The Life and Times of James Bowie
The Life and Times of James Bowie

The Life and Times of James Bowie

Larry Holzwarth - February 18, 2020

He was one of the almost sacred trinity of the Alamo, though a legendary figure on the American frontier before he went to the Mexican territory of Texas. Contrary to popular belief, he did not invent the knife which bears his name. It was his prowess in using it which led to the design becoming known to posterity as the Bowie Knife. Rezin Bowie, brother of James, left the first documented account of his brother using a knife similar to the modern Bowie knife. He provided the story more than two years after James died at the Alamo. Like much of the history of James Bowie, the story was altered over the years, and the facts of its invention are lost. James Bowie left no written records of his own.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
James Bowie’s death at the Battle of the Alamo is legendary in American history. Wikimedia

James Bowie was born in Kentucky and is most closely associated today with Texas, but most of his life was spent in Louisiana and Mississippi. Bowie’s older brother John recorded his birth date as March 10, 1796. Other accounts have him born in April. He was the ninth of ten children born to veteran of the American Revolution Rezin Bowie, and his wife, Elve. He was raised in a slave-holding family which moved to Missouri in 1800, thence to Spanish Louisiana two years later. They moved twice more before James was 16 years of age, though they remained in Louisiana after it was acquired by the United States. It was there Bowie’s legend began. Here is some of his story.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
Bowie joined the militia, but arrived too late to take part in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Library of Congress

1. Bowie became fluent in three languages during his childhood

James Bowie was raised on the frontier, and much of his childhood was spent working in the fields of his family’s farm. Nonetheless, along with his siblings he was schooled, learning to read, write, and speak English, French, and Spanish as a child. From the fields he learned how to plant, husband, and harvest crops. From the woods he learned to track and hunt, and by the time he was a teenager he was proficient with rifle, pistol, and the knife. According to one biographer he also learned to speak Cherokee, or at least some fashion of the language. As a child he had Indian friends and learned of their traditions and woodcraft.

He also learned to rope alligators which teemed along the bayous and waterways in Louisiana. Part of operating a large farm of the time included skills at the forge, to repair plows and other implements, and Bowie had experience both working iron and racking charcoal. By the time he was sixteen he was regarded as being fearless to the point of being reckless. In 1814 war came to the frontier. Andrew Jackson called for volunteers to defend Louisiana from the British. Rezin and James Bowie answered the call and traveled to New Orleans, arriving after the British defeat at Chalmette, below the city. His military career cut short, Bowie established himself in the lumber business in Rapides Parish, Louisiana.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
Jean Lafitte entered into a business arrangement with the Bowie brothers to smuggle slaves into the United States. Wikimedia

2. Bowie entered into business with Jean Lafitte in Louisiana

Jean Lafitte was a smuggler and pirate of notoriety in Louisiana, who operated with his brother Pierre from a base on Barataria before the War of 1812. The Lafittes profited as smugglers of contraband, including slaves, until the US Navy wiped out their base during the New Orleans campaign. During the war Pierre was arrested, tried, convicted, and jailed in New Orleans for various illegal activities. Jean offered his services to Andrew Jackson when the British approached New Orleans and following the American victory both brothers were pardoned. In late 1815 the brothers agreed to act as spies for Spain.

In 1817 Jean was sent to Galveston Island, then part of Spanish Texas. Jean used his cover as a spy for Spain to resurrect his piracy and smuggling operations, making weekly trips to New Orleans to meet with Spanish authorities in the city. Galveston was primarily a smuggling base for Lafitte, but it became a gathering place for supporters of the Mexican Revolutionaries, many of them Americans. Newcomers to Galveston were personally interviewed by Lafitte, and were required to swear loyalty to him personally to be allowed to stay. Profits from smuggling and piracy were invested in Louisiana land, bringing Lafitte into contact with the young James Bowie.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
Bowie and Lafitte worked out a profitable scam regarding the importation of slaves at New Orleans. Wikimedia

3. Bowie and Lafitte worked a scam together in 1818

James Bowie wanted to engage in land speculation in Louisiana, though he lacked sufficient funds. How and where he first met Jean Lafitte is unknown. What is known is that Bowie and Lafitte entered into a scheme to defraud the authorities in Louisiana. In 1818 it was illegal to import slaves into the United States, indeed smuggled slaves were a large portion of Lafitte’s income. Customs officials in the southern states seized smuggled slaves as contraband. They then sold the slaves at auction, and half of the income derived from the sale was offered as a reward to whomever had informed them of the illegal status of the slaves.

Bowie bought slaves from Lafitte at Galveston, took them to New Orleans, and reported the transaction to customs authorities. When the slaves were offered at auction, he purchased them through an agent. He then received half of the purchase price as the reward for essentially turning himself in. Obviously, everyone involved was merely winking at federal law. The slaves, rendered legal property by the purchase from customs, were then sold upriver to plantations in Mississippi, where they received a considerably higher price than in New Orleans. The Bowie – Lafitte scheme gave James $65,000, equivalent to $1.3 million today, with which to speculate in land.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
Rezin Bowie, brother of James, later claimed to be the inventor of the Bowie knife, though he likely was not. Wikimedia

4. James and Rezin Bowie speculated in Louisiana land fraudulently

Over the next several years, James and Rezin concentrated on purchasing large areas of land in Lafourche Parish and elsewhere. Land records in Louisiana were, to put it simply, a mess. The United States purchased Louisiana in 1803, promising to honor all land claims in place at the time. Much of Louisiana was unclaimed. The rush to the territory which followed the War of 1812 led to falsified claims, predated before the purchase. Surveys of many tracts were inaccurate. Conflicting claims abounded in the parishes. Both Bowie brothers were fluent in Spanish, and became adept at creating claims which were later found to be fraudulent in American courts.

James, Rezin, and Stephen Bowie, another brother, purchased a large plantation near Thibidoux, and named it Acadia Plantation. It was a stop for a time on the route they used to smuggle slaves overland after purchasing them from the accommodating Lafitte. They erected a steam powered mill on the plantation to grind sugar cane, the first such structure in Louisiana. The mill did not function well, destroying too much of the cane in the process of grinding it, and it was soon abandoned. The brothers also built houses for themselves and another for their mother on the plantation. Around 1828, James and Rezin sold their interests in the plantation and moved to Arkansas when they were confronted with several fraudulent documents registering land they had sold which they did not own.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
Jean Lafitte preferred piracy to serving as a governor in the proposed Republic of Texas. Wikimedia

5. The Long Expedition to Texas in 1819

James Long was a Virginia born adventurer who resided in Natchez in 1819. Like many fellow westerners, he disagreed with the resolution of the border between United States territory and that of New Spain. In 1818 he began to assemble a group of men in Natchez to enter Texas, separate it from Spain, and establish it as an independent republic. Among the men he approached to join the expedition were Jean Lafitte and his slave trading partner, James Bowie. Lafitte was offered the post of governor of Galveston Island once the new government was established as the Republic of Texas. Unknown to Long was that Lafitte was at the time a spy in the employ of the Spanish authorities.

Throughout his life, Jean Lafitte operated under the premise that Jean Lafitte came first. He dithered with Long, and profited from selling supplies to the men gathered at Galveston, while informing the Spanish authorities of Long’s plans via the Spanish consul at New Orleans. The Long Expedition managed to seize some territory in Texas – including Nacogdoches – before Spanish troops from Mexico drove them out. A second expedition led by Long took place in 1820, which also failed. Long was imprisoned by the Spanish after the failure of the second expedition; eventually he was shot and killed by a guard. Bowie escaped by fleeing to Louisiana. His first glimpses of Texas, and the vast amount of unsettled land there, intrigued him. He was particularly enamored of the idea that the territory was outside the jurisdiction of the United States.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
The knife carried by James Bowie probably more closely resembled a butchers knife than this modern Bowie knife. Wikimedia

6. James Bowie and the famous Bowie knife

James Bowie did not invent the Bowie knife, nor did his brother Rezin as some sources claim. The knife which became known as the Bowie knife likely evolved over time. In other words, there were many different versions of the large hunting knife which Bowie became famous for carrying. It was his prowess with the knife which forever linked his name to it, though there is considerable evidence that his skill, and his penchant for using it, were greatly exaggerated. In 1826 Bowie, as a result of an ongoing feud with the local sheriff, began carrying a knife which had a blade over nine inches in length, and an inch and a half wide at the base. He wore it prominently at his side, as a man would a sword, rather than on his hip as did most hunters.

Norris Wright, the sheriff with whom Bowie feuded, and Bowie attended a duel between Samuel Wells and Dr. Thomas Maddox on September 19, 1827. The duelists exchanged shots on a sandbar on the river outside of Natchez, emerged uninjured, and resolved their differences with a handshake. Meanwhile a fight broke out among the spectators, between those who had supported either duelist. The melee which ensued was reported in the press in Natchez, picked up by other newspapers, and eventually became known in Mexico and in Europe. With each retelling the size of the fight and Bowie’s heroics grew. So did his fearsomeness as a knife-fighter. The melee became known in legend as the Vidalia Sandbar Fight.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
Contemporary report of the Sandbar Fight in the Niles Register. Rare Newspapers

7. The Sandbar fight led to the name of the Bowie Knife

The Sandbar fight was little more than an armed brawl between factions with longstanding grudges against each other, both personal and professional in nature. The fight took place between the supporters of the duelists after the duel was resolved with no injuries. There were at least ten additional witnesses to the duel who did not engage in the fight, which was between twelve men, including Bowie and Sheriff Norris Wright. Who fired first is disputed, but Bowie was shot in the hip and fell to the ground, struggled to his feet, and charged his attacker, knife drawn. He was hit on the head with an empty pistol, and again knocked to the ground. As he struggled to rise to his feet, Norris Wright stabbed him in the chest with a sword-cane.

Bowie grabbed his assailant and used his knife to effectively gut him as he tried to pull the sword cane free. With Wright dead, Bowie got to his feet to be shot yet again, in the arm. With two bullets in him, a chest wound, and an undoubtedly aching head, Bowie was helped from the scene. The brawl lasted less than two minutes, in which two men were killed and two others seriously wounded. Bowie’s prowess with the knife at the brawl became a backcountry legend quickly, and blacksmiths and armorers began marketing knives which they claimed were the style Bowie used at the Sandbar fight. They became known as Bowie Knives, including in England by the mid-1830s.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
Lithograph of San Antonio de Bexar. University of Texas

8. Bowie decided to leave creditors, and other legal issues behind in 1828

The Sandbar fight left James Bowie badly wounded, and it took him many weeks to recover. As he did, he considered his future in Louisiana and Arkansas. He began to look favorably at relocating to Texas, which at the time was opened to American settlement by the Mexican Government, under the laws of the Constitution of 1824. The Mexicans encouraged American settlement in part to help quell the raids of the Indians in the vast territory. The Mexican Constitution also prohibited the practice of religions other than Roman Catholicism. To Bowie, religion was of no consequence, and he was baptized into the Catholic Church in San Antonio de Bexar in April, 1828.

Bowie traveled throughout Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi during the ensuing two years, engaging in land speculation and enhancing his reputation as a rugged and daring man of the frontier. He spent most of his time in New Orleans, where he was known as a heavy drinker with a taste for the brothels and other entertainments the city offered. In 1829 he proposed marriage to Cecilia Wells of Alexandria, Louisiana. She died just weeks before the two were to be married. At the end of the year Bowie decided to permanently move to Texas. The Mexican Constitution gave precedence to Mexican citizens over Americans when they applied for land grants. Bowie derived a scheme to take advantage of the law to acquire land in the Mexican state, and relocated there in January, 1830.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
Stephen F. Austin neither liked nor trusted Bowie, and was irritated with his land speculation tactics. Wikimedia

9. Bowie used fraudulent land titles to fund his Texas acquisitions

When Bowie arrived in Texas, he presented a letter of introduction to Stephen Austin in San Felipe. The letter attested to Bowie’s good character and standing as a citizen of the United States. Bowie then moved on to San Antonio after taking an oath of allegiance to the Mexican government. San Antonio was a city of about 2,500 residents, most of them Mexican. Spanish was the language of the residents and the city’s administration. Bowie’s fluency in the language enabled him to quickly establish himself as an influential citizen. He had himself elected as a Colonel of the Texas militia, organized as a law enforcement body by Stephen Austin. In September, Bowie formally renounced his American citizenship and became a citizen of Mexico.

To acquire land, Bowie approached more than a dozen Mexicans, urging them to apply for land grants. He then purchased the grants, using the estates to which he claimed title in Arkansas and Louisiana as collateral. Most of the titles he presented for lands in the United States were fraudulent. Bowie, as a Mexican citizen, had the right to apply for land grants on his own, but they were limited to eleven leagues per individual (the Spanish league was used as a measurement of area, approximately 4,400 acres). Bowie’s speculation allowed him to sell large tracts of land to incoming settlers in Texas, as well as gave him control over valuable water rights.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
A portrait believed to be of Ursula de Veramendi Bowie. Alamo.com

10. Bowie was a business partner of San Antonio’s leading citizen

For his land speculation and other business activities Bowie partnered with Juan Martin de Veramendi. The latter was the alcade of San Antonio, equivalent to a Mayor with virtually unlimited powers regarding administration of the city. Bowie’s award of Mexican citizenship was contingent upon him building textile mills to process wool and cotton in Texas, and the partners established a mill in Saltillo. Bowie then turned his attentions to his partner’s daughter, Ursula de Veramendi. On April 25, 1831, Bowie and Ursula were married in San Antonio. Bowie pledged a dowry to his wife of $15,000, and claimed the properties he owned were valued at over $220,000. He also claimed to be owed $45,000 for his share of Arcadia Plantation.

Nonetheless Bowie had to borrow money for the couple’s honeymoon trip to New Orleans. $1,800 came from his business partner (and new father-in-law) and another $750 was provided by the bride’s grandmother. Bowie traveled with his wife to Natchez while on their honeymoon, where he conducted land business, before returning to San Antonio, where they were to make their home. He was not to remain there long. With his partner taking care of business affairs, Bowie turned his attention to stories of a lost silver mine, somewhere west of San Antonio near the ruins of an old Spanish mission. It was in country inhabited, and jealously guarded, by Indians. He needed permission from the Mexican government to search for the mine, if it existed at all.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
Statue of James Bowie in Texarkana, Texas, erected in 1936. Library of Congress

11. The lost Los Almagres Mine was the subject of several Texas legends

The presence of a silver rich vein of ore was the subject of discussion in San Antonio and the other Texas settlements as early as 1753. Eventually the stories had the mine at several locations, including on the San Saba River. The site was a presidio and mission established by the Spanish and destroyed by hostile Indians in 1758. One version of the tale claimed the veins were so rich that all of the Spanish settlers of San Antonio at the time could have their own mines, extracting wondrous wealth. Bowie heard the tales of wealth to be had for the digging and was intrigued. He solicited permission to lead a party of men to the site.

He was granted permission, but the government refused to fund the expedition. To pay for the necessary supplies and equipment, Bowie turned to his obliging father-in-law. In November, 1831, James and Rezin Bowie led a party of nine other men to the Indian country to the west. On November 19 they camped about six miles east of the San Saba River, where war parties attacked them. Bowie’s party drove off the Indians after an all-day fight in an oak grove, though one of the men was killed and several others wounded. Unable to adequately care for the wounded men, Bowie’s party returned to San Antonio. He made another attempt to find the mine in January.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
Indians in Texas were often at war with both Mexican and American settlers. Family Search

12. James Bowie gained fame as an Indian fighter in 1832

In January, 1832, James Bowie led a larger party to the west, seeking out hostile Indians along the Colorado River, before he planned to resume the search for the lost silver mine. As Colonel of the militia, Bowie organized and led a party of 26 men west into the Indian country, departing from Gonzales on January 23, 1832. For the next ten weeks they scoured the country in search of hostile Indians, though the war parties, if there were any, successfully eluded them. Nonetheless, Colonel Bowie, as a result of the 1831 battle and his efforts in 1832, gained the reputation as an intrepid Indian fighter.

When Bowie returned, he went to Natchez to attend to his business affairs. He learned that the Mexican commander of the garrison at Nacogdoches had demanded that the citizens of Texas under his jurisdiction surrender their firearms. The commander, Jose de las Piedras, was concerned over the increasing tension between the mostly American citizens of several towns and the Mexican authorities. The Texas militia organized an army of 300 men to besiege Nacogdoches. Bowie raced to join them. On August 2, 1832, the commander of the Texans demanded Piedras rescind the order to surrender their firearms. He refused. The situation then descended into the Battle of Nacogdoches, often called the first shot of the Texas Revolution.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
In the early 1830s Texans belived the views of Santa Anna were aligned with theirs. Wikimedia

13. Tensions between the Texans and the Mexican government had been increasing for years

In 1830, Mexico passed a law which effectively ended legal American immigration. Garrisons were established, including at Nacogdoches, to enforce the immigration law and to collect taxes. In Mexico, political factions were divided over the issues of a centralist government or localized control in the various states. General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna opposed the Centralist regime in power in Mexico City, announcing his position in early 1832. This, ironically given subsequent events, led the Texans to believe that the influential Santa Anna was on their side. Piedras represented Centralist authority in Texas, and his decision to demand the disarming of the settlers and militia was considered intolerable.

The Battle of Nacogdoches took place on August 2, 1832. It was an urban fight, house to house, and lasted into the night, with the Mexican troops withdrawing to the stone fortifications outside the city. During the night the remaining Mexicans evacuated, led by Piedras. The next morning the retreating party was attacked by a pursuit led by Bowie. The Mexican troops eventually rebelled against their commander and surrendered to the Texans. Piedras was paroled and sent to Mexico. The remaining Mexican troops were marched under guard, commanded by Bowie, to San Antonio, where they were released and sent home.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
Much of Bowie’s business in Natchez was in the illegal slave trade. Mississippi History Now

14. Bowie’s wife died in 1833, while he was away in Natchez

In late summer, 1833, Bowie was again in Natchez attending to business when he was stricken with yellow fever. His home in San Antonio, which had been built on land given him by his father-in-law, was empty. During his absences Ursula lived in the Monclova mansion owned by her father. The Bowie’s had two children during their brief marriage; Marie, born in 1832, and James, born in 1833. When Bowie was in Monclova for brief periods of time, he too stayed at his father-in-law’s house, and often importuned him for loans of spending money, claiming nearly all of his own money was tied up in investments. Bowie appeared to be a man of wealth, though he frequently had little money for expenses.

While Bowie was ill at Natchez, a cholera epidemic swept through Monclova. The Veramendi household was particularly hard-hit. Ursula and both children died in the epidemic that September. So did Bowie’s benefactor, Juan Martin de Veramendi, and his wife. Bowie was unaware of their deaths in October, and was so ill himself that he dictated his will that month, leaving his estate to his brother Rezin and his sister. When Bowie learned of the deaths of his wife and children is disputed. Most historians believe he was informed while recovering in Natchez in November, 1833. If so, he bequeathed his entire estate to his brother and sister knowing that he would leave behind two fatherless children.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
Daguerrotype of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna from 1853. Library of Congress

15. The death of his family changed Bowie in many ways

Before the death of Ursula and their children Bowie was known for being meticulous in appearance and dress while in the towns where he conducted his business. His appearance and manner were displayed as a symbol of his wealth and influence. Although Bowie had never been a teetotaler, following the death of his family he drank far more heavily. He ignored his business affairs, and spent his days in taverns and saloons. In 1834 he returned to land speculation in Texas, taking advantage of new Mexican laws which allowed the breaking up of land grants into smaller tracts.

The following year, Santa Anna dissolved the government of Texas, and ordered all Texans of American descent doing business in the Mexican areas of the region – including Monclova – arrested. Bowie, who was there at the time, fled to the American settlements to the north. Bowie joined lawyer William B. Travis, who had done legal work for him in the past, in a group of Americans who called themselves the War Party. They agitated for war against the Mexicans in Texas and the re-establishment of the Constitution of 1824. Meanwhile, though it was against Mexican law, Americans continued to pour into Texas, a stream of illegal immigration into the Mexican state.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
These veterans of the Texas Revolution were still alive on its 70th anniversary celebration in 1906. Wikimedia

16. The causes of the Texas Revolution were many and varied

The native-born citizens of Texas were known as Tejanos and the American immigrants as Texians in 1835. Of the latter, most were from the southern American states, Protestants, and supported or were willing to tolerate slavery. Most Tejanos were Catholic, spoke Spanish, and were opposed to slavery. The Constitution of 1824, which created the federal government of Mexico, allowed slavery in the Mexican states. In 1829 the Mexican government banned slavery, leading to dissension among the slave-owners in Texas. Many, like James Bowie, hoped to establish large plantations along the lines of the states of the American South. Slavery was then essential to the operation of large plantations and their labor-intensive crops.

Immigration was banned by the Mexican government in 1830, but the settlers in Texas simply ignored the ban. By the end of 1834 there were approximately 30,000 Americans in Texas, compared to about 7,500 Tejanos. In 1832 Mexican General Santa Anna overthrew the government and established himself as President of Mexico. For the next three years, the Mexican government made some concessions to the concerns of the Americans in Texas, but they ended in 1835 when Santa Anna ordered the Constitution of 1824 abolished, the militias in all Mexican states disbanded, and the state legislatures dismissed. Several Mexican states rebelled against Santa Anna, though only Texas was successful in breaking from Mexico.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
The Battle of Concepcion was a skirmish near San Antonio in 1835. Wikimedia

17. Bowie fought at the Battle of Concepcion in 1835

On October 16, 1835, Stephen Austin commanded a force of about 400 volunteers, camped on Cibolo Creek. Bowie joined his force there, appointed to Austin’s staff as a Colonel of Volunteers. William Barret Travis joined the regular army formed by the provisional government of Texas and commanded by Sam Houston. Austin intended to attack a Mexican force at San Antonio de Bexar, though Houston opposed the idea. Austin dispatched Bowie to scout south of the town for another campsite. Bowie engaged Mexican patrols during his mission, driving them back. On October 26 Bowie, with about 90 men, was attacked by a 400-man Mexican detachment at the Battle of Concepcion.

Following the battle, which ended with the Mexicans withdrawing, Bowie and his attachment remained in the area south of San Antonio. James Fannin, with another detachment remained nearby. Austin moved his command to the Alamo Canal. About 650 Mexican troops in San Antonio de Bexar were effectively besieged by the end of October, though the Texans were beginning to feel the effects of poor rations on morale. In December, after several skirmishes between the contending forces, the Mexicans were reinforced by about 650 additional troops, though most were inexperienced recruits. Bowie fought in several skirmishes, including the interception of a column which became known as the Grass Fight.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
Stephen Austin resigned his command after his officers voted to ignore his orders. Wikimedia

18. The rejection of Stephen Austin and the Grass Fight

In late November Stephen Austin ordered an assault on the Mexican garrison in San Antonio. His officers rejected the idea by vote and Austin resigned from command. Edward Burleson was elected by the troops outside San Antonio to command them. Burleson received information from a scout of a pack train, of mules and horses, escorted by about 100 Mexican soldiers approaching the town. He sent James Bowie with about 50 mounted men to intercept the train, with about 100 infantrymen moving in support. From the description of the train received from the scout, Burleson believed the animals were carrying silver for the officers of the Mexican Army. The silver was to be used to purchase supplies.

The battle which became known as the Grass Fight was fought about 1 mile from San Antonio. Bowie and his men charged the pack train, scattered the animals and drove back the troops. Mexican reinforcements were sent from the garrison, and Bowie’s men repulsed several attacks. The battle ended with the Mexicans withdrawing into their positions in San Antonio. Texan troops seized 40 mules and horses. The saddlebags they carried were filled with grass to serve as fodder for the Mexican Army’s animals inside their positions, where none could be had. The cargo gave the battle its name.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
Before the Alamo was defended by the Texans it was defended against them by the Mexicans. Wikimedia

19. The Mexicans in San Antonio surrendered in December

The Texans attacked San Antonio on December 5. On December 9 the Mexican commander, General Martin Perfecto de Cos, withdrew his men into the Alamo Mission on the outskirts of the town. Faced with additional mouths to feed after the reinforcements arrived, and insufficient supplies with which to continue to resist, Cos asked for terms on December 9. The following day the Mexican Army surrendered. Cos and his men were allowed to leave Texas, the General having given his parole that none of them would fight against Texan factions who supported the Constitution of 1824. Santa Anna later rescinded the parole, and most of the Mexican troops returned to San Antonio later in the winter.

The withdrawal of Cos and his troops meant there were no Mexican forces north of the Rio Grande. The Texans believed the war was over, for the most part. Santa Anna was furious, and vowed to personally retake the lost territory which had rebelled. He also announced that those who fought the Mexicans, or otherwise supported the rebellion, were pirates and would be treated accordingly under international law. Santa Anna, though hampered by the corruption rampant in the Mexican government and bureaucracies, recruited and assembled an army of over 6,000 men. They were ill-equipped, ill-clad, and ill fed. Most of their training occurred as they marched to the north.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
Texas rushed to create an Army to repel Santa Anna’s invasion in 1836. Wikimedia

20. The Texans knew the Mexicans were returning in late December

General Cos was General Santa Anna’s brother-in-law, and the latter viewed the former’s surrender as impugning the family honor. He split his army, sending about 550 men from Matamoros to Goliad. Santa Anna then led the rest of the army toward San Antonio de Bexar, where he intended to avenge the defeat. He marched his army along a road known as the Camino Real, which approached San Antonio from the west. The weather was dreadful, by February record low temperatures were felt, and heavy snows impeded the army as it struggled north. Men died of hypothermia, suffered from dysentery, and contended with raids launched by Comanche warriors.

On February 17, 1836, the Mexican Army under Santa Anna entered Texas. As they marched, Bowie arrived in Bexar under orders from General Houston to destroy the fortifications there, including the Alamo mission outside of the town. He was then to withdraw. When Bowie arrived with thirty men, he found 78 Texas volunteers in the town, under the command of James Neill. Bowie wrote to the governor of Texas and recommended the town be held. The following day, February 3, Travis arrived with thirty men. On February 8 Colonel David Crockett of Tennessee arrived with another dozen men. Neill officially ceded his command to Travis on February 11, but most of the men distrusted him. Instead, they elected Bowie to command the post on February 12.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
Former Congressman David Crockett of Tennessee brought 12 men with him to the Alamo. Wikimedia

21. Bowie and Travis resolved the divided command of the Alamo

On February 13, 1836, James Bowie and William Travis agreed to a joint command, with the regulars at the post under control of Travis. The volunteers, including David Crockett, were under the command of James Bowie. The joint command was unworkable from the start. Crockett was forced to act as a go-between for the two men, though the level of hostility was never as high as has been depicted as part of the Alamo legend. On February 23 scouts informed the Texans at San Antonio of the approach of Santa Anna’s army, expected to arrive within hours. A dispatch was sent to Fannin at Goliad, asking for reinforcements. When the advance units of the Mexican Army arrived, Bowie asked for a parley, without consulting Travis.

The Mexicans offered no terms beyond a demand for surrender. Bowie refused, and the Texas troops in San Antonio withdrew into the Alamo mission. On February 24, Bowie collapsed. The nature of his illness has long been disputed. It has been called pneumonia, advanced bronchitis, typhoid, and other ailments, but was most likely the advanced stage of tuberculosis. Confined to his cot, Bowie was not actively involved for the rest of the siege, other than to die in the final assault on March 6, 1836. He did instruct his men to follow the orders issued by Travis, and was occasionally carried outside of his room when the weather allowed, but he weakened steadily, and may well have been dying before the Mexicans carried the fort.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
General Sam Houston ordered Bowie to abandon the Alamo and destroy the fortifications. Wikimedia

22. Bowie’s stance led to the siege of the Alamo in 1836

Why James Bowie chose to ignore the orders of General Houston and remain at the Alamo is another mystery which has long been disputed. Some historians have postulated that Houston’s orders were discretionary, allowing Bowie to decide for himself whether the fort could be held. In his letter to the governor, Bowie urged the fort be held, indicating that the decision was not up to him. He called the post a “frontier picquet guard”, but he did not indicate that he had decided to hold it against the Mexican assault. Had he followed orders, the post would have been destroyed and the men who fought there, as well as those who were massacred at Goliad, would have joined Houston’s main force to the north.

It is entirely likely that Bowie died as he has so often been depicted, shot and bayonetted in his cot after discharging his pistols at the Mexican troops who battered down the door. Travis was killed early in the final assault as the Mexicans broke over the walls of the mission. Crockett’s death is more mysterious. The wife of one of the officers killed in the battle, Susanna Dickinson, survived the battle inside the mission. She claimed to have seen Crockett’s body near the chapel, among several dead Mexican troops. Others have since claimed Crockett was captured or surrendered, only to be executed on the order of Santa Anna. A former American slave named Ben, who worked as a cook for Santa Anna, supported Dickinson’s claim.

The Life and Times of James Bowie
With the other defenders of the Alamo, Bowie became a legendary figure of American history. Wikimedia

23. James Bowie was a legend in life and death

Throughout his life, which was poorly documented at the time, James Bowie was a controversial figure. His business dealings were questionable at best, and outright fraud at their worst. In land speculation he was both a victimizer and a victim. He openly dealt with pirates and smugglers, often working as a smuggler himself. Bowie developed the reputation of being a fearless and skilled fighter with his fearsome knife, though the only documented instance in which he fought with it was the Sandbar fight. He claimed great wealth while relying on his father-in-law for spending money, and he sold claims on land which were not his to sell.

A friend described him as a “clever, polite gentlemen”, though tales of his drunken behavior were widespread during his lifetime. He also cultivated the reputation of being a lady’s man, undeterred by his short-lived marriage to Ursula. His estate at his death was less than $100. In 1852 his brother John published an article in a popular magazine which fictionalized James’ exploits in life, and began the expansion of his legend as a western and southern hero. In the 1950s a television series in the United States further fictionalized his legacy. Today he is remembered primarily for the knife which bears his name, and his death at the Alamo during the Texas Revolution.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“James Bowie Texas Fighting Man: A Biography”. Clifford Hopewell. 1994

“Jim Bowie: Knife-wielding son of Kentucky”. Ron Soodalter, Kentucky Monthly. November 1, 2017

“Jim Bowie”. Kelby Ouchley, 64 Parishes. Online

“Searching for Lafitte the Pirate”. Sally Reeves, New Orleans French Quarter. Online

“Long Expedition”. Harris Gaylord Warren, Texas State Historical Association. Online

“The Sandbar Fight”. Kathy Weiser-Alexander, Legends of America. July, 2018. Online

“Jim Bowie 1796-1836”. Article, Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Online

“Los Almagres Mine: A Fortune in Silver or Just Another Tall Texas Tale?” John Spiars, Under the Lone Star. Online

“Nacogdoches, Battle of”. Article, Archie P. McDonald, Handbook of Texas History. Online

“Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barrett Travis”. William C. Davis. 1998

“Exploring the Alamo Legends”. Wallace O. Chariton. 1992

“The Grass Fight of 1835: A Huge Disappointment in the Texas Revolution”. Athena Hessong, Texas Hill Country. September 25, 2017. Online

“Texian Iliad – A Military History of the Texas Revolution”. Stephen L. Hardin. 1994

“The Alamo Should Never Have Happened”. H. W. Brands, Texas Monthly. January 20, 2013. Online

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