Bowie, James (1796–1836)

By: William R. Williamson

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: March 24, 2017

James Bowie was born near Terrapin Creek (now Spring Creek) where it crosses Bowie's Mill Road (Turnertown Road), nine miles northwest of Franklin, Logan County (now Simpson County), Kentucky, probably on April 10, 1796. He was the son of Reason (or Rezin) and Elve Ap-Catesby Jones (or Johns) Bowie. In 1794 Reason Bowie had moved his family from Tennessee to Logan County, where he farmed and operated a gristmill with the help of eight slaves. In February 1800 he moved to Madrid, in what is now Missouri. On May 2, 1801, at Rapides, Louisiana, Reason Bowie and his brothers David, Rhesa, and John swore allegiance to the Spanish government. In October the families settled on farms in what is now Catahoula Parish. There Reason's sons, James, John J., Stephen, and Rezin P. Bowie, grew to manhood. The family took an active part in community affairs and the elder Bowie reportedly became the largest slaveowner in his locale, with twenty slaves. About 1809 the Bowie clan moved to the Atakapa country in southeastern Louisiana; there Reason purchased 640 acres on the Vermilion River near the mouth of Little Bayou. He then developed a plantation near Opelousas, where he grew cotton and sugarcane, raised livestock, and bought and sold slaves. Reason Bowie died there around 1821.

In his teens James Bowie worked in Avoyelles and Rapides parishes, where he floated lumber to market. He invested in property on the Bayou Boeuf and traded in 1817–18 at what is now Bennett's Store, south of Cheneyville. He was fond of hunting and fishing, and family tradition says that he caught and rode wild horses, rode alligators, and trapped bears. When grown, 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. During the War of 1812, James and Rezin joined the Second Division, Consolidated, a unit that contained the Seventeenth through Nineteenth regiments, drawn from Avoyelles, Rapides, Natchitoches, Catahoula, and Ouachita parishes. In January 1815, according to family records, the brothers were on their way to join Andrew Jackson's forces at New Orleans when the war ended.

After the war they traded in slaves. They bought them from the pirate Jean Laffite, who captured slave shipments in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico and ran a slave market on Galveston Island. Laffite landed slaves at Bowie's Island in Vermilion Bay, and the Bowies took the slaves up the Vermilion and sold them in St. Landry Parish. When they had $65,000 they quit the business. James and Rezin also dabbled in land speculation and developed friendships with local wealthy planters. James became engaged to Cecelia Wells (b. 1805), who died on September 7, 1829, in Alexandria, two weeks before their wedding was to take place.

He also made enemies. Norris Wright, Rapides parish sheriff and local banker, refused to make a loan that Bowie sorely needed. In 1826 Bowie met Wright in Alexandria, where tempers flared and Wright fired point-blank at Bowie; but the bullet was deflected. After this encounter, Rezin gave his brother a large butcher-like hunting knife to carry. On September 19, 1827, near Natchez, Jim Bowie participated in the Sandbar Fight, which developed at a duel between Samuel Levi Wells III and Dr. Thomas Maddox. After the principals had exchanged shots without effect, two observers continued the affair. Alexander Crain fired at Samuel Cuny, and when Cuny fell, Bowie fired at Crain but missed. Wright shot Bowie through the lower chest, and Bowie, said an eyewitness, "drew his butcher knife which he usually wears" and chased Wright. The Blanchard brothers shot Bowie in the thigh, and Wright and Alfred Blanchard stabbed him in several places. As Wright bent over him, Bowie plunged the knife into his assailant's breast, then raised himself and slashed Blanchard severely. All the witnesses remembered Bowie's "big butcher knife," the first Bowie knife. Reports of Bowie's prowess and his lethal blade captured public attention, and he was proclaimed the South's most formidable knife fighter. Men asked blacksmiths and cutlers to make a knife like Jim Bowie's.

During the late 1820s Bowie's land speculations centered on the southern Louisiana parishes; he lived in New Orleans, enjoying its excitement and pleasures. James and his brothers Rezin and Stephen established the Arcadia sugar plantation of some 1,800 acres near the town of Thibodaux, where they set up the first steam-powered sugar mill in Louisiana. Rezin was elected to the Louisiana state legislature. James spent little time at Arcadia, however; in the late 1820s he traveled to the eastern cities, as well as Arkansas and Mississippi. On February 12, 1831, the brothers sold Arcadia and other landholdings and eighty-two slaves to Natchez investors for $90,000.

When Bowie first entered Mexican Texas is unknown. He possibly was recruited in 1819 in New Orleans with Benjamin R. Milam and others for the Long expedition. If he did, he was not among those captured. On January 1, 1830, Bowie and a friend left Thibodaux for Texas. They stopped at Nacogdoches, at Jared E. Groce's farm on the Brazos River, and in San Felipe, where Bowie presented a letter of introduction to empresario Stephen F. Austin from Thomas F. McKinney, one of the Old Three Hundred colonists. On February 20 Bowie and his friend Isaac Donoho took the oath of allegiance to Mexico. Bowie, age thirty-four, was at his prime. He was well traveled, convivial, loved music, and was generous. He also was ambitious and scheming; he played cards for money, and lived in a world of debt. He reached San Antonio with William H. Wharton and Mrs. Wharton, Isaac Donoho, Caiaphas K. Ham, and several slaves. They carried letters of introduction to two wealthy and influential Mexicans, Juan Martín de Veramendi and Juan N. Seguín. Bowie's party continued on to Saltillo, the state capital of Coahuila and Texas. There Bowie learned that a Mexican law of 1828 offered its citizens eleven-league grants in Texas for $100 to $250 each. (A league was 4,428.4 acres.) Bowie urged Mexicans to apply for the eleven-league grants, which he purchased from them. He left Saltillo with fifteen or sixteen of these grants, and continued to encourage speculation in Texas lands. His activities irritated Stephen F. Austin, who hesitated to approve lands Bowie wanted to locate in the Austin colony but eventually allowed the tracts there.

In San Antonio Bowie posed as a man of wealth, attached himself to the wealthy Veramendi family, and was baptized into the Catholic Church, sponsored by the Veramendis. In the autumn of 1830 he accompanied the family to Saltillo, and on October 5 officially became a Mexican citizen. The citizenship was contingent on his establishing wool and cotton mills in Coahuila. Through his friend Angus McNeill of Natchez, he purchased a textile mill for $20,000. On April 25, 1831, in San Antonio, Bowie married Ursula de Veramendi. He had appeared before the mayor, declared his age as thirty-two (he was actually thirty-five), and pledged to pay Ursula a dowry of $15,000. He valued his properties at $222,800. But the titles to his 60,000 arpents of Arkansas land, valued at $30,000, were fraudulent. Walker and Wilkins of Natchez owed Bowie $45,000 for his interest in Arcadia Plantation, and had given McNeil $20,000 for the Saltillo mill. Bowie borrowed $1,879 from his father-in-law and $750 from Ursula's grandmother for a honeymoon trip to New Orleans and Natchez. The Bowies settled in San Antonio.

Veramendi family tradition says Bowie spent little time at home. He apparently became fascinated by tales of the "lost" Los Almagres Mine, said to be west of San Antonio near the ruin of Santa Cruz de San Sabá Mission. Bowie obtained permission from Mexican authorities for an expedition into Indian country financed by the Veramendis, and on November 2, 1831, he left San Antonio with his brother Rezin and nine others. On the nineteenth they learned that a large Indian war party was following them, and six miles from San Saba, Bowie camped in an oak grove. An attempt to parley failed. Bowie's men fought for their lives for thirteen hours. The Indians finally drew off, reportedly leaving forty dead and thirty wounded. Bowie lost one man killed and several wounded. The party returned to San Antonio. On January 23, 1832, Bowie made another foray to the west. He now carried the title of "colonel" of citizen rangers. He left Gonzales with twenty-six men to scout the headwaters of the Colorado for Tawakonis and other hostile Indians. After a fruitless search of 2½ months, he returned home.

In July, in Natchez, he learned that José de las Piedras, Mexican commander at Nacogdoches, had visited the towns of Anahuac and Velasco to quiet the antagonisms between the government and the mainly Anglo citizens. Upon his return, Piedras demanded that all citizens in his jurisdiction surrender their arms. The colonists rejected the demand. Bowie hurried to Nacogdoches, and on August 1 accompanied James W. Bullock and 300 armed men in their siege of the garrison there. Piedras chose to fight. During the night he evacuated his men and marched south, having lost thirty-three killed. Bowie and eighteen men ambushed the Mexican column, and Piedras fled. Bowie marched the soldiers back to Nacogdoches (see NACOGDOCHES, BATTLE OF). On March 9, 1833, Monclova replaced Saltillo as the state capital. When the two towns raised small armies to contest the change, Bowie favored Monclova. On one occasion when the forces confronted each other, he rode out and tried to precipitate a battle. He believed that the fortunes of Texas land speculators lay with Monclova.

In September, Veramendi, his wife Josefa, and Ursula Bowie died of cholera at Monclova. Ursula died on the tenth. A Bowie relative and Veramendi family tradition say Ursula and one child died in the epidemic. A Bowie family friend reported that Ursula had two children, but both died young. Bowie was ill with yellow fever in Natchez and unaware of the deaths. On October 31 he dictated his last will, in which he bequeathed half of his estate to his brother Rezin and half to his sister Martha Sterrett and her husband.

Mexican laws passed in 1834 and 1835 opened the floodgates to wholesale speculation in Texas lands, and Texas-Coahuila established land commissions to speed sales, since the state treasury was empty. Bowie was appointed a commissioner to promote settlement in John T. Mason's purchase. The governor also was empowered to hand out 400-league parcels for frontier defense. The sale of these large tracts angered some colonists, who also resented a rumored plan by speculators to make San Antonio the capital. They questioned Bowie's handling of Mason's 400-league purchase. One traveler met Bowie and Mason en route from Matamoros to Monclova with $40,000 in specie to pay the last installment on Mason's land. Bowie also sold Mason land certificates to his friends in Natchez. In May 1835, however, Santa Anna abolished the Coahuila-Texas government and ordered the arrest of all Texans doing business in Monclova. Bowie fled the capital for Texas. On June 22 he wrote a friend in Nacogdoches that all communication between Mexico and Texas had been cut, that troops were boarding ships at Matamoros for the Texas coast, and that Mexican forces were en route from Saltillo toward the Rio Grande. In July, Bowie and others in San Felipe and Nacogdoches were beating the drum for war. Bowie led a small group of Texas "militia" to San Antonio and seized a stack of muskets in the Mexican armory there.

On July 31, 1835, William B. Travis wrote Bowie that Texans were divided and that the Peace Party appeared the stronger. Travis was a leader of the War Party. Bowie had hired Travis as early as 1833 in San Felipe to prepare land papers, and in June 1834 Travis represented Bowie and Isaac Donoho in a case filed by Francis W. Johnson. Travis also did legal work for Bowie's friend Jesse Clifft, a blacksmith who is often credited with making the first Bowie knife. The War Party sought military support among the Indian tribes in East Texas. On August 3, Bowie reported on a recent tour of several villages where he found many of the Indians on drunken sprees and all reluctant to cooperate.

On September 1, Austin arrived home from a long imprisonment in Mexico City. On October 3, Santa Anna abolished all state legislatures in Mexico. After being elected to command the volunteer army, Austin issued a call to arms. On October 16 his forces camped on Cibolo Creek twenty miles from San Antonio. Bowie arrived with a small party of friends, principally from Louisiana, and Austin placed him on his staff as a colonel. Travis and others joined the army. Gen. Sam Houston, in command of the Texas regular army, arrived and condemned the idea of attacking Bexar. He maintained that Austin's army, weak and ill-trained, should fall back to the Guadalupe or Colorado river. Bowie and Capt. James W. Fannin, at Austin's orders, scouted south of Bexar for a new campsite. On their way, Bowie drove off a Mexican patrol. On October 26, Austin moved 400 men to San Francisco de la Espada Mission. Bowie took ninety-two horsemen and inspected area of Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña Mission, near Bexar. At dawn on the twenty-eighth, in a heavy fog, the Mexicans attacked Bowie with 300 cavalry and 100 infantry. Bowie fought for three hours. "Bowie was a born leader," Noah Smithwick wrote years later of the battle of Concepción, "never needlessly spending a bullet or imperiling a life. His voice is still ringing in my old deaf ears as he repeatedly admonished us. Keep under cover boys and reserve your fire; we haven't a man to spare." Bowie captured a six-pounder cannon and thirty muskets. He lost one man, while the Mexicans left sixteen on the field and carried off as many. Bowie, Fannin, and the detachment remained in the immediate area south of Bexar while Austin moved his army and established headquarters on the Alamo Canal.

Three days after the battle Austin sent Travis and fifty men to capture some 900 horses being driven south to Laredo, and asked Bowie to create a diversion to cover the escape of Mexican soldiers who wanted to desert. Bowie made a display of force, yet the soldiers failed to come out. On October 31 Bowie notified Gen. Martín Perfecto de Cos that he would join Austin in an attack on Bexar. On November 1 Austin demanded that Cos surrender; he refused. Austin hesitated. On November 2, Austin's officers voted 44 to 3 against storming Bexar. Bowie did not vote. He asked the same day to be relieved of command and again tried to resign on November 6. He had earlier served in a volunteer ranger group, fought Indians, and was the type of officer who served the community in time of need. He apparently had little interest in a formal command. Provisional governor Henry Smith and Houston wanted him to raise a volunteer group and attack Matamoros, but the General Council declared that Bowie was not "an officer of the government nor army."

Bowie left the army for a brief trip to San Felipe in mid-November. He was back in San Antonio on November 18, and on the twenty-sixth he and thirty horsemen rode out to check on a Mexican packtrain near town, while Burleson followed with 100 infantry. Bowie met the train and charged its cavalry escort. He fought off several assaults by Mexican infantry, and the Mexicans retired with the loss of sixty men. As the train was loaded with bales of grass for the garrison livestock, the clash was called the Grass Fight. Bowie subsequently proceeded to Goliad to determine conditions there. During his absence, Burleson attacked Bexar on December 5 and forced the Mexican garrison to surrender and retire to the Rio Grande. The volunteers left for home. Bowie received a letter from Houston dated December 17, suggesting a campaign against Matamoros. If that was impossible, Houston suggested, Bowie could perhaps organize a guerilla force to harass the Mexican army. The Matamoros expedition was approved, but the issue of command was muddied by the political rivalry between Governor Smith and the council, and Houston soon found another assignment for Bowie.

On January 19, 1836, Bowie arrived in Bexar from Goliad with a detachment of thirty men. He carried orders from Houston to demolish the fortifications there, though some historians believe these orders were discretionary. The situation was grim. Col. James C. Neill, commander of a contingent of seventy-eight men at the Alamo, stated that his men lacked clothing and pay and talked of leaving. Mexican families were leaving Bexar. Texas volunteers had carried off most of the munitions and supplies for the Matamoros expedition. On February 2 Bowie wrote Governor Smith, urging that Bexar be held because it was a strategic "frontier picqet guard." Travis, promoted to lieutenant colonel, arrived with thirty men on February 3; David Crockett rode in with twelve men on the eighth. The garrison had some 150 men. On February 11, Neill gave his command to Travis and left. The volunteers preferred Bowie as commander and insisted on holding an election on February 12. The volunteer vote placed Bowie in command, and he celebrated by getting drunk. While under the influence Bowie ordered certain prisoners set free and paraded the volunteers under arms in Bexar. Travis took his regulars from the Alamo to the Medina River to escape implication in the disgraceful affair. 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.

On February 23 Bowie and Travis learned that some 1,500 Mexican cavalrymen were advancing on Bexar, and sent a dispatch to Goliad asking Fannin for help. Within hours the Mexicans marched into Bexar and requested a parley. Without consulting Travis, Bowie asked for and received terms: the Texans must surrender. These terms were rejected. On February 24 Bowie, who was suffering from a disease "of a peculiar nature," which has been diagnosed as pneumonia or typhoid pneumonia but probably was advanced tuberculosis, collapsed, ending his active participation in commanding the garrison. Most historians no longer believe that he fell from a platform while attempting to position a cannon. He was confined to a cot and urged the volunteers to follow Travis. He was occasionally carried outside to visit his men.

On March 6 the Mexicans attacked before dawn, and all 188 defenders of the Alamo perished. Santa Anna asked to see the corpses of Bowie, Travis, and Crockett, and Bexar mayor Francisco Ruiz identified the bodies. Bowie lay on his cot in a room on the south side. He had been shot several times in the head. During his lifetime he had been described by his old friend Caiaphas K. Ham 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. See also ALAMO, BATTLE OF THE.

James L. Batson, James Bowie and the Sandbar Fight (Madison, Alabama: Batson Engineering and Metalworks, 1992). William Campbell Binkley, ed., Official Correspondence of the Texan Revolution, 1835–1836 (2 vols., New York: Appleton-Century, 1936). Walter W. Bowie, The Bowies and Their Kindred: A Genealogical and Biographical History (Washington: Cromwell Brothers, 1899). J. Frank Dobie, "James Bowie," American West, Spring 1965. John S. Ford, Memoirs (MS, John Salmon Ford Papers, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin). Heroes of Texas: Featuring Oil Portraits from the Summerfield G. Roberts Collection (Waco: Texian Press, 1964). John H. Jenkins, ed., The Papers of the Texas Revolution, 1835–1836 (10 vols., Austin: Presidial Press, 1973). A. R. Kilpatrick, "Early Life in the Southwest—The Bowies," DeBow's Southern and Western Review 1 (October 1852). Walter Lord, A Time to Stand (New York: Harper, 1961; 2d ed., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978). Raymond W. Thorp, Bowie Knife (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1948).

Time Periods:
  • Texas Revolution

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

William R. Williamson, “Bowie, James,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 29, 2022,

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March 24, 2017