Jim Bowie was born in Logan County (now Simpson County), Kentucky on April 10, 1796. His family moved around a lot, until they finally settled in Louisiana, when Jim was about 10. Here, while taking on such odd jobs as a trapper and lumberjack, he picked up his reputation as a rough and tumble fighter. In 1812, while only sixteen years old, he joined the Second Division of the Army to fight against the British invaders. Luckily (or unluckily, from Bowie's perspective) the war ended before they were called to fight a real battle. After the war, Bowie moved to New Orleans where he and his brother Rezin became slave traders. They would buy captured slaves from Jean Lafitte, the infamous pirate, and sell them to wealthy plantation owners around the Vermilion Bay. He and his brother also owned land around the area, and were soon rather wealthy themselves.

Bowie was both a drifter and a troublemaker. In 1827, while in Natchez, Mississippi, Bowie was part of a huge brawl in which five men were killed and he was seriously wounded (by three gunshots!). He met and became engaged to Cecelia Wells in 1829; she passed away in September of that year, before the wedding took place. Seeing he had more money than he knew what to do with (and plenty of debtors chasing him to recover it), he made his way to Texas.

While in Texas, Bowie became something of a prospector, making friends with the local native American tribes in a search for silver and gold. He frequented central Texas, and is declared to be the discoverer of the San Saba mines, near Fredericksburg. It is rumored that some of these mines were silver mines, and Bowie was very rich at the time of his death. It was also in Texas that he designed and created the first Bowie knife - a short handle and a long blade for easy hunting, killing, and cleaning animal carcasses. Allegedly, this was based on designs his brother had made prior, but no evidence exists either way, and the legend continues. One of the most famous Jim Bowie stories is that he (and not Daniel Boone) killed a bear in Texas using just one such knife.

In 1831, Jim married Ursula Veramendi, the daughter of a Mexican vice governor. In 1832, his closest friend in the Apache tribe, Chief Xolic, was killed by a traitor named Tres Manos. In 1834, Bowie and ten other men went hunting for Tres Manos in the foothills near the San Saba River. They soon learned they were outnumbered roughly 200 to 11. Bowie was a quick thinker and built two camps - one real camp and one camp made to look real. When the Indians attacked the fake camp, they were ambushed, and about 60 of them were killed, along with one of Bowie's men. Among the dead Indians was Tres Manos. Bowie returned to San Antonio a hero. He was also rumored to have over twenty payloads of silver buried in a safe place, thus becoming a Texas legend. Sadly, his hero status was no match for cholera, which claimed the lives of both Ursula and his two daughters. He never returned for the silver. In 1834, he was named a land comissioner of Texas, selling land to immigrants to the Mexican territory. Bowie was an unreliable alcoholic, but he had a sense for business, and received three commendations from the Mexican government for his work.

After the revolution for the independence of Texas broke out in 1835, Jim Bowie joined the fight and took place in two major battles at Concepcion and the famous Grass Fight, where the Texans intercepted a mule train, expecting a large payload of silver, only to discover the Mexican troops were hauling grass - food for the mules. Finally, in December of 1835 Bowie and his volunteers settled in San Antonio for the winter. By February, the Regular Army, led by Colonel William Travis had also arrived. The troops garrisoned themselves at the local missionary - The Alamo.

On February 23, 1836, the Alamo was surrounded by Mexican troops led by General Santa Ana. Bowie, sick with pneumonia, reluctantly gave Travis full command of the Alamo. For thirteen days, the 189 men of the Alamo lay in wait for the oncoming attack. Finally, at dawn on March 6, 1836, the Mexican forces charged. They were repulsed twice by the settlers, but finally the invaders engulfed the mission. No defenders of the Alamo survived. It is not known how Bowie died - some people conjecture that he passed away before the final battle had even begun; others suggest that he killed two men from his deathbed before being killed; and others suggest he was not killed in battle, but captured and executed by firing squad. Whatever the case may be, his body was burned along with the other soldiers of the Alamo.

Jim Bowie's life (and specifically, his role at The Alamo) has been replayed many times on the big and small screen. Perhaps most famously his life was portrayed in the syndicated show "The Adventures of Jim Bowie" (1956-8) starring Scott Forbes. Talks are currently in place for Viggo Mortensen (Lord Of The Rings, A Perfect Murder) to star as Bowie in a Ron Howard version of the events of the Alamo.

Jim Bowie lived the adventuresome life that so many other settlers faced in the early 19th century with gusto and panache. From slave trader to card shark to land commissioner to revolutionary martyr, he serves as an excellent example of the gung ho (if slightly misguided) spirit of American life, and as one of the many colorful points of interest in the prodigious history of Texas, United States expansion, and American folklore.


  • http://www.lsjunction.com/people/bowie.htm
  • http://www.songofsilver.com/the_legend___the_mystery.htm
  • http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/BB/fbo45.html

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