Biography of James 'Jim' Bowie, American Frontiersman

James Bowie

 George Peter Alexander Healy

James "Jim" Bowie (c. 1796–March 6, 1836) was an American frontiersman, slave trader, smuggler, Indian fighter, and soldier in the Texas Revolution. He was among the defenders at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836, where he perished along with all of his comrades. Bowie was known as a legendary fighter; the large Bowie knife is named after him.

Fast Facts: James Bowie

  • Known For: American frontiersman, military leader during the Texas Revolution, and defender of the Alamo
  • As Known As: Jim Bowie
  • Born: 1796 in Kentucky, United States
  • Parents: Reason and Elve Ap-Catesby Jones Bowie
  • Died: March 6, 1836 in San Antonio, Mexican Texas
  • Spouse: Maria Ursula de Veramendi (m. 1831-1833)
  • Children: Marie Elve, James Veramendi

Early Life

James Bowie was born in Kentucky in 1796 and was raised in present-day Missouri and Louisiana. He enlisted to fight in the War of 1812 but joined too late to see any action. Soon he was back in Louisiana selling timber, and with the proceeds he bought some slaves and expanded his operation.

Bowie later became acquainted with Jean Lafitte, the legendary Gulf Coast pirate, who was involved in illegal slave smuggling. Bowie and his brothers bought smuggled slaves, declared that they had "found" them, and kept the money when the slaves were sold at auction. Later, Bowie came up with a scheme for acquiring free land. He falsified French and Spanish documents which said that he had purchased the land in Louisiana.

The Sandbar Fight

On September 19, 1827, Bowie was involved in the legendary “Sandbar Fight” in Louisiana. Two men—Samuel Levi Wells III and Dr. Thomas Harris Maddox—had agreed to fight a duel, and each man had brought along several supporters. Bowie was there on behalf of Wells. The duel ended after both men shot and missed twice, and they had decided to let the matter drop, but a brawl soon broke out among the other men. Bowie fought viciously in spite of being shot at least three times and stabbed with a sword-cane. The wounded Bowie killed one of his opponents with a massive knife, which later became famous as the “Bowie knife.”

Move to Texas

Like many frontiersmen of the time, Bowie eventually became intrigued by the idea of Texas. He went there and found plenty to keep him busy, including another land speculation scheme and the charms of Ursula Veramendi, the well-connected daughter of the mayor of San Antonio. By 1830 Bowie had moved to Texas, staying one step ahead of his creditors back in Louisiana. After fighting off a vicious Tawakoni Indian attack while searching for a silver mine, Bowie won even more fame as a tough frontiersman. In 1831 he married Veramendi and took up residence in San Antonio. She would soon die tragically of cholera, along with her parents.

Action in Nacogdoches

After disgruntled Texans attacked Nacogdoches in August of 1832 (they were protesting a Mexican order to give up their arms), Stephen F. Austin asked Bowie to intervene. Bowie arrived in time to capture some fleeing Mexican soldiers. This made Bowie a hero to those Texans who favored independence, although it is not necessarily what Bowie intended, as he had a Mexican wife and a lot of money in land in Mexican Texas. In 1835, war broke out between rebellious Texans and the Mexican army. Bowie went to Nacogdoches, where he and Sam Houston were elected leaders of the local militia. He acted quickly, arming the men with weapons seized from the local Mexican armory.

Assault on San Antonio

Bowie and other volunteers from Nacogdoches caught up with a rag-tag army led by Stephen F. Austin and James Fannin. The troops were marching on San Antonio, hoping to defeat Mexican General Martín Perfecto de Cos and end the conflict quickly. In late October 1835, they laid siege to San Antonio, where Bowie's contacts among the population proved extremely beneficial. Many residents of San Antonio joined the rebels, bringing valuable intelligence with them. Bowie and Fannin and some 90 men dug in on the grounds of Concepción Mission just outside the city, and General Cos, spotting them there, attacked.

The Battle of Concepción and the Capture of San Antonio

Bowie told his men to keep their heads and stay low. When the Mexican infantry advanced, the Texans devastated their ranks with fire from their long rifles. The Texan sharpshooters also picked off artillerymen who were shooting the Mexican cannons. Disheartened, the Mexicans fled back to San Antonio. Bowie was once again hailed a hero. He was not there when Texan rebels stormed the city in the early days of December 1835, but he returned shortly after. General Sam Houston ordered him to demolish the Alamo, a fortress-like old mission in San Antonio, and a retreat from the city. Bowie, once again, disobeyed orders. Instead, he mounted a defense and fortified the Alamo.

Bowie, Travis, and Crockett

In early February, William Travis arrived in San Antonio. He would take over nominal command of the forces there when the ranking officer left. Many of the men there were not enlisted—they were volunteers, which meant that they answered to no one. Bowie was the unofficial leader of these volunteers, and he did not care for Travis, which made things tense at the fort. Soon, however, famous frontiersman Davy Crockett arrived. A skilled politician, Crockett was able to defuse the tension between Travis and Bowie. The Mexican Army, commanded by Mexican General Santa Anna, showed up in late February. The arrival of this common enemy also united the defenders of the Alamo.

Battle of the Alamo and Death

Bowie became very ill sometime in late February 1836. Historians disagree about what illness he suffered from. It may have been pneumonia or tuberculosis. In any case, it was a debilitating illness, and Bowie was confined, delirious, to his bed. According to legend, Travis drew a line in the sand and told the men to cross it if they would stay and fight. Bowie, too weak to walk, asked to be carried over the line. After two weeks of siege, the Mexicans attacked on the morning of March 6. The Alamo was overrun in less than two hours, and all of the defenders were captured or killed, including Bowie, who reportedly died in his bed, still feverish.

Legacy

Bowie was an interesting man in his time, a renowned hothead, brawler, and troublemaker who went to Texas to escape his creditors in the United States. He became famous due to his fights and his legendary knife, and once fighting broke out in Texas, he soon became known as a solid leader of men who could keep a cool head under fire.

His lasting fame, however, came about as a result of his presence at the fateful Battle of the Alamo. In life, he was a con man and slave trader. In death, he became a great hero, and today he is widely revered in Texas, even more so than his brothers-in-arms Travis and Crockett. The city of Bowie and Bowie County, both in Texas, are named after him, as are countless schools, businesses, and parks.

Sources

  • Brands, H.W. "Lone Star Nation: The Epic Story of the Battle for Texas Independence." New York: Anchor Books, 2004.
  • Henderson, Timothy J. "A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and its War with the United States." New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.