Sarah Bowman can perhaps be called the biggest Harlot in the West; during her time she was known as the "Great Western." Standing a little over six feet tall and weighing 215 pounds, she came by her title honestly. The SS Great Western was the first of the successful trans-Atlantic steamers and the biggest ship of its day. Stunned crowds stood and gaped as the Ship first sailed in to the harbor. Stunned soldiers must have stood and gaped at Sarah in much the same way. Sarah was big, strong minded and very attractive with reddish hair and an hourglass figure.
Sarah Bowman, was born Sarah Knight in 1812 or 1813, probably in Clay County, Missouri, although some sources state Tennessee. Before arriving in Texas, not much is known of her early life. Stories have her associated with the army in the Seminole wars in Florida, where she was a favorite of Zachary Taylor, but the first authenticated eyewitness accounts, have her "married "to a soldier in the Eighth United States Infantry in 1845. During that time only wives of enlisted men could enroll with the army as cooks and laundresses and follow their husbands into the field. Sarah travelled with Taylor's Army during the Mexican-American War to Corpus Christi.
In March of 1846, at the crossing of the Arroyo Colorado, Sarah proved herself to be a fighter. A Mexican officer dared the Americans to cross over. The Mexicans tautened and called into question the ancestry of the Texans. Sarah was enraged! She strode to the water's edge and offered or threatened, depending how you look at it, to wade across the river and whip the enemy single handedly if Gen. William Jenkins Worth would only lend her a stout pair of tongs. Impressed by her bravado, the Texans rode across the river and routed the Mexicans. Taylor was able to push his men all the way to Matamoros, where he stopped and had them build Fort Texas.
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." wrote John Salmon Ford. When Sarah bought her own wagon and followed the army, I would expect not much was said to dissuade her.
Legends of her exploits continued to grow when, on May 3, 1846, with General Taylor and many of the troops away from the Fort, it was attacked. Women and the injured were ordered to an underground magazine, but Sarah refused to go. She tirelessly worked the walls, cooking and delivering the food to the soldiers, nursing the wounded and taking care of any other need that arose. Once the tray that she was carrying food on was shot from her hands and in another instance shell fragments pierced her sun bonnet. On the third day of the siege, the commanding officer, Major Brown, was struck down by a shell exploding almost directly over his head. He lived for three days. The Mexican General saw the chance and took advantage of it, sending some 5000 men against the Fort. Sarah fought alongside the men and while helping load the cannon, was attacked by a Mexican soldier who struck her across the face with his saber. Sarah shot him dead. When the US line began to weaken at the fortifications, she cajoled the men back into their places, promising them that "her Zack" would be back soon. Luckily he was and the Fort which had faced uninterrupted siege for almost a week was saved. The Fort was renamed for the fallen Major Brown. Sarah's service and fearlessness earned her another nickname, the Heroine of Fort Brown.
She continued to travel with the army deep into the heartland of Mexico and opened a hotel in Saltillo named the American House. During this time, Sarah was with the love of her life, Capt. George Lincoln. A man as tall and striking as she was herself, he was well known for bravery during battle. The fact that he had a wife and child in Ogdensburg, NY seemed not to matter.
On February 23, 1847 the battle of Buena Vista commenced. Riding a white horse and far taller than most of the other men, George Lincoln drew far more than his share of fire. While leading a charge, he was shot through the heart and killed. Meanwhile, Sarah was again fiercely doing her duty, loading cartridges and even carrying some wounded soldiers from the battlefield to safety. When the battle was over, Sarah found Captain Lincoln out on the field and had him buried. When his horse was auctioned off, she bid $250, winning over the previous bid of $60. She then made arrangements for his horse and effects to be returned to his family.
Broken hearted, Sarah still acquired several more husbands during her life. Most of her marriages were performed without benefit of Clergy. Various sources referred to her as Mrs. Bourjette, Bourget, Bourdette, Davis, Bowman, Bowman-Phillips, Borginnis, and possibly Foyle.
At the end of the war, in1848, a detachment of soldiers headed for California. Sarah asked Colonel Washington if she could accompany the troops. The colonel referred her to Major D. H. Rucker, who rather crushingly told her that she could only go along as a laundress if she was married to one of the Dragoons. Chamberlain reports that "her ladyship gave the military salute and replied, 'All right, Major, I'll marry the whole Squadron and you thrown in but I want to go along.'" She then proceeded to ride the line of the enlisted men, yelling "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 a man named David Davis of Company E "married" the Great Western and she was mustered in as a laundress.
Now during the Gold Rush, El Paso, midway between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean was a very popular stopping off place. Sensing money to be made, Sarah decided to stay awhile.
She became the first female to open a business in El Paso and was also the first recorded madam in the town. She opened a "hotel" on the site of Ponce de León's rancho, owned by Benjamin Franklin Coons. The hotel later became the Central Hotel. Sarah offered room, board and entertainment, plenty of entertainment. One writer referred to her as "the greatest whore in the West," and in 1856, Lt. Sylvester Mowry, stationed at Fort Yuma, wrote that "among her other good qualities she is an admirable `pimp'."
Sarah was still Sarah, the personification of the Whore with the heart of gold. Her past experience nursing soldiers had given her valuable medical skills, and she continued to use them on any who needed her help. And she never had children of her own but she seemed to have a motherly side, adopting several orphaned children whom she raised. Mentions of Sarah in traveler's journals that had stopped at her hotel contained nothing but praise for her. She enjoyed a reputation as a tender, compassionate woman. She also had the reputation expressed herein David Gregs 1856 journal; "A perfect Amazon... she wears a pistol about her waist and rides a mule over the plains with as much endurance as any of the stronger sex. It can't be
said that the conversation of this women would be very pleasant to a very fastidious person..."
The Great Western did not stay in El Paso long; she leased her hotel to the army and headed to Socorro, New Mexico with a new husband and her children. Her husband was a soldier named Albert J. Bowman, who was originally an upholsterer from Germany; he was also Sarah's last husband.
On November 30, 1852 Bowman was discharged from the army and the family moved to Fort Yuma. She opened a restaurant and probably had many other business interests as well, including company laundress. Sarah also received an Army pension for life. Around 1856 Sarah was at Fort Buchanan setting up a hotel ten miles from the Fort, but by 1861 she was back working Fort Yuma. By the mid-60s, Albert Bowman and she were no longer married.
The Great Western had led such a dynamic life that it seems ironic that it was the bite of a tarantula that finally killed her in 1866.
Sarah Bowman was buried with full military honors at the U.S. Army's Fort Yuma post cemetery on December 23, 1866. She was the first woman to ever be so honored. "Laundress" was listed as her army occupation.
In August 1890, the 159 graves in the Yuma cemetery, including Sarah's, were exhumed and reburied in the national cemetery at the Presidio in San Francisco.
The Great Western, the Heroine of Fort Brown, Madam, Cook, Business Woman, Laundress, Nurse, Wife and Mother, and more last names than you can shake a stick at; her headstone reads simply "Sarah A. Bowman."