My book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques is available from Paladin Press. This blog contains additional information about the bowie knife, as well as the fighting knives of other nations.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"Early Life in the Southwest--the Bowies"

The following article on James Bowie was written by his oldest brother, John Jones Bowie, (1785-1859). Titled "Early Life in the Southwest--The Bowies," it was published in De Bow's Review of the Southern and Western States (1852). While it contains numerous errors as far as names, most of which I have corrected in brackets, it remains one of the few authentic sources we have on the Bowie family.
My father and mother were both born in the state of Georgia. They were married in 1782 in the county of Burke of the same state; my mother's maiden name being Elvira Jones; my father's name was Rezin Bowie. During my infancy, or about the year 1787, my parents moved from Georgia to the state of Tennessee, where they remained for six or seven years. During this sojourn my father had frequent skirmishes with the Indians, and was engaged in the conflicts then so common in that devoted country. After this he removed to Logan county, Kentucky, where my brother James was born in the spring of 1796.

My father was passionately fond of the adventures and excitements of a woodsman's life, and as the country improved and opened, population increased, and the refinements of civilization encroached upon the freedom of his hunting-grounds, he retired to wilder regions, where he could enjoy those sports and stirring adventures peculiar to a frontier life. In the year 1800 he removed to the state, or rather province of Missouri, and in 1802 he came and settled on the Bushley Bayou, in what was then the district of Rapides, Louisiana, and under Spanish rule. Here he remained till 1809, when he again, and for the last time, took up the line of march, and finally settled in the district of Opelousas, where he remained until he died, in 1819, in the fall of the year. He sleeps with the common mother Earth, without any stone or inscription to mark the resting-place of him whose bosom was so often bared, and whose hand was so often raised for the defence of his family, and the homes and firesides of his countrymen, against the secret and deadly attacks of savage foes. At his death he left four sons, myself being the eldest, Rezin, James and Stephen, and two daughters. [The Bowies had ten children, but only six were still alive at the time of their father's death.]

James Bowie, with the rest of my father's family, was 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. We certainly were greatly indebted to our dear mother for much of the information we possessed. She was a sincerely pious woman, and always inculcated the pure principles of the religion of that Saviour whom she so faithfully served.

My brother James spent the most important part of his childhood in Catahoula parish, between the years 1802 and 1809, embracing the period between the ages of six and fifteen years.

About the year 1814 James left my father's house and launched upon life—
"With all the world before him,"
and not only undertook to provide for himself, but actually did it, as has often been done by hundreds of others before and since. He settled on Bayou Boeuf, Rapides Parish, and cleared a small piece of land, but his chief means of support was from sawing plank and other lumber with the common whip-saw, and boating down the Bayou for sale. The proceeds of his lumber procured him his food and clothing, powder and shot, &c.

He was young, proud, poor, and ambitious, without any rich family connections, or influential friends to aid him in the battle of life. After reaching the age of maturity he was a stout, rather rawboned man, of six feet height, weighed 180 pounds, and about as well made as any man I ever saw. His hair was light-colored, not quite red—his eyes were gray, rather deep set in his head, very keen and penetrating in their glance; his complexion was fair, and his cheekbones rather high. Taken altogether, he was a manly, fine-looking person, and by many of the fair ones he was called handsome. He was possessed of an open, frank disposition, with rather a good temper, unless aroused by some insult, when the displays of his anger were terrible, and frequently terminated in some tragical scene. But he was never known to abuse a conquered enemy, or to impose upon the weak and defenceless. A man of very strong social feelings, he loved his friends with all the ardor of youth, and hated his enemies and their friends with all the rancor of the Indian. He was social and plain with all men, fond of music and the amusements of the day, and would take a glass in merry mood to drive dull care away; but seldom allowed it to "steal away his brains, or transform him into a beast."

He lived and labored several years on Bayou Boeuf, where no doubt many yet live who can recount his deeds of wild sport and recklessness which he there performed, prompted by his innate love of excitement. He was fond of fishing and hunting, and often afforded rare sport to his neighbors by his daring exploits in roping and capturing wild deer in the woods, or catching and riding wild unmanageable horses. He has been even known to rope and ride alligators. He had a way of catching bears which was entirely original. In the summer season, when the bears were constantly ravaging the little patches of green corn of the early settlers, he adopted the following novel plan to entrap them. After finding the place where they usually entered the field, he procured a hollow cypress knee of suitable size, which was properly cleaned out, and then sharp iron spikes were driven through it with the points inward and inclined downward, similar to the fingers of a fish-trap. Being thus prepared, some honey (of which the bear is passionately fond) was put in the bottom of the inverted knee, and this put at the place where the bear crossed the fence. In his eagerness to get the honey, Bruin would thrust his muzzle and head down amongst the spikes; and when he would attempt to draw out his head, the spikes would pierce the skin and flesh in such a manner at to prevent him from throwing off the mask, and in this blindfolded condition he became an easy prey to his gleeful captors.

During his sojourn here Bowie mixed a little with society, and was very successful in securing a fair portion of the friendship of the better class of the people. As the country improved and landed property became enhanced in value, he sold his land on the Bayou and used the means, thus obtained, in speculating in the purchase of Africans from the notorious Lafitte, who brought them to Galveston, Texas, for sale. James, Rezin and myself fitted out some small boats at the mouth of the Calcasieu, and went into the trade on shares. Our plan of operations was as follows:—We first purchased forty negroes from Lafitte at the rate of one dollar per pound, or an average of $140 for each negro; we brought them into the limits of the United States, delivered them to a custom-house officer, and became the informers ourselves; the law gave the informer half of the value of the negroes, which were put up and sold by the United States marshal, and we became the purchasers of the negroes, took the half as our reward for informing, and obtained the marshal's sale for the forty negroes, which entitled us to sell them within the United States. We continued to follow this business until we made $65,000, when we quit and soon spent all our earnings.

James then went into the land speculation and soon made $15,000. This business necessarily caused him to spend much of his time in the woods, where natural inclination also gave the employment a charm peculiarly pleasant to him. He had a hunting-knife made, which suited his fancy, by a common blacksmith named Snowden. In after years this knife became famous, owing to some very tragical occurrences which originated as follows:—About the year 1826, James became involved in the political and party squabbles of the day, and his fiery, impulsive nature caused him to enlist all his energies in the strife. At this time he resided in Alexandria, on Red River, and in some of the momentary excitements of the day an altercation took place between him and the sheriff of Rapides Parish, a Mr. Norris Wright, during which Wright shot Bowie in his left breast, while he was unarmed; but had Wright not been rescued by his friends James would have killed him with his fists. This attack so enraged him that he had a neat leather scabbard made for his hunting-knife, and affirmed that he would wear it as long as he lived, which he did. About twelve months after this difficulty, or in September, 1827, the great duel took place at Natchez.

After my brother recovered from his wounds, he felt as though he had not been well used, or properly treated by some of his political friends, so he determined to leave the United States and go to Texas. For several years he had spent his winters in New Orleans, but during the time was engaged in no business besides what was connected with his land speculations. He continued to spend these seasons there until he finally disposed of his lands and negroes, which was about the year 1829, or 1830, when he left for Texas with only about a thousand dollars, which he invested there in lands.

He fearlessly launched forth into all the then existing war and strife of that country. His valor and courage recommended him to the chivalrous Mexicans, and in a short time he won a name and distinction in that country. Here he married the daughter of Ex-Governor Berrymenda [Veramendi]. She lived to have one child, but both mother and child were followed to the grave before he was killed at the Alamo.

During the few years he spent in Texas he had many strange and hazardous adventures, probably the most notable of which was the following. He and Rezin Bowie, with nine others, went in search of a silver mine about 200 miles northwest of San Antonio. While on this expedition they were attacked by about one hundred and fifty Camanche Indians. James being well acquainted with the habits and manners of these savages, soon perceived that they were on trail of him and his little party for the purpose of murdering or robbing them, so he availed himself of the first suitable place for defence. He selected a point of woodland jutting out to a point in the prairie where there were great quantities of loose stones, out of which he and his men soon constructed a temporary fort for immediate defence; but before they had completed their work, the savages
“--Came down like the wolf on the fold.
Like the leaves of the forest when summer is green,
That host with their banners at noon day were seen;
Like the leaves of the forest when autumn hath blown,
That host in the evening lay withered and strewn."
These modern Parthians, who fight only on horseback, and almost live on horseback, are perhaps the most formidable warriors in the country. They came boldly up within sixty yards of the little rocky fort, and opened a murderous fire upon the inmates. On the first fire they killed a Mr. Castleman [McCaslin], broke the leg of a Mr. Pool [sic; this is Buchanan], and shot a Mr. Doyal [Doyle] through the body, who, however, recovered afterwards. This left the two Bowies, five other white men and one negro, who had to defend themselves against these merciless wretches, and at the same time nurse and attend their wounded comrades. The Indians continued their attack, riding rapidly round and round the fort, and keeping up an incessant fire. But in the mean time the inmates of the fort were not idle, but they kept up a deadly and effective fire upon their assailants. James on one side and Resin on the other, encouraged and cheered their comrades, and showed them how to dodge the shots of the enemy. The fight continued for three or four hours; the savages then retreated a short distance, leaving some fifty or sixty of their dead on the prairie grass, together with a number of dead horses;—
"For there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay red on the turf.
And cold as the spray of the rock-beaten surf.
And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the gore on bis brow and the gore on his mail;
And the tents are all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown."
During the night they carried away the dead bodies of their comrades, and early next morning renewed the attack, and continued to do so for several days, every day forming their line of attack, yet farther and farther off, until they got beyond the reach of gun-shot. Finally, after having killed fully a hundred of the Indians, and their wounded comrades were in such a situation as to be moved, they determined to leave Rocky Fort, which they did in the night, bringing Pool and Doyal safe back to the settlements.

James had many other fights with the Indians and Mexicans, the particulars of which I am unable to furnish you.

He closed his career in the bloody battle of the Alamo, where he was not so fortunate as he was at Rocky Fort, though equally as brave and dauntless, and his rifle was fully as deadly as before.

After the final destruction of all the brave inmates of the Alamo, and when they came to attend to the burial of the dead, tradition says that the Mexican chief officer ordered the remains of James Bowie to be honorably buried by themselves, as he said "he was too great a man to be buried with the common soldiers." He sleeps alone, without any stone or inscription to mark the spot, or say to the passer-by, "here lie the mortal remains of the brave." J. J. B.

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