James Bowie was born to his frontier parents in the late 1700s. Due to poor record keeping during that era, scholars disagree about the exact date and place of his birth. The most common consensus is that he entered this world in Logan County, Kentucky, on April 10, 1796. His father, Rezin Bowie, was a soldier during the American Revolution, and his mother, Elve, had nursed Rezin back to health after the battle of Savannah. After the war the couple had ten children. Like most frontier families, the Bowies lived off the land. They moved frequently and are reported to have lived at varying times in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Louisiana. Rezin financed these moves by selling the land he had freely claimed to other families. It was a lucrative business.
Learned Three Languages
Elve insisted that all of her children be educated. In the juvenile series Jim Bowie: Hero of the Alamo, Ann Graham Gaines wrote, "None of the Bowie children ever went to school, yet all of them learned to read, write, and do arithmetic from lessons taught by Elve. Jim Bowie became fluent in Spanish, French, and English. His surviving letters are clear and well spelled. It is remarkable that Elve found time among the many jobs of each and every day to truly educate all of her children." These skills would serve Bowie well later in life.
Growing up, Bowie was close to his family, particularly his brother Rezin (sometimes spelled Reason) Pleasant. After the family arrived in Louisiana when Jim was six, the two boys spent much of their time exploring the land. They became known for their rough-and-tumble antics. Marianne Johnston noted one tale in the "Jim Bowie" edition of the children's American Legends Series: "The Bowie boys were ... not scared of the alligators and snakes that lived in the bayou. ... [They] liked to explore these swampy areas near the Bowie home in Louisiana. Legend says that Jim started riding alligators when he was a boy. He would rope shut the huge jaws of the dangerous alligators. Then he would jump on the alligators' backs and go for wild rides through the swamps!" Tall tales such as this were widely reported by writers capturing the spirit of frontier life.
Bowie set out on his own at around age 18. He began visiting New Orleans regularly, and soon became known as a gambler and fighter. Around this same time, he and his brother Rezin also entered the slave trade. According to this story recounted by Gaines, they would travel to Galveston Island in Texas to purchase slaves from famed pirate Jean Laffite. Even though slavery was legal in Louisiana, importing slaves was not. Anyone who reported such an act was later given one half of the price those slaves brought at auction. The brothers quickly learned how to work this law to their advantage. According to Gaines, "The Bowie brothers would turn in the slaves they bought from Jean Laffite to the customs agent. Later, they would buy the slaves back cheaply at public auction, while also receiving half that price from the government as their reward. They would then sell the slaves again for a large profit."
Popularized the Bowie Knife
Given the activities the Bowie brothers were engaged in, it is not surprising that they often found themselves in fights with the men that they crossed. One such fight around 1827, known as the Sandbar Duel, centered around a bank loan. Several men lost their lives and Bowie himself was shot multiple times before finally killing his attacker with a knife. Both the fight and the knife gained instant notoriety. According to Mark Stewart in the young people's book The Alamo, from the "American Battlefield Series," "This weapon was a long, curved hunting knife that was excellent for throwing and wide enough to gut whatever its user took a swipe at. In other words, it was a hunting knife that worked well on people." A guard protected the user's hand from the blade and helped gain leverage on the animal or person on the opposite end of the tool.
Like most of Bowie's life, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction in regard to the details of who invented the weapon. Unique in terms of the blade and the guard, the knife gained popularity on the frontier after the Sandbar Duel. While there is no dispute that Jim Bowie made the knife famous, it is possible that his brother Rezin actually designed the weapon. The Encyclopedia of the American West provided one explanation: "Although James Bowie is generally credited with the invention, it was Reason who made the first 'Bowie' knife. Reason, himself, wrote in 1838 that 'the first Bowie knife was made by myself. ... The length of the blade is 9 1/2 inches, its width 1 1/2 inches, single edged and blade not curved.' Since the time that James successfully used the knife in a fight in Louisiana, the legendary weapon has been associated with him, not his brother."
Moved to Texas
It took Bowie several months to recover from the injuries he received during the Sandbar Duel. Not long after, he decided that he needed a fresh start, and decided to move to Texas, which was a part of Mexico at the time, to pursue the many land speculation opportunities available. According to the Dictionary of American Biography, "On October 5, 1830, he became a Mexican citizen and at once began to acquire extensive tracts of land, largely through the device of inducing Mexicans to apply for grants and then buying them, when obtained, at nominal prices." According to Donald S. Frazier in The United States and Mexico at War, this scheme successfully garnered Bowie thousands of acres of Texas land.
Bowie was soon able to ingratiate himself with many of the leading families of San Antonio, due to his well-spoken and educated demeanor. In 1831 he married Ursula Veramendi, daughter of Vice-Governor Juan Martin de Veramendi. The couple had two children. Bowie soon became involved in Texas politics. He was unhappy with new laws being enacted by Mexican officials that threatened his land holdings. When it became obvious that Texas would seek independence from Mexico, he joined the Texas Rangers and was quickly promoted to the rank of colonel. In the summer of 1833, Bowie's wife and children contracted cholera during a summer outbreak. He was traveling for business and was not present when his family perished from the disease.
Mexican officials began restricting northern immigration to Texas in an effort to quell the revolutionary movement that was gaining steam in the region. In response to this and other actions, local politician Stephen Austin sent messages encouraging Texans to fight for their independence from Mexico. Mexican leader Santa Anna took immediate action by dispatching 1,200 troops to the region. When the small town of Gonzalez refused to relinquish a cannon to those troops and instead fired upon them, a war officially started.
Texas citizens answered the call for revolution for a variety of reasons. Stewart noted that Bowie's motives were land-based. He wrote, "Jim Bowie was the ultimate frontier opportunist--a man with a fearsome fighting reputation, a knack for working the system, and an excellent head for business. He was about to close a deal that would have given him control of more that a million acres in Texas when the trouble started in 1835. Historians have suggested that Bowie decided to stand and fight at the Alamo to protect his interests in Texas real estate."
Led Volunteers at the Alamo
Texans had to quickly establish a chain of command. Sam Houston, former governor of Tennessee, was chosen to lead the army. The Mexican strategy was to take away the resistance's weapons. After several skirmishes in the area, Houston sent Bowie to destroy the Alamo so Mexican troops could not use it to their advantage. The Alamo had an extensive history prior to the battle that made it famous. According to Michael Burgan, writing in the children's book The Alamo, "At first, the Alamo was a mission called San Antonio de Valero. Here, Spanish priests lived and taught Native Americans about the Roman Catholic religion. The mission closed in the 1790s and soon after was turned into a fort. It was named Alamo after the hometown of Mexican soldiers stationed there."
When Bowie arrived at the Alamo, he decided to defy Houston's orders to blow up the fort. Believing that it was a valuable military asset, he ordered the soldiers and volunteers to begin fortifying the defenses. Bowie shared command with Colonel William Barret Travis. Bowie led the volunteers while Travis was head of the soldiers. Not surprisingly, troubles arose from this shared responsibility. According to Edwin P. Hoyt, writing in The Alamo: An Illustrated History, "Bowie issued orders without consulting Travis. ... Travis complained about Bowie's drinking and high-handed manner, and threatened to send the regular troops out of town."
The men reconciled their differences when Bowie fell ill with typhoid fever. He was confined to a sickbed the day after Santa Anna arrived in San Antonio on February 23, 1836, bringing with him approximately 1,800 troops. There were several small skirmishes in the days immediately following the Mexicans' arrival at the Alamo but the Texans did not lose a single soldier. The defenders of the Alamo sent desperate letters to Houston and other leaders, begging for supplies and more troops. The requests were not answered in time. Despite numbering fewer than 200 soldiers, the resistance held strong until March 6. On that day, the Mexicans laid siege to the fort. The attack took place at dawn. In the children's book The Alamo: the Fight over Texas, Gaines described the battle: "Close to 2,000 soldiers advanced. The 190 men inside the Alamo tried to hold them back with cannon and rifle fire. Many Mexican soldiers fell, and for a moment their advance stopped. But their commanders reformed their lines and drove their men forward to the walls. At close range they started to shoot the Texans one by one. William Barret Travis was one of the first to die. He was shot while he stood on the north wall."
Like the rest of his legendary life, Bowie's actual role in the final battle at the Alamo remains unverified. There is no question that he was suffering a high fever at the time. Some historians believe he was dead before Mexican soldiers ever entered the fort. Others have recounted the story that he fought valiantly from his sickbed using the very knife that carries his name.
James Bowie (1796-1836) was a colonel in the Texas Rangers and led the defense of the Alamo in 1836. Prior to that infamous battle he had earned a reputation as a notorious fighter and as the inventor of the famed Bowie knife, which still enjoys popularity today.
- Burgan, Michael, The Alamo, Compass Point Books, 2001.
- Dictionary of American Biography, edited by Allen Johnson, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1936.
- Encyclopedia of the American West, edited by Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod, Simon & Schuster, 1996.
- Gaines, Ann, The Alamo: The Fight Over Texas, The Child's World, 2003.
- Gaines, Ann Graham, Jim Bowie: Hero of the Alamo, Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2000.
- Hoyt, Edwin P., The Alamo: An Illustrated History, Taylor Publishing Company, 1999.
- Johnston, Marianne, Jim Bowie, American Legends series, Rosen Publishing Group, 2001.
- Stewart, Mark, The Alamo, American Battlefields series, Enchanted Lion Books, 2004
- The United States and Mexico at War, edited by Donald S. Frazier, MacMillan Reference USA, 1998.