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Monday, March 9, 2020

Colonel Sarah Bowman, The "Great Western"

Born Sarah Knight in 1812 or 1813, in either Tennessee or Missouri, according to the Handbook of Texas, Sarah A. Bowman was a “mountain of a woman who stood six feet two inches tall” and carried the nickname “Great Western,” in a possible reference to the contemporary steamship of that name, which was noted for its size. Texas Ranger John Salmon Ford said of her, "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."

In her lifetime, Sarah was an innkeeper, camp cook, nurse, wife, and madam. She gained fame and the title “Heroine of Fort Brown” as a camp follower of Zachary Taylor’s army during the Mexican-American war. In 1845, when her husband enlisted in the Army at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis, Missouri, Sarah signed on as a laundress, a position that included food, shelter, and the opportunity to earn a salary three times that earned by her Army private husband. By the time the Army arrived at Corpus Christi Bay, in Texas, her duties also included cook and nurse.

When the Army received orders to advance into Mexico, rather than stay with her ill husband, or travel with the rest of the wives onboard a ship, she purchased a wagon and mule team and drove on land with the troops. As they reached the Arroyo Colorado, they were threatened by the Mexican Army. As the Commander hesitated, it is said Sarah rode to the front of the assembled troops and told him, "If the general [Taylor] would give me a strong pair of tongs, [men’s trousers] I'd wade that river and whip every scoundrel that dared show himself." Inspired by her, the men crossed the river and scattered the Mexican troops.

When her second husband, Borginnes, was assigned to Fort Texas (then named Fort Brown), she operated an officer’s mess. When the majority of the troops moved to the coast, Mexican forces camped directly across the Rio Grande attacked the fort. While most of the women in the fort retreated to the bunkers to sew sandbags, Sarah remained at her post. For the next week she prepared food and carried buckets of coffee to the troops manning the fort's guns, even finding time to care for the wounded and other women. She prepared three meals a day even though bullets struck both her bonnet and bread tray—though she did requisition a musket just in case.

Following the battle, Sarah established the American House in Matamoros. In addition to food, lodging, and stables for soldiers' horses, the establishment also served as a saloon and brothel. As Taylor moved the Army, the American House went along, first to Monterrey and then on to Saltillo.

Sarah again saw action at the Battle of Buena Vista, where she prepared food and coffee, reloaded weapons and carried wounded off the battlefield, earning her a new  nickname: “Doctor Mary.” Following her actions on the field of battle, tradition says General Winfield Scott ordered a military pension for her.

When the troops moved on to California, Sarah was told only military wives were allowed to join the column. Since her second husband was gone—or dead—she couldn’t go. Legend says she mounted her horse and rode through the soldiers shouting “Who wants a wife with $15,000 and the biggest leg in Mexico!”

In early 1849, Sarah arrived in what is now El Paso, Texas. There she established an inn catering to those heading west for the California Gold Rush. She was El Paso’s first Anglo woman and the town’s first madam.

In 1852, with her new husband, Sarah moved west to Yuma Crossing. As Yuma’s first business operator, she cooked and did laundry for the officers at the fort. After a time, she opened a hotel near Fort Yuma, as well as Fort Buchanan and in Patagonia, Arizona.

Sarah Bowman, "The Great Western," died December 22, 1866, from a spider bite. Following her death, she was made an honorary colonel in the Army and buried with military honors in the Fort Yuma Cemetery. When Fort Yuma was decommissioned, her body, along with 158 soldiers’, were exhumed and moved to San Francisco National Cemetery.

For more information, visit Sarah in The Handbook of Texas:



  1. You have to admire someone who follows their dream, calling or whatever you call it. I kow a bit about this women, but not all. Thank you. Doris

    1. The more I learned, the more amazed I was. She didn't let anything stop her - certainly not social rules. :)

  2. Wow! What an amazing woman, and what a life she lived. I'd never heard of her before. To think that a spider bite killed her after all that. The poor soul deserved some peace and ease.

  3. What a brave and outstanding woman. I haven't heard of her until now, but I'm sure glad I did because I wouldn't want to have missed such a fantastic historical figure. It did my heart good to learn that Sarah was honored at her death. This was a great post, Tracy.

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