription on the granite base? Do you know when and why the statue was erected on the grounds. Do you know why a small village,some 365 miles removed from the scene of his exploits, was named in his honor?
The statue, designed by sculptor Allie Tennant, is something of a mystery. Who posed for it? The records in Austin fail to reveal any information. It certainly is not an accurate likeness of Bonham. No one knows what Bonham looked like. He died before the advent of photography and as far as anyone has been able to determine he never had his portrait painted. A painting which hangs in the capitol at Austin is said to actually be a portrait of a nephew who bore some resemblence. A number of publications over the years have portrayed Bonham with flowing raven locks, deep-set piercing eyes, cleft chin, and the demeanor of a dime novel hero. A couple of years ago The Dallas Morning News twice in the space of two months published a photograph of a man with a luxuriant handlebar moustache and clothing of the 1890's, which they labeled James Butler Bonham. 1890's.
On this date March 6, 1993, the 157th anniversary of the fall of the Alamo and the death of James Butler Bonham, perhaps we should refresh our knowledge of this man and just what he did that merited the honor of having a city named for him.
Bonham was born in Saluda County South Carolina on February 20, 1807, the son of James and Sophie Smith Bonham. The Bonham family were early settlers of the Carolinas. The family traced its lineage to English ancestry as well as roots in France with the origin of the name as Bon homme or as translated "Goodman."
After private schooling at home and in the area, he enrolled at South Carolina College, later the University of South Carolina. In his senior year Bonham along with many of his classmates staged a rebellion against what they deemed to be too restrictive regulations and inedible food. For their trouble, the entire senior class was expelled and refused the opportunity to graduate.
Bonham studied law with several law offices and in 1830 entered into private practice in Pendleton, South Carolina. Once when he was involved in a case before a Judge Richardson, a man who had a vested interest in the case insulted Bonham's client, a woman. Bonham strongly suggested that the man apologize and when he refused, Bonham thrashed him. Judge Richardson used language that Bonham felt was insulting and he threatened to pull the judge’s nose. Richardson pronounced him in contempt of court and sentenced him to three months in jail. The affair and Bonham became a "cause celebre" among the women of the town and for the next three months the ladies vied with each other over who could provide Bonham with the most delectable meals. They also decorated his cell with flowers.
In 1832 Bonham was appointed aide to Governor Hamilton and given the rank of lieutenant colonel. While he was in Charleston he was elected captain of an artillery company and received some military training.
In 1834 he moved to Montgomery, Alabama and opened his practice. Bonham quickly became bored with the lack of opportunity in Montgomery and his law practice failed to flourish .
In 1835, at the urging of his boyhood friend William Barrett Travis, Bonham closed his law office and joined the Mobile Grays who left for Texas and the brewing conflict.
The Grays arrived at Houston on December 12, 1835. Seeking Travis, Bonham journeyed to San Felipe de Austin where he joined forces with his friend. On December 20th he was commissioned lieutenant of the cavalry. Soon after he joined up with James Bowie and the two traveled to San Antonio together and arrived at the Alamo on January 18.
With the arrival of the Mexican army on February 23rd, the grim countdown began. The young, adventuresome attorney from South Carolina embarked on a course with 189 other men that changed the destiny of half a hemisphere.
At least three times Travis sent Bonham as courier to enlist the aid of James Walker Fannin at Goliad and also to appeal to others. Twice Fannin refused to send his troops. The second refusal so enraged Bonham that he charged out of Fannin's camp .and set out for Gonzales. There he was able to persuade thirty-two Texans to slip through the Mexican lines and take their place alongside the defenders.
On March 3 Bonham returned to the Alamo for the last time. When others, outside the Mexican lines, tried to dissuade him, Bonham reportedly spat on the ground, declared that Travis had the right to know that no one else was coming, and spurred his horse through the Mexican sentries to safety inside the fortress.
On March 5th the east wall of the Alamo was breached. At dawn the next day the final assault began. Legend has that Travis stumbling through his exhausted men, gave only one order, "the Mexicans are upon us - give 'em Hell."
The details of Bonham's death are in obscurity. Some evidence suggests that he was attempting to fire the powder stores when he was killed. With his sacrifice, Bonham exemplifies the determination and sense of freedom demonstrated by these defenders of the Alamo.
In 1843, in tribute, the newly established county seat of Fannin County was named for James Butler Bonham, the "messenger of the Alamo.
Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas