"...we will rather die in these ditches than give it up to the enemy."
-- James Bowie, February 2, 1836
When he came to Texas in 1830, James Bowie was already a celebrity of sorts for his adventurousness and expert fighting ability. In 1827, a feud in which Bowie brandished a large butcher knife to defend himself established him as one of the best fighters in the South -- and the "Bowie" knife became forever associated with his prowess.
A Pirate's Friend
Bowie was born in Kentucky in 1796. His father, Reason Bowie, maintained a cotton and sugar plantation and was an important slaveowner in the region. After serving in the militia during the War of 1812, James Bowie established a profitable slave trading business. As a cohort of the notorious pirate, Jean Lafitte, Bowie sold the slaves that Lafitte had captured from slave ships in the Atlantic. Later in the 1820s, Bowie settled on a sugar plantation in Louisiana.
Expanding Into Texas
Extending his land speculation activities into Texas, Bowie quickly made the acquaintance of Stephen F. Austin at the San Felipe Colony in 1830. In anticipation of claiming one of the generous parcels of land being doled out to American settlers by the Mexican government, Bowie became a Mexican citizen. He established friendships with the leading Tejanos of Béxar including Juan N. Seguín and Juan Martín Veramendi. At the latter's palace in San Antonio, Bowie met his soon-to-be wife. Ursula de Veramendi was the oldest daughter of the wealthy and influential Tejano family. While the marriage was not wholly political, it was a powerful symbol of the ways in which the Tejanos' and Anglos' futures were tied together. Ursula and her child died in the cholera epidemic that swept Béxar in 1833. The elder Veramendi and his wife Josefa also died. Struck with grief, Bowie took to drinking heavily and sequestered himself for some time.
Inside the Alamo
As a volunteer officer in the fight for independence, Bowie was pivotal in the skirmishes with Mexican forces in 1835. William B. Travis, a commissioned officer, took charge of the enlisted men while Bowie commanded the volunteers. Under this arrangement, the Alamo defenders held out over a 12-day siege in late February and early March of 1836. By the second day, however, Bowie had taken severely ill and commanded as best he could from his sick bed. According to a young boy who survived the Alamo massacre, Enrique Esparza, the ailing Bowie occasionally had his bed brought out into the main plaza in order to encourage his men. By the time of the final assault on March 6th, however, Bowie was in a delirious state. As Mexican soldiers stormed the compound, they killed Bowie in his bed. In later accounts, he was fondly remembered by his Tejano family. According to Juana Navarro, he was "affectionate, kind, and so acted as to secure the love and confidence of all."