History

Historical Greatness: Sarah A. Bowman Kicked Butt and Took Names

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In the end, a spider bite killed Sarah Bowman, but not before she became the Heroine of Fort Brown, the first lady to be a ranking U.S. Army officer, the first woman buried with full military honors in a post cemetery, and the first female who owned a business in El Paso. John Salmon Ford wrote that Sarah “had the reputation of being something of the roughest fighter on the Rio Grande and was approached in a polite, if not humble, manner.”

Not many details survive about the birth of Sarah A. Bowman; historians believe it was around 1813 in either Tennessee or Missouri. Often referred to as “The Great Western”, for the world’s largest operable steamship at the time (the SS Great Western), Sarah was over 6 feet tall. She married several times throughout her life, and she was documented by the additional names of Boginnis, Bourdette, Bourget, Bourjette, Borginnis, Davis, Bowman, and possibly Foyle.

Sarah's nickname

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Sarah served the military, officially enlisting with the Army in 1845 and working as a nurse, cook, and laundress. In a year’s time, she was also providing inspiration to the troops with her bravery and willingness to be in the midst of mobilization. After serving all her duties under major fire, and being struck by bullets in her bonnet and tray, she earned a degree of fame when American newspapers took notice and published stories of her efforts. Further, during the Battle of Buena Vista, in addition to handling troop sustenance, she reloaded weapons and carried wounded soldiers off the active battlefield. Shortly after her service, she was granted a military pension.

Heroine_of_Fort_Brown

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In times of peace, Sarah kept busy. By early 1849, she arrived in Franklin (now El Paso, Texas) and established an inn which catered to travelers known as Forty-Niners, destined for the California Gold Rush. This rest stop included pleasures of the flesh, which in turn granted Sarah the title of the town’s first madam. In 1852, Sarah moved along and became the first business operator of Yuma Crossing, where she cooked and did laundry for the officers of Fort Yuma. She also opened additional businesses in the area and is said to have adopted a number of local orphaned children. She accomplished all this despite illiteracy. Sarah was also fluent in both English and Spanish.

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