Jim Bowie: The Man Behind the Legend

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Artist’s rendition of James Bowie, date unknown. Taken from the public domain

Was Jim Bowie a hero of Texas, or a man who was simply trapped by his circumstances?  Was he a killer, or simply a man of his time who was willing and able to defend himself in a scrape?  Was he a fraudster, a man lacking in integrity to the point where he would trick property from honest men, or was he simply a bit more clever than the average land speculator?  Was he a man who fell deeply in love with the woman he married, or was he an opportunist who simply manipulated his way into an influential (and very wealthy) Mexican family?

James Bowie (10 March 1796 – 6 March 1836) died at the famous Battle of the Alamo, an engagement where between 185 to 260 men attempted to hold off a Mexican force of more than 1,800 infantry, cavalry, and artillery.  There is some disagreement over how long the battle lasted.  Some historians say that the fighting lasted from between 60-90 minutes.  These are mostly Mexican historians who have never taken an objective view of this battle.  Others, with expertise in matters of Texas history, argue that the battle lasted for around four hours.  Given the numbers of Mexican dead, a four-hour timeline makes sense.  The defenders of the Alamo had absolutely no chance of surviving the onslaught of the vastly superior forces under General Antonio López de Santa Anna [1], but they certainly acquitted themselves well, inflicting between 600 to 800 dead and an additional 500 wounded.

Jim Bowie was a legend, long before he ever went to Texas.  He was a fighter, a frontiersman, a land-speculator, and some might even argue that Bowie was a killer and a thief.  It would not have been wise to offer such an opinion to Jim Bowie’s face, however, but a man might mutter such things in a low tone of voice out of Bowie’s range of hearing.  An honest appraisal of Jim Bowie leads us to conclude that he was simply a man of his time. He was capable of acting before thinking.  He was rash and bold in his youth.  He was capable of the love of a good woman.  He was, in the context of the times, seeking advantages in life at a very dangerous time and place.

Bowie was born in Logan County, Kentucky but spent most of his developing years in Louisiana.  Jim was the ninth of ten children born to Reason (also, Rezin) and the former Elve Ap-Catesby-Jones.  Reason served during the American Revolution and, having suffered serious wounds, was released from duty.  In 1782, he married the young woman who helped nurse him back to health. Reason and Elve first settled in Georgia, later moving to Kentucky, and finally settling in Louisiana.  Reason was not a wealthy man, but he did own several head of cattle, seven horses and a stud, and eight negro slaves.  He owned property in both Spanish Louisiana and Spanish Missouri, establishing residences at several Louisiana locations. In 1812, the family lived in Opelousas.

The Bowie’s were a frontier family. His children helped their father clear the land so that it was suitable for farming.  Elve taught the children to read and write.  All of the Bowie children could speak English, French, and Spanish fluently.  Reason taught his male children how to shoot the rifle and pistol; he taught them how to use a knife in their own defense.  As a result of these attentions, all of Reason’s children were fearless, even to the extent of being able to capture live alligators.

Jim Bowie answered Andrew Jackson’s plea for volunteers to fight in the War of 1812.  Both Jim and his brother Rezin enlisted in the Louisiana militia late in 1814 but arrived in New Orleans too late to participate in the actual fighting. After mustering out, Jim settled in Rapides Parish where he worked in a lumber operation sawing planks, floating them down the bayou, and selling them.  In 1819, Bowie joined the Long Expedition [2] in an effort to liberate Texas from Spanish rule.  The extent of Jim Bowie’s participation in the expedition is unknown, but he returned to Louisiana before the filibuster was repelled by the Spanish army.

In those days, Louisiana was a vast territory first explored by the Spaniard Pánfilo de Narvaez early in 1528.  Hernando de Soto led a second expedition in 1542, but then Spanish interest in the land faded away.  In the late 17thcentury, France embarked on several exploratory missions, and it was they who established a series of settlements on the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast.  Through these, France laid its claim to a huge swath of North American territory that extended from the Gulf of Mexico into Canada.  Robert Cavalier de La Salle named the region Louisiana in honor of King Louis XVI of France.

The first permanent settlement was established at Fort Maurepas (near present-day Biloxi, Mississippi) in 1699; a second at La Balise (Seamark).  In 1722, a royal ordinance transferred the Illinois governance from Canada to Louisiana —a document that may have provided the broadest definition of Louisiana and all land claimed by France south of the Great Lakes between the Rocky and Allegheny Mountains.  Within a few decades, however, trade conflicts developed between Louisiana and Canada, which led to a better-defined boundary between French colonies.  The settlement at Natchitoches (along the Red River) was established in 1714, its purpose to affect trade with Spanish Texas via the Old San Antonio Road, and also to block Spanish advances into Louisiana.

Before Reason passed away (around 1820), he divided his wealth between Jim and Rezin Bowie, which included ten slaves and some number of horses and cattle.  For the next seven years, Jim and Rezin engaged in land speculation. They worked to develop several large estates in Lafourche Parish and in Opelousas.  It was a time of rapidly expanding human population in Louisiana and the Bowie brothers wanted to take advantage of rising land prices.  Without the capital needed to purchase large tracts, they entered into a partnership with the pirate Jean Lafitte in 1818 to raise money.

By this time, the United States had outlawed the importation of African slaves.  To help institute this prohibition, most southern states allowed anyone who informed on a slave trader to receive half of what the imported slaves might earn at auction.  This brings us back to Bowie and his business relationship with Jean Lafitte.  Bowie made several trips to Lafitte’s compound on Galveston Island.  On each trip, he bought smuggled slaves and took them to a customs house to inform on his own actions.  When the customs officials offered the slaves for auction, Bowie purchased them and received a kickback equal to half the price he’d paid.  He could then legally transport these slaves and resell them at market value in New Orleans.  The scheme earned the Bowie brothers $65,000.00 … which they then used for land speculation purposes.

In 1825, Jim and Rezin brought in their younger brother Stephen to purchase the Acadia Plantation near Thibodaux. Within two years, they had established the first steam mill in Louisiana, used in grinding sugar cane. It was a model operation, and in 1831 they sold it and 65 slaves for $90,000.00.  They used this money to purchase a plantation in Arkansas.

Between 1825 and 1831, Jim and John Bowie were involved in a major court case involving land speculation.  When the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, it guaranteed all former land-grant claims.  For the next twenty years, efforts were made to establish a clear understanding of land ownership in Louisiana.  In May 1824, Congress authorized the superior courts of each jurisdiction to hear suits from those claiming that they had been overlooked.

In 1827, the Arkansas Superior Court received 126 claims from residents who insisted that they had purchased land from the Bowie brothers—land that had been part of the Spanish land grant system. The court did confirm most of those claims, but the court’s decisions were reversed in 1831.  Further research seemed to suggest that the land had never belonged to the Bowies.  The U. S. Supreme Court upheld the reversal in 1833.  Outraged, land buyers threatened to sue the Bowies, but the documents needed to prove the swindle mysteriously disappeared and no lawsuit was possible.

Bowie’s rise to fame and the beginning of his legend began in 1827 with the so-called Sandbar Fight, which in those times, were a normal occurrence.  Duels were primarily a matter of competing financial interests, allegations of vote tampering, bad loans, and a few issues involving the honor of local women.  Over time, public fist fights and the exchange of gunfire were increasingly common. Some of these feuds ended without resolution because, although duels were intended, they occasionally ended as shouting matches.  In a few such confrontations, one or both of the aggrieved parties failed to show up. The sandbar fight, however, was the real thing.

Members of two affluent families, headed by Samuel L. Wells III and Dr. Thomas H. Maddox, both of Alexandria, Louisiana (who were related), agreed to meet at a neutral site to resolve their differences.  They selected a sandy shoal in the middle of the Mississippi River because its location was outside the jurisdiction of local law enforcement and less likely to subject the participants to legal action [3].  Wells and Maddox were the primary duelists, and each had designated seconds: Major George McWhorter seconded Wells and Colonel Robert A. Crain seconded Maddox. Both families brought along their friends and families.  Friends of Wells included Dr. Richard Cuny, Jim Bowie, General Samuel Cuny, and Jefferson Wells.  Friends of Maddox included Dr. James Denny, Alfred and Carey Blanchard, and Major Norris Wright [4].  Except for Dr. Denny and Dr. Cuny, everyone else was a known brawler.  In addition to the family friends, other observers included two local plantation owners, two additional medical doctors, a guide, and several unarmed slaves.

At noon on Wednesday, 19 September 1827, the dueling parties met at the sandbar just outside Natchez, Mississippi. Seventeen men were armed.  The Wells party was the first to arrive by small boat from the Louisiana shore.  Maddox and his group arrived on horseback from a nearby Mississippi plantation house.  Formal rules were adopted with a delay between exchanges of fire.  Witnesses wisely kept their distance from the combatants.  Wells and Maddox each fired two volleys, neither was injured, and they resolved the duel with handshakes.

After the duel, the Wells party prepared to celebrate their survival with a few friendly nips of whiskey.  These men were unarmed, except for Wells’ second, Dr. Cuny, who properly stored the dueling weapons.  As the Wells party approached the Maddox group, they were confronted by Colonel Crain, who was holding loaded pistols in each hand.  Crain’s demeanor appeared threatening.  The Wells group quickly formed a perimeter in order to defend themselves against hostile acts.  General Cuny, who had previously fought with Crain, called out to him, “Colonel Crain, this is a good time to settle our difficulty.”  Crain raised a pistol and fired at Cuny, missing him and hitting Jim Bowie, who received a wound to his hip.  Bowie fell to the ground.  Cuny and Crain then exchanged gunfire, Crain receiving a flesh wound, and Cuny being mortally wounded in the chest.

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An artist’s rendition of the Sandbar Fight. Date of rendition unknown. Taken from the public domain.

Bowie struggled to his feet, drew his knife [5], and charged Crain.  Crain struck Bowie in the head with his empty pistol.  The blow was forceful enough to break the pistol and send Bowie to his knees.  Major Wright drew out his pistol and fired at the disabled Bowie but missed his target. Wright then unsheathed his cane-sword and stabbed Bowie in the chest.

Bowie’s breast bone deflected the blade. As Wright attempted to withdraw his sword, Bowie reached up, grabbed his shirt, and pulled him down onto the blade of his knife.  Wright died quickly, but Bowie was again shot and stabbed by another member of the Maddox group.  As Bowie struggled to his feet, both Alfred and Carey Blanchard fired their weapons and Bowie was hit for the third time, in the arm.  Bowies spun around and with his knife sliced into Alfred Blanchard’s arm. Carey fired at Bowie a second time but missed.  The Blanchard brothers fled, Alfred being shot in the arm by Jefferson Wells and Carey being targeted by Major McWorter without effect.

The brawl, which only lasted around 90-seconds, left Samuel Cuny and Norris Wright dead, Alfred Blanchard and Jim Bowie were seriously wounded, the unarmed Dr. Denny received wounds to his hand and thigh, and Crain ended the affair with a flesh wound.  It was a mystery to the attending medical doctors how Bowie could have survived his several wounds [6].

What we know of this incident, made famous in tale and myth, comes to us through eight eye-witnesses, each of whom had a different opinion of what happened.  A battle of editorials then ensued, Wells claiming that Cuny’s death was no more than pre-meditated murder, Cain writing that his shooting of Bowie was justified in self-defense (only Bowie wasn’t carrying a firearm).  Bowie himself never spoke to the press about what happened on the sandbar.  Within a month, however, Sam Wells died from a fever.  With his death, it may not have mattered what actually happened on the Sandbar, except perhaps to Bowie, who emerged from the brawl as the most seriously wounded “witness.”  In the aftermath of the sandbar fight, a Natchez grand jury met to consider whether criminal charges should be brought.  Jim Bowie was never called as a witness and no indictments were ever returned. Nevertheless, press reports of the incident helped to propel Jim Bowie into the national limelight.

If the sandbar fight propelled Bowie into the national limelight, his role in the Texas Revolution cemented his place in Texas history.  Following his recovery from serious wounds in 1827, Bowie relocated to Texas in 1828, settling near San Antonio.  At this time, the Constitution of 1824 banned any religion other than Roman Catholicism. Catholic affiliation gave citizens of Mexico preference in receiving land.  Bowie was baptized into the Catholic faith at San Antonio on 28 April 1828, sponsored by Alcalde Juan Martin de Veramendi [7] and his wife, Josefa Navarro.

For the next 18 months, Bowie traveled through Louisiana and Mississippi.  He took up official residence in Texas in January 1830.  Back in Texas, he presented Stephen F. Austin with a letter of introduction from Thomas F. McKinney, who was one of the original three-hundred Texian colonists.  In the next month, Bowie took an oath of allegiance to Mexico, and as a citizen, returned to San Antonio [8].  Bowie’s fluency in Spanish helped install him within the largely Hispanic community. It was during this period that Bowie and Veramendi formed a business partnership.  Bowie intended to establish cotton and wool mills in Saltillo, then the provincial capital of Coahuila y Tejas.  He purchased eleven leagues [9] of land in his own name and convinced others to purchase land and turn it over to him.  Overall, Bowie ended up with 700,000 acres.  In 1834, the government of Mexico passed laws that prohibited this kind of speculation, but Bowie’s property holdings remained intact.

On 25 April 1831, Jim Bowie married 19-year old Maria Ursula de Veramendi, youngest daughter of Juan Martin. Bowie agreed to pay his bride a dowry of $15,000.00 (today around $353,000) in property or cash within two years of the marriage.  The newly-weds built a house in San Antonio near Mission San José.  Eventually, Jim and Ursula moved into the Veramendi Palace. Bowie and his wife produced two children: Marie Elve (b. 20 March 1832) and James Veramendi Bowie (b. 18 July 1833). From every account, Bowie was very much in love with Ursula and the marriage seemed to have guaranteed financial stability for the couple’s future.

Bowie and Juan Veramendi were engaged in several business interests.  One of these involved organizing an expedition to locate the mythical San Saba silver mine.  While on this expedition, a Comanche war party attacked the Bowie Party.  Jim Bowie played a courageous role in repelling the attack, which helped to solidify his reputation within Texas.

In the 1830s, Mexico (having only achieved independence from Spain in 1821) was in the throes of political upheaval. The national congress and national leaders debated the kind of government that best suited Mexican culture. There were competing ideologies, of course.  One group favored federalism, another centralization.

Antonio López de Santa Anna was a politician of the first order, which means that he was not to be trusted.  In 1832, Santa Anna led an insurrection against El Presidenté Anastasio Bustamante y Oseguera.  Elected to the presidency in 1833, Santa Anna was at first a staunch federalist who supported the Constitution of 1824, but then he came to the realization that under a centralist regime, he could exercise far greater power.  Having learned important lessons from the experiences of Agustin de Iturbide [10], he may not have wanted to declare himself the Emperor of Mexico, but he was most assuredly going down the path of totalitarianism.

During this time, several of Mexico’s provinces rebelled against the centralist regime.  The centralist response to this unhappiness was to employ the army to squelch every instance of rebellion.  It was Santa Anna’s policy to execute everyone associated with rebellious acts against the authority of the centralist state.  Coahuila y Tejas was one of the provinces in rebellion.  In Texas, many (but not all) Anglo-settlers (citizens of Mexico) valued their rights as citizens; they believed that Santa Anna had overstepped his authority as President of Mexico, generally, but particularly so as it related to Anglo settlements in Texas.

Long before the Texian revolt, however, reverberations among Mexican and Texian citizens alike caused Santa Anna to increase a military presence in Texas, particularly within the town of Béxar, which was one of two choke points of the two primary routes to the interior of Mexico.  The military commander in Nacogdoches, José de las Piedras, even went so far as to demand that all residents within his jurisdiction surrender their firearms.

In 1832, Bowie participated with a group of Texians who marched against Piedras, intending to present to him their demands that he countermand his order.  En route, the Texians were attacked by a squadron of Mexican cavalry. The Texians returned fire, signaling the beginning of the Battle of Nacogdoches.  In a second engagement, Piedras lost 33 men and this prompted Piedras to withdraw his force from Nacogdoches.  Bowie and 18 other Texians ambushed the retreating soldiers, capturing most and marched them back to town.  Piedras escaped.

Bowie was elected as a delegate to the Texas Convention of 1833, which resulted in a formal request that Texas be separated from Coahuila and become its own state within the Mexican federation.

Several months later, cholera struck Texas.  Fearing for the safety of his wife and children, Bowie sent them, along with his father-in-law, his wife, and one of their sons to the family estate in Monclova. He could not know that in doing this, he sealed their fate.  In September, cholera took hold in Monclova.  The entire family died from this disease.  Bowie did not hear of this devastating event until November 1833; he afterward took to drink and slovenly appearance.

In 1834, Bowie received two appointments. He was elected to command a unit of Texas Rangers [11], which entitled him to the rank of colonel, and he was appointed to serve as a land commissioner tasked with promoting Anglo settlements in the lands allocated to John T. Mason.  His appointment ended in 1835 when Santa Anna abolished the government of Coahuila y Tejas and ordered the arrest of all Texians doing business in Monclova —including Bowie.  Bowie quickly returned to the Anglo settlements.

Santa Anna’s dictatorial behavior caused Texians to agitate for war.  Bowie began working with William B. (Buck) Travis, who headed the so-called War Party of Texas, to gain the support of Texians and local Indian tribes to rebel against the centralist regime.  Santa Anna responded to these efforts by increasing his military footprint in Texas.

The armed revolution began in Texas on 2 October 1835 with the Battle of Gonzalez.  Stephen F. Austin, the father of Texas, raised 500 men to march against the Mexican Army in San Antonio de Béxar.  Austin had no military background and his army consisted of undisciplined citizen-militia.  The term Texian Army is often used to describe this militia force.  Austin asked Colonel Bowie and Lieutenant Colonel James W. Fannin to scout the area around the Mission San Francisco de la Espada and San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayoto to locate supplies that would be useful to the volunteer force.  The scouting force mustered 92 men, many of whom were members of the New Orleans Grays, recently arrived from the United States.  After establishing a good defensive position near Mission Concepción, Bowie and Fannin sent word to Austin requesting that he join them there.

The morning of 28 October arrived with an overcast sky and ground fog.  General Domingo Ugartechea used these conditions to launch an assault against Bowie and Fannin.  Ugartechea’s arsenal included 300 infantry, cavalry, and two field cannons.  He was able to advance to within about 200-yards of the Mission, but the Texians were well-protected from Mexican gunfire.  As the Mexican force paused to reload and aim their field artillery, Texian sharpshooters mounted a bluff and began picking off Ugartechea’s soldiers.  The Mexicans were demoralized when Bowie led a cavalry charge and seized one of the cannons.  This bold stroke caused Ugartechea to withdraw his force.  Mexican losses included ten killed; the Texians lost one man.  Among the Texians, Bowie was viewed as a born leader.

Within an hour of the Battle of Concepción, Austin arrived with the rest of the Texian Army to begin a siege of Béxar.  General Martin Perfecto de Cós, headquartered at the Alamo, exercised overall command of the Mexican force.  Two days later, Bowie resigned from Austin’s force because he was not offered a regular commission and because he disliked having to confine himself to minor tasks.

Texas declared itself an independent state on 3 November 1835.  Henry Smith of Brazoria was elected the provisional governor.  Austin, finally coming to grips with the fact that he was unsuitable to serve in a military capacity, resigned.  Sam Houston was appointed to command the Texian Army.  Edward Burleson was appointed to command the force in Béxar.  Jim Bowie appeared before the governing council to argue why they should offer him a regular commission.  He spoke for over an hour.  Bowie’s request was refused, however.  The likely reason for this refusal was lingering animosity over Bowie’s previous involvement with Texas land speculation.  Sam Houston did offer Bowie a commission on his staff, but Bowie turned it down —opting instead to enlist as a private soldier under James Fannin.

Bowie distinguished himself again on 26 November 1835.  Returning to San Antonio de Béxar, Bowie led sixty mounted men to intercept a Mexican mule train, which the Texians believed contained a valuable cargo.  Actually, General Cós had dispatched 187-men to cut grass for forage.  On their return to Béxar, and observing the approaching Texians, the Mexicans picked up their pace.  They weren’t fast enough.  Bowie’s force overtook them, and a fight ensued.  The Texians suffered two wounded men, but inflicted 50 casualties among the Mexicans and successfully captured many horses and mules.  This was the so-called Grass Fight.

Soon after Bowie departed Béxar to intercept the Mexican cargo train, Old Ben Milam and Frank Johnson led an assault on San Antonio.  The Texians suffered several casualties in heavy fighting, and Milam was killed, but the Mexicans lost far more to death, desertion, and combat wounds.  These losses prompted General Cós to surrender Béxar to the Texians.  With Cós’ withdrawal, many of the Texian volunteers believed that the war was over and returned to their homes.

In January 1836, Bowie again appeared before the provisional council and requested their permission to raise a regiment of men.  Once again, the council turned him down, saying, “… he was not an officer of the government, nor army. [12]

When word reached Sam Houston that Santa Anna was leading a large force to San Antonio, Bowie offered to lead a force of volunteers to defend the Alamo.  Houston dispatched him to Béxar with 30 men and they arrived on 19 January. The Alamo was garrisoned by 104 Texian volunteers.  They had few weapons, a few cannons, but very little equipment and even less gunpowder. Houston knew that the garrison was insufficient to hold out against a large Mexican force and he had given Bowie authority to remove the cannon and destroy the Alamo.  Commanding the garrison at this time was James C. Neill, a former US Army artillery officer.  Neill advised Bowie that the garrison didn’t have sufficient wagons and oxen available to move the cannon, but he also didn’t want to destroy the mission.

On 26 January, Lieutenant Colonel Jim Bonham, who was serving under Bowie, organized a rally which passed a resolution to hold the Alamo.  The signatures of Bonham and Bowie appear on the resolution as its first and second signatories.

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An artist’s rendition of Jim Bowie at the Alamo. Taken from the public domain.

Jim Bowie’s fluency in Spanish and his family connections stood him in good stead with the predominantly Hispanic population of Béxar.  He constantly received intelligence about Santa Anna’s movements.  What Bowie was told was that Santa Anna was marching with 4,500 troops.  It was an exaggeration.  At most, Santa Anna commanded fewer than 3,000 troops, only 1,800 of which accompanied him to Béxar.  Bowie wrote several letters to the provincial government asking for reinforcements and supplies.  The government was not in a position to send either: Houston wanted to conserve these resources for a battle of his choosing and the Texians were critically short of both men and material —Governor Smith was not going to waste men or supplies by sending them to the Alamo.  At this point, the fate of its garrison was already sealed.

Former congressman and frontiersman David Crockett arrived in Béxar on 3 February with thirty Tennesseans.  A week later, Colonel Neill was called home due to a serious illness within his family and Buck Travis was appointed to command the garrison.  Bowie was older than Travis, had a well-known reputation, and, owing to his commission as a Texas Ranger, considered himself a colonel.  Travis, on the other hand, was young, inexperienced, arrogant, and a lieutenant colonel.  Bowie refused to answer to Travis.  Frustrated, Travis called an election to determine which of them should command the garrison.  The Texians overwhelmingly chose Bowie, who had demonstrated time and again his courage and coolness under fire.  Travis was disgusted, but two days later the men agreed to allow Bowie and Travis a joint command.  Bowie would command the volunteers, and Travis would command the regular force and volunteer cavalry.

Travis believed that he had time to shore up the Alamo; that the earliest Santa Anna’s force could arrive was mid-March 1836.  Santa Anna’s force appeared on 23 February.  The townsfolk panicked and began leaving Béxar in droves.

Travis ordered all Texian forces inside the Alamo.  Bowie worked overtime gathering provisions, including cattle to sustain the garrison. Fearing for the safety of his dead wife’s relatives, Bowie invited them into the protection of the Alamo … including Gertrudis Navarro, Juana Navarro Alsbury, and her 18-month old child. Bowie also brought in several black servants from the Veramendi household.  Throughout these many activities, Bowie became increasingly ill.  Available medical doctors were unable to say what the problem was.

William B. Travis and the Alamo garrison flew the lawful flag of Mexico above them.  It was a tri-color green, white, and red standard, modified with the letters 1824 sewn into the white strip.  These numbers represented the Constitution adopted by Mexico in 1824. This is what the men of the Alamo were fighting for.  Travis could not have known that fellow Texians had declared Texas an independent state of Mexico, or that they might be serving under a different standard.

Upon Santa Anna’ arrival at Béxar on 23 February, he established his headquarters at Mission San Fernando.  The next day, he dispatched a rider to the Alamo demanding its unconditional surrender.  Travis responded to this demand by firing a shot from one of his cannons.  Antonio López de Santa Anna was not at all pleased. He responded by raising a blood-red flag over the Cathedral.  This was the “no quarter” flag Santa Anna had used before.  It signified that the rebels would be butchered, even if they did surrender or were captured.

The siege began on 24 February.  The Alamo’s defenders could see the blood-red flag flying in the distance, but there could be no question of surrendering. This too was a point of honor among these Texians.  They started something, and they intended to see it through or die trying.  Still, no one wants to die and Bowie and Travis continued sending out couriers with pleas for reinforcement and provisions.

On 25 February, 32 additional men arrived at the Alamo —and while Bowie and Travis were glad to receive them, it wasn’t going to be enough.

On 26 February, Bowie was confined to his bed.  His illness getting the better of him, Bowie appointed Travis sole commander of the Garrison.  According to the biographer Clifford Hopewell, even though Bowie was suffering from his affliction, he continued to crawl out of bed every day around noon, dress, and present himself to the officers and men of the Alamo.  He wanted his men to know that he was still with them.

Thirty-five years later, a reporter would identify another man who served at the Alamo: one of the deserters was a man named Louis Moses Rose.  According to Rose’s account, when Travis realized that the Mexican army would certainly prevail, Travis drew a line in the sand.  Those who intended to remain and fight were asked to cross the line.  Revisionist historians claim that the “line in the sand” is a myth, but Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson was an eye-witness to the event. According to Rose, at Bowie’s request, Crockett and others carried Bowie and his cot across the line.  Rose was the only man who refused to cross the line and he was sent on his way out of the Alamo.

Jim Bowie perished along with the rest of the Alamo on 6 March 1836.  Most of the noncombatants at the Alamo, including Bowie’s in-laws, survived.  Santa Anna ordered the Alcalde Francisco Antonio Ruiz to confirm the identities of the remains of Bowie, Travis, and Crockett.  Susanna Dickinson also identified their remains.  At first, Santa Anna ordered that Bowie’s remains be properly buried, but he later had Bowie’s remains tossed into the funeral pyre.  In any case, according to the testimony of Susanna Dickinson, when she was led through the Alamo to identify remains, she discovered Bowie’s body on his cot with dead Mexican soldiers surrounding him.

In 1837, Juan Seguin returned to the Alamo and gathered the remaining ashes from the funeral pyre.  He placed these ashes in a coffin and had it inscribed with the names of Bowie, Travis, and Crockett.  These ashes are still at rest within the Cathedral San Fernando.

When finally notified of her son’s death, Elve Bowie calmly stated, “I’ll wager no wounds were found in his back.” From every account we have of the Battle of the Alamo, Mrs. Bowie was right.

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  1. Davis, W. C. Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barrett Travis.  New York: Harper-Collins, 1998.
  2. Early Life in the Southwest: The Bowies. DeBows Review, October 1862.
  3. Hopewell, C. James Bowie: Texas Fighting Man: A Biography. Austin: Eakin Press, 1994
  4. The Handbook of Texas Online, James Bowie, William Williamson, Texas State Historical Association, June 2010
  5. Groneman, B. Alamo Defenders, A Genealogy: The People and Their Words.  Austin: Eakin Press, 1990
  6. Groneman, B. Eyewitness to the Alamo.  Plano: Republic of Texas Press, 1996


[1] It would be a reasonable question to ask: if the Alamo was indefensible, then why would these men expose themselves to certain death?  It is a question that seems to run through several of these Old West Tales.  There was a principle at work here, and it was a different time —when matters of honor were more important than life— and then, given the result of the Texas Revolution, we have to observe that these men did not die in vain.

[2] James Long formed a filibuster to fight against the Spanish army in Mexico, which then included the province of Coahuila y Tejas, and was joined by Jean Lafitte and Ben Milam.  Initially successful in establishing a republic in Texas (also called the Long Republic), the effort failed within a year as Spanish forces concentrated their efforts to drive the interlopers out of Texas.

[3] Dueling was a common phenomenon in the southern and western states through the end of the American Civil War.  Duels presented a quicker way of settling disputes outside courts.  Beyond arguments over tangible items, most were fought over issues of personal honor.

[4] Norris Wright, short in stature, was known for his violent temper and a man who never walked away from a fight.  He was also the Sheriff of Rapides Parish, Louisiana.

[5] The seriously wounded Bowie thereafter prominently displayed a large sheath knife. The so-called Bowie Knife became quite popular in his day and continued well into the 20thcentury. Originally fashioned by the blacksmith James Black for Bowie in 1830, the knife was improved several times by Jim and Rezin Bowie over many years.  The knife that added to Jim’s reputation as a rugged frontiersman is officially described as “a large sheath knife with a concave clip point, sharp false edge cut from both sides, and a cross-guard to protect the user’s hands.”

[6] Physically, Jim Bowie was a big man for those times, when most men stood 5’8-9” tall.  Bowie stood well over 6’2” and probably weighed 210 pounds.

[7] Juan Martin de Veramendi served as vice governor and governor of Coahuila y Tejas.  He was born in San Fernando de Béxar, which suggests that he was a descendant of the hidalgos (upper class) who emigrated to Texas from the Canary Islands.  Ursula was the youngest of his seven children. Juan’s career included service as a customs collector, member of the national congress, Béxar governing council (Ayuntamiento), and mayor (Alcalde).  He was also an astute businessman and the owner of a large estate.  Veramendi supported Anglo settlement in Texas.  He died, along with his wife, a son, and Bowie’s wife and two children as a result of a cholera epidemic in 1833.

[8] Then known simply as Béxar, which had a population of around 2,500 people.

[9] At this time in Mexico, a league was the distance a man could walk in an hour.

[10] Emperor of Mexico, 1822 to 1827, as Agustin I.

[11] The Texas Rangers, as an organization, were not officially organized until 1835, but Stephen F. Austin had founded the group as a frontier protection force.  Bowie commanded a group of these volunteers.

[12] James Bowie Texas Fighting Man, Clifford Hopewell, 1994.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in HISTORY. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Jim Bowie: The Man Behind the Legend

  1. Kid says:

    Wow. Great read as always !

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Andy says:

    Excellent bio on a very interesting character


  3. bunkerville says:

    Thanks much for a great read… perfect for a Saturday…

    Liked by 1 person

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