The George F. Bowles House


By Roscoe Barnes III

As a child, Larry Ware Holmes was curious about the house that was built and originally owned by George F. and Laura Davis Bowles. The house was a beautiful white structure that stood on a hill at 13 St. Catherine St.


Holmes grew up behind the house on Bowles Alley.


“As kids, we always wondered about his house,” Holmes recalled. “It had a big fence, and we could never see what was going on inside.” He was seven or eight at the time. Despite having little knowledge about the house, he and his friends would walk around and gaze at the building with admiration.


Years later, after serving in the Army, Holmes returned to Natchez, and in 1977, he moved into the house as a tenant. In 1984, he and his wife, Brenda, had the honor of purchasing the house. Now for almost 40 years, they have lived in the house, and they’re proud to say they have an important piece of Natchez’s history.


“I always knew a lot about the house because of my grandmother and my mother,” Holmes said. “They told me about it. I knew about Mr. Bowles’ success and wealth, and that he was the first black chief of police here.”


Holmes, who once worked as a tour bus operator, said he likes the house for many reasons. “From the front window, I can see St. Catherine, Orange, and East Franklin streets. Just standing in the hallway, I can see across Bowles Alley and see all the way to Burns Hill. I can even see Cathedral.”


The house has six large rooms and ceilings that are nearly 12 feet high. Besides that, Holmes said, “It is quiet here.”


As for Bowles, Holmes said he was impressed by his wealth and other achievements. In addition to being a veteran of the Union Army, Bowles was a lawyer who practiced in Tennessee and in Natchez. In the 1880s and 1890s, he served as member of the state House of Representatives from Adams County. Bowles was also a successful businessman, inventor, newspaper publisher, and philanthropist.

Builder of Businesses

Bowles was a man of many accomplishments. The young lawyer served as a city attorney, city marshal, chief of police, and school board member. According to Dr. Justin Behrend, author of “Reconstructing Democracy: Grassroots Black Politics in the Deep South After the Civil War” (University of Georgia Press, 2015), Bowles was a colonel with the Sixth Militia District who “led a well-armed black militia that frequently drilled in the streets of Natchez in the mid-1870s.” Behrend described Bowles as “a local Republican activist and perennial officeholder.”


Bowles was a man of prestige who sported a mutton chop beard. In newspapers, he was shown wearing a suit and tie. He was described by newspapers as a “remarkable man” and a “prominent and greatly esteemed colored citizen of Mississippi.” He was called “a quiet unobtrusive man, courteous in the extreme and always deferring to the wishes of others.” He was said to have “had the respect of everyone who knew him.” He was also known as “a self-sacrificing man at all times and gave readily and without ostentation to all charities,” according to the news reports of his day.


As a businessman, politician, and activist, Bowles had an interest in communication and giving a voice to the black community. He also believed in the power of the press to affect change in a society. In 1887, he began publishing a black monthly newspaper called, Brotherhood, which he published for 12 years.


One of Bowles’ businesses, the Interstate Mutual Benefit Association, was viewed as a thriving organization with many employees. It was located on the corner of Main and Union streets. A visitor of the business once said it was so impressive that it was hard to believe it was run by black men.


Bowles’ work as a printer and publisher received high praise from customers and from the newspapers. A report in The Huntsville Gazette (June 2, 1894) suggested Bowles’ printing company was one of the largest owned by a black man. It read:


The printing establishment of Weekly Brotherhood, at Natchez, Miss., owned by Col. G.F. Bowles, a colored man, is the largest, and most complete printing office owned by any colored man in the United States. It is a pleasure to visit this metropolitan establishment, where from the devil up moves with perfect system. The very finest job printing for the section of country surrounding Natchez for many miles is done at this office, where they have both white and colored printers. – New Orleans Rescue


Bowles invested much time and energy in fraternal organizations. He founded the Universal Brotherhood, which is described in “The Cyclopaedia of Fraternities” as “a secret beneficiary organization to pay sick, accident, disability, old age, annuity, and death benefits.” The organization’s membership of 9,000 included women, men, Blacks and Whites. In 1893, Bowles founded the black fraternal order, the Knights of honor of the World, and its influence “spread across the Deep south, and even across the Atlantic ocean,” according to Dr. Justin Behrend. Bowles served as Grand Chancelor of the Black Knights of Pythias in Mississippi. He also founded the Colored Knights of Honor of the World, and the Knights and Ladies of Honor of the World.


The Colored Knights had a reputation for being militant, wrote Shennette Garrett-Scott in the paper, “’All the Other Devils this Side of Hades’: Black Banks and the Mississippi Banking Law of 1914.” She noted Bowles’ background as a veteran of the Union army and described his post-war military activities.


“In the midst of the violence of Redemption, [Bowles] commanded a well-armed militia that openly mustered and drilled in the streets of Natchez” Garrett-Scott wrote. “The Colored Knights mounted legal battles against the original Knights of Honor when whites declared the colored lodges illegitimate and demanded they disband.”


Inventor in agriculture


Bowles also had an interest in agriculture. In 1881, he discovered a way to improve the production of cotton by eliminating cotton worms. In 1881, he invented an exterminator of the worm, according to a report in the Weekly Louisianan (Aug. 13, 1881). The newspaper suggested his invention “promises to be a real benefaction to the Southern cotton planter.” After repeated experiments that proved successful, Bowles decided to apply for a patent. He secured contracts with local planters to rid their fields of the worms with the promise, “No cure, no pay.”


The newspaper surmised that Bowles’ “confidence in the remedy leads us to believe that it will prove a genuine boon to the cotton planters.”


The newspaper did not describe  the nature of Bowles’ invention, but according to Dr. Tahir Rashid, associate professor of Entomology at Alcorn State University, it was likely “some kind of insect trap on ‘attract and kill’ principle.”


“The two insects, cotton boll weevil (Anthonomus grandis) and cotton bollworm (Helicoverpa zea) have been historically a problem for cotton growers,” Rashid said via email (Aug. 4, 2023). He explained: “There’s a pheromone that has been identified for cotton bollworm and used in special kinds of traps for mass trapping, but I am not sure if the trap dates back to G. F. Bowles’ time. The trap is commonly called Texas cone trap and was first used by A. W. Hartstack in 1979.”


‘Unbounded generosity’


Bowles was known as a generous man who supported Blacks and Whites in both the Republicans and Democratic parties. ”Though he was a Republican his vote in the Legislature was cast in favor of all measures designed for the best interests of the people,” noted a story in the Dec. 27, 1899, issue of the Natchez Democrat. When it came to doing good deeds, such as helping the poor and less fortunate, Bowles gave generously and regularly. “Bowles never tired of doing good among the poor white people, and his purse was always open to appeals for charity,’ according to the Vicksburg Evening Post (Feb. 16, 1901). “He was a man of considerable wealth and it is stated that during the last ten years of his life he gave away fully $15,000 for various causes.” Fifteen thousand dollars in 1899 would equal about $551,401.81 in 2023.


Interestingly, Bowles also was charitable toward veterans of the Confederacy. One case reported by the Vicksburg paper was of an elderly man, a veteran who contracted a disease during his service in the Army. When Bowles learned of his illness, he took money out of his own pockets to help pay the bills of the man. For some reason, he led the man to believe that the money being paid for his care was coming from a local camp of Confederate Veterans, which wasn’t the case.


Bowles’ passion for helping those in need can also be seen in his support of John N. Sloan, a veteran of the Confederate army, who lived with pain and horrible disfigurements from wounds suffered in the war. Sloan was serving as a captain in the war when he was wounded in the Battle of Chickamauga on September 20, 1863. Sloan served with  45th Mississippi Regiment, Wood’s & M.P. Lowry’s Brigade, Cleburne’s Division.


In 1893, Sloan made an appeal for help. He wrote a letter addressed to the United Confederate Veterans and all Charitably Disposed Persons and Friends, in which he described his condition: “I had the misfortune of having my under jaw, upper teeth, and part of my tongue shot away and my face terribly mutilated by the explosion of a shell from the enemy’s guns, since which time I have had to lie on my back when taking my meals and fed by others on fluids. I cannot masticate any food whatever.”


When Bowles learned of the condition of Sloan, he immediately sent a donation, according to Chaplain Charles H. Otken, who served with the 45th Mississippi Infantry. Otken is the man who found the wounded Sloan and sought medical treatment for him. Otken wrote: “Over thirty years, [Sloan] lies down supine three times a day on two chairs and is fed as a child. I have made several efforts for relief in his behalf. To the last, the first response came from Hon. G.F. Bowles, of Natchez, a negro, a representative of Adams county; he sent $25.”


The chaplain’s statement is featured in the online article, “He was once a Splendid Soldier: John N. Sloan of the 45th Mississippi Infantry,” which can be viewed at the Mississippi in the Civil War website.


Death and broken heart

Bowles’ wife, Laura, died on Aug. 17, 1899. Her death, according to the local paper, “was a  severe blow to him and he never fully recovered from the shock. Four months later, on Dec. 26, 1899, Bowles died in his home on Dec. 26, 1899, at the age of 55. His funeral attracted a large gathering from across the black community. Dr. John B. Banks served as pallbearer, along with other prominent men such as S. Pully, G.W. Brumfield, L. D. Kastor, E. Marshal, and H. Fleming. John Roy Lynch and James Hill were designated honorary pall-bearers. Bowles was buried beside his wife and daughter at Natchez City Cemetery.


Bowles’ estate was divided among his friends and others in the community, including charitable organizations. Bowles’ will was published in the Dec. 28, 1899, issue of the Natchez Bulletin. It showed the following: Bowles bequeathed his home and $10,000 to Virginia E. Walker and $3,000 via a life insurance policy to Roberta Stevens. The Protestant orphan Asylum and Honorable W. G. Benbrook each received $500. Bowles’ property in Vidalia was bequeathed to J. H. Cox and his library was bequeathed to Martin & Lanneau, a white law firm.


“The opinion was prevalent that Colonel Bowles was a man of large wealth,” the Natchez Bulletin reported. “The contrary is shown by his will. He made much and disbursed much. His heart was larger than his purse.”

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ROSCOE BARNES III, Ph.D., is the cultural heritage tourism manager for Visit Natchez. Research assistance was provided by the Historic Natchez Foundation.

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