See C. L. Douglas, James Bowie (1944); R. W. Thorp, Bowie Knife (1948); W. C. Davis, Three Roads to the Alamo (1998).
James "Jim" Bowie (April 10, 1796 March 6, 1836), a nineteenth-century American pioneer and soldier, played a prominent role in the Texas Revolution, culminating in his death at the Battle of the Alamo. Countless stories of him as a fighter and frontiersman, both real and fictitious, have made him a legendary figure in Texas history.
Born in Kentucky, Bowie spent most of his life in Louisiana, where he was raised and later worked as a land speculator. His rise to fame began in 1827 on reports of the Sandbar Fight. What began as a duel between two other men deteriorated into a melee in which Bowie, having been shot and stabbed, killed the sheriff of Rapides Parish with a large knife. This and other stories of Bowie's prowess with the knife led to the widespread popularity of the Bowie knife.
Bowie's reputation was cemented by his role in the Texas Revolution. After moving to Texas in 1830, Bowie became a Mexican citizen and married the daughter of the vice governor of the province. His fame in Texas grew following his failed expedition to find the lost San Saba mine, where his small party repelled an attack by a large Indian raiding party. At the outbreak of the Texas Revolution, Bowie joined the Texas militia, leading forces at the Battle of Concepcion and the Grass Fight. In January 1836, he arrived at the Alamo, where he commanded the volunteer forces until an illness left him bedridden. Bowie died with the other Alamo defenders on March 6. Despite conflicting accounts of the manner of his death, the "most popular, and probably the most accurate accounts maintain that he died in his bed after emptying his pistols into several Mexican soldiers.
The Bowie family moved again in 1809, settling on Bayou Teche in Louisiana before finding a permanent home in Opelousas in 1812. The Bowie children were raised on the frontier and even as small children were expected to help clear the land and plant crops. All of the Bowie children learned to read and write in English, but Jim and his elder brother Rezin could also read, write, and speak Spanish and French fluently. The children learned to survive on the frontier, how to fish and run a farm and plantation. Jim Bowie became proficient with pistol, rifle, and knife, and had a reputation for fearlessness. As a boy one of his Indian friends even taught him to rope alligators.
In response to Andrew Jackson's plea for volunteers to fight the British in the War of 1812, Bowie and his brother Rezin enlisted in the Louisiana militia in late 1814. The war ended on that year with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, and the Bowie brothers arrived in New Orleans too late to participate in the fighting. After mustering out of the militia, Bowie settled in Rapides Parish, where he supported himself by sawing planks and lumber and floating it down the bayou for sale. In June 1819, he joined the Long expedition, an effort to liberate Texas from Spanish rule. The group encountered little resistance and, after capturing Nacogdoches, declared Texas an independent republic. The extent of Bowie's participation is unclear, but he returned to Louisiana before the invasion was repelled by Spanish troops.
In 1825, the two brothers joined with their younger brother Stephen to buy Acadia, a plantation near Alexandria. Within two years they had established the first steam mill in Louisiana to be used for grinding sugar cane. The plantation became known as a model estate, but, on February 12, 1831, they sold it and 65 slaves for $90,000. With their profits, Bowie and Rezin bought a plantation in Arkansas.
Bowie and his brother John were involved in a major court case in the late 1820s over their land speculation. When the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, it promised to honor all former land grant claims, and for the next 20 years efforts were made to establish who owned what land. In May 1824, Congress authorized the superior courts of each territory to hear suits from people who claimed they had been overlooked. The Arkansas Superior Court received 126 claims in late 1827 from residents who claimed to have purchased land in former Spanish grants from the Bowies. Although the Superior Court originally confirmed most of those claims, the decisions were reversed in February 1831, after further research showed that the land had never belonged to the Bowies, and that the original land grant documentation had been forged. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the reversal in 1833. When the disgruntled purchasers considered suing the Bowies, they discovered that the documents in the case had been removed from the court; left with no evidence, they declined to pursue a case.
The following year, on September 19, 1827, Bowie and Wright attended a duel on a sandbar outside of Natchez, Mississippi. Bowie supported duelist Samuel Levi Wells III, while Wright supported Wells's opponent, Dr. Thomas Harris Maddox. The duelists each fired two shots, and, as neither man had been injured, resolved their duel with a handshake. Other members of the groups, who had various reasons for disliking each other, began fighting. Bowie was shot in the hip; after regaining his feet he drew a knife, described as a butcher knife, and charged his attacker. The attacker hit Bowie over the head with his empty pistol, breaking the pistol and knocking Bowie to the ground. Wright shot at and missed the prone Bowie, who returned fire and possibly hit Wright. Wright then drew his sword cane and impaled Bowie. When Wright attempted to retrieve his blade by placing his foot on Bowie's chest and tugging, Bowie pulled him down and disemboweled Wright with his knife. Wright died instantly, and Bowie, with Wright's sword still protruding from his chest, was shot again and stabbed by another member of the group. The doctors who had been present for the duel retrieved the bullets and patched Bowie's other wounds.
Newspapers picked up the story, which became known as the Sandbar Fight, and described in detail Bowie's fighting prowess and his knife. Witness accounts agreed that Bowie did not attack first, and the others had focused their attack on Bowie because "they considered him the most dangerous man among their opposition. The fight cemented Bowie's reputation across the South as a superb knife-fighter.
There is disagreement among scholars as to whether the knife used in this fight was the same kind of knife now known as a Bowie knife. Multiple accounts exist of who designed and built the first Bowie knife. Some claim that Bowie designed it, while others attribute the design to noted knifemakers of the time. However, in a letter to The Planter's Advocate, Rezin Bowie claimed to have invented the knife, and many Bowie family members and "most authorities on the Bowie knife tend to believe it was invented by" Rezin. Rezin Bowie's grandchildren, however, claimed that Rezin merely supervised his blacksmith, who actually created the knife.
After the Sandbar Fight, and subsequent battles in which Bowie successfully used his knife to defend himself, the Bowie knife became very popular. Many craftsmen and manufacturers made their own versions, and major cities of the Southwest had "Bowie knife schools", which taught "the art of cut, thrust, and parry. His fame, and that of his knife, spread to England, and by the early 1830s many British manufacturers were producing Bowie knives for shipment to the United States. The design of the knife continued to evolve, but today a Bowie knife is generally considered to have a blade long and wide, with a curved point, a "sharp false edge cut from both sides", and a cross-guard to protect the user's hands.
On January 1, 1830, Bowie left Louisiana for permanent residency in Texas. He stopped at Nacogdoches, at Jared E. Groce's farm on the Brazos River, and in San Felipe, where Bowie presented a letter of introduction to Stephen F. Austin from Thomas F. McKinney, one of the Old Three Hundred colonists. On February 20, Bowie took an oath of allegiance to Mexico and then proceeded to San Antonio de Bexar. At the time the city, known as Bexar, had a population of 2,500 people, mostly of Mexican descent, and Bowie's fluency in Spanish helped him establish himself in the area. Bowie was elected a commander of the Texas Rangers later that year. Although the Rangers would not be officially organized until 1835, Stephen F. Austin had founded the group by employing thirty men to keep the peace and protect the colonists from attacks by hostile Indians. Other areas assembled similar volunteer militias, and Bowie commanded a group of the volunteers.
Bowie became a Mexican citizen on September 30, 1830, after promising to establish textile mills in the province of Coahuila y Tejas. To fulfill his promise, Bowie entered into partnership with Veramendi to build cotton and wool mills in Saltillo. With his citizenship assured, Bowie now had the right to buy up to eleven leagues of public land. He convinced fourteen or fifteen other citizens to apply for land and turn it over to him, giving him 700,000 acres (280,000 ha) to speculate with. Bowie may also have been the first to induce settlers to apply for empresario grants and then buy the land from them. The Mexican government passed laws in 1834 and 1835 that stopped much of the land speculation.
On April 25, 1831 Bowie married nineteen-year-old Maria Ursula de Veramendi, the daughter of his business partner, who had become the vice-governor of the province. Several days before the ceremony he signed a dowry contract, promising to pay his new bride 15,000 pesos (approximately $15,000) in cash or property within two years of the marriage. At the time Bowie claimed to have a net worth of $223,000, most in land of questionable title. Bowie also lied about his age, claiming to be 30 rather than 35. The couple built a house in San Antonio, on land Veramendi had given them near the San José Mission. After a short time, however, they moved into the Veramendi Palace, living with Ursula's parents, who supplied them with spending money. The couple had two children, Marie Elve, born March 20, 1832, and James Veramendi, born July 18, 1833.
After obtaining permission from the Mexican government to mount an expedition into Indian territory to search for the legendary silver mine, Bowie, his brother Rezin, and nine others set out for San Saba on November 2, 1831. Six miles (ten km) from their goal, the group stopped to negotiate with a large Indian raiding party following them. The attempts at parley failed, and Bowie and his group fought for their lives for the next thirteen hours. When the Indians finally retreated, Bowie had reportedly lost only one man, while over forty Indians had been killed and thirty more wounded. In the meantime, a party of friendly Comanche Indians rode into San Antonio, bringing word of the raiding party, which outnumbered the Bowie expedition by 15–to–1. The citizens of San Antonio believed the members of the Bowie expedition must have perished, and Ursula Bowie began wearing widow's weeds.
To the surprise of the town, the surviving members of the group returned to San Antonio on December 6. Bowie's report of the expedition, written in Spanish, was printed in several newspapers, further establishing his reputation. He set out again with a larger force the following month, but returned home empty-handed after of searching, .
Bowie never talked of his exploits despite his increasing fame. Captain William Y. Lacey, who spent eight months living in the wilderness with Bowie, described him as a humble man who never used profanity or vulgarities.
After hearing that the Mexican army commander in Nacogdoches, Jose de las Piedras, had demanded that all residents in his area surrender their arms, Bowie cut short a visit to Natchez in July 1832 to return to Texas. On August 2, 1832, he joined a group of other Texians and marched into Nacogdoches to "present their demands" to Piedras. Before the group reached the building housing the town officials, they were attacked by a force of 100 Mexican cavalry. The Texians returned fire and, after the cavalry retreated, initiated a siege of the garrison. After a second battle in which Piedras lost 33 men, the Mexican army evacuated during the night. Bowie and eighteen companions ambushed the fleeing army and, after Piedras fled, marched the soldiers back to Nacogdoches. Bowie later served as a delegate to the Convention of 1833, which formally requested that Texas become its own state within the Mexican federation.
Several months later, a cholera epidemic struck Texas. Fearing the disease would reach San Antonio, Bowie sent his pregnant wife and their daughter to the family estate in Monclova in the company of her parents and brother. The cholera epidemic instead struck Monclova, and between September 6 and September 14, Ursula, their children, her brother, and her parents all died of the disease. Bowie, on business in Natchez, heard of his family's deaths in November. From then on, he drank heavily and became "careless in his dress".
The following year the Mexican government passed new laws allowing land sale in Texas, and Bowie returned to land speculation. He was appointed as a land commissioner, tasked with promoting settlement in the area purchased by John T. Mason. His appointment ended in May 1835, when Mexican President Antonio López de Santa Anna abolished the Coahuila y Tejas government and ordered the arrest of all Texians (including Bowie) doing business in Monclova. Bowie was forced to flee Monclova and return to the Anglo areas of Texas.
The Anglos in Texas began agitating for war against Santa Anna, and Bowie worked with William B. Travis, the leader of the War Party, to gain support. Bowie visited several Indian villages in East Texas in an attempt to convince the reluctant tribes to fight against the Mexican government. Santa Anna responded to the rumblings by ordering large numbers of Mexican troops to Texas.
On the foggy morning of October 28, Mexican General Domingo Ugartechea led a force of 300 infantry and cavalry soldiers and against the Texian forces. Although the Mexican army was able to get within 200 yards (183 m), the Texian defensive position protected them from fire. As the Mexicans stopped to reload their cannon, the Texians climbed a bluff and picked off some of the soldiers. The stalemate ended shortly after Bowie led a charge to seize one of the Mexican cannons, at that time only 80 yards (73 m) away. Ugartechea retreated with his troops, ending the Battle of Concepcion. One Texian and ten Mexican troops had been killed. One of the men under Bowie's command during the battle later praised him "as a born leader, never needlessly spending a bullet or imperiling a life, who repeatedly admonished ... Keep under cover boys, and reserve your fire; we haven't a man to spare."
On November 3, 1835, Texas declared itself an independent state, and a provisional government was formed with Henry Smith of Brazoria elected provisional governor. Austin requested to be relieved of his command of the army, and Sam Houston was named army chief. Edward Burleson was chosen as temporary commander of the troops in San Antonio. Bowie appeared before the council at some point and spoke for an hour, asking for a commission. The council refused Bowie's request, likely from lingering animosity over his land dealings.
Houston offered Bowie a commission as an officer on his staff but Bowie rejected the opportunity, explaining that he wanted to be in the midst of the fighting. Instead, Bowie enlisted in the army as a private under Fannin. He distinguished himself again in the Grass Fight on November 26. Cos had sent 100 soldiers to cut grass for the horses. As they returned to San Antonio, Bowie took 60 mounted men to intercept the party, which they believed carried valuable cargo. The Mexican troops quickened their pace in the hopes of reaching the safety of the city, but Bowie and his cavalry chased them. At the end of the fight, the Texians had two wounded men, but had captured many horses and mules.
Shortly after Bowie left San Antonio, Ben Milam led an assault on the city. In the ensuing fighting, the Texians suffered only a few casualties, while the Mexican army lost many troops to death and desertion. Cos surrendered and returned to Mexico, taking with him the last Mexican troops in Texas. Believing the war was over, many of the Texian volunteers left the army and returned to their families. In early January 1836, Bowie went to San Felipe and asked the council to allow him to recruit a regiment. He was again turned down, as he "was not an officer of the government nor army.
After Houston received word that Santa Anna was leading a large force to San Antonio, Bowie offered to lead volunteers to defend the Alamo from the expected attack. He arrived with 30 men on January 19, where they found a force of 104 men with a few weapons and a few cannons but little supplies and gunpowder. Houston knew that there were not enough men to hold the fort in an attack and had given Bowie orders to remove the artillery and blow up the fortification. Bowie and the Alamo captain, James C. Neill, decided they did not have enough oxen to move the artillery, and they did not want to destroy the fortress. On January 26, one of Bowie's men, James Bonham, organized a rally which passed a resolution in favor of holding the Alamo. Bonham signed the resolution first, with Bowie's signature second.
Through Bowie's connections due to his marriage and his fluency in Spanish, the predominantly Mexican population of San Antonio often furnished him with information about the movements of the Mexican army. After learning that Santa Anna had 4,500 troops and was heading for the city, Bowie wrote several letters to the provisional government asking for help in defending the Alamo, especially "men, money, rifles, and cannon powder". In another letter, to Governor Smith, he reiterated his view that "the salvation of Texas depends in great measure on keeping Bexar out of the hands of the enemy. It serves as the frontier picquet guard, and if it were in the possession of Santa Anna, there is no stronghold from which to repel him in his march toward the Sabine." The letter to Smith ended, "Colonel Neill and myself have come to the solemn resolution that we will rather die in these ditches than give it up to the enemy."
On February 3, William Travis arrived with an additional 30 troops, and several days later Davy Crockett appeared with twelve Tennesseans. Neill went on furlough on February 17 to visit his sick family, leaving Travis, a member of the regular army, in command. Bowie was older than Travis with a better reputation and considered himself a colonel, thus outranking Travis, a major. He refused to answer to Travis, who called an election for the men to choose their own commander. They chose Bowie, infuriating Travis. Bowie celebrated his appointment by getting very drunk and causing havoc in San Antonio, releasing all prisoners in the local jails and harassing citizens. Travis was disgusted, but two days later the men agreed to a joint command; Bowie would command the volunteers, and Travis would command the regular army and the volunteer cavalry.
Fearing for the safety of his wife's relatives in San Antonio, Bowie asked her cousins Getrudis Navarro and Juana Navarro Alsbury, as well as Alsbury's 18-month-old son, Alijo, to stay inside the walls of the Alamo. Bowie had been ill, and two doctors, including the fort surgeon, were unable to diagnose his illness. Travis became the sole commander of the forces when Bowie was confined to bed. Santa Anna and his army reached the outskirts of San Antonio de Bexar several days later and began a siege of the Alamo on February 24. The Mexican army raised a red flag to warn the defenders that no quarter would be given.
Travis sent Juan Seguin to recruit reinforcements on February 25, and arrived. Thirty-five years after the Alamo fell, a reporter identified Louis "Moses" Rose as the only man to have "deserted" the Texian forces at the Alamo. According to the reporter's version of Rose's account, when Travis realized that the Mexican army would likely prevail, he drew a line in the sand and asked those willing to die for the cause to cross the line. At Bowie's request Crockett and several others carried the cot over the line, leaving Rose alone on the other side. After its publication, several other eyewitnesses confirmed the account, but as Rose was deceased the story can only be authenticated by the word of the reporter, who admitted to embellishing other articles, "and thus many historians refuse to believe it."
Bowie perished with the rest of the Alamo defenders on March 6, when the Mexicans attacked. Most of the noncombatants in the fort, including Bowie's relatives, survived. Santa Anna ordered the alcade of San Antonio, Francisco Antonio Ruiz, to confirm the identities of Bowie, Travis, and Crockett. After first ordering that Bowie be buried, as he was too brave a man to be burned like a dog, Santa Anna later had Bowie's body placed with those of the other Texians on the funeral pyre.
When Bowie's mother was informed of his death, she calmly stated, "I'll wager no wounds were found in his back. Various eyewitnesses to the battle gave conflicting accounts of Bowie's death. A newspaper article claimed that a Mexican soldier saw Bowie carried from his room on his cot, alive, after the conclusion of the battle. The soldier maintained that Bowie verbally castigated a Mexican officer in fluent Spanish, and the officer ordered Bowie's tongue cut out and his still-breathing body thrown onto the funeral pyre. This account has been disputed by numerous other witnesses, and it is thought to have been invented by the reporter. Other witnesses maintained that they saw several Mexican soldiers enter Bowie's room, bayonet him, and carry him, alive, from the room. Various other stories circulated, with some witnesses claiming that Bowie shot himself and others saying he was killed by soldiers while too weak to lift his head. Alcade Ruiz said that Bowie was found "dead in his bed." The "most popular, and probably the most accurate version is that Bowie died on his cot, "back braced against the wall, and using his pistols and his famous knife." One year after the battle, Juan Seguin returned to the Alamo and gathered the remaining ashes from the funeral pyre. He placed these in a coffin inscribed with the names of Bowie, Travis, and Crockett. The ashes were interred at the Cathedral of San Fernando.
A number of films have depicted the events of the Battle of the Alamo, and Bowie has appeared as a character in each. From 1956–1958, Bowie was the subject of a television show, The Adventures of Jim Bowie, which was set in 1830s Louisiana Territory. The show, which starred Scott Forbes, was based on the 1946 novel Tempered Blade.
Bowie is also the namesake of rock star David Bowie, who was born David Robert Jones. Jones changed his name in the 1960s because he feared his name was too similar to Davy Jones, a member of already famous The Monkees. He chose the surname Bowie because he admired James Bowie and the Bowie knife.