“”Bowie was a legend – a gaudy legend of gaudy violence – before he died. No deus ex machina in Greek tragedy ever extricated a character from peril more neatly than the Alamo extricated Bowie from defeat in life and from tarnish on reputation. For the popular mind, particularly of posterity, the Alamo blotted out all but the heroic and noble from the records.
|Tomorrow is a mystery,|
but yesterday is
|Secrets of times gone by|
James "Jim" Bowie (c. 1796–1836) was an American con artist and frontiersman who became famous for the infamous Sandbar Fight. Bowie also fought (and died) at the Alamo.
Bowie in his youth got involved with the slave trade, but what Bowie became infamous for wasn't his con-artistry and slaving, but the Sandbar Fight and the big fucking knife he lent his name to. In all likelihood, however, Bowie only popularized the knife. He didn't invent it.
Early life and associated scumbaggery
Jim Bowie's birthplace was nine miles north of present day Franklin, Kentucky. He was born in 1796 to Rezin Bowie, Sr and Elvira Catesby Jones. Rezin Sr was a veteran of the American Revolution and Elzira was a nurse who also served in the American Revolution. Jim's childhood was spent on the move. Bowie's family moved to Missouri in 1800, and then to Louisiana in 1802. Most of Jim and his siblings' childhood was spent on the frontier, or in the wilderness. To quote his older brother John:
...raised mostly in remote and wild regions, and consequently grew up with but little education, or other advantages besides those inherited by natural endowment, or acquired from parental instruction.
Bowie entered the War of 1812 in 1814, in response to Andrew Jackson's call for volunteers to fight in the Battle of New Orleans. Bowie answered the call too late, however, and so settled down in Bayou Bouef, where he spent the next several years selling lumber. Bowie was a raging drunk, frequently getting into violent brawls under the influence of liquor. According to his brother John, Jim had a "good temper, unless aroused by some insult."
In 1819 Bowie started to partake in the slave trade, despite the (foreign) trading of slaves having been made illegal in 1808. It was legal, however, to buy and sell slaves already in the country. In particular, Jim and his brothers John and Rezin Jr, entered a partnership with French pirate and slaver Jean Laffite. To quote William H. Sparks, an associate of the Bowie brothers:
They despised a petty thief, but admired Lafitte; despised a man who would defraud a neighbor or deceive a friend, but would without hesitation co-operate with a man or party who or which aspired to any stupendous scheme or daring enterprise without inquiring as to its morality.
Laffite and his men would capture slaves by raiding slave ships in the Gulf of Mexico and then smuggle them either to Laffite's base in Texas, or to an island in Vermilion Bay, Louisiana. There the Bowie brothers would buy the slaves from Laffite, for a "dollar a pound," and then bring them to American customs authorities where they'd announce they found the slaves in the possession of smugglers.[note 1] Under United States law at the time, anyone who discovered and reported the illegal trafficking of slaves was to be paid a reward equal to half the proceeds at auction. The Bowies would then buy the slaves back at auction, and the authorities were obligated to pay the Bowies half the price they paid. The Bowies would then take the now legal slaves to New Orleans, where they'd sell them for "triple the cost." According to John:
We continued to follow this business until we made $65,000, when we quit and soon spent all our earnings.
Not many people could have found a way to successfully grift the slave trade, but Bowie was special like that.
Starting in late 1820, the Bowie brothers started their hand in land speculation. Prices for land started to rise as settlers started to pour into Louisiana and Arkansas, and this was one market the Bowies were keen to tap into. The Bowies did legitimately buy some land, including a sugar plantation in Louisiana.[note 2] However, most of their land speculation was fraudulent.
As part of the deal purchasing the Louisiana Territory the US government was obligated to honor all Spanish-documented claims of land ownership. The Bowies forged fraudulent documentation claiming ownership of legally public land, and then transferred these claims from bullshit people to themselves for bullshit sums. They then would submit these bogus claims to the government for approval. Once they had laundered their land claims into something legitimate, they would sell off these claims to unwitting marks.
All good things must come to an end, however, and all good cons must eventually come crashing down. In 1824 Congress gave Arkansas jurisdiction over claims of Spanish land ownership. By 1827, 150 claims[note 3] had come to the attention of the court, "all based on the same documentation." The court would initially approve most of these claims, but it was eventually determined to be completely fraudulent in nature. This was determined after a federal investigator did some digging. While the courts were poking around, the Bowies started to sell this land. One of the marks sued the government for legal ownership of land he bought from John Bowie. The case Sampeyreac and Stewart v. the United States found that the plaintiffs held no legitimate title to the land they bought from the Bowies.
By this time Jimbo had already fucked off to Texas (then part of Mexico), where he continued his land cons free of American legal intervention.
The Bowie knife was made famous as a result of Jim's participation in the infamous Sandbar Fight (so named because dueling was illegal in Louisiana and Mississippi at the time, but a sandbar, being ephemeral, was outside of the jurisdiction of either state). The fight was the result of a feud that "had originated in Alexandria, Louisiana over voter fraud, slanderous talk, and business disputes." Samuel Levi Wells and Dr. Thomas Harris Maddox faced off against each other with pistols. The shots missed[note 4], and the two shook hands.
In theory, this should've been the end of the fight, but the other participants hated each other just as much as, if not more than, Sammy and Tommy did the other. Dr. Richard Cuny, for instance, had previously faced off with Maddox's second, a man named Robert Crain. Shortly after the duel officially ended, Cuny insulted Crain. Crain, predictably did not take too well to this, and shot Cuny with a pistol. The shot missed Cuny, but hit Bowie in the hip instead. Bowie fell over himself as Cuny and Crain exchanged fire with each other, and quickly thereafter the once-settled duel became a clusterfuck of violence.
Bowie had supposedly come to the fight armed only with a "large hunting knife" given to him by his brother.[note 5] Bowie recovered from the shot enough to pull out his gigantic knife, and charged at Maddox's ranks like a man possessed. Bowie charged Crain, but was brought down (again) by Crain's pistol.[note 6] Another one of Maddox's men, a man named Norris Wright, stabbed Bowie in the chest with a sword. This wasn't fatal, however, as the blade was struck off by Bowie's sternum. Bowie "grabbed" Wright, and pulled him down onto his knife. Wright was promptly disembowled. Bowie was shot twice afterwards by the Blanchard brothers Alfred and Carry in retaliation for Wright's disembowlment. Bowie, responded by slicing at them with his knife, and only after did he finally collapse.
A truce was called shortly after, as neither Maddox nor Wells had actually participated in the orgy of violence that was the Sandbar Fight. Two of their compatriots lay dead, and several more wounded. Crain, of all people, helped move Bowie across the river so his wounds could be checked. James Denny, a surgeon in the employ of Maddox, saw to Bowie's wounds and predicted he wouldn't recover. To quote History Bandits:
Bowie had taken three serious shots, sustained multiple stab wounds, and suffered a concussion from the butt of Colonel Crain’s pistol.
That said, it was Bowie who proved to be the most compelling fighter of the lot, as it was he who killed one man and wounded another, all while severely injured. Bowie's fame quickly rose as a result of this incident, and with it, the Bowie knife. Bowie recovered after two months of bed rest, and newspaper accounts sensationalized the fight and knife. Bowie, being the career conman he was, was quick to grift the fuck out of this. To quote History Bandits:
Even while bed-ridden from his wounds, Bowie began to wear his own knife prominently across his chest to show off the weapon to visitors and the press.
The Bowie family started a campaign actively linking the Bowie name with the Bowie knife. Rezin Bowie, the aforementioned brother who allegedly gave Jim his big fucking knife in the first place, started advertising the knife with the claim that the knife was "more trustworthy in the hands of a strong man than a pistol."[note 7] Within months of the Fight, blacksmiths across the country started receiving requests for "knives like Bowie's." Reports of Bowie's knife reached all the way to fucking England, where it was seen as an icon of the American frontier (and sold in novelty shops because of it).
However, to put a dent in the hype, Bowie was not the first frontiersman to use a large combat knife, and the design of his knife was almost certainly not unique. To again quote History Bandits:
Similar descriptions of large hilted knives used by Mexican vaqueros appear as early as 1800 along the border regions of Texas.
Another name for the Bowie knife, the "Arkansas toothpick", suggests an origin in the Ozarks. In addition, several different blacksmiths each claimed to have independently invented the Bowie knife, although whether they were taking advantage of a widespread commercial sensation at the time cannot be reliably stated. In all likelihood, the stereotypical Bowie knife was in use by backwoods frontiersmen long before the Sandbar Fight pivoted Jim and his knife to national fame, but it cannot be denied that the knife's infamy and long-lasting popularity was solely the result of that backwoods brawl and its most famous backwoods participant. The Fight would also leave a lasting impact on the popular weaponry of the south, with Bowie knives replacing sword canes as the melee weapon of choice.
The whereabouts of Bowie's original knife are unknown. It's possible he died fighting with it at the Alamo, but by the time Santa Anna arrived to the Alamo Bowie was knocking on death's door. It's no secret that Bowie has fought while injured and ill before, but being bed-ridden and infected with some mysterious illness would probably render even Bowie incapable of combat.
Arrival to Texas
In 1828, shortly after the Sandbar Fight, Bowie realized it was high time to get the fuck out of Dodge, and so he decided to move to Texas. Mexican law at the time banned citizens from being anything other than Catholic:61, and so in April of 1828 Bowie was officially baptized as a Catholic.:175 Bowie arrived to the town of San Antonio (then known as Bexar) with a letter of introduction from Thomas F. McKinley, one of the "Old Three Hundred" colonists, in hand, which he presented to Stephen F. Austin.[note 8] San Antonio at the time had a population of 2500, most of whom were Hispanophones. Bowie's fluency in Spanish helped him get established in the area.:65 In 1830 Bowie officially renounced his American citizenship and became a citizen of Mexico.
Bowie soon learned that Mexican law offered Mexican citizens land grants in Texas comprising eleven leagues for "between $100 and $250 each." Jim, being the money-grubbing con artist he was, practically salivated at the sight of this and soon started "urging" Mexican citizens to apply for land grants, which he then eagerly bought off them. He soon had in his hands fifteen of these grants, and continued encouraging land speculation in Texas. This pissed off Austin to no end, who was reluctant to approve the sale of these land grants in San Antonio, but eventually he relented.
In San Antonio Bowie pretended to be a "gentleman of wealth and taste," and soon conned his way into the aristocratic Veramendi family.[note 9] In 1831 Bowie married Ursula de Veramendi, and pledged his dowry to her to be $15,000 dollars. Acting through a friend, Bowie purchased a textile mill for $20,000. According to Bowie, the collective value of his properties was $222,800. This was complete bullshit. The true value of Bowie's property (through his land grants) was closer to $30,000, and all of that was fraudulent too.
What money Bowie did legitimately have was $45,000 in interest from the sugar plantation he sold in 1831 (the men who bought it paid McNeil $20,000 for the mill Bowie had bought through him). Bowie also borrowed money from his father and grandmother-in-law for a honeymoon to New Orleans.
According to Veramendi family tradition, Bowie spent very little time at home. Instead, Bowie became positively obsessed with the mythical Los Almagres Mine supposedly located to the west of San Antonio. Jim sought and gained permission from the Mexican law to mount an expedition to find this "lost mine" deep in "Indian country." This expedition was a total disaster. Jim, his brother Rezin, and several others spent days fruitlessly searching and fighting indigenous tribes in the wilderness. The Native tribes, not happy with this invasion of their land, sent out a large force to follow Bowie's expedition. After a "failed attempt" at parley, the Bowie expedition fought for their lives against a pissed off indigenous war party for over half a day before finally retreating back to San Antonio. The Natives reportedly lost "over 40 dead and 30 wounded," but since the only source we have on this is Bowie's group, who for obvious reasons wouldn't want to look like they got their asses handed to them, this result is highly questionable. Bowie's group suffered one killed and several wounded.
A couple months later, in 1832, Bowie, now "colonel" of a citizen ranger force, tried his hand at another expedition out west. After two and a half months of fruitless searching for "hostile Indians," Bowie and his group returned home.
Prelude to war
In 1829, the President of Mexico Vincente Guerrero issued a decree abolishing slavery. This pissed off the Anglo colonists in Texas big time. Austin, the de facto leader of the Anglo colonists in Texas, declared:
I am the owner of one slave only, an old decrepit woman, not worth much, but in this matter I should feel that my constitutional rights as a Mexican were just as much infringed, as they would be if I had a thousand.
Texans developed ways to evade this new law, including through indentured servitude. When Anglos and their slaves crossed the border into Texas, the slaves were declared "free," but they would then be obligated to pay off this "debt" owed to their owners through a period of forced labor. To quote Texas Monthly:
Any costs for clothing or food or housing would be deducted from their “wages,” which were around $20 a year. Any sum not paid off by the time they died would be assumed by their children. Any of the former slaves’ children who were born after their parents passed into Texas would begin paying off their debts when they reached adulthood, presumably being considered property of the master until that point.
This indentured servitude was central to the Texan economy, and naturally the Mexican government would have none of it. In July of 1832 the Mexican commander José de las Piedras arrived in Nacogdoches, Texas and demanded that "all citizens under his jurisdiction" give up their arms. The colonists, naturally, told the Mexican Army to fuck off. Bowie, upon hearing this, rushed to Nacogdoches, and at the beginning of August the Nacogdoches Revolt began. Bowie and 300 armed colonists laid siege to the Mexican garrison at Nacogdoches. Piedras chose to fight instead of surrender. Under cover of night the Mexican Army evacuated the garrison and headed south, having lost thirty of his men to the fighting. Bowie's militia ambushed the column on their march, and "Piedras fled."
Bowie marched his men back to Nacogdoches. On March 9th, 1833, the city of Monclovia, Texas was declared the new state capitol. Saltillo, the previous capitol, objected to the change, and so the two towns raised armies to contest it. Bowie favored Monclovia, and so moved his family over to the city. When the two armies met to battle, Bowie rode out to try and avert this split in the movement. Bowie's motivation for favoring the change was, of course, greed. To quote the Texas State History Association:
He believed that the fortunes of Texas land speculators lay with Monclova.
Tragedy and personal affairs
In September, 1833, Bowie's wife Ursula, his father-in-law, and his mother-in-law died of cholera. Bowie was sick with yellow fever at the time and so didn't learn of the news until later. Ursula already had two young children by the time of her death, and both of the Bowie children died. When Bowie learned of his family's death, he was devastated. After the death of his wife and children, Bowie started drinking even more heavily than before, and "became careless in his dress.":93
On October 31st Bowie dictated his last will, in which he bequeathed half his property to his brother Rezin, and the other half to his sister Martha and her husband. In 1834 Mexico passed laws making it easier to sell land in Texas, and despite the tragedy that had afflicted Bowie in the previous year, Bowie returned to his bread and butter activity of land cons. Bowie was appointed "land commissioner," and was tasked with settlement promotion in the area owned by John Marston.[note 10] This all came to a grinding halt in 1835, when Santa Anna ordered the arrest of all Anglo colonists doing business in Moncolovia. Bowie again got the fuck out of Dodge and high-tailed it back to the American controlled areas of Texas.
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The ironically named Texas Revolution[note 11] began in earnest not long afterwards. Texan Anglos were split between "Peace" and "War" Parties, but gradually the War Party won out. Resentment against the Mexicans was high amongst the Anglo population, and before long Texan Anglos were raising arms to oppose Santa Anna. Bowie in particular lobbied on behalf of the War Party lead by William B. Travis. Bowie attempted to rally Native American support for the cause, but the indigenous peoples were reluctant to support it. Santa Anna responded to all this seditious behavior by ordering the Mexican Army to march on Texas en masse.
- American tall tales — many a tall tale has been spread about Bowie, several of which have been covered (and refuted) on this article.
- ↑ Well, they weren't wrong…
- ↑ Records indicate Rezin Jr lived there for a time. Eventually the Bowies sold it a couple of men in 1831.
- ↑ Respectively roughly fifty thousand acres.
- ↑ Handguns at the time were notoriously inaccurate.
- ↑ No points for guessing what this knife was.
- ↑ Crain pistol-whipped him.
- ↑ Considering the accuracy of handguns at the time, this was probably true.
- ↑ Yes, Bowie was acquainted with the namesake of Austin, Texas.
- ↑ They were the ones who sponsored his citizenship.
- ↑ No, not that one.
- ↑ Really it was more of a counter-revolution, because of its reactionary goal to preserve slavery. Sounds familiar...
- ↑ Frank Dobie. "James Bowie, Big Dealer." The Southwestern Historical Quarterly. Vol. 60. No. 3 (Jan. 1957). p. 357. (JSTOR entry)
- ↑ 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 "Jim Bowie Before the 'Gaudy Legend'"
- ↑ 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 "Selling the Sandbar: Marketing the Bowie Knife" - The History Bandits
- ↑ See the Wikipedia article on Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves.
- ↑ "Death of a plantation, a very late obituary"
- ↑ "BERNARDO SAMPEYREAC and JOSEPH STEWART, Appellants, v. UNITED STATES, Appellees." - Legal Information Institute
- ↑ 7.0 7.1 "Where is Jim Bowie's Famous Knife?" - Authentic Texan
- ↑ The Mysterious Illness of Jim Bowie: Did He Contribute to His Own Decline?" - Daily History
- ↑ 9.0 9.1 9.2 Hopewell, Clifford (1994). James Bowie Texas Fighting Man: A Biography. Austin, TX: Eakin Press. ISBN 0-89015-881-9.
- ↑ Sears, Edward S. (2000). "The Low Down on Jim Bowie". In Boatright, Mody C.; Day, Donald. From Hell to Breakfast. Publications of the Texas Folklore Society Number XIX. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press. ISBN 1-57441-099-7.
- ↑ 11.00 11.01 11.02 11.03 11.04 11.05 11.06 11.07 11.08 11.09 11.10 11.11 11.12 11.13 11.14 11.15 11.16 "James Bowie" - Handbook of Texas
- ↑ 12.0 12.1 How leaders of the Texas Revolution fought to preserve slavery" - Texas Monthly.