Sarah A. Bowman – Camp Follower of the American West

 

“She could whip any man, fair fight or foul could shoot a pistol better than anyone in the region, and at blackjack could outplay (or out cheat) the slickest professional gambler.” – John Salmon Ford, Texas Ranger

Sarah Bowman in one of her saloons

Sarah Bowman in one of her saloons

Sarah A. Bowman, who earned the moniker the “Great Western,” was a Madame, cook, businesswoman, nurse, wife, and mother who made her way around the American West, primarily following soldier camps. She was married several times and also went by the last names of Boginnis, Bourdette, Bourget, Bourjette, Borginnis, Davis, Bowman, and possibly Foyle.

She was born as Sarah Knight in 1812 or 1813, probably in Clay County, Missouri, although some sources say Tennessee. Raised on the American frontier, she received no formal education and is believed to have been illiterate due to her use of an X on business and census forms.

Seminole Wars

Seminole Wars

Some records indicate that she married a man named James McLin in Clay County, Missouri in March 1841 and it was then that she began her career as a camp follower when he was assigned to fight during the Seminole War in Florida. At that time, Army rules stated women married to soldiers could follow the troops. They helped with meals, washed clothes and tended to the sick and wounded. During this war, she was said to have become a favorite of General Zachary Taylor.

Physically, Bowman was an unusually large woman, standing six feet tall and reportedly weighing about 200 pounds. She was described as “a remarkably large, well-proportioned strong woman, of strong nerves, and great physical power.” Despite her considerable size, she was said to have been very attractive, had an hourglass figure, and was quite graceful. She had long dark red hair that matched her temperament and her eyes were grey-blue in color. She was nicknamed the Great Western, for a British trans-Atlantic steamer that was the biggest ship of its day.

Buildings at Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, Missouri

Buildings at Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, Missouri

Whatever happened to her first husband is unknown, but by 1845 she had married a second time to a soldier named Borginnis who had enlisted at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. The first documented record of her occurred the same year when she signed on as a laundress at Jefferson Barracks. The position included food, shelter, and the opportunity to earn a salary three times that earned by an Army private. She then followed the troops as they made their way to Corpus Christi, Texas before the start of the Mexican-American War. By the time they arrived, she had also taken on the responsibilities of cook and nurse in addition to laundry.

The army remained encamped along the Nueces River until March 1846 when they received orders to advance to the Rio Grande. Though her husband was ill, she left him behind, purchased a wagon and mule team, and followed the army.

The first encounter between American and Mexican forces came on March 21, 1846, during the crossing of Arroyo Colorado. As the Americans approached the steep embankment, bugles rang out on the other bank accompanied by the warning, “Cross this stream and you will be shot!” Further, the Mexicans tautened and called into question the ancestry of the Texans. Sarah was enraged and rode to the front and telling General William Jenkins Worth, “If the general would give me a strong pair of tongs (slang for men’s trousers,) I’d wade that river and whip every scoundrel that dared show himself.” Inspired by her bravado, the American troops made the crossing and routed the Mexicans.

Zachary Taylor by Joseph Henry Bush. about 1848

Zachary Taylor by Joseph Henry Bush. about 1848

General Taylor was then able to push his men all the way to the Rio Grande, where he ordered his men to build Fort Texas across the Rio Grande from Matamoros, Mexico. It was manned by 500 men of the 7th Infantry with Major Jacob Brown as the regiment commander. Sarah’s husband was here and she operated an officer’s mess. 

In the early morning of May 3, 1846, when  General Taylor and many of the troops were away from the fort, it was attacked by the Mexicans. The women and injured were immediately ordered to an underground magazine, but Sarah refused to go. Instead, she cooked and delivered food and coffee to the soldiers and nursed the wounded. She was twice shot at but continued her duties, and then some. On the third day of the siege, the commanding officer, Major Jacob Brown, was struck down. The Mexicans then seized the opportunity to attack in force and sent some 5,000 men forward. Sarah then fought alongside the American soldiers, helping to load the cannon. 

When the US line began to weaken, she promised them that “Zack” would be back soon and luckily, he was. When Taylor’s forces arrived, he and his men defeated the Mexicans in what is called the Battle of Palo Alto on May 8, 1856. Afterward, the fort was renamed for the fallen Major Brown. 

Sarah Borginnes, Heroine of Fort Brown

Sarah Borginnes, Heroine of Fort Brown

Following the siege, Sarah came to the attention of U.S. newspapers who named her the “Heroine of Fort Brown”. Stories of her exploits were published as far away as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and New York City.

“The Heroine of Fort Brown He said that during the whole of the bombardment, the wife of one of the soldiers whose husband was ordered to Point Isabel, remained in the Fort and though the shot and shells were constantly flying on every side, she disdained to seek shelter in the bombproof but labored the whole time in cooking and taking care of the soldiers, without the least regard for her own safety. Her bravery was the admiration of all who were in the Fort.”

— The New Orleans Delta newspaper

Afterward, Sarah briefly established a boarding house in Matamoros, Mexico called the American House. In addition to food, lodging, and stables for soldiers’ horses, the establishment also served as a saloon and brothel. Becoming quite popular, one soldier described it as “the headquarters for everyone”.

However, when General Taylor moved deeper into Mexico, she followed the troops and opened a hotel in Saltillo which was also called the American House. There, she became involved with yet another man, who was also married. Captain George Lincoln was also tall and striking, well known for bravery during battle, and was said to have been the “love of her life.”

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