1812 - 1866
Sarah A. Bowman, AKA Sarah Borginnis, "THE GREAT WESTERN"
1812 - 1866
Sarah A. Bowman, nicknamed "The Great Western" by her contemporaries, became a legendary entrepreneur and camp follower during the U.S.-Mexico War. Her exploits, including her courageous actions during the bombardment of Fort Brown and the Battle of Buena Vista, made her famous among U.S. troops and frontiersmen. Described as a large, tall, and fearless woman, Bowman was perhaps the most famous Anglo-American woman of the war.
Historians know very little about her early years. Believed to be born in 1812 or 1813, Bowman grew up around Tennessee and Missouri. She grew to be at least six-feet tall, learned fluent Spanish, and acquired the nickname "The Great Western" —a reference to the largest operable steamship in the world at the time.
Bowman, whose maiden name remains unconfirmed, married at least three men over the course of her life. Consequently, she is referred to by a number of different surnames in primary accounts of her exploits (Bourjette, Bowman-Phillips, Borginnis). Her first husband enlisted in the U.S. army during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). Bowman followed her husband's division and enlisted as a laundress and cook in Florida.
Bowman married a different soldier by 1846. The U.S. and Mexico prepared for a seemingly inevitable war. She and her husband accompanied General Zachary Taylor and the Seventh Infantry division south to Texas that spring, where the general's army intended to occupy disputed territory between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers. On March 20, when Mexican troops on the opposite bank of the Arroyo Colorado threatened to fire on any U.S. troops that crossed, Bowman remarked that Taylor should send her across and she would "whip every scoundrel that dare show himself." The U.S. troops crossed without incident.
Taylor marched the Seventh Infantry to Fort Texas—a garrison across the Rio Grande from Matamoros—and left the division to fortify the compound. On May 3, Mexican forces proceeded to bomb the fort for seven days. The fort's commander ordered the women to seek safety inside the magazines, but Bowman refused. Setting up her kitchen in the open-air of the compound, she made sure the troops were fed. She treated the injured men, and was nearly hit twice by shrapnel. She reportedly also prepared to man the ramparts in the event that Mexican forces marched on the fort.
Word of her courage under attack reached U.S. newspapers. She became a popular western figure, nicknamed "The Great Western" and "The Heroine of Fort Brown."
In Saltillo, Coahuila, Bowman established an inn and hangout for U.S. troops called the American House. On February 22-23, 1847, near Saltillo, the Battle of Buena Vista took place. Bowman again assisted the U.S. troops by reloading weapons, treating wounded men (occasionally carrying them to safety), and reportedly assaulting a retreating U.S. infantryman who exclaimed the battle was lost.
In 1849, she and merchant Benjamin Franklin Coons established a hotel and restaurant in El Paso. She left the operation in 1850 and moved to Socorro, New Mexico, where she met and married twenty-four year old dragoon Albert Bowman. Their relationship lasted sixteen years.
When her husband was discharged from the U.S. Army in 1852, the couple moved to Fort Yuma, Arizona. She became the first Anglo woman to become a permanent resident of Yuma. There she spent her remaining years running various restaurants, brothels, and inns. She died of a poisonous spider bite in 1866. The Twelfth Infantry, stationed at Fort Yuma, gave her a well-attended military funeral and buried her in the fort's cemetery.
Cashion, Peggy Mullarkey. Women and the Mexican War, 1846-1848. Master's Thesis. University of Texas at Arlington, 1990.
Cook, Bernard A. Women and War: A Historical Encyclopedia from Antiquity to the Present. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2006.
Elliot, J. F. "The Great Western: Sarah Bowman, Mother and Mistress to the U.S. Army." The Journal of Arizona History. Spring, 1989.