the Great Western to most people and they might think you are trying to start
a discussion about “Lonesome Dove” or “True Grit.” Others will assume you’re referencing
a railroad. Actually, you would be talking about a woman known by many names –
Sarah Bowman being the last – who was better known by her nickname, “The Great
The sobriquet came from the SS Great Western, the first
of the successful trans-Atlantic steamers and the biggest ship of its day. For
her part, Bowman was an inch or two taller than six feet and weighed in at about
200 pounds. She could hold her own in a fight with most any man and was generally
approached not with deference but a genuine sense of caution. Rip Ford wrote of
her: “She had a reputation as being something of the roughest fighter on the Rio
Grande and was approached in a quiet and humble manner.”
Not much is known
of her life prior to coming to Texas, and not all
that much of her life after she got here is fully documented, either. Her first
appearance in the historical record comes in 1845 where she is listed as the wife
of soldier John Langwell. She traveled with her husband as part of Gen.
Zachary Taylor’s Army, which would soon go into battle against the Mexican
army in the Mexican-American War.
Sarah showed her mettle at the crossing
of Arroyo Colorado, Taylor’s first confrontation with the Mexican troops,
when she offered – or threatened, depending on how you want to look at it – to
wade the crossing and whip every scoundrel that she could find. The troops then
plunged into the battle en masse and dispersed the enemy.
as the Great Western first came to the attention of the wider world after the
Battle of Fort Brown where her courage and performance of duties under fire earned
her another moniker, “The Heroine of Fort Brown.” Newspapers in Philadelphia
carried stories about her. Even then, there were a lot of stories about The Great
Western that weren’t suitable for family newspapers. One of the correspondents
addressed this indirectly by discounting “any tongue of slander” that dared to
cast aspersions on The Great Western’s character.
Sarah married several
times and it wasn’t always clear where one marriage ended and another one began.
Once, after being informed that she could no longer follow the army unless she
was married to a soldier, she rode the ranks of the enlisted men, calling out,
“Who wants a wife with fifteen thousand dollars and the biggest leg in Mexico?
Come, my beauties, don’t speak all at once. Who is the lucky man?”
Mexico she ran a string of businesses including restaurants, hotels and brothels.
Once, a frightened soldier came into her hotel in Saltillo, Mexico and reported
that Mexican troops had defeated Zachary’s troops at the Battle of Buena Vista.
She had been at the battle of Buena Vista, serving once again under fire, and
knew the soldier had his story wrong. She set the record straight with a crushing
right hand and promised to kill the man if he spread the story any farther; the
story stayed right there.
followed the same lines of work in El
Paso and is sometimes described as the first prostitute to ply her trade in
that fair city. At the same time she was linked romantically with any number of
men, including high ranking U.S. Army officers. From time to time she would marry
Her fourth and last husband was Albert J. Bowman, with whom
she moved to Yuma, Arizona in 1857; by the mid-60s they were no longer together.
She died there in either 1863 or 1866, the victim of a fatal tarantula bite.
Great Western was buried with full military honors at the U.S. Army’s Fort Yuma
cemetery, the only woman to ever be so honored. Her army occupation was listed
as “laundress,” which might lead the uninitiated to think she was simply the best
there ever was at keeping clothes clean.
The graves in the Yuma cemetery
were exhumed and reburied in the national cemetery at the Presidio in San Francisco
in 1890. With any number of names to pick from, the name on her headstone reads
“Sarah A. Bowman.”
4, 2011 Column
"Letters from Central Texas"