BY NORMAN ROZEFF
As Taylor’s army advanced first to Camargo and then to Monterrey, Sarah continued her attachment to the soldiers. One historian contends that during the fighting in Mexico her husband had been killed or somehow separated from her, “But going home was out of the question. She considered the army her home and its soldiers her family.”
Another historian states, “During the course of the war she became separated from her husband — nobody is sure how or why.” In fact, the legitimacy of her marriages may have been questionable during the course of her travels, for it is likely many were without the benefit of clergy. Taylor’s advance led to the important confrontation with Mexican General Santa Anna at Buena Vista. The result, due almost wholly to an erroneous decision by Santa Anna to retreat when victory was at hand, led to a surprising American victory, enabled in part due to the role played by Texas Rangers.
Texas Ranger John Salmon “Rip” Ford described Sarah by saying: “She could whip any man, fair fight or foul, could shoot a pistol better than anyone in the region, and at black jack could outplay (or out cheat) the slickest professional gambler.”
During the battle of Buena Vista Sarah carried wounded soldiers off the battlefield. One author vividly describes her as such “While the battle raged around her, Sarah became a familiar figure through the haze of exploding gunpowder, riding among the flames to retrieve the wounded.”
She was known for her “consistent courage” in which “she reloaded weapons, tended to wounded, and reportedly received a saber wound to the cheek [from an enemy soldier who caught her off guard] while [she was] manning a cannon position. Following the battle Bowman learned that her friend Captain George Lincoln had been killed, and she personally recovered his body from the battlefield so it would not be looted.”
An anecdotal story relates that “she had briefly returned to Saltillo when a private from Indiana ran into her restaurant and declared that General Taylor was whipped. Sarah, who practically worshiped Taylor, decked the young man and declared, ‘There ain’t Mexicans enough in Mexico to whip old Taylor. You just spread that rumor and I’ll beat you to death.’ The rumor turned out to be untrue as Taylor was victorious.” At his time she began to carry the sobriquet “Great Western.” The name was borrowed from an oak-hulled side wheeler steamship that made its maiden voyage from England to America in 1838. At that time it was the largest steamship afloat in the world.
Following the overall United States victory in the war, American military forces would remain in parts of Mexico until July 1848. Before this period Sarah had opened a hotel in Saltillo, Mexico. It was named the American House. It housed both a saloon and a brothel.
Following the American evacuation of Mexico Sarah returned to the United States but not without the usual encumbrances.
According to the Handbook of Texas “… in July 1848 she asked to join a column of dragoons that had been ordered to California. By this time her husband was probably dead, and she was told that only married women could march with the army. Undaunted, she rode a donkey 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?”
Another account of this incident goes that when reminded that she needed a husband in the dragoons to continue onward with the unit, she gave a military salute and replied, “All right, Major, I’ll marry the whole squadron and you thrown in but what I go along.” She rode along the front of the line and made an offer that one soldier finally took her up on, if they could find a clergyman to “tie the knot.” “Bring your blanket to my tent tonight and I will learn you to tie a knot that will satisfy you, I reckon,” she said.
After some hesitation a dragoon named Davis, probably David E. Davis, stepped forward, and the Great Western once again marched with the army.” Her union to Davis lasted a few short months. She eventually went to Franklin, Texas, which was later to be renamed El Paso. Once here she, in 1849, briefly established a hotel and restaurant catering to the Forty-Niners flooding to the gold fields of California.
It was said that hers was the first business in the town to be run by a female. She was also the first Anglo woman in town as well as the first brothel madam. Then, with another man, possibly 38 year old New Mexico-born Juan Duran, she went to Socorro, New Mexico, as evidenced by the December 31,1850 census (Sarah had reverted to her first husband’s name apparently, listed as “Sarah Bourgette”). She lists her birthplace as Tennessee and her age at 33. Also listed with them are five young girls, all Illinois born, which some believe might have been frontier orphans.
The Skinner girls were Caroline 16, Nancy 9, Fanny 8, Diane 7, and Margaret 2. Sarah’s marital escapades were not yet over. She soon married another soldier, Albert J. Bowman, who was German-born and an upholsterer by training. He was also several years younger than she. When he was transferred to Socorro, New Mexico, Sarah leased her hotel to the army and moved with her new husband. Upon his discharge in November 1852 the couple moved back to Fort Yuma, Arizona where gold had recently been discovered.
Here Sarah worked in the hospital and opened a restaurant. In 1856 she traveled to Fort Buchanan to set up a hotel ten miles below the fort. She then returned to Fort Yuma by 1861.
Having adopted orphaned children, both Indian and Mexican she lived at times on both sides of the border in order to protect them.
She also earned money by serving as an army company laundress and received an army ration.
In 1864 Albert ran off with a younger woman. Sarah divorced him. Sarah, along with her adopted children, were once more left to her resourcefulness; again she likely operated a brothel in the fort town.
The date of Sarah’s death, reportedly caused by a tarantula bite, is unclear. A report states that she was buried in the Fort Yuma post cemetery on December 23, 1866, with full military honors. It was said that she had been breveted a colonel. If so, she was the first female colonel in the U. S. Army.
A more detailed account of her passing appeared in The Arizona (La Paz) Gazette in January 1867 and was reprinted in the Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel Newspaper — Santa Cruz, CA — January 26, 1867. The newspaper printed the following obituary: “Mrs. Bowman (familiarly known as the Great Western) died on the 22d ult (ultimo, Latin for last month), at Fort Yuma. She was buried the next day in the fort burial ground, with all the honors of war, the band playing the dead march, and the men of the garrison carrying their arms reversed, and firing a salute of fourteen guns over her grave, the flag being at half mast. It is said to have been the largest funeral that ever took place at Fort Yuma. All the business houses were closed, and every one tried to show the greatest respect to the last remains of a woman who was distinguished for undaunted courage and most tender humanity to the wounded at Reseca de la Palma, Buena Vista, and other glorious battlefields in Mexico.”
[Obviously the obituary writer failed to realize that Resaca de la Palma was in U.S. territory though, it might be added, this was contested by Mexico or was referring solely to Buena Vista.}
Strangely Sarah’s wanderlust would continue even after her death. In August 1890 the Quartermaster’s Department of the United States Army exhumed the 159 bodies buried at the Fort Yuma cemetery and moved them to the Presidio at San Francisco, California. Among these bodies was that of Sarah Bowman. Her memorial stone reads simply SARAH A. BOWMAN December 23(?), 1866.
This, the oldest national cemetery on the west coast, is home to some 30,000 veterans and family members. Many of those laid to rest here served in the Pacific Theater. This was a fitting tribute as she, officially a noncombatant, had shared the hardships and the dangers of the troops.
Sarah’s story and grave site are well known to many. It is visited frequently, especially by feminists who recognize her singular achievements. What more can we say about this remarkable woman? In life she had borne many an identity including camp follower, cook, laundress, heroine, businesswoman, lady of the night, madam, saloon keeper, hotel keeper, restaurateur, mistress, and mother.
She packed into a half century of life what most could not do in twice her lifetimes.