Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Woman of the West: Sarah Bowman, The Great Western

She fought with Zachary Taylor’s army during the Mexican-American War, kept the mess hall open during the bombardment of Fort Brown, loaded cartridges and carried wounded during the battle of Buena Vista, marched with the army from Texas to California, was cited as El Paso’s first prostitute, mothered several adopted children, was known as Dr. Mary for her compassionate nursing of the sick and received a government pension for her army duty. Colorful and larger than life, topping out at over six feet and weighing 200 pounds, Sarah Bowman tamed the West on her terms.

People must have naturally commented, “What a woman!” when they met her. She was nicknamed “The Great Western”, most likely after the world’s largest steamship at the time. Described as dark-eyed and voluptuous there was no disguising The Great Western as anything but a woman. She stood out if not for her physical attributes than for the way she braved danger—meeting it head on. “She carried a pistol, could shoot a rifle and knock down any man who tried to bother her.” (Sarah Bowman and Tillie Howard,

During the siege of Fort Brown in May 1846 she refused to take refuge underground with the other army wives and instead operated the officer’s mess while the fighting went on for over a week. Legend says even as bullets hit her bread tray and bonnet she continued to keep the men fed earning her another nickname: The Heroine of Fort Brown. She was a woman who handled the west with grit, gumption and a heap of courage.

At the battle of Buena Vista she wasn’t prepared to sit on the sidelines but helped load guns and tended the wounded on the battlefield and was often referred to as Dr. Mary for her efforts. When her second husband lost his life in the battle, she was told only married women could march with the army to California, the regiment’s next destination. Supposedly, “she rode along the line of men asking, ‘Who wants a wife with fifteen thousand dollars and the biggest leg in Mexico? Come, my beauties, don’t all speak at once. Who is the lucky man?’” (Handbook of Texas Online, s.v.) In any event, David E. Davis was the lucky man and Sarah went to California. But I’m guessing Sarah didn’t squirrel away fifteen thousand dollars from supplying just food to the army. In any event, she reportedly received a lifetime government pension; for her public service and bravery, one assumes, not her private services.

Despite her rather loose ways, Sarah must have enjoyed being married because, whether divorced or widowed from Davis, she married Albert J. Bowman, her fourth and last husband, when she returned to El Paso in 1849. According to her biographer, Brian Sandwich, the hotel “business was good” as she offered entertainment with a room and is largely believed to be El Paso’s first prostitute. When her husband was discharged from the army in 1852, they opened another hotel and brothel in Fort Yuma. “Lt. Sylvester Mowry, a soldier stationed at Fort Yuma in 1856, wrote of Sarah that “among her other good qualities she is an admirable pimp.’” (Handbook of Texas Online, s.v.)

One of those other good qualities was evidently her compassion. Not being able to bear children, she adopted several orphans. What kind of example she set is debatable but she was widely regarded as a tender-hearted woman, the quintessential soiled dove with a heart of gold.

The Army thought highly enough of her to bury her with full military honors in the Fort Yuma post cemetery when she died somewhere in the mid 1860s from a tarantula bite. Her body was exhumed in 1890 by the U.S. Army, along with 159 other servicemen’s, and moved to the presidio in San Francisco, California.

A fighter and a lover, unconventional and compassionate, Sarah Bowman, the Great Western, was a woman who did it her way.

Handbook of Texas online, Borderlands

Biographies and historical novels on Sarah Bowman:
Brian Sandwich, The Great Western; Legendary Lady of the Southwest
Lucia St.Clair Robson, Fearless: A Novel of Sarah Bowman
(Note: there are no known pictures of Sarah Bowman but the picture inserted fit my expectations.)


Carol Burge said...

I think in one of the Lonesome Dove movies/sequels, they had a character called THE GREAT WESTERN. Hmmm, must have been based on Sarah Bowman. Something to check out. :)

Great post, Anne. Thanks for sharing!

CherylStJohn said...

You ahve some great stuff on your blog. I'll be back!