James Bowie's Mexican Land Grant Application, 1830
Slave trader turned Texas Revolution hero requests land
James "Jim" Bowie is considered one of the legendary figures in Texas history. Although not a native Texan, Bowie has become a folk hero known for both a large-bladed knife and the even larger fame gained at the battle of the Alamo.
Before he came to Texas, the Kentucky-born Bowie was already well known in Louisiana— not as a soldier, but as a slave trader. Bowie grew up in Catahoula Parish, Louisiana, the son of the largest slave owner in the area. Bowie's father ran a large plantation on the Vermilion River where he grew cotton and sugarcane, raised livestock, and bought and sold slaves. Bowie and his brother entered the slave trade as well, and from about 1817 to 1821, worked with the pirate Jean Lafitte who was then headquartered on Galveston Island. Lafitte captured slave ships in the Caribbean and in the Gulf of Mexico, then transferred the human cargo to Bowie who then sold the slaves in New Orleans and other cities along the Mississippi River.
Bowie and his brother used slave trade profits to become land speculators. In 1830, Bowie left Louisiana for present-day Texas, which was then a state in the Mexican federation. In February of that year, he applied for this land grant, requesting the property "that is on the corner located in the island of Galveston on the north end." Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the same area where his former slave trading colleague Jean Lafitte had once had his headquarters.
Accompanying Bowie to Texas in 1830 were 109 enslaved workers, identified on the land grant as dependents. Between 1821 and 1828, Mexico issued many laws restricting or outlawing slavery. Anglo Americans found a way around the laws by declaring their enslaved people as "indentured servants" who were contracted to work off their debt. Once in Texas, however, the servants were treated as property and were bought, sold, hired out, and bequeathed in wills. Slave holders, including Bowie, took full advantage of this contract labor loophole, and by the late 1830s, more than 1,000 people were enslaved to Anglo American settlers in Texas.
This application Bowie submitted for the Galveston property was denied. He eventually established several tracts in Stephen F. Austin's colony.
Courtesy of Texas General Land Office, Spanish Collection, Archive and Records Program, Austin
Time Period: 1821 - 1834
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