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BOWMAN, SARAH

BOWMAN, SARAH (ca. 1812–1866?). Sarah Bowman, commonly known as the Great Western or the Heroine of Fort Brown, legendary camp follower of the Mexican War, hotelkeeper, and sometime prostitute, was born Sarah Knight in 1812 or 1813, but whether in Tennessee or Clay County, Missouri, is unclear. She acquired several husbands during the course of her travels, many without benefit of clergy, so there is considerable confusion about her surname. In various sources and at different times she is referred to as Mrs. Bourjette, Bourget, Bourdette, Davis, Bowman, Bowman-Phillips, Borginnis, and possibly Foyle. A mountain of a woman who stood six feet two inches tall, she picked up the nickname Great Western, probably in a reference to the contemporary steamship of that name, which was noted for its size. John Salmon Ford wrote that she "had the reputation of being something of the roughest fighter on the Rio Grande and was approached in a polite, if not humble, manner." Little is known about Sarah before the Mexican War. Rumors claim that she was with Zachary Taylor's forces during the Seminole Wars, but her first substantiated appearance occurred in 1845, when she accompanied her husband, a soldier in the Eighth United States Infantryqv and a member of Taylor's army of occupation, to Corpus Christi. At that time the wives of enlisted men could enroll with the army as cooks and laundresses and follow their husbands into the field. Among these camp followers was the Great Western, who cooked for appreciative officers. Sarah first distinguished herself as a fighter at the crossing of the Arroyo Colorado in March 1846, when she offered to wade the river and whip the enemy singlehandedly if Gen. William Jenkins Worth would lend her a stout pair of tongs. The legends surrounding her exploits grew during the bombardment of Fort Brown in May 1846, when she refused to join the other women in an underground magazine but calmly operated her officers' mess uninterrupted for almost a week, despite the fact that a tray was shot from her hands and a stray shell fragment pierced her sunbonnet. Her fearlessness during the siege earned her another nickname, the Heroine of Fort Brown. She traveled with the army into the interior of Mexico and opened a hotel in Saltillo, the American House, where she again demonstrated her bravery during the battle of Buena Vista by loading cartridges and even carrying some wounded soldiers from the battlefield to safety. During this period she was married to her second husband, known variously as Bourjette, Bourget, and Bourdette, a member of the Fifth Infantry. Sarah apparently remained in Saltillo as a hotelkeeper until the end of the war, but in July 1848 she asked to join a column of dragoons that had been ordered to California. By this time her husband was probably dead, and she was told that only married women could march with the army. Undaunted, she rode along the line of men asking, "Who wants a wife with fifteen thousand dollars and the biggest leg in Mexico? Come, my beauties, don't all speak at once. Who is the lucky man?" After some hesitation a dragoon named Davis, probably David E. Davis, stepped forward, and the Great Western once again marched with the army.

In 1849 Sarah arrived in El Paso and briefly established a hotel that catered to the flood of Forty-niners traveling to the gold fields. She leased the hotel to the army when she left for Socorro, New Mexico, with a new husband, Albert J. Bowman, an upholsterer from Germany. When Bowman was discharged on November 30, 1852, the couple moved to Fort Yuma, where Sarah opened another restaurant. She lived first on the American, then the Mexican, side of the river, to protect her adopted children. By the mid-1860s she was no longer married to Bowman, but she served as company laundress and received an army ration. In 1856 she traveled to Fort Buchanan to set up a hotel ten miles below the fort. She had returned to Fort Yuma by 1861. Although Sarah was well known as a hotelkeeper and restaurateur, she probably had other business interests as well. One chronicler referred to her as "the greatest whore in the West," and Lt. Sylvester Mowry, a soldier stationed at Fort Yuma in 1856, wrote of Sarah that "among her other good qualities she is an admirable `pimp'." The date of Sarah's death, reportedly caused by a tarantula bite, is unclear, though one contemporary source indicates that she died in 1863. She was buried in the Fort Yuma post cemetery on December 23, 1866, with full military honors. In August 1890 the Quartermaster's Department of the United States Army exhumed the 159 bodies buried at the Fort Yuma cemetery and moved them to the presidio at San Francisco, California. Among these bodies was that of Sarah Bowman.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

J. F. Elliott, "The Great Western: Sarah Bowman, Mother and Mistress to the U.S. Army," Journal of Arizona History 30 (Spring 1989). Brantz Mayer, History of the War between Mexico and the United States, Vol. 1 (New York and London: Wiley and Putnam, 1848). Ronald Dean Miller, Shady Ladies of the West (Los Angeles: Westernlore, 1964). Brian Sandwich, The Great Western: Legendary Lady of the Southwest (Southwestern Studies 94, El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1990). Edward S. Wallace, The Great Reconnaissance: Soldiers, Artists, and Scientists on the Frontier, 1848–1861 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1955). Edward S. Wallace, "The Great Western," The Westerners: New York Brand Posse Book (1958).

Regina Bennett McNeely

Citation

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

Regina Bennett McNeely, "BOWMAN, SARAH," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fbo30), accessed April 19, 2014. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.