Jim Bowie & the Most Famous Blade in Texas

Jim Bowie–a name synonymous with Texas. Most of us know he died defending the Alamo, and that he wielded a big knife that now carries his name. But Jim Bowie was quite an interesting character.

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.

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12 thoughts on “Jim Bowie & the Most Famous Blade in Texas”

  1. Tracy,
    All the men who died at the Alamo have always held a kind of mystery for me. What kind of man could lead others to certain death? It seems that Travis and Bowie both had their share of ne’er do well times, but they both instilled some kind of honor and devotion in others. Crockett, too. Finding out more about how these men lived is always intriguing to me, because of the way they died. Very interesting post, and I’m looking forward to the next part—the part about the knife. LOL It’s all fascinating to me. When we went to the Alamo a few years ago, I didn’t want to leave. That was the most interesting part of the trip to San Antonio for me–I had wanted to go there for years. I think about how much $20,000 was back in those days–Bowie must have been the equivalent of someone like Donald Trump at one point in his life.
    Cheryl P.

  2. What an amazing life, Tracy. Back in the early 1950’s there was a novel about Bowie called THE IRON MISTRESS (referring to the knife). It was later made into a movie of the same name, starring Alan Ladd. Not sure how true to life it was or whether it’s available on dvd. I remember how he got the knife in the movie, so I’m looking forward to the real story.

  3. I’ve always held a fascination for Bowie as well as Crockett. Losing his wife and two young children must’ve influenced him greatly, I think. Thanks for the great post.

  4. Hi Tracy, wonderful stuff here. I so wanted to buy a souvenir Bowie knife when I visited the Alamo. No cheap ones though….losing his family is almost unimaginable. Good one oxoxo.

  5. Tracy, thank you for such an interesting post. There was so much more to the man that most of us have never heard. It is surprising how many figures in early American have Kentucky and/or Tennessee in their early history.
    I am looking forward to the post about the knife.

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