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Thread: Woman in the old West

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    Default Woman in the old West

    The Great Western



    Sarah Bowman,



    Mother & Mistress to the U.S. Army



    By


    J. F. Elliott


    Sarah Bowman, The Great Western to her generation, was everything a woman was not expected to be in the middle years of the nineteenth century. She was at various times a camp follower of the American army, a procuress, an innkeeper, an entrepreneur, and a battlefield heroine-and she was good at all her specialties. She was famous from the mid-1840s to the late 1860s, especially among army personnel and frontier storytellers. A contemporary called her, with the respect reserved for champions, “the greatest ***** in the west.”

    The stories told around campfires in Mexico by the rank and file of General Zachary Taylor’s army are the basis for Sarah’s fame, but she left a broad anecdotal trail across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. It seems likely that she grew up in Missouri, probably in primitive conditions, for she could neither read nor write. She was intelligent and quick to learn, however, for she acquired fluent Spanish in Mexico.

    One fact is obvious: she grew into a strapping young woman, six feet tall or more, weighing close to 200 lbs. Almost everyone who recorded a meeting with her commented on her impressive stature.

    One salient aspect of Sarah’s character was her appetite for men. She was married at least three times, and her informal relationships would be difficult to count. She liker her soldiers as wall as they liked her. She became a soldier’s woman years before she made her first appearance on the historical stage. Soon after the battle of Buena Vista, she told G. N. Allen how it happened. Capt. George Lincoln “enlisted me at Jefferson Barracks shortly after my first husband joined the regiment”. So she became a camp follower, and her “enlistment” took her to Florida and an initiation into military life in the Seminole war.

    In 1848, when Sarah was following Zach Taylor’s army, she was married to her second husband. The man was probably Charles Bourgette of the 5th Infantry, but he remains a shadowy figure.

    On March 8, 1846, Sarah appears for the first time with her wagon, her tent, and her pots and fire tongs as Taylor moved south to occupy the disputed ground between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. The next day, the Mexican commander informed Taylor that if he crossed he would be fired upon. Sarah, hearing of the ultimatum, remarked that “if the general would give her a good pair of tongs, she would wade that river and whip every scoundrel that dare show himself.” For uncertain reasons, the Mexican army withdrew.

    Sarah first came to the attention of the press after Taylor occupied Matamoras. To celebrate the occasion, the officers held a party. Lieutenant Braxton Bragg offered the most enthusiastically received toast”, “The Great Western-one of the bravest and most patriotic soldiers at the siege of Fort Brown”

    At Saltillo, Sarah established the American House, which was typical of the enterprise she would be involved in for the rest of her life. Sam Curtis made this entry in journal on April 6, 1847:
    “Moved into the city and got a room at the American kept by a woman who seems to be a part of the army. She is commonly called the Great Western for her size…she distinguished herself at Fort Brown during the bombardment in attending the sick and wounded and is said to be a useful soldier. She has several servants Negro and Mexican and she knocks them about like children.”

    Three weeks later, Curtis added” “I remain in town during the night and paid $2.50 for my entertainment at the boarding house.”
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    Very interesting!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Vulture View Post
    One fact is obvious: she grew into a strapping young woman, six feet tall or more, weighing close to 200 lbs.
    Wow. The good old days

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    Default Part II

    Sarah had a more tender side also. She was almost overcome with grief when she heard that Capt. George Lincoln was dead on the field of battle-the same Capt. Lincoln who had “enlisted” her and her first husband at Jefferson Barracks. “We have lived together, that is, he has eat at my table all the time since. But poor dear man, I must go and see to him this very night, lest then rascally greasers should strip him and not knowing him I could not give him a decent burial.” So,
    G. N. Allen recorded, “off she went to the blood-stained battle-field, and sought among the dead and dying till she found out the corpse of the brave Capt., which she brought to Saltillo and had decently interred.”

    With the signing of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, a portion of Taylor’s army marched to occupy New Mexico and California. These units under Brevet Lt. Col. John Washington were ready to leave Walnut Springs on July 18, 1848. The bugles sounded “To Horse” when Sarah appeared on horseback, ready for travel. With three “large Chihuahua wagons” in her wake, she requested permission to accompany the troops. Col. Washington referred her to Maj. Daniel Rucker, who gave her an answer that touched off one of the most extraordinary scenes in her colorful career.

    Rucker informed her that if she would marry one of the Dragoons and be mustered in as a laundress, she could go. Her ladyship gave the military salute and replied, “All right Major, I’ll marry the whole squadron and you thrown in but what I go along.: Riding along the front of the line she cried out, “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?” Finally Davis of Co. E said, “I have no objections to making you my wife, if there is a clergyman here to tie the knot.” With a laugh the heroine replied, “Bring your blanket to my tent tonight and I will learn you to tie a knot that will satisfy you, I reckon!”

    El Paso was on one of the most popular routes to the California goldfields, and the present site of downtown was just beginning to boom. Sarah’s fame attracted many patrons to her hotel and dining room, and many of them recorded her kindness. Quite frequently they were veterans of the Mexican war and had made her acquaintance long before. Lewis Harris, writing to his brother in 1849, reported that Sarah “treated us with great kindness,” and pathfinder Rip Ford in the same year had a similar experience, though he realized that he was dealing with a formidable woman. “On our side an American woman known as the Great Western kept a hotel,” Ford related in later years. “She had a reputation of being something of the roughest fighter on the Rio Grande. She was approached in a polite, if not humble manner by all of us, the writer in particular.”

    Sarah’s stay in El Paso was short; she leased the hotel to the Army and in 1850 Sarah was off to Socorro, NM. She had found a new lover, 24 year old Albert Bowman of the 2nd Dragoons.
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    Last edited by Vulture; 10-11-2009 at 02:09 PM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by JoeZona View Post
    Wow. The good old days
    I'm sure she wasn't a vegan!

    <
    "The good things a person needs-stubbornness, thinking for himself-don't make him a useful member of society. What makes him useful is to be half dead." Sylvan Hart

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    Jeeeez, Ol' Vulture has gone "XX-Rated)
    Don Winslow
    Glendora, California
    Ghost Town Web site:http://www.donwinslow.net/Ghost%20Towns.html

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    Yeah, but how could he be so sure unless he....oh never mind!

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    ****! There's a real woman. Thanks Vulture, for the history. Being a direct descendant of both Lucretia Mott and my mom, I appreciate that spirit of the West in a strong female.

    My mother, a few years passed now at 93, was raised in Stanton, Nebraska on a farm with no electricity or refrigeration. They slaughtered beef in the winter and buried them in a pit with layers of straw and ice cut from the pond. Then in the spring and early summer they dug their way down one layer at a time.

    Once the beef was gone, they ate chicken. My mom was a young girl in a family of seven kids and a number of "hands." The big meal of the day was supper (lunch). She would go and get some chickens and then clean and fry them in butter. My mom cooked better fried chicken than any I have ever had.

    When she graduated high school, she went to summer teacher's college. Then the next fall she started teaching rural school---every kid from kindergarten to high school in one room. She taught and had to control farm boys who outweighed her by 100 pounds and were a foot taller.

    After ten years she had saved enough to come west and put herself through UCLA as a math major. She met my dad at Newport Harbor High School where they both were teachers in 1948. He bid the highest price for her box lunch at a school "social." She had made fried chicken.

    NJ
    "I got four things to live by: Don't say nothing that will hurt anybody. Don't give advice--nobody will take it anyway. Don't complain. Don't explain." Death Valley Scotty Walter Scott 1872-1954

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    Quote Originally Posted by Norman Johnson View Post
    ****! There's a real woman. Thanks Vulture, for the history. Being a direct descendant of both Lucretia Mott and my mom, I appreciate that spirit of the West in a strong female.

    My mother, a few years passed now at 93, was raised in Stanton, Nebraska on a farm with no electricity or refrigeration. They slaughtered beef in the winter and buried them in a pit with layers of straw and ice cut from the pond. Then in the spring and early summer they dug their way down one layer at a time.

    Once the beef was gone, they ate chicken. My mom was a young girl in a family of seven kids and a number of "hands." The big meal of the day was supper (lunch). She would go and get some chickens and then clean and fry them in butter. My mom cooked better fried chicken than any I have ever had.

    When she graduated high school, she went to summer teacher's college. Then the next fall she started teaching rural school---every kid from kindergarten to high school in one room. She taught and had to control farm boys who outweighed her by 100 pounds and were a foot taller.

    After ten years she had saved enough to come west and put herself through UCLA as a math major. She met my dad at Newport Harbor High School where they both were teachers in 1948. He bid the highest price for her box lunch at a school "social." She had made fried chicken.

    NJ
    Thanks NJ, though I didn't know your Mom, I like her! Thats a great recollection. What would a modern 16 year old kid do if handed a cleaver & pointed to the chicken coop?

    One of my favorite childhood memories is also my Moms fried chicken, gravy & mashed potatos.

    <
    Last edited by Vulture; 10-13-2009 at 03:08 PM.
    "The good things a person needs-stubbornness, thinking for himself-don't make him a useful member of society. What makes him useful is to be half dead." Sylvan Hart

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    Default Part III

    Albert Bowman would be a part of Sarah’s life for many years, yet he remains a dim character, virtually unmentioned by those who wrote about Sarah. It must have been a strange relationship. Sarah was some fifteen years older than Albert, a camp follower for all her adult life, and always on the lookout for ways to make a dollar. The Bowman’s remained in New Mexico for two years; their movements can be traced from the regimental returns.

    Sarah’s appearance impressed one of Albert’s fellow soldiers. “Today we are reinforced by a renowned female character,” he recorded in this diary. “They call her Dr. Mary. Her other name is the Great Western.” He went on to describe Sarah as a “giantess…over seven feet tall,” with a large scar on her cheek-a souvenir from the blow of a Mexican saber at the siege of Matamoras. But for all her physical attributes, there was nothing at all intimidating about the Great Western. “She appears here modest and womanly not withstanding her great size and attire. She has on a crimson velvet waist, a pretty riding skirt and her head is surmounted by a gold laced cap pf the Second Artillery. She is carrying pistols and a rifle. She reminds me of Joan of Arc and the days of chivalry.”

    Sergeant Bowman was discharged from the Army on Nov. 30, 1852 and the couple apparently moved immediately to Fr. Yuma on the Colorado River. James Hobbs, “I met a large Irish woman called the Great Western” whom I had seen at Saltillo…she was noted as a camp follower in the Mexican war, was liked universally for her kind motherly ways, and at the battle of Buena Vista busied herself in making cartridges for the army.”

    Sarah also had a part in one of the most publicized events in the early history of the Southwest-Olive Oatman’s rescue after years of captivity among the Indians. The Yavapai in 1851 had attacked the Oatman family on the Gila trail. The Indians took captive the two daughters, Olive and Mary Ann, and left a son Lorenzo for dead. The remainder of the party was massacred. Eventually Lorenzo reached Yuma and safety. Mary Ann died while in captivity. In 1856, through an involved arrangement, her captors freed Olive and she went to Fort Yuma. While waiting for her brother to arrive from California, Olive was placed in the care of the Great Western.
    "The good things a person needs-stubbornness, thinking for himself-don't make him a useful member of society. What makes him useful is to be half dead." Sylvan Hart

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