Jim Bowie before the “gaudy legend”

Jim Bowie by George Peter Alexander Healey, around 1820

Jim Bowie by George Peter Alexander Healey, around 1820

Before Jim Bowie became one of the most mythologized figures in American history, he was a con artist. One of his partners in crime was the pirate Jean Laffite, who introduces Bowie to Napoleon in Napoleon in America.

Frontier child

James Bowie was born nine miles northwest of Franklin, Kentucky in the spring of 1796. He was the eighth of ten children, four of whom died young. His father, Rezin Bowie, Sr., was a planter who had fought in the American Revolutionary War. His mother, Elvira Catesby Jones, was a volunteer nurse in that conflict. She married Rezin Sr. in 1782, after nursing him back to health from a sabre wound.

In 1800 the family moved to Missouri. Two years later, they went to Louisiana, which Napoleon had recently acquired from Spain (he sold it to the United States in 1803). The Bowies settled first at Bayou Teche and then, in 1812, at Opelousas. According to Jim Bowie’s older brother John, the children were “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.” (1)

Jim Bowie learned how to fish, hunt and farm, and how to survive on the frontier. He also learned how to read and write. He later became fluent in French and in Spanish.

Life on Bayou Boeuf

In late 1814, in response to Andrew Jackson’s call for volunteers to fight the British, Jim Bowie enlisted in the Louisiana militia. Arriving too late to participate in the Battle of New Orleans, he stayed in the area, settling on Bayou Boeuf. Though he cleared a small piece of land, his chief means of support came from sawing lumber and barging it to New Orleans for sale. John Bowie tells us:

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 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 raw-boned man, of six feet height, weighted 180 pounds, and about as well made as any man I ever saw. … 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. …

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.’ (2)

Slave launderer

In 1819 Jim Bowie joined an expedition led by James Long that aimed to liberate Texas from Spanish rule. In June of that year the group captured Nacogdoches and declared Texas an independent republic. In October the invaders were pushed out by Spanish troops, but by that time Bowie had already returned to Louisiana. He and his brothers, John and Rezin Jr., embarked on a slave-laundering venture in partnership with Jean Laffite. According to William H. Sparks, who knew the 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. (3)

The importation of slaves into the United States had been banned since 1808. However, it was legal to buy and sell slaves who were already in the country. Laffite’s gang would capture Africans from slave ships in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean and smuggle them either to Laffite’s base at Galveston in Texas, or to Bowie’s island in Vermilion Bay, west of New Orleans. The Bowies bought the slaves from Laffite for a dollar a pound and took them directly to a customhouse in St. Landry Parish, where they reported that the slaves had been found in the possession of smugglers. Since anyone who informed on the illegal importation of slaves was entitled to a reward equal to half of what the slaves earned at auction, the Bowies would buy the slaves at the customhouse auction, and receive back half the price they had paid. They would then take the now legal slaves to New Orleans, where they could sell them at triple their cost. John writes:

We continued to follow this business until we made $65,000, when we quit and soon spent all our earnings. (4)

Land scammer

In late 1820, Jim Bowie and his brothers turned to land speculation. They hoped to take advantage of rising prices as Americans poured into Louisiana and Arkansas. Though the Bowies bought some land, including a sugar plantation named Acadia on Bayou Lafourche near Thibodaux, southwest of New Orleans, they sold more through fraud.

When the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory, it promised to honor all documented claims to ownership of land that had been granted when the territory was under Spanish rule. The Bowies forged Spanish grant documentation for uncontested land that was in the public domain. They then transferred these claims from fictitious persons to themselves for fictitious sums. They submitted the fake claims to the US land office for approval. Once they had established legitimate title, the brothers could sell the land for pure profit.

In 1824, Congress gave the Superior Court of Arkansas jurisdiction over any new cases arising from Spanish land claims. In late 1827, the court was presented with over 120 claims, collectively involving some 50,000 acres of land, all based on the same documentation. Although the court initially approved most of the claims, in 1831 it invalidated them after a federal investigator found that the documents had been forged. Meanwhile, the Bowies – who, with a couple of associates, were behind this scheme – had already sold some of the land. One of the purchasers sued the government to obtain a claim he had bought from John Bowie. The case was appealed to the US Supreme Court (Sampeyreac and Stewart v. the United States), which in 1833 confirmed that no legitimate title had ever existed.

By this time Jim Bowie had moved to Texas, where he continued to speculate in land. He died on March 6, 1836, at the age of 40, in the Mexican attack on the Alamo in San Antonio.

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. (5)

You might also enjoy:

Jean Lafitte: Mexican Gulf pirate and privateer

Texas entrepreneur Ben Milam

Soldier, lothario, filibuster: General Jean Joseph Amable Humbert

  1. “Early Life in the Southwest – The Bowies,” De Bow’s Review of the Southern and Western States, Vol. 13, October 1852, p. 379.
  2. Ibid., p. 380.
  3. Edward S. Ellis, The Life of Colonel David Crockett (Philadelphia, 1884), p. 222.
  4. “Early Life in the Southwest – The Bowies,” pp. 380-381.
  5. Frank Dobie, “James Bowie, Big Dealer,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 3 (Jan. 1957), p. 357.

8 commments on “Jim Bowie before the “gaudy legend””

  • Ann Marie Ackermann says:

    Another great post!

    I’ve always associated Bowie with the knife and the Alamo, but never knew about his shady past. That was an interesting read.

  • Quinn says:

    What an eye-opener! Wow.
    What is he holding in that portrait, do you know?

  • Terry Todish says:

    Interesting article. I posted a link to it at an Alamo FB page, and several of the folks there wondered what the source was for Bowie’s middle name, Rhesa. Apparently it’s not in Davis’ “Three Roads to the Alamo”, which most consider to be the most reliable biography, and they didn’t remember it from any others.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks for sharing the post, Terry. I’m very grateful to you and your readers for alerting me to the issue of Bowie’s name. The middle name “Rhesa” appears for Jim Bowie on some genealogical websites about the Bowies, but in going through them now I can’t find any original source cited, so I’ve removed it from the post. No middle name appears in John Bowie’s sketch of his brother in De Bow’s Review (1852), which — as Davis notes — is considered the best primary source on Jim Bowie’s early life.

  • nan says:

    Most had questionable pasts. Take this one step further and you will find that slavery was illegal in Mexico and the Texans were still importing. Santa Anna went into Texas to ensure compliance with Mexican law.

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[The Bowie brothers] 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.

William H. Sparks