Sunday, September 19, 2021

Jim Bowie—Rapscallion to Folk Hero With a Big Knife

Already shot and wounded Jim Bowie, stabbed Norris Wright who was trying to extract his sword cane from Bowie's torso with his big knife inflicting fatal damage.

It was on this date in 1827 that Jim Bowie  killed a man in a Louisiana duel that disintegrated into a free-for-all melee.  He had been a witness to the duel when bystanders and partisans of the principals began brawling.  Bowie had already been shot and stabbed when he used his unique, large knife to kill banker Major Norris Wright.  Bowie was shot again and carried away with what was assumed to be fatal wounds.  Ironically, the two principals in the duel each fired two shots without hitting the other and shook hands with their honor vindicated.  Neither was injured in the subsequent brawl.

The Vidalia Sandbar Fight made Bowie’s reputation as a man to feared and made versions of his knife standard weapons on the Southwestern frontier.  Although Jim was credited with the invention of the big sheath knife it was probably conceived by his brother Rezin, an equally quarrelsome fighter, after he was almost fatally stabbed in an earlier knife fight.  The knife was longer and heavier than the typical double-edged knife then most carried on the frontier.  As its popularity spread and many makers produced them the design varied somewhat.

An early example of a Bowie knife.

The typical Bowie knife had a 9 to 15 inch blade sharpened only on one side for much of its length with a curved tip that was sharpened to a point on both sides. The double-edged tip made the knife an effective stabbing weapon, while the dull-edge and a brass hand guard allowed the user to slide a hand down over the blade as needed for slashing. It was the perfect knife for close-quarter fighting.  The knife Bowie caried to the Sand Bar Fight probably had a hand guard that could double as brass knuckles.  A portrait painted from life in Texas showed him gripping such a weapon.

The legend of Bowie and his knife portrayed him as a heroic frontiersman and soldier.  The reality was quite different.  He was a short fused heavy drinker, gambler, land speculator, and slave trader.  He had political aspirations, but his wild, unpredictable temper left him with few true friends and allies.

James Bowie was born in Logan County, Kentucky about 1796 but his father Reason (or Rezin), a Revolutionary War veteran, relocated his wife and nine children to Spanish Louisiana in 1802.  Jim was the second youngest of the brood The children grew up in wild bayou territory and learned to hunt, fish, and make their way in near wilderness.  Their father had a small but prosperous plantation and made sure his children were literate.  Brothers Jim and Rezin were especially close and also became fluent in both Spanish and French.

In 1814 both young men heeded General Andrew Jackson’s call to battle the British and enrolled in the Louisiana Militia.  Although they arrived in New Orleans too late to take part in the famous battle, they began to think of themselves as soldiers.  Jim moved to Rapides Parish where he hewed planks from logs using a saw pit and slave labor then floated his lumber down the bayou for sale.

In 1818 the brothers entered into a partnership with pirate Jean Lafitte to smuggle slaves after the African slave trade had been officially banned by Congress to earn cash to acquire land for speculation. Bowie made three trips to Lafitte’s compound on Galveston Island where he bought smuggled slaves and took them directly to a customhouse to inform on his own actions. When the customs officers offered the slaves for auction, Bowie purchased them and received back half the price he had paid. Most Southern states gave incentives for informing on an illegal slave trader and the informers could receive half of what the imported slaves would earn at auction as a reward. He rebought the slaves and could then legally transport them for resale at a greater market value in New Orleans or areas farther up the Mississippi River. Using this scheme, the brothers collected $65,000 to use for their land speculation

Bowie was with James Longs men when they captured Nacadoches.  Both returned to Louisiana but when the Spanish re-recaptured the city, long mounted another expedition.  Bowie stayed home.  Long's forces were defeated, he was captured, and executed in Mexico City.

Bowie also had his eye out for adventure. Both land and adventure could be found in neighboring Texas which was very loosely held by the Spanish as the northern province of New SpainIn June 1819, he joined the Long Expedition, an effort to seize Texas from Spanish rule. The small force 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.

The next year, 1820 Bowies father died and left him and Resin plantation holdings and slaves.  the brothers worked together to develop several large estates in Lafourche Parish and Opelousas

In 1825, the two brothers joined with their younger brother, Stephen, to buy Acadia Plantation near Thibodaux. Within two years, they had established there the first steam mill in Louisiana for grinding sugar cane. The plantation became known as a model operation, but on February 12, 1831, they sold it and 65 slaves for $90,000. With their profits, James and Rezin bought a plantation in Arkansas.

In the late 1820s, Bowie and his brother John were involved in a major Arkansas court case over land speculation. When the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, it promised to honor all former land grant claims made to French and Spanish colonists. 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 those who claimed they had been overlooked.

In late 1827, the Arkansas Superior Court received 126 claims from residents who claimed to have purchased land in former Spanish grants from the Bowie brothers. 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.  When the disgruntled purchasers considered suing the Bowies, they discovered that the documents in the case had been removed from the courthouse. Left without evidence, they could not pursue the lawsuit.

Ill will from this notorious fraud was a contributing cause of the Sandbar brawl.

In 1828, after recovering from the wounds he received in the Sandbar Fight and possibly to avoid other enemies, Bowie moved to Coahuila y Texas, a state in the new Mexican federation. To conform to the terms of the 1824 Mexican Constitution which banned religions other than Roman Catholicism and gave preference to Mexican citizens in receiving land Bowie was baptized into Catholic faith in San Antonio on April 28, 1828, sponsored by Juan Martín de Veramendithe, alcalde (chief administrator.) For the next 18 months, Bowie traveled through Louisiana and Mississippi hoping to recruit settlers.

Bowie in his only authenticated life portrait made during his years of activity in Texas.  Note the hand guard on the hilt of his famous knife.

On January 1, 1830, Bowie left live in Texas permanently.  In San Felipe, he presented a letter of introduction from Thomas F. McKinney, one of the Old Three Hundred colonists, to Stephen F. Austin. On February 20, Bowie swore an oath of allegiance to Mexico and proceeded to San Antonio de Béxar. At the time, the city was known as Bexar and had a population of 2500, mostly native Mexican descent. Bowie’s fluency in Spanish helped him to get established in the area.

Bowie was elected a commander of the Texas Rangers later that year, with the rank of colonel.  Although the Rangers would not be organized officially until 1835, Austin had founded the force by hiring 30 men to keep the peace and protect the colonists from attacks by hostile Native tribes Bowie commanded a group of volunteers.

Bowie's young wife, Maria Ursula Veramendithe.

Upon renouncing his American citizenship and promising to build a textile mill in partnership with Veramendithe, who had been promoted to vice governor of the province, Bowie married his daughter Maria Ursula.  The couple build a home in Béxar but soon moved into her father’s official palace. Under the circumstances it was no surprise that he was granted the right to buy up to 11 leagues of public land. He convinced 14 or 15 other citizens to apply for land and transfer it to him, giving him 700,000 acres for speculation. Bowie may have been the first to induce settlers to apply for empresario grants, which could be sold in bulk to speculators.  This dodge was made illegal by the Mexican government by 1835 but Bowie had already profited.

Shortly after his marriage Bowie, brother Rezin, and ten other men embarked on a search for a semi-legendary lost silver mine deep in territory controlled by hostile Comanche, Apache, and other tribes.  Six miles from the abandoned San Saba Mine the expedition encountered a large band of more than 120 Tawakoni and Waco, plus another 40 Caddo.  Attempts to parlay with the natives failed and they mounted an attack.  A desperate battle lasted 13 hours and the Bowie party was only able to survive due to their firearms and ample ammunitionGarbled accounts of the fight reached Béxar. To the town’s surprise, the surviving members of the group returned on December 6. Rezin Bowie’s report of the expedition, written in Spanish, was printed in several newspapers, further establishing his reputation and bring him to national attention in the U.S. He set out again the following month, with a larger force, but returned home empty-handed after two-and-a-half months of searching.

Woodcut illustrating Rezin Bowie's 1833 account of an 1831 Indian fight in Texas appearing in the Saturday Evening Post and Atkinson's Casket.

Maria Ursula, her two young children with Bowie, and both of her parents died in September 1833 during a cholera epidemic that swept through the South.  

In 1832 the Mexican government enacted restrictions on American colonists, including their land speculation schemes and began establishing military outposts to enforce control over the province.  San Antonio de Béxar was one of the most important.

After hearing that José de las Piedras, the Mexican army commander in Nacogdoches, had demanded that all residents in his area surrender their arms, Bowie cut short a visit to Natchez 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 armed group reached the government headquarters, they were attacked by a force of 100 Mexican cavalry. They returned fire and the Battle of Nacogdoches began. After the cavalry retreated, they laid siege to the garrison. After a second battle, in which Piedras lost 33 men, the army evacuated during the night. Bowie and 18 companions ambushed the fleeing army and, after Piedras fled, marched the troops 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.

After the deaths of his family Bowie began drinking heavily but when the Mexican government passed new laws again allowing sale of land in Texas he returned to land speculation. He was appointed a land commissioner promoting settlement in the area purchased by John T. Mason. His appointment ended in May 1835, when President Antonio López de Santa Anna abolished the Coahuila y Tejas government and ordered the arrest of all Texians 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 Native villages in East Texas in an attempt to persuade the reluctant tribes to fight against the Mexican government.  Santa Anna responded to the rumblings by ordering large numbers of Mexican troops to Texas.

The Texas Revolution began on October 2, 1835, with the Battle of Gonzales. Stephen F. Austin formed an army of 500 men to march on the Mexican forces in San Antonio with the cannon that had precipitated the fight. Texian Army On October 22, Austin asked James W. Fannin and Bowie, now a colonel in the volunteer militia, to scout the area around the missions of San Francisco de la Espada and San José y San Miguel de Aguayo to find supplies for the volunteer forces. The scouting party left with 92 men, many of them members of the New Orleans Grays, who had just arrived in Texas. After discovering a good defensive position near Mission Concepción, the group requested that Austin’s army join them.

On the foggy morning of October 28, Mexican General Domingo Ugartechea led a force of 300 infantry and cavalry and two small cannons against the Texian forces.  Although the Mexican army was able to get within 200 yards, the defensive position protected them from fire. When 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. Ugartechea retreated with his troops, ending the Battle of Concepción.

An hour after the battle ended, Austin arrived with the rest of the Texian army to begin a siege of San Antonio de Béxar, where General Martín Perfecto de Cós, the overall commander of Mexican forces in Texas, and his troops were garrisoned. Two days later, Bowie resigned from Austin’s army because he did not have an official commission and disliked the “minor tasks of scouting and spying”.

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 asked 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 asking for a commission. The council refused his request, probably because of 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, he enlisted in the army as a private under Fannin.  He distinguished himself again in the Grass Fight on November 26 in which he led 60 mounted men to intercept a party 187 men sent to cut grass for Cós’s horses. At the end of the fight, the Texians had two wounded men but had captured many horses and mules.

Bowie helped defeat General Martín Perfecto de Cós, temporarily driving the last Mexican troops from Texas.

Ben Milam led an assault on Béxar. The Texians suffered only a few casualties, including Miliam, while the Mexican army lost many troops to death and desertion. Cós 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 turned down again, because 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 Misión San Antonio de Valero known as the Alamo from the expected attack. He arrived with 30 men on January 19 but still with no official commission. He found a force of 104 men with a few weapons and a few cannons, but not many supplies and little gunpowder. Houston knew that there were not enough men to hold the fort in an attack, and he gave Bowie authority to remove the artillery and blow up the fortification. Bowie and the Alamo commander, 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 that passed a resolution in favor of holding the Alamo. Bonham signed the resolution first, Bowie second.

With close ties to the community, Bowie learned that Santa Anna was marching on the city at the head of an army of 4500.  He dispatched a series of letters to Governor Smith and General Houston begging for reinforcements and supplies despite Houston’s order to retreat.  A letter to Smith said:

…the salvation of Texas depends in great measure on keeping Béxar 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…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.

Neill, however, took leave to tend to sick relatives and command went to William Travis, a Lt. Colonel in Army.  Bowie took offense.  He was older and considered himself Travis superior as an unofficial Colonel of volunteers.  He contested leadership and a vote of the garrison made him commander.  To celebrate Bowie went on a two day epic toot in the town releasing all prisoners in the local jail and harassing citizens. After sobering up he and Travis agreed on a joint command with Travis in charge of the Army and artillery and Bowie of the volunteers and cavalry.

The earliest post battle picture of the Alamo--the ruins in the 1850's.

A few days later Davy Crocket arrived with 30 Tennesseans and took his place in command.  These three became legendary and iconic.  The details of Santa Anna’s 13-day siege and final assault are well known, if often skewed by myth making.  Travis died on the walls.  Crocket is believed to have survived and been taken prisoner then executed by firing squad under Santa Anna’s no quarter orders

Bowie had fallen seriously ill before the final assault and sole command had gone to Travis.  He was confined to a cot in a cell.  According to most accounts he defended himself with his pistols and knife when troopers broke into his room and was bayonetted in his bed.  The bodies of all three leaders were thrown on a pyre with the other dead and unceremoniously burned

The death of Bowie on his sick bed during the final battle.

The Alamo fell on March 6, 1836.  Historians are divided on whether it was a foolish, futile sacrifice or if it bought Sam Houston time to solidify his Army, maneuver it out of harm’s way from Santa Anna’s army, and ultimately be able to surprise his enemy at the Battle of San Jacinto and secure Texas independence.

Although Bowie claimed vast wealth from his land speculations his estate was valued at less than $100 and he owned no clear title to any land.  His few possessions were sold to settle debts.

Popular culture in the U.S. has declared the Alamo a heroic last stand.  Bowie and Crockett became bigger than life folk heroes with many stories made up about the exploits before and during the battle.

Bowie has often been portrayed on the screen.  The first film version of the battle appeared in 1911 with the Gaston Melies lost film The Immortal Alamo, but it omitted Bowie.  Walt Disney TV mini-series Davey Crocket revived interest in the Alamo.  Kenneth Tobey portrayed Bowie.  Bowie got his own TV series, The Adventures of Jim Bowie in 1956 staring Scott Forbes.  The series, criticized for the violence of its knife fights, was set mostly in Louisiana.  A 1987 miniseries The Alamo 13 Days to Glory featured James Arness Bowie, Brian Keith as Davy Crockett, and Alec Baldwin as Travis.

Jason Patrick, left, as Bowie in the 2004 movie The Alamo with Patrick Wilson as William Travis and Billy Bob Thornton as Davey Crocket.

On the Big screen there were several B movie pot boilers like 1937’s Heroes of the Alamo with Roger Williams as Bowie and 1957’s The Lost Command with Sterling Hayden in the role.  Richard Widmark played Bowie in John Wayne’ epic The AlamoJason Patrick played him in the much grittier and more realistic 2004 The Alamo.

But none of them show what a low life and scoundrel Bowie really was.  


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