Fortunes for the Taking
I N 1814, when he was eighteen, James Bowie left home and settled on Bayou Boeuf, Rapides Parish, Louisiana, where he cleared a small piece of land and stayed for several years. He supported himself mainly by sawing plank and lumber with a whipsaw and boating it down the bayou for sale. He managed barely to live on his earnings, which were small, but he used an opportunity to mix with the local society, consisting mainly of wealthy planters. He has been characterized by his brothers, and by others who knew him, as having a winning way with people and considerable social grace and talent, in addition to his obvious physical assets. But his interests were not exclusively social: he knew the value of such connections in business, and he was keeping a weather eye out for ways of making some money quickly. He had not long to wait.
Settlers were pouring into Louisiana, and land values rose rapidly. He saw the possibility of making large profits in land speculation, but he lacked the necessary capital. He was still, to all intents and purposes, a poor farmer, and he wanted to better his lot as soon as possible. The slave trade offered that opportunity.1 So he sold his land on the bayou, he and Rezin, Jr., disposed of their sawmill, and John, who was also interested, joined them in the new enterprise.
The Bowies had plenty of company in this kind of smuggling. There were many men ready to employ any means of introducing slaves into Mexico and the United States, and illegal importation into both countries had been going on for some time before the Bowies became interested in it.2 Slave-running in Texas really began on Galveston Island before the advent of the Lafittes,