Born in Kentucky in the spring of 1796, he moved with his parents and nine siblings west to the Red River, then Missouri and finally to Spanish Louisiana and Opelousas in 1812. Fluent in Spanish and French, Bowie was also proficient with pistol, rifle and knife. Bowie and his elder brother, Rezin, enlisted for the War of 1812, though they arrived too late for the fighting.
Now that they were out in the world, the Bowie brothers tried many things to make a living. In order to raise the money needed to take advantage of the rising land prices in Louisiana, they smuggled in slaves, making three trips to buy slaves from the pirate Jean LaFitte and selling them in Louisiana. Of course, they’d worked a deal where they bought the very slaves they’d smuggled in and got back half the price he paid.
In 1825, three of the Bowie boys bought a plantation and established the first steam mill used to grind sugar cane in Louisiana. When they sold out, they used their profits to move on to another plantation in Arkansas.
“The adult Bowie was described by his brother John as “a stout, rather raw-boned man, of six feet height, weighed 180 pounds.” He had light-colored hair, keen grey eyes “rather deep set in his head,” a fair complexion, and high cheek-bones. Bowie had an “open, frank disposition,” but when aroused by an insult, his anger was terrible.”
Always rather fearless, Bowie cut a path for himself all the way to Mexico. As early as 1819, he was working to liberate Texas from Spanish rule. In 1830, he moved to Texas, took the oath of allegiance to Mexico and settled in Saltillo, where he learned of an old law that allowed a Mexican citizen could purchase eleven-league grants in Texas for $100 to $250 each. Bowie urged Mexicans to apply for the eleven-league grants, which he purchased from them. When Jim Bowie left Saltillo a few months later, he owned fifteen or sixteen of these grants. At 4,428.4 acres per grant, Bowie was becoming a rather wealthy man.
Bowie, now age thirty-four, was at his prime. He was well traveled, convivial, loved music, and was generous. He also was ambitious and scheming, played cards for money, and lived in constant state of debt.
When he arrived in San Antonio, he posed as a man of wealth and attached himself to the wealthy Veramendi family. In the autumn of 1830, he accompanied the family back to Saltillo, and on October 5 officially became a Mexican citizen. The citizenship, however, was contingent on his establishing wool and cotton mills in Coahuila, so, through a friend back in Natchez, Bowie purchased a textile mill for $20,000.
On April 25, 1831, Bowie married Ursula de Veramendi, the daughter of a Mexican Governor. But marriage didn’t settle his lust for adventure. He led a fruitless search for the “lost” Los Almagres Mine, somewhere west of San Antonio, and was given the title of “Colonel” when he led twenty-six citizen “rangers” to scout the head of the Colorado River for hostile Indians. He came back empty-handed that time, too.
After the death of his wife and two young children of cholera in 1833, Bowie became a land commissioner for the Texas-Coahuila government, promoting land settlement in Texas. In May of 1835, Mexican President and General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna abolished that government and ordered the arrest of all Texans doing business in the new capital. In response, Bowie led a small group of Texas “militia” to San Antonio in July and seized a stack of muskets in the Mexican armory there.
On October 3, 1835, Santa Anna abolished all state legislatures in Mexico. Former Empresario to Mexico Stephen F. Austin, newly elected to command the volunteer army of Texas, issued a call to arms and placed Jim Bowie on his staff as a colonel. William B. Travis also joined the new army. Bowie led forays south of Bexar and successfully commanded his troops at the battle of Concepción, but he had little interest in formal command, and tried repeatedly to resign from his position.
Sounds to me like General Sam Houston foundthe best way to use Bowie when he asked himto organize a guerilla force to harass the Mexican army in December of 1835.
From here, Bowie’s fate is set in motion. In January, 1836, Bowie returned to Bexar with an order from Houston to demolish the fortifications. After seeing the situation, he recommended that they hold Bexar instead, because of its strategic position. William Travis, now a lieutenant colonel, arrived with thirty men on February 3; David Crockett rode in with twelve men on the eighth. The garrison at the Alamo now had nearly 190 men.
On February 11, Lt. Colonel Travis took command of the garrison. On the 12th, the volunteers elected Bowie to command. On February 13, Bowie and Travis worked out a compromise giving Travis command of the regulars, Bowie command of the volunteers, and both men joint authority over garrison orders and correspondence.
Before dawn on March 6, 1836, while Bowie was confined to a cot with what is believed to be advanced tuberculosis, the Mexican Army under Santa Anna attacked and killed all 188 defenders of the Alamo.
“During Bowie’s lifetime, he had been described as ” a clever, polite gentleman…attentive to the ladies on all occasions…a true, constant, and generous friend…a foe no one dared to undervalue and many feared.” Slave trader, gambler, land speculator, dreamer, and hero, James Bowie in death became immortal in the annals of Texas history.” http://www.forttumbleweed.net/jimbowie.html
—I’m saving the part about the knife for next time.