True Grit

This Day in History - Colorful Character Countdown

While most “remember the Alamo,” many might not recognize the name Jim Bowie. And yet his presence and infectious fighting spirit were instrumental in the decision to defend the Mission in 1836. But prior to that fateful campaign, Bowie’s life read like a true grit Wild West novel.

Jim Bowie was born in Kentucky on April 10th in 1796. His first experience in warfare was an enlistment in the War of 1812 but his involvement was fairly uneventful. After the war, he returned to what had previously become his home in Louisiana and began to sell lumber. With his earnings, he purchased a few slaves so that he could enlarge the scope of his business.

He quickly got sucked into the abysmal operation of slave smuggling after meeting Jean Lafitte who was notorious for piracy along the Gulf Coast. The smuggled slaves were purchased by Bowie who then lied about their origin, saying simply that he “found” them. He would then pocket the cash obtained by selling them at slave auctions.

While this may have been the most disgraceful of his actions over a lifetime, he also committed a few other criminal acts like falsifying documentation laying claim to property in Louisiana.

On one particularly “colorful” occasion, Bowie’s assistance was requested by Dr. Thomas Harris Maddox and Samuel Levi Wells III as they were about to engage in a duel. Bowie and several others were to serve as “seconds” who would negotiate the terms of the duel as well as determining which weapons would be allowed.

Bowie represented the interests of Wells and while the duel involved two missed shots and an amicable parting between the two gentlemen, the “seconds” opted to continue the fight which turned into an all-out brawl! Bowie sustained three gunshot wounds and a stabbing by a sword cane.

And although he was frightfully wounded to be sure, he managed to plunge a large bladed butcher knife (a gift from his beloved brother) into one of the other “seconds” that rendered the poor fellow dead. In “honor” of this feat of unadulterated bravado, the Bowie Knife was born.

Jim Bowie

Always staying just a step ahead of the law, Bowie relocated to Texas in 1830. There he met and married Ursula Veramendi, the daughter of the mayor of San Antonio. Sadly, she and her parents died from an influenza outbreak shortly after the marriage. Bowie then became involved in a battle at Nacogdoches in which Texans were angered at Mexico for its insistence that they surrender arms. Bowie was successful in capturing a handful of Mexican soldiers which propelled him to local fame by those who endorsed an independent Texas. Interestingly, Bowie’s deceased wife was Mexican and he was the owner of considerable assets tied to Mexican Texas.

As unrest escalated, Bowie and Sam Houston were chosen as leaders of the area militia in Nacogdoches. They joined forces with a loosely-formed “army” under leadership of Stephen Austin and James Fannin.

Bowie’s familiarity with the locals made his contributions invaluable to the cause of independence. The combined forces planned to bring down Mexican General Cos and Bowie’s presence in San Antonio spurred many of the area residents to get on board with the rebel cause.

When General Cos realized that the troops had penetrated the grounds of Concepcion Mission, it was “game on” for Mexican forces. Luckily though, they were no match for the “sharp shooters” under the skilled direction of Jim Bowie and they fled the scene of the conflict swiftly.

Jim Bowie and his Bowie knife

General Sam Houston issued an order that the Alamo Mission in San Antonio be destroyed and that the soldiers were to retreat. However, the stubborn Bowie disregarded the orders and elected instead to remain and defend the Alamo. Of his decision to not stand down, Bowie had this to say:

“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 joined forces with the “commander of the Alamo,” Lt. Colonel James C. Neill in January of 1836. However, when Neill departed the city in mid-February of the same year and placed Lt. Colonel William Barret Travis of the Texas Army in charge of troops, the decision was met with much discontent from the soldiers loyal to Bowie. The matter was settled with a vote and a “joint command” was settled upon wherein Bowie oversaw operations of the volunteer soldiers while Travis retained command of the “regulars.”

Tragically, just one short day after General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna approached San Antonio, the “larger than life” Bowie found himself bedridden with an illness (likely pneumonia) that rendered him entirely unable to lead the charge against Mexican forces.

So while perhaps the truth of the Alamo does not support Jim Bowie as the rugged warrior he often was earlier in his rambunctious existence, he nevertheless has gone down in history as a folk hero of sorts. His mere presence at the Alamo inspired bravery and a “never say die” spirit in his charges who remained undaunted in their stand for an independent Texas, even to the death. Quite a legacy indeed!

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