Jim Bowie

Jim Bowie
By Steve Goodson

Jim Bowie. The name itself evokes myriad images to a reader’s mind. Defender of the Alamo, pioneer leader, slave trader, land speculator, Indian fighter and prospector of lost mines and treasure could all quite correctly be associated with the name Jim Bowie. But in order to separate the myth and legends from the reality of who and what Bowie really was, one must learn something of the environment that shaped his identity as a person.

The South of the early 19th century in America was one that could be described as a caste system. The gentry, or upper class, can be characterized as landholders and farmers who owned slaves and resided on plantations that raised cotton, tobacco, and sugar. These products could be processed on site and shipped, usually downriver, to seaports where they could be readily sold and converted to cash.

The industrialization found in the northeastern states had lagged behind in the South. There are several reasons for this. Lack of quality railroads and lack of an adequate workforce were two very important factors. But one other reason has been offered that merits mention here. Most of these landowners had come to the South from Scotland and Ireland, two countries founded in a strong Celtic tradition.

This Celtic tradition romanticized the gentleman farmer/ruler that became so readily adapted to the South of the early 1800’s. Most of the people lived on small farms and plantations basically producing most of their own wants and needs. Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin made slavery a workable institution in this region. On the whole a small percentage of the people resided in metropolitan areas and most of these people found employment in trades, merchantry, some manufacturing and shipping.

James Bowie was born Logan County, Kentucky on April 10,1796. The family had relocated there, via Tennessee, from Georgia. His father, Reason, had served in the Revolutionary War and was captured in Savannah. Savannah prisoners were allowed visits from sympathizers who often brought them food and clothing. One such sympathizer, a young lady named Elve Jones, of a prominent Georgia family, became acquainted with Reason and after the war in 1782, married him. Elve bore Reason ten children, five girls and five boys. Reason Bowie left Kentucky for Louisiana where he first went to Catahoula, the Bayou Teche and Opelousas, where he died in 1819. Elve Jones Bowie died in Shreveport in the home of her youngest daughter in 1837.

John J. Bowie, Jim’s older brother, wrote an article about young Jim that was published in De Boe’s Review in New Orleans in 1852. "James spent the most important part of his childhood, between the years 1802 and 1809, in Catahoula Parish. About the year 1814, he left my father’s house and launched upon his own life. He settled upon Bayou Boeuf, Rapides, and cleared a small piece of land, but his chief means of support was sawing plank and other lumber with the common whipsaw, and boating it down the bayou for sale.

"After reaching the age of maturity he was a stout, rather rawboned man of six feet height, weighed 180 pounds and was as well made asn any man I ever saw. His hair was light colored, his eyes gray and rather deep-set——very keen and penetrating—his complexion fair, and his cheek-bones rather high."

"His anger was terrible, and frequently terminated in some tragic scene. He was social with all men, fond of fishing and hunting. He roped and captured wild deer in the woods, caught and rode wild and unmanageable horses, and was even known to rope and ride alligators….

"As the country improved and land property became enhanced in value James sold out his land on the bayou and used the means thus obtained in speculating in the purchase of Africans from Jean LaFitte, the pirate, who brought them to Galveston for sale. James, Rezin (another of Jim’s older brothers), and myself fitted out some small boats at the mouth of the Calcasieu, and went into the trade on shares. Our plan was as follows:

"First we purchased forty Negroes from LaFitte at the rate of one dollar per pound, or an average of $140 for each Negro; we then brought them into the limits of the United States, delivered them to the customs house officer, and ourselves became the informers. The law gave the informer half the value of the Negroes, which were put up and sold in the United States.

"We continued to follow this business until we had made $65,000, then we quit and soon spent all our earnings. James then went into land speculation and soon made $15,000. This business necessarily caused him to spend much of his time in the woods, where natural inclination gave the employment a peculiar charm to him."

In the early months of 1819 Bowie was associated with the Long expedition to Texas. James Long had been an officer in the U.S. Army. His wife’s uncle, James Wilkinson, a general in the army, along with Aaron Burr had hatched a plot ten years before to pry the Southwest out of Spanish hands and set up a republic. Long and his men eventually met with failure and Long met with death at the hands of an assassin in Mexico. What role Bowie actually played in the formative months of this expedition I have been unable to ascertain; various sources, however, mention that he had been associated with the main characters of the plot. Much of this originated in Natchez, Mississippi, then the gateway to the Southwest.

In the fall of l819, Jim and his brother Rezin entered into a partnership. The brothers owned and improved valuable estates in the La Fourche, The Rapides, and the Opelousas districts. They introduced the first steam mill for grinding sugar cane used in Louisiana. They later sold one of those estates for $90,000.

Jim, being somewhat of a woodman, found many opportunities to need a functional knife. His brother Rezin, developed one and gave it to him after an altercation in Alexandria, Louisiana which occurred in 1826. Jim became involved in a political squabble in which he was opposed by the Sheriff or Rapides Parish, Norris Wright.

Wright encountered Bowie on the street and shot him in the chest. Some accounts say that Bowie was armed, others say he was not. The account that claims Bowie was armed related that Jim aimed his pistol at Wright at which point the pistol snapped (misfired). Bowie would have killed Wright with his hands had not Wright been spirited away by his friends. Rezin Bowie then visited Jim and gave him the knife that was to become what is known to us as the Bowie knife. Rezin is said to have told Jim, "here take old Bowie….she won’t snap."

Sheriff Wright and Jim Bowie met again on a sandbar in the Mississippi river below Natchez. They acted as seconds to opposing figures in a duel that transpired over a dispute of election results. The two principles fired at each other, missed, then reloaded only to miss each other again. These two walked forward, shook hands and agreed to stop the duel as they both felt that requirements protecting their honor had been met. At this point a general melee broke out among the standers-by. Wright shot Bowie in the hip then, rushing forward, stabbed him with a sword-cane. Bowie rose up and essentially disemboweled Wright with his knife. From this occurrence, which came to be known as the Sandbar Duel, Bowie’s fame as a knife fighter was born.

After Jim’s death, Rezin Bowie wrote that this was the only duel which Jim participated in. Nevertheless stories abound glorifying Jim’s prowess as a knife fighter and defender of the weak. Henry Clay, the famous Congressman from Kentucky, held Bowie in high regard due to an event that happened in a coach on the Cumberland Road. Clay, a man named McGinley, a stranger with a pipe, Bowie and a young girl were all passengers on the coach. The pipe smoker, seated beside Mr. Clay, soon filled the stage with smoke and the young girl began to cough. When she asked the smoker to stop as it was making her ill, the smoker replied saying that he had paid his fare and would do as he pleased. Up to this time Bowie had remained quiet, wrapped in his cloak, apparently lost in his thoughts. But no sooner had these words come from the pipe smoker’s mouth, when Bowie sprang up, threw aside his cloak and drew his knife. He seized the smoker by the chin, snapped his head back and applied the blace to his throat, saying "I’ll just give you one minute to throw that thing out of the window." This quickly being done, Bowie sat back down and wrapped himself in his greatcoat. When the stage stopped clay and McGinley introduced themselves to the man in the greatcoat and learned he was Jim Bowie.

Another story is told by the Reverend C.W. Smith, the first Methodist minister sent by the Conference to the State of Texas. Mr. Smith relates, "I crossed the river below Natchez, Mississippi. On the first day after leaving the river I was overtaken by a large man, well-mounted and armed with a rifle, pistol, and knife. When we learned that we had a mutual destination, we rode together, and I was obliged for the company. It did not take long for me to discover that my companion had a full knowledge of the country over which we were riding. I had told him my name and business, but he did not reciprocate. He was a marvelous story teller; this was, he said his fourth trip to Texas, and he had had many wild adventures in the swamps and prairies. He told me some of them each time we camped for the night.

"Soon after we crossed the border we came to a small village. I proposed to preach here, and the stranger assented, stating that he would attempt to round up a congregation. It was an open air meeting, and, to my surprise, well attended. I was soon apprised, however, of the reason for the large attendance.

"I opened the meeting with a few old-fashion hymns, in which everyone joined, seemingly with a will.

"This gratified me as I was certain then that I had engendered a feeling of good-will among the rough frontiersmen. However, when the hymns were done and I attempted to deliver my sermon, I found myself very rudely interrupted by hoots and catcalls. I could hardly hear myself speak, and was greatly dismayed. My companion, however, who was in the audience, suddenly came up on the platform. I told him that, owing to the interruptions, I was unable to go on, and better terminate the meeting at once. He then said to me ‘Mr. Smith, do you want to preach to these people?’ I replied that I would like nothing better, but that I was afraid violence might result. At this he smiled, and there was a look on his face that frightened me, ‘If you want to preach here, I will see that you do so without future interruption’, he said.

"He then turned to the audience, holding up his hand to quiet a vociferous outbreak.

"People of Texas’, he said, ‘Mr. Smith has come a long distance to see you. He has been sent out here by his church. If there are any here who do not care to stay for his sermon, you are free to leave, but in any case, by God, he is going to preach, and you are going to stop this noise so he can be heard!’

"There was a large and furious ruffian right in front of the platform who had been very loud in his rudeness. He seemed to be leader of the ruffians and he got up now, all bedecked out with knives and pistols.

"’And who are you, my fine cock, and where did you drop from?’, he shouted.

"’That is immaterial,’ replied my companion, ‘but my name is Jim Bowie, and I rode from Mississippi with this man, and I intend to see that he gets a square deal.’

"At this, there was a subdued muttering in the crow, and ruffian sat down. It seemed that my recent friend was well-known; at any rate, from that time on I can say that I never had a more attentive audience. This was entirely due, I could see, from some motive of fear or respect which they held for my companion, named Bowie.

By coming to Texas, Bowie left behind litigation in Arkansas over some disputed titles to land that he and brother, John J., had sold. He was not a fugitive, however, for he made frequent visits back to the States to see his family and manage his interests there.

Early in 1828 Bowie came to Texas. His principal motivation appears to have been land speculation. He settled in San Antonio and lost little time in introducing himself to the upper class residing there. On June 26 he was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church and became a Mexican citizen.

After a trip back to the United States, Bowie returned to San Antonio and invested between $1,000 and $1,500 in Texas land. He became popular in both social and business circles. On April 22, 1831, he married Ursula Maria de Veramendi, daughter of Don Juan Martin de Veramendi, the lieutenant governor of Texas and Coahuila.

To all appearances, the young couple seemed to be a perfect match. The memoirs of a prominent Mexican citizen of San Antonio alludes that Bowie adopted his wife’s people as his own, and even at the time of his death, he considered himself one of the Veramendi sons. Bowie was said to be "consistently courteous, sympathetic, kind and affectionate, and they returned his affection in full measure." Bowie entered a partnership with his father-in-law to develop textile mills in Saltillo, Mexico.

In San Antonio, Bowie learned of the numerous silver mines said to be found to the north and west. Bowie obviously made several trips to the old Spanish presidio on the San Saba River. Early settlers say that an inscription carved into the gatepost of the old fort read "Bowie con su tropa 1829." This carving was altered sometime around 1900 to read "Bowie Mine" with the numbers 1829 being cut over to read "Mine."

The story has been told that Jim was adopted into a band of Lipan Apaches headed by a chief named Xolic early in his stay in San Antonio. The adoption ceremonies occurred at the San Pedro Springs at the headwaters of the San Antonio River. Jim awed the tribe by his prowess as a hunter and fighter, leading a war party on a raid to a Comanche encampment near present day Brownwood. At the end of his Eleven month stay with these Lipans, the chief showed Jim a mine which was said to have contained a rich vein of silver and the accumulated bullion from the mines in the area of the San Saba presidio. Jim promptly left the Lipans and returned to San Antonio.