Academic journal article Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military

Standing Tall with Sarah Bowman: The Amazon of the Border. (Articles)

Academic journal article Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military

Standing Tall with Sarah Bowman: The Amazon of the Border. (Articles)

Article excerpt

Since there are numerous and conflicting stories concerning Sarah Bowman, an American woman who accompanied General Zachary Taylor's army in the Mexican War from 1846 to 1848, it is sometimes hard to separate truth from folklore. It is generally agreed, however, that she worked various times as a laundress and cook and nursed men in the immediacy of battle; and it has also been maintained that she was once appointed matron of a hospital where she administered to the "immediate wants of the sick, wounded, and dying." (1)

She is thought to have been born in 1812 or 1813 in Tennessee although the Federal Census for 1860 (Colorado City) lists her birth date as late as 1818. It has also been speculated that she may have dropped some years off her age because she was sometimes involved with younger men. (2) Most likely she grew up in Missouri, but the conditions must have been impoverished as she could neither read nor write. One writer, who met her while she was in General Taylor's camp, claimed that Sarah related the story of her life to him. He insisted that she was "of respectable parentage and respectable connection." (3) Although Sarah had numerous informal relationships and was married at least three times, her maiden name is unknown. These changes in status, however, may have accounted for the different names that she was known by in the West, being referred to as Mrs. Borginnis, Bourjette, Bourget, Bourdette, Davis, Bowman, Bowman-Phillips, and possibly Foyle. (4)

Sarah's appearance was imposing, and everyone who met her commented on her immense size. It was said that she was at least six feet in height and possibly two inches taller. (5) She was described as a "giantess" who was reputed to be able to "lick any man of her size and weight in the army." One Texas Ranger and later, a Forty-niner, observed that she "had the reputation of being something of the roughest fighter on the Rio Grande, and was approached in a polite if not humble manner." (6) Sarah was also described as being "formidable in a scrap." (7) One army major noted that she was "a large and tall fearless looking woman. (8) Apparently her weight was no small matter either as she reportedly tipped the scales at close to 200 pounds.

Despite her size and girth, however, she was well proportioned and attractive with blue or green eyes and light colored hair that was sometimes described as reddish. Her size suggested her nickname, "the Great Western", which was a British owned vessel that was the largest steamship afloat in Sarah's day. (9) It was further claimed that she earned the title because of "natural and moral courage, being very intrepid, and reckless of danger, and, at the same time, possessed of all the finer qualities which characterizes her sex." (10)

Sarah's first husband, who has remained nameless, enlisted in the 8th Regular Infantry at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. Rather than be deprived of his company for long periods, she became a willing camp follower and marched off to Florida with him. Here she was initiated into military life in the Seminole War and later at the encampment at Corpus Christi where General Zachary Taylor was putting together an army for his planned march into Mexico. (11)

It was not long before she proved that she knew how to handle herself. The story is told of how a trooper once let out a wolf whistle and muttered something under his breath as Sarah walked by him.

     The Amazon whirled with the litheness of a panther ... Before the
   startled heckler knew what was happening, she had hoisted him like a sack
   of feathers and pinned him high against the side of a wooden building.
   Effortlessly, she held him there with one hand; her grayish-green eyes
   boring straight into his. Finally the astonished soldier found his tongue
   ... he apologized ... The woman's face was a granite mask. Suddenly she
   dropped her hand and the unhappy trooper plummeted back to earth. … 
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