The Life and Times of James Bowie

The Life and Times of James Bowie

By Larry Holzwarth
The Life and Times of James Bowie

He was one of the almost sacred trinity of the Alamo, though a legendary figure on the American frontier before he went to the Mexican territory of Texas. Contrary to popular belief, he did not invent the knife which bears his name. It was his prowess in using it which led to the design becoming known to posterity as the Bowie Knife. Rezin Bowie, brother of James, left the first documented account of his brother using a knife similar to the modern Bowie knife. He provided the story more than two years after James died at the Alamo. Like much of the history of James Bowie, the story was altered over the years, and the facts of its invention are lost. James Bowie left no written records of his own.

James Bowie’s death at the Battle of the Alamo is legendary in American history. Wikimedia

James Bowie was born in Kentucky and is most closely associated today with Texas, but most of his life was spent in Louisiana and Mississippi. Bowie’s older brother John recorded his birth date as March 10, 1796. Other accounts have him born in April. He was the ninth of ten children born to veteran of the American Revolution Rezin Bowie, and his wife, Elve. He was raised in a slave-holding family which moved to Missouri in 1800, thence to Spanish Louisiana two years later. They moved twice more before James was 16 years of age, though they remained in Louisiana after it was acquired by the United States. It was there Bowie’s legend began. Here is some of his story.

Bowie joined the militia, but arrived too late to take part in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Library of Congress

1. Bowie became fluent in three languages during his childhood

James Bowie was raised on the frontier, and much of his childhood was spent working in the fields of his family’s farm. Nonetheless, along with his siblings he was schooled, learning to read, write, and speak English, French, and Spanish as a child. From the fields he learned how to plant, husband, and harvest crops. From the woods he learned to track and hunt, and by the time he was a teenager he was proficient with rifle, pistol, and the knife. According to one biographer he also learned to speak Cherokee, or at least some fashion of the language. As a child he had Indian friends and learned of their traditions and woodcraft.

He also learned to rope alligators which teemed along the bayous and waterways in Louisiana. Part of operating a large farm of the time included skills at the forge, to repair plows and other implements, and Bowie had experience both working iron and racking charcoal. By the time he was sixteen he was regarded as being fearless to the point of being reckless. In 1814 war came to the frontier. Andrew Jackson called for volunteers to defend Louisiana from the British. Rezin and James Bowie answered the call and traveled to New Orleans, arriving after the British defeat at Chalmette, below the city. His military career cut short, Bowie established himself in the lumber business in Rapides Parish, Louisiana.