A Frontier Legend

Dr. R. Bruce Winders, Former Alamo Director of History and Curator

One name forever linked to the Battle of the Alamo is James Bowie. Although not yet a household name like “Crockett” at the time of the battle, Bowie and his exploits had gained renown in some quarters. His death on March 6, 1836, however, ensured his place in history as one of Texas’ most interesting figures.

Many early Americans were drawn to the western frontier of the new republic — among them the Bowies. James’ parents had lived in Tennessee before moving to Kentucky, where James was born 1796. On the move again in 1800, the family crossed the Mississippi River into Missouri and settled in what was then Spanish Louisiana. Following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the Bowies moved once more, this time to southeastern Louisiana. Not yet a state, Louisiana still retained a frontier atmosphere.

James soon struck out on his own, intent on making his mark on the world. In the antebellum South, two commodities could lead to wealth and respectability — land and slaves. James Bowie speculated in both. Before long he had acquired title to thousands of acres throughout Louisiana and Arkansas Territory. High-stakes speculating was a risky business and while amassing a small fortune, Bowie was also making enemies. In 1826, Bowie was shot and wounded by a rival in the lobby of an Alexandria hotel, an event that proved to be a turning point for him.

James and his older brother, Rezin, shared an extremely close relationship. Concerned for his brother’s safety, Rezin gave James a long-bladed butcher knife. The “Bowie Knife”, as it came to be called, gained its reputation the following year in the hands of James near Natchez in an incident known as the Sand Bar Fight. Although shot twice and stabbed several times, James was still able to fend off his attackers. The incident made both the man and the knife legends as word of the deadly fight spread. Demand for the “Bowie Knife” grew as others wanted to own such a formidable weapon.

James Bowie immigrated to Texas in 1830 after U.S. officials determined that many of his land claims were rooted in fraud. A charming and energetic man in his mid-thirties, Bowie visited San Antonio de Béxar where he met Ursula de Veramendi, the daughter of Juan Martín de Veramendi, vice governor of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas. James and Ursula were married in 1831. Thus, Bowie had allied himself to one of the most powerful families in Texas and with the Tejano community. Tragically, his young wife and her parents died in Monclova in 1833 when a cholera epidemic swept across northern Mexico.

Relying on his old skills, Bowie speculated in Texas lands. He also searched for a lost silver mine thought to be located near the ruins of an old Spanish mission, Santa Cruz de San Sába. Although he never found the elusive treasure, Bowie won the admiration of his fellow citizens when he and his small party of prospectors held out for several days against a large band of hostile Indians who attacked their camp. The title of “Indian fighter” only added to his reputation.

Bowie’s role in the Texas Revolution extends beyond his well-known participation in the Battle of the Alamo. During the Siege of Béxar in October 1835, Bowie served on the staff of Stephen F. Austin, commander of the “Federal Army of Texas.” On the morning of October 28, troops under Colonels Bowie and James W. Fannin drove off a larger force of Mexican soldiers, winning the Battle of Concepcíon. On November 26, troops under Bowie helped capture a Mexican horse herd in what was to be called the Grass Fight. Bowie left the army and therefore missed the Battle of Béxar (December 5–10, 1835) in which the Texans defeated General Martín Perfecto de Cos and forced the Mexican garrison to withdraw below the Rio Grande.

In January 1836, Bowie returned to San Antonio at the request of General Sam Houston. Once there, he and Lieutenant Colonel James C. Neill, commander of the Alamo, agreed the place must be defended as it was clear that the Mexican Army planned to reoccupy Texas. “Colonel Neill and myself have come to the solemn resolution that we will rather die in these ditches than give up this post to the enemy,” Bowie informed the provisional government.

Neill’s departure from the Alamo on February 11, 1836, set the stage for a potentially serious struggle over command. Neill had left William Barret Travis, a lieutenant colonel in the newly formed Texas Army, in charge of the garrison, but the majority of the men wanted the popular “Colonel” Bowie to lead them. After holding an election, the two officers settled on a joint command with Travis in charge of the regulars and Bowie in command of the volunteers. This is how the situation stood on February 23, 1836, when General Antonio López de Santa Anna’s army arrived in San Antonio.

Ironically, on the second day of the siege, the man who had earned a reputation as a fierce fighter, became ill and was confined to his bed, too sick to participate in the greatest battle of his life. For years historians have puzzled over the exact nature of his illness, most agreeing that it was some form of pneumonia. Most would also agree, too, that Bowie’s association with the Battle of the Alamo guaranteed his status as a legendary frontiersman.