Biography of Texas Hero and Adventurer Jim Bowie

James Bowie in portrait

George Peter Alexander Healy

James Bowie (1796-1836) 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. Despite his somewhat checkered personal history, Bowie is considered one of Texas' greatest heroes.

Early Life, Slave Trading, and Land Speculation

James Bowie was born in Kentucky on April 10, 1796. As a child, he lived in present-day Missouri and Louisiana. He enlisted to fight in the War of 1812 but joined too late to see any action. He was soon back in Louisiana, selling timber. With the proceeds, he bought some slaves and expanded his operation.

He 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 they were sold at auction. Later, he came up with a scheme for getting land for free: he made up some French and Spanish documents claiming that he had purchased 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 several seconds along. 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 seconds. Bowie fought like a demon 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. This later became famous as the “Bowie Knife.”

Move to Texas

Like many frontiersmen at the time, Bowie 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 made a move to Texas, staying one step ahead of his creditors back in Louisiana. When he fought off a vicious Tawakoni Indian attack while searching for a silver mine, his fame and reputation as a tough frontiersman grew. In 1831 he married Ursula and took up residence in San Antonio: she would soon die tragically of cholera along with her parents.

Action in Nacogdoches

When 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 of 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 open 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: they were marching on San Antonio, hoping to defeat Mexican General 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: General Cos, spotting them there, attacked.

The Battle of Concepción and 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 accurate 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. This 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 President/General Santa Anna, showed up in late February: this common enemy also united the defenders.

The Battle of the Alamo and Death of Jim Bowie

Bowie became very ill sometime in late February. Historians disagree about what illness he suffered from. It may have been pneumonia or tuberculosis. 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 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.

The Legacy of Jim Bowie

Bowie was an interesting man in his time, a renowned hothead, brawler and troublemaker who went to Texas to escape his creditors in the USA. He had become 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 with 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 revered in Texas. Much more so than his brothers-in-arms Travis and Crockett, Bowie was redeemed in death. The city of Bowie and Bowie County, both in Texas, are named after him, as are countless schools, businesses, parks, etc.

Bowie is still well-known in popular culture. His knife is still popular, and he appears in every movie or book about the Battle of the Alamo. He was portrayed by Richard Widmark in the 1960 movie "The Alamo" (which starred John Wayne as Davy Crockett) and by Jason Patric in the 2004 movie of the same name.


  • 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.