More than 180 years after his death, the mention of Jim Bowie still stirs the imagination of admirers around the world. But Bowie was more than just the knife or the battle at the Alamo. Overall, his was a remarkable and colorful life of adventure.
James Bowie was born in 1796 in rural southwestern Kentucky. He was one of 10 children. When he was four, the family moved to Missouri before moving to Louisiana two years later. Along the way, all the Bowie children worked hard to build and run the family farms. As little formal education was available, they were taught at home. Bowie was adept at languages and learned to read and write in Spanish and French.
He volunteered for service late in the War of 1812 but saw no combat. After the war, he and his brother Rezin Bowie bought several farms and plantations in both Louisiana and Arkansas Territory, hoping to turn healthy profits from real estate. He also sold slaves through work with pirate Jean Lafitte and often borrowed money from Lafitte to pay for his land speculation.
He had several run-ins with the law. Bowie participated in the Long Expedition of 1819 in which James Long led a group into Texas in an attempt to wrest it away from Spanish authorities and into American hands. In the late 1820s, Arkansas authorities charged him and his brother with fraud, claiming the Spanish land titles they had sold were forgeries. However, all the alleged evidence disappeared from the courts. Bowie’s duel with Rapides Parish Sheriff Norris Wright became legendary. After a series of fights and arguments, the two fought in a duel in 1827 later known as the Sandbar Fight. Bowie, shot and stabbed himself, killed Wright with the famous knife given to him by his brother. Rezin Bowie claimed to have made the first Bowie Knife in the 1820s, giving it to his brother for protection.
Bowie moved to Texas in 1830. His first years in Texas were happy and successful. In 1831, he married the 19-year-old daughter of the provincial vice-governor, and the two quickly had two children. Tragically, his wife, children and in-laws all died in a cholera epidemic in 1833. In his grief, he began drinking heavily. His health declined, and his anger at actions of the faltering Mexican government increased.
In 1835, Bowie participated in a number of battles with Mexican troops. When word arrived in January 1836 that thousands of troops under Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna were approaching San Antonio, Bowie headed to the city with 40 volunteers to the stronghold of the Alamo, an old mission in the city.
Gen. Sam Houston had ordered that the Alamo be abandoned, believing that the mission could not be defended and that the troops could be better used elsewhere. Instead, the 188 defenders under Bowie and William Travis chose to stay and fight. Bowie was in command when Santa Anna arrived and the siege began Feb. 24. However, Bowie collapsed with an unidentified illness and was confined to bed during the fighting. After days of intense battles, the Alamo fell on March 6.
Several different versions have circulated about the final hours of Bowie. Some suggested he was killed by Mexican troops on his cot in his quarters after the fall of the Alamo. One story suggested that he died of natural causes as the battle raged. Another version insisted that Bowie had been propped up on his cot, with his pistols in his hand, when his body was discovered. Regardless of the final circumstances of his death, Bowie, in spite of his critical illness, decided to stay with his men in the defense of the Alamo to the very end.
After his death, Bowie became a larger-than-life icon of Texas and the American frontier. The Bowie Knife became an indispensible part of American folklore. His story has been recounted numerous times in movies and television shows. Several communities named schools after him. Bowie County in the northeast corner of the state was named for him in 1840, and the small city of Bowie in Montague County was named for him in 1881.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at drkenbridges@ gmail.com.