Sarah Bowman (1812-1886), also known as Sarah Borginis, was a heroine of the Mexican–American War and the first female colonel of the U.S. Army.
Born Sarah Knight in Clay County, Missouri, she received no formal education and was believed to be illiterate, however she was unusual in being an American woman who spoke fluent Spanish. An athletic Amazon-like woman who stood over six feet tall, Bowman was often known as the ‘Great Western’, named after the largest steamer ship of the day. Texas Ranger John Salmon Ford described her by saying: “She could whip any man, fair fight or foul, could shoot a pistol better than anyone in the region, and at black jack could outplay (or out cheat) the slickest professional gambler.”
In 1845, expecting hostilities over the US annexation of Texas, General Zachary Taylor assembled the largest body of US troops since the Revolutionary War. Bowman and her second husband were among his forces and she became an outspoken supporter of Taylor’s. In May 1946, she was present during the Siege of Fort Texas by Mexican forces while Taylor was away. During six days of heavy artillery bombardment, Bowman tended to the soldiers, providing hot meals three times a day and helping the wounded, undeterred even when bullets scored holes in her bonnet. She armed herself with a musket in preparation for the Mexicans breaching the fort, but the Mexicans were ultimately forced to retreat. Fort Texas was renamed to Fort Brown after the commander who died defending it, and for her bravery Bowman became known as the 'Heroine of Fort Brown’.
Following Fort Brown, Bowman managed a boarding house called the American House, which also served as a saloon and brothel. She moved the establishment along with Taylor’s forces as he pressed further into Mexico. She was present at the Battle of Buena Vista, where she reloaded weapons, tended to wounded, and reportedly received a saber wound to the cheek while manning a cannon position. Following the battle Bowman learned that her friend Captain George Lincoln had been killed and she personally recovered his body from the battlefield so it would not be looted.
Following the war Bowman moved to Franklin, Texas (now known as El Paso) where she became the town’s first Anglo woman and first brothel madam. She later moved to Fort Yuma in Arizona where she lived out the rest of her life. Over her life she had several male companions and husbands, and was mother to a number of children and adopted Mexican and Indian children. She was awarded a military pension and upon her death in 1886 she was brevetted to the rank of colonel and buried with full military honors.