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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Letters from Central Texas"

Life and Times of James Coryell

by Clay Coppedge
The man for whom Coryell County is named was not born there and did not die there but he was an adventurous sort who packed plenty of travel and a few brushes with fame into an abbreviated life.

James Coryell was born in Ohio around the turn of the 19th Century and migrated by way of the Mississippi River to New Orleans when he was 18. From there he traveled to San Antonio to check out the vast unclaimed empire of Texas that he heard so much about in New Orleans.

In San Antonio, Coryell met up with James Bowie, famous for the knife named after him and a lost mine of his that people are still looking for. Along with Bowie, Coryell associated with the likes of James Bowie’s brother, Rezin, Sephas Ham and others who, as Frank E. Simmons wrote in his “History of Coryell County” “were making history more to their own notion than the notion of the constituted authorities.”

Of the Bowie-Coryell connection, Simmons writes: “In 1831, he joined James and Rezin P. Bowie in their expedition to search for the San Saba mine, and on that expedition, participated in the famous Bowie Indian fight, where the little company was assaulted b more than 160 Waco, Tehucanna and Caddo Indians. After a terrible battle in which Bowie had several men wounded, and the enemy lost half their numbers, the Bowie company of 11 men managed to extricate themselves from their perilous position.”

From there, we know that Coryell met up with Andrew Cavitt and ended up in present-day Falls County at Viesca, near the Falls of the Brazos. The two had already been to the Leon River country and staked out claims near the mouth of what is today Coryell Creek.

Coryell and the Cavitt family tried to make a go of it during a tumultuous time in the state's history. Santa Anna and the Mexican Army had martyred the men of the Alamo, including Jim Bowie, and were marching north. The exodus of settlers from Texas is known as “The Runaway Scrape.” Coryell and Cavitt were among those who stayed and covered the settlers' retreat.

Cavitt died of a fever some three months after San Jacinto. Coryell continued to live with the Cavitts and was in Ranger service with Sterling C. Robertson. He was also employed to solicit and assist settlers to Robertson's colony.

In May of 1837, Coryell and either two or three companions strayed about a mile from the fort to cut down a tree for the honey inside. They were eating the honey when Indians attacked. Coryell was severely wounded, but his companions escaped. Coryell lingered between life and death at the Cavitt home but died two days later.

He was buried a short distance from the fort. Simmons' account quotes an old slave who said that when the slaves were given their own burial ground near old Viesca, there was already a grave just a few feet from the south line of the slaves' burial ground. That was believed to have been Coryell's grave.

It is thought that the grave caved in several years later but was covered and filled by the slaves who did not wish Coryell's spirit to be ill at ease. Descendants of Cavitt, along with Simmons, lobbied to have the grave located and then moved to Coryell County. Apparently, that never happened because Coryell's burial site remains unknown.

© Clay Coppedge

"Letters from Central Texas"
February 3, 2009 Column
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