James "Jim" Bowie (pronounced BOO-ee) (c. 1796 – March 6, 1836) was a 19th-century American pioneer, who played a prominent role in the Texas Revolution, culminating in his death at the Battle of the Alamo. Stories of him as a fighter and frontiersman, both real and fictitious, have made him a legendary figure in Texas history and a folk hero of American culture.
Born in Kentucky, Bowie spent most of his life in Louisiana, where he was raised and where he later worked as a land speculator. His rise to fame began in 1827 on reports of the Sandbar Fight. What began as a duel between two other men deteriorated into a melée in which Bowie, having been shot and stabbed, killed the sheriff of Rapides Parish with a large knife. This, and other stories of Bowie's prowess with a knife, led to the widespread popularity of the Bowie knife.
Bowie's reputation was cemented by his role in the Texas Revolution. After moving to Texas in 1830, Bowie became a Mexican citizen and married Ursula Veramendi, the daughter of the Mexican vice governor of the province. His fame in Texas grew following his failed expedition to find the lost San Saba mine, during which his small party repelled an attack by a large Indian raiding party. At the outbreak of the Texas Revolution, Bowie joined the Texas militia, leading forces at the Battle of Concepción and the Grass Fight. In January 1836, he arrived at the Alamo, where he commanded the volunteer forces until an illness left him bedridden. Bowie died with the other Alamo defenders on March 6. Despite conflicting accounts of the manner of his death, the "most popular, and probably the most accurate" accounts maintain that he died in his bed after emptying his pistols into several Mexican soldiers.
According to his older brother John, James Bowie was born in Logan County, Kentucky, on March 10, 1796 (Historical marker: 36° 46' 25"N 86° 42' 10"W). Historian Raymond Thorp gave his birth date as April 10, but Thorp did not provide any documentation for that date. Bowie's surname was pronounced to rhyme with the French "Louis" (/ˈbuːiː/ BOO-ee). (Although some works refer to the alternate pronunciation /ˈboʊ.i/ BO-ee.)
Bowie was the ninth of ten children born to Reason (or Rezin) and Elve Ap-Catesby Jones (or Johns) Bowie. His father had been wounded while fighting in the American Revolutionary War, and in 1782 married the young woman who had nursed him back to health. The Bowies first settled in Georgia and then moved to Kentucky. At the time of Bowie's birth, his father owned eight slaves, eleven head of cattle, seven horses, and one stud horse. The following year the family acquired 200 acres (80 ha) along the Red River. They sold that property in 1800 and relocated to what is now Missouri, before moving to Spanish Louisiana in 1802, where they settled on Bushley Bayou in what soon became Rapides Parish.
The family moved again in 1809, settling on Bayou Teche in Louisiana before finding a permanent home in Opelousas in 1812. The Bowie children were raised on the frontier and even as small children were expected to help clear the land and plant crops. All the children learned to read and write in English, but James and his elder brother Rezin could also read, write, and speak Spanish and French fluently. The children learned to survive on the frontier and how to fish and run a farm and plantation. James Bowie became proficient with pistol, rifle, and knife, and had a reputation for fearlessness. When he was a boy, one of his Indian friends even taught him to rope alligators.
In response to Andrew Jackson's plea for volunteers to fight the British in the War of 1812, James and Rezin enlisted in the Louisiana militia in late 1814. The Bowie brothers arrived in New Orleans too late to participate in the fighting. After mustering out of the militia, Bowie settled in Rapides Parish, where he supported himself by sawing planks and lumber and floating them down the bayou for sale. In June 1819, he joined the Long Expedition, an effort to liberate Texas from Spanish rule. The group encountered little resistance and, after capturing Nacogdoches, declared Texas an independent republic. The extent of Bowie's participation is unclear, but he returned to Louisiana before the invasion was repelled by Spanish troops.
Shortly before the senior Bowie died circa 1820, he gave ten slaves as well as horses and cattle to both James and Rezin. For the next seven years, the brothers worked together to develop several large estates in Lafourche Parish and Opelousas. Louisiana's population was growing rapidly, and the brothers hoped to take advantage of its rising land prices through speculation. Without the capital required to buy large tracts, they entered into a partnership with pirate Jean Lafitte in 1818 to raise money. By then, the United States had outlawed the importation of slaves, and most southern states allowed anyone who informed on a slave trader to receive half of what the imported slaves would earn at auction as a reward. Bowie made three trips to Lafitte's compound on Galveston Island. On each occasion, he bought smuggled slaves and took them directly to a customhouse to inform on his own actions. When the customs officers offered the slaves for auction, Bowie purchased them and received back half the price he had paid, as allowed by the state laws. He then could legally transport the slaves and resell them at a greater market value in New Orleans or areas farther up the Mississippi River. Using this scheme, the brothers collected $65,000 to be used for their land speculation.
In 1825, the two brothers joined with their younger brother Stephen to buy Acadia Plantation near Thibodaux. Within two years, they had established the first steam mill in Louisiana to be used for grinding sugar cane. The plantation became known as a model estate, but on February 12, 1831, they sold it and 65 slaves for $90,000. With their profits, James and Rezin bought a plantation in Arkansas.
Bowie and his brother John were involved in a major court case in the late 1820s over land speculation. When the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, it promised to honor all former land grant claims, and for the next 20 years efforts were made to establish who owned what land. In May 1824, Congress authorized the superior courts of each territory to hear suits from those who claimed they had been overlooked. The Arkansas Superior Court received 126 claims in late 1827 from residents who claimed to have purchased land in former Spanish grants from the Bowie brothers. Although the Superior Court originally confirmed most of those claims, the decisions were reversed in February 1831 after further research showed that the land had never belonged to the Bowies and that the original land grant documentation had been forged. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the reversal in 1833. When the disgruntled purchasers considered suing the Bowies, they discovered that the documents in the case had been removed from the court; left without evidence, they declined to pursue a case.
Bowie became internationally famous as a result of a feud with Norris Wright, the sheriff of Rapides Parish. Bowie had supported Wright's opponent in the race for sheriff, and Wright, a bank director, had been instrumental in turning down a Bowie loan application. After a confrontation in Alexandria one afternoon, Wright fired a shot at Bowie, after which Bowie resolved to carry his hunting knife at all times. The knife he carried had a blade that was 9.25 inches (23.5 cm) long and 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) wide.
The following year, on September 19, 1827, Bowie and Wright attended a duel on a sandbar outside of Natchez, Mississippi. Bowie supported duellist Samuel Levi Wells III, while Wright supported Wells's opponent, Dr. Thomas Harris Maddox. The duellists each fired two shots and, as neither man had been injured, resolved their duel with a handshake. Other members of the groups, who had various reasons for disliking each other, began fighting. Bowie was shot in the hip; after regaining his feet he drew a knife, described as a butcher knife, and charged his attacker, who hit Bowie over the head with his empty pistol, breaking the pistol and knocking Bowie to the ground. Wright shot at and missed the prone Bowie, who returned fire and possibly hit Wright. Wright then drew his sword cane and impaled Bowie. When Wright attempted to retrieve his blade by placing his foot on Bowie's chest and tugging, Bowie pulled him down and disemboweled Wright with his large knife. Wright died instantly, and Bowie, with Wright's sword still protruding from his chest, was shot again and stabbed by another member of the group. The doctors who had been present for the duel removed the bullets and patched Bowie's other wounds.
Newspapers picked up the story, which became known as the Sandbar Fight, and described in detail Bowie's fighting prowess and his unusual knife. Witness accounts agreed that Bowie did not attack first, and the others had focused their attack on Bowie because "they considered him the most dangerous man among their opposition." The incident cemented Bowie's reputation across the South as a superb knife fighter.
There is disagreement among scholars as to whether the knife used in this fight was the same as what is now known as a Bowie knife, also called an Arkansas Toothpick. Multiple accounts exist of who designed and built the first Bowie knife. Some claim that Bowie designed it, while others attribute the design to noted knife makers of the time. In a letter to The Planter's Advocate, Rezin Bowie claimed to have invented the knife, however, and many Bowie family members as well as "most authorities on the Bowie knife tend to believe it was invented by" Rezin. Rezin Bowie's grandchildren, however, claimed that Rezin merely supervised his blacksmith, who was the creator of the knife.
After the Sandbar Fight and subsequent battles in which Bowie used his knife to defend himself, the Bowie knife became very popular. Many craftsmen and manufacturers made their own versions, and major cities of the Old Southwest had "Bowie knife schools" that taught "the art of cut, thrust, and parry." His fame, and that of his knife, spread to England, and by the early 1830s many British manufacturers were producing Bowie knives for shipment to the United States. The design of the knife continued to evolve, but today a Bowie knife generally is considered to have a blade 8.25 inches (21.0 cm) long and 1.25 inches (3.2 cm) wide, with a curved point, a "sharp false edge cut from both sides", and a cross-guard to protect the user's hands.
Establishment in Texas
In 1828, after recovering from wounds suffered in the Sandbar Fight, Bowie decided to move to Coahuila y Texas, at that time a state in the Mexican federation. The 1824 Constitution of Mexico banned religions other than Roman Catholicism and gave preference to Mexican citizens in receiving land. Bowie was baptized into the Roman Catholic faith in San Antonio on April 28, 1828, sponsored by the alcalde (chief administrator) of the town, Juan Martín de Veramendi, and the wife of the administrator, Josefa Navarro. For the next 18 months, Bowie traveled through Louisiana and Mississippi. In 1829, he became engaged to Cecilia Wells, who died in Alexandria, on September 29, two weeks before they were to be married.
On January 1, 1830, Bowie left Louisiana for permanent residency in Texas. He stopped at Nacogdoches, at Jared E. Groce's farm on the Brazos River, and in San Felipe, where Bowie presented a letter of introduction to Stephen F. Austin from Thomas F. McKinney, one of the Old Three Hundred colonists. On February 20, Bowie took an oath of allegiance to Mexico and then proceeded to San Antonio de Bexar. At the time, the city was known as Bexar and had a population of 2500, mostly of Mexican descent, and Bowie's fluency in Spanish helped him establish himself in the area. Bowie was elected a commander, with the rank of colonel, of the Texas Rangers later that year. Although the Rangers would not be organized officially until 1835, Stephen F. Austin had founded the group by employing 30 men to keep the peace and protect the colonists from attacks by hostile Indians. Other areas assembled similar volunteer militias, and Bowie commanded a group of the volunteers.
Bowie renounced his American citizenship and became a Mexican citizen on September 30, 1830, after promising to establish textile mills in the state of Coahuila y Tejas. To fulfill his promise, Bowie entered into partnership with Veramendi to build cotton and wool mills in Saltillo. With his citizenship assured, Bowie now had the right to buy up to 11 leagues of public land. He convinced 14 or 15 other citizens to apply for land in order to turn it over to him, giving him 700,000 acres (280,000 ha) for speculation. Bowie may have been the first to induce settlers to apply for empresario grants, which could then be sold in bulk to speculators as Bowie had. The Mexican government passed laws in 1834 and 1835 that stopped much of the land speculation.
On April 25, 1831, Bowie married nineteen-year-old Maria Ursula de Veramendi, the daughter of his business partner, who had become the vice governor of the province. Several days before the ceremony, he signed a dowry contract promising to pay his new bride 15,000 pesos (approximately $15,000 then, or $337,000 today) in cash or property within two years of the marriage. At the time, Bowie claimed to have a net worth of $223,000 ($5,020,000 today), mostly in land of questionable title. Bowie also lied about his age, claiming to be 30 rather than 35. The couple built a house in San Antonio on land Veramendi had given them near the San José Mission. After a short time, however, they moved into the Veramendi Palace, living with Ursula's parents, who supplied them with spending money. The couple had two children, Marie Elve (b. March 20, 1832) and James Veramendi (b. July 18, 1833).
Maria Ursula, her parents, and both children died in September 1833 from cholera.
Los Almagres Mine
Shortly after his marriage Bowie became fascinated with the story of the "lost" Los Almagres Mine (also known as the lost San Saba Mine and the lost Bowie Mine), said to be northwest of San Antonio near the ruin of the Spanish Mission Santa Cruz de San Saba. According to legend, the mine had been operated by local Indians before being seized by the Spanish. After Mexico won independence from Spain, government interest in the mining potential waned. A number of native groups roamed the area, including Comanche, Lipan Apache, Tawakoni, and Tonkawa. Without government troops to keep hostile natives at bay, mining and mineral exploration were impossible. Some believed that after the Mexican citizens left the area, the Lipan took over the mine.
After obtaining permission from the Mexican government to mount an expedition into Indian territory to search for the legendary silver mine, Bowie, his brother Rezin, and ten others set out for San Saba on November 2, 1831. Six miles (10 km) from their goal, the group stopped to negotiate with a large raiding party of Indians—reportedly more than 120 Tawakoni and Waco, plus another 40 Caddo. The attempts at parley failed and Bowie and his group fought for their lives for the next 13 hours. When the Indians finally retreated, Bowie reportedly had lost only one man, while more than 40 Indians had been killed and 30 were wounded. In the meantime, a party of friendly Comanche rode into San Antonio bringing word of the raiding party, which outnumbered the Bowie expedition by 14 to 1. The citizens of San Antonio believed the members of the Bowie expedition must have perished, and Ursula Bowie began wearing widow's weeds.
To the surprise of the town, the surviving members of the group returned to San Antonio on December 6. Bowie's report of the expedition, written in Spanish, was printed in several newspapers, further establishing his reputation. He set out again with a larger force the following month, but returned home empty-handed after two and a half months of searching.
Bowie never talked of his exploits despite his increasing fame. Captain William Y. Lacey, who spent eight months living in the wilderness with Bowie, described him as a humble man who never used profanity or vulgarities.
Between 1830 and 1832 the Mexican Congress passed a series of laws that seemed to discriminate against Anglo colonists in the province of Coahuila y Tejas, increasing tension between the Anglo citizenry and Mexican officials. In response to the rumblings, Mexican troops established military posts in several locations within the province, including San Antonio de Béxar. Although much of the military supported the administration of President Anastasio Bustamante, Antonio López de Santa Anna led an insurrection against him in 1832. Anglo colonists in Texas supported Santa Anna and General José Antonio Mexía, who led soldiers into Texas to oust commanders loyal to Bustamante.
After hearing that the Mexican army commander in Nacogdoches, José de las Piedras, had demanded that all residents in his area surrender their arms, Bowie cut short a visit to Natchez in July 1832 to return to Texas. On August 2, 1832, he joined a group of other Texans and marched into Nacogdoches to "present their demands" to Piedras. Before the group reached the building housing the town officials, they were attacked by a force of 100 Mexican cavalry. The Texans returned fire and the Battle of Nacogdoches began. After the cavalry retreated, they initiated a siege of the garrison. After a second battle, in which Piedras lost 33 men, the Mexican army evacuated during the night. Bowie and 18 companions ambushed the fleeing army and, after Piedras fled, marched the soldiers back to Nacogdoches. Bowie later served as a delegate to the Convention of 1833, which formally requested that Texas become its own state within the Mexican federation.
Several months later, a cholera epidemic struck Texas. Fearing the disease would reach San Antonio, Bowie sent his pregnant wife and their daughter to the family estate in Monclova in the company of her parents and brother. The cholera epidemic instead struck Monclova, and between September 6 and September 14, Ursula, their children, her brother, and her parents all died of the disease. Bowie, on business in Natchez, heard of his family's deaths in November. From then on, he drank heavily and became "careless in his dress."
The following year, the Mexican government passed new laws allowing land sale in Texas, and Bowie returned to land speculation. He was appointed a land commissioner and tasked with promoting settlement in the area purchased by John T. Mason. His appointment ended in May 1835 when President Antonio López de Santa Anna abolished the Coahuila y Tejas government and ordered the arrest of all Texans (including Bowie) doing business in Monclova. Bowie was forced to flee Monclova and return to the Anglo areas of Texas.
The Anglos in Texas began agitating for war against Santa Anna, and Bowie worked with William B. Travis, the leader of the War Party, to gain support. Bowie visited several Indian villages in East Texas in an attempt to persuade the reluctant tribes to fight against the Mexican government. Santa Anna responded to the rumblings by ordering large numbers of Mexican troops to Texas.
Battle of Concepción
The Texas Revolution began on October 2, 1835, with the Battle of Gonzales. Stephen F. Austin formed an army of 500 men to march on the Mexican forces in San Antonio with the cannon that had precipitated the fight. The name "Texian Army" sometimes is applied to this militia. On October 22, Austin asked Bowie, now a colonel in the volunteer militia, and James W. Fannin to scout the area around the missions of San Francisco de la Espada and San José y San Miguel de Aguayo to find supplies for the volunteer forces. The scouting party left with 92 men, many of them members of the New Orleans Grays who had just arrived in Texas. After discovering a good defensive position near Mission Concepción, the group requested that Austin's army join them.
On the foggy morning of October 28, Mexican General Domingo Ugartechea led a force of 300 infantry and cavalry soldiers and two small cannons against the Texian forces. Although the Mexican army was able to get within 200 yards (183 m), the Texian defensive position protected them from fire. As the Mexicans stopped to reload their cannon, the Texians climbed a bluff and picked off some of the soldiers. The stalemate ended shortly after Bowie led a charge to seize one of the Mexican cannons, at that time only 80 yards (73 m) away. Ugartechea retreated with his troops, ending the Battle of Concepción. One Texian and ten Mexican troops had been killed. One of the men under Bowie's command during the battle later praised him "as a born leader, never needlessly spending a bullet or imperiling a life, who repeatedly admonished... Keep under cover boys, and reserve your fire; we haven't a man to spare."
Grass Fight and commission difficulties
An hour after the battle ended, Austin arrived with the rest of the Texian army to begin a siege of San Antonio de Béxar, where General Martín Perfecto de Cós, the overall commander of Mexican forces in Texas, and his troops were garrisoned. Two days later, Bowie resigned from Austin's army because he did not have an official commission in the army, and he disliked the "minor tasks of scouting and spying".
On November 3, 1835, Texas declared itself an independent state, and a provisional government was formed with Henry Smith of Brazoria elected provisional governor. Austin requested to be relieved of his command of the army, and Sam Houston was named army chief. Edward Burleson was chosen as temporary commander of the troops in San Antonio. Bowie appeared before the council at some point and spoke for an hour, asking for a commission. The council refused Bowie's request, likely because of lingering animosity over his land dealings.
Houston offered Bowie a commission as an officer on his staff, but Bowie rejected the opportunity, explaining that he wanted to be in the midst of the fighting. Instead, Bowie enlisted in the army as a private under Fannin. He distinguished himself again in the Grass Fight on November 26. Cós had sent approximately 187 men to cut grass for his horses. As they returned to San Antonio, Bowie took 60 mounted men to intercept the party, which they believed carried valuable cargo. The Mexican troops quickened their pace in the hopes of reaching the safety of the city, but Bowie and his cavalry chased them. At the end of the fight, the Texians had two wounded men, but had captured many horses and mules.
Shortly after Bowie left San Antonio, Ben Milam led an assault on the city. In the ensuing fighting, the Texians suffered only a few casualties, while the Mexican army lost many troops to death and desertion. Cós surrendered and returned to Mexico, taking with him the last Mexican troops in Texas. Believing the war was over, many of the Texian volunteers left the army and returned to their families. In early January 1836, Bowie went to San Felipe and asked the council to allow him to recruit a regiment. He again was turned down as he "was not an officer of the government nor army."
Battle of the Alamo
After Houston received word that Santa Anna was leading a large force to San Antonio, Bowie offered to lead volunteers to defend the Alamo from the expected attack. He arrived with 30 men on January 19, where they found a force of 104 men with a few weapons and a few cannons, but not many supplies and little gunpowder. Houston knew that there were not enough men to hold the fort in an attack and had given Bowie authority to remove the artillery and blow up the fortification. Bowie and the Alamo commander, James C. Neill, decided they did not have enough oxen to move the artillery, and they did not want to destroy the fortress. On January 26, one of Bowie's men, James Bonham, organized a rally which passed a resolution in favor of holding the Alamo. Bonham signed the resolution first, with Bowie's signature second.
Through Bowie's connections because of his marriage and his fluency in Spanish, the predominantly Mexican population of San Antonio often furnished him with information about the movements of the Mexican army. After learning that Santa Anna had 4,500 troops and was heading for the city, Bowie wrote several letters to the provisional government asking for help in defending the Alamo, especially "men, money, rifles, and cannon powder". In another letter, to Governor Smith, he reiterated his view that "the salvation of Texas depends in great measure on keeping Béxar out of the hands of the enemy. It serves as the frontier picquet guard, and if it were in the possession of Santa Anna, there is no stronghold from which to repel him in his march toward the Sabine." The letter to Smith ended, "Colonel Neill and myself have come to the solemn resolution that we will rather die in these ditches than give it up to the enemy."
On February 3, Davy Crockett appeared with thirty Tennesseans. Neill went on furlough on February 11 to visit his sick family, leaving Travis, a member of the regular army, in command. Bowie was older than Travis with a better reputation and considered himself a colonel, thus outranking Travis, a lieutenant colonel. He refused to answer to Travis, who called an election for the men to choose their own commander. They chose Bowie, infuriating Travis. Bowie celebrated his appointment by getting very drunk and causing havoc in San Antonio, releasing all prisoners in the local jails and harassing citizens. Travis was disgusted, but two days later the men agreed to a joint command; Bowie would command the volunteers, and Travis would command the regular army and the volunteer cavalry.
On February 23, the bells of San Fernando sounded the alarm of the approach of the Mexicans. Travis ordered all the Texan forces into the Alamo. James Bowie hurried to gather provisions and herd cattle into the Alamo compound. Fearing for the safety of his wife's relatives in San Antonio, Bowie invited her cousins Getrudis Navarro and Juana Navarro Alsbury, as well as Alsbury's 18-month-old son, Alijo Perez Jr., to stay inside the walls of the Alamo. Bowie also brought several black servants, some of whom worked at the Veramendi Palace, into the security of the Alamo fortress. Bowie had been ill, and two doctors, including the fort surgeon, were unable to diagnose his illness. Travis became the sole commander of the forces when Bowie was confined to bed. Santa Anna and his army began a siege of the Alamo on February 24. The Mexican army raised a red flag to warn the defenders that no quarter would be given.
Bowie and Travis began sending out couriers with pleas for provisions and assistance. Travis sent Juan Seguin on Bowie's horse, to recruit reinforcements on February 25, and 32 additional men arrived. On February 26, David Crockett reported that Bowie, though suffering from his affliction, continued to crawl from his bed around noon every day and presented himself to the Alamo's inhabitants, which much boosted the morale of his comrades. Thirty-five years after the Alamo fell, a reporter identified Louis "Moses" Rose as the only man to have "deserted" the Texian forces at the Alamo. According to the reporter's version of Rose's account, when Travis realized that the Mexican army would likely prevail, he drew a line in the sand and asked those willing to die for the cause to cross the line. At Bowie's request Crockett and several others carried the cot over the line, leaving Rose alone on the other side. After its publication, several other eyewitnesses confirmed the account, but as Rose was deceased the story can only be authenticated by the word of the reporter, who admitted to embellishing other articles, "and thus many historians refuse to believe it."
Bowie perished with the rest of the Alamo defenders on March 6, when the Mexicans attacked. Most of the noncombatants in the fort, including Bowie's relatives, survived. Santa Anna ordered the alcalde of San Antonio, Francisco Antonio Ruiz, to confirm the identities of Bowie, Travis, and Crockett. After first ordering that Bowie be buried, as he was too brave a man to be burned like a dog, Santa Anna later had Bowie's body placed with those of the other Texians on the funeral pyre.
When Bowie's mother was informed of his death, she calmly stated, "I'll wager no wounds were found in his back." Various eyewitnesses to the battle gave conflicting accounts of Bowie's death. A newspaper article claimed that a Mexican soldier saw Bowie carried from his room on his cot, alive, after the conclusion of the battle. The soldier maintained that Bowie verbally castigated a Mexican officer in fluent Spanish, and the officer ordered Bowie's tongue cut out and his still-breathing body thrown onto the funeral pyre. This account has been disputed by numerous other witnesses, and it is thought to have been invented by the reporter. Other witnesses maintained that they saw several Mexican soldiers enter Bowie's room, bayonet him, and carry him, alive, from the room. Various other stories circulated, with some witnesses claiming that Bowie shot himself and others saying he was killed by soldiers while too weak to lift his head. Alcalde Ruiz said that Bowie was found "dead in his bed." According to Wallace O Chariton, The "most popular, and probably the most accurate" version is that Bowie died on his cot, "back braced against the wall, and using his pistols and his famous knife." One year after the battle, Juan Seguin returned to the Alamo and gathered the remaining ashes from the funeral pyre. He placed these in a coffin inscribed with the names of Bowie, Travis, and Crockett. The ashes were interred at the Cathedral of San Fernando.
Despite his continual pronouncements of wealth, Bowie's estate was found to be very small. His possessions were auctioned for only $99.50. His larger legacy is his position as "one of the legendary characters of the American frontier." Bowie left a "frustratingly sparse paper trail" of his life, and for many "where history failed, the legends prevailed." Although Bowie's name and knife were well known during his lifetime, his legend grew after October 1852, when DeBow's Review published an article written by his brother John Jones Bowie called, "Early Life in the Southwest—The Bowies." The article focused primarily on the exploits of Jim Bowie. Beginning with that article, "romanticized stories" about Bowie began appearing in national press. In many cases, "these stories were pure melodrama, with Bowie rescuing some naïve planter's son or damsel in distress."
Jim Bowie was inducted posthumously into the Blade Magazine Cutlery Hall of Fame at the 1988 Blade Show in Atlanta, Georgia, in recognition of the impact that his eponymous design made upon generations of knife makers and cutlery companies.
A number of films have depicted the events of the Battle of the Alamo, and Bowie has appeared as a character in each.
From 1956 to 1958, Bowie was the subject of a CBS television series, The Adventures of Jim Bowie, which was primarily set in 1830s Louisiana, although later episodes ventured into the Mexican province of Texas. The show, which starred Scott Forbes as Jim Bowie, was based on the 1946 novel Tempered Blade.
Rock star David Bowie, who was born David Robert Hayward-Jones, adopted the folk legend's surname. Jones changed his last name in the 1960s because he feared confusion with Davy Jones, a member of the already famous The Monkees. He chose the Bowie eponym because he admired James Bowie and the Bowie knife, although his pronunciation uses the BO-ee (/ˈboʊ.i/) variant.
Bowie County in northeast Texas, and the city of Bowie in Montague County, Texas, were both named in honor of James Bowie. James Bowie Elementary in Corsicana, Texas was also named in honor of James.