Jeremiah Benjamin Nunley Gowen, Train Robber
Train Robber [for a while there] Captured Jeremiah Benjamin
Nunley Gowen, son of William Benjamin Gowen and Mary A.
Nunley Gowen, was born May 30, 1847.
No one in his family would have ever guessed that he was destined
to become a train robber and to highjack more trains than
Jesse James ever did.
He appeared in his father’s household in Davidson County,
Tennessee September 9, 1850 as three-year-old “Jerry B.
Gowin.” Six days earlier he was also enumerated in the
household of Jeremiah Nunley, his maternal grandfather.
Here in Grundy County, Tennessee he was recorded as
“Jeremiah Gowen,” a three-year-old.
He reappeared in the 1860 census of Grundy County in his father’s
household as “Jeremiah N. Gowins,” a 13-year-old.
Like most children however, he did not like the name his
mother picked for him. Throughout his life he said his name
was “Jerry Meyer Gowen” and invariably signed his name as
“J. M. Gowen.”
He left home when he was 15 to join the Confederate army.
Descendants relate that he left riding a mule that belonged to
the family. He had headed west to find the army, but the army
found him first. He rode straight into the camp of a band of
They were remnants of the Forty-second Tennessee Infantry
Regiment which had been surrendered in the fall of Ft.
Donelson in February 1862. Although their regiment had
been handed over to the Federals by their officers, the
guerillas simply walked out of Ft. Donelson at night in a
blinding blizzard, following Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest who
extricated his cavalry regiments from the debacle also.
They made camp along the Memphis & Charleston Railroad
tracks southeast of Memphis which had also fallen to the
Federals. The guerillas made a good living there for a while.
They learned how to make barricades and were successful in
stopping the Yankee supply trains. Without officers, they
became efficient and effective in disrupting the Federal
Instead of tearing up the tracks and making “Sherman
neckties” out of the rails as the Yankees did, they did
everything they could to keep the trains running. When the
trains ran, they plundered provisions, supplies and
ammunition, and lived well.
For some 14 months after the fall of Ft. Donelson, the
Confederates had unrestricted movement around western
Tennessee as long as they stayed away from the Federallycontrolled
Mississippi River. When the Yankees began to
penetrate inland along the military roads and railroads, guerilla
bands harassed them night and day.
After many Confederate hold-ups, the Federals finally sent out
a troop train disguised as a supply train on the M&C, and the
guerillas fell into the trap. “Jeremiah Gowan,” along with
most of the guerillas, was captured April 18, 1863 near
Morning Sun, Tennessee, identified as a railroad switch near
A check of Confederate military reports revealed no place
identified as Morning Sun. However the 1873 edition of “The
Tennessee Gazetteer” locates the long-extinct hamlet in the
extreme southwestern portion of Shelby County.
Thus shortly before his sixteenth birthday, the military career
and the train-robbing lark of Jeremiah Benjamin Nunley
Gowen ended abruptly. Although the Civil War is usually
regarded as a conflict between the North and the South, among
the Gowens in Tennessee it was a battle between East and
West. Thirteen Gowens from Middle and Western Tennessee,
fighting for the “Stars and Bars,” lined up against nine Eastern
Tennessee Gowen cousins seeking to preserve the Union.
In reply to a request to the National Archives for the military
records of Jeremiah Benjamin Nunley Gowen, a Federal file
was received. The file revealed that “J. M. Gowan, a private
in Company E, 42nd Tennessee Infantry Regiment, appears on
a register of Prisoners of War belonging to the Rebel Army, in
custody of U. S. Provost Marshall, Memphis, Tennessee.” He
was identified as a “guerilla” and released April 23, 1863 upon
taking the oath of allegiance and giving $2,000 bond, according
to Memphis, Tennessee Register No. 1.
Privates in the Civil War, both Confederate and Union, were
paid $11 per month, but it doubtful that Jerry Gowen ever
drew Confederate pay. Apparently after his release from
prisoner status, he was retained for three months as a laborer
for the Union Army and paid as a private.
It is speculated that when he was offered release from prison
by swearing allegiance to the North, young Jerry Gowen
readily accepted, since he was imprisoned for only five days.
The oath required each one who took it to become a good
Union citizen. As security for the faithful observance of the
oath and parole, each prisoner was required to post bond,
usually in the amount of $1,000. The fact that the teen-ager
was a guerilla might explain his being required to post $2,000
bond, twice the amount ordinarily required.
Col. J. C. Kelton, U.S.A, on one such military board reported:
“The prisoners of war from Tennessee appear to be true and
earnest in their desire to become loyal citizens and the board
does not hesitate to recommend that all whose homes are
within our lines should be allowed to take the oath of
allegiance and return to their families. I similarly regard the
Kentuckians, but have grave doubts about those of Arkansas.”
It was explained to the prisoners when they were released that
they would be permitted to return to their homes only if the
homes were inside Federal lines. Since the home of Jeremiah
Benjamin Nunley Gowen was still in Confederate hands, he
chose the only route open to him and went west across the
Mississippi into Arkansas, carefully preserving his parole for
presentation any time he was challenged by Union troops.
On July 21, 1870, “Jeremire Gowen, age 24,” appeared at the
Independence County courthouse in Batesville, Arkansas for a
marriage license to wed “Mrs. Helen Roberts, age 20.” The
wedding was performed by William H. Rose, J.P.
Jeremiah Benjamin Nunley Gowen continued for about three
years in Arkansas His first child was born there in 1872 followed
by a son born in Texas in 1873. In 1875 he was living
in Lamar County, Texas.
About 1880, he removed to southern Kansas. On June 9, 1880
he was enumerated in the census of Cowley County, Kansas.
His children recalled being caught in a cyclone in Kansas
which “blew away the only feather bed the Gowens owned”
during their residence there.
Following the death of Martha Hellen Roberts Gowen,
Jeremiah Benjamin Nunley Gowen made a move back to
Texas as a widower, locating in Red River County. Soon after
his arrival, probably in early 1881, he was married to Mrs.
Emma Catherine Bailey Hawkins, another widow, born in
He continued farming in Red River County until 1889 when
they moved to Farmersville, Texas in Collin County. In the
move he transported his implements and household effects by
wagon, and his family rode the train. In the fall of 1889 the
family removed to Hillsboro, Texas.
In December 1894 the family of Jeremiah Benjamin Nunley
Gowen loaded their possessions on wagons and joined several
others to form a wagontrain of 13 wagons and headed south.
After several cold and difficult days on the road, beset with
hardships and accidents, the family left the wagontrain near
Gatesville, Texas. Later he worked as a tenant farmer on the
Pancake Ranch in the Pancake community in Coryell County.
“I remember the day Uncle Jerry Gowen drove up and asked
for a job,” related Joseph Russell “Dutch” Pancake in 1959.
At the time “Dutch” was an active 84-year-old, mind and
John Russell Pancake, founder of Pancake Ranch and father of
Joseph Russell “Dutch” Pancake, was a colorful rancher in the
pioneer days of Coryell County. His photograph and
biography were published in “Biographical History of Coryell
County” in 1893. He emigrated to Texas in 1858 and established
his ranch on a 1,476-acre site on the Coryell-Hamilton
His ranch included the site of the legendary “lost Spanish
silver mine,” and he and his descendants searched for the
treasure for over a century, finding just enough evidence of the
ancient mining operation to keep the search going.
Jeremiah Benjamin Nunley Gowen to supplement his income
was a mail carrier on a 17-mile route from Pancake, Texas to
the Ames community from 1900 to 1903. Early residents of
Texas did not correspond much, and mail delivery was slow
Letters which were carried over 25 miles distance required 25c
[2 bits] postage. Letters which were carried less required
12.5c [1 bit] postage.
“Jerry Gowen” appeared as the head of a Household 50-50 in
the 1900 census of Coryell County. He died there of
tuberculosis May 25, 1904 at the age of 56 and was buried
near the southeast corner of Jonesboro Cemetery, Jonesboro,
Texas. Emma Catherine Bailey Hawkins Gowen also died of
tuberculosis on September 9 the same year and was buried
beside her husband.
Children born to Jeremiah Benjamin Nunley Gowen and
Hellen Roberts Gowen include:
Ellender E. Gowen born in 1872
Charles Otis Gowen born in 1873
Cynthia Diera Gowen born in 1876
Roxie Vida Gowen born about 1880
Children born to Jeremiah Benjamin Nunley Gowen and
Emma Catherine Bailey Hawkins Gowen include:
Ida Gowen born in 1884
Claud Franklin Gowen born October 19, 1887
Minnie May Gowen born September 19, 1891