Mysteries of the 1831 Bowie search for the San Saba Silver Mine

In his day Jim Bowie was first famous for the 1827 Sandbar fight in Mississippi where he used his famous knife to defend himself. His final fame came from dying at the Alamo in 1836. But in between he earned fame when he and a small band of men fought off a large number of Native Americans in 1831 while he was searching for the San Saba Mine, thereafter sometimes called the Lost Bowie Mine. For the mine search being one of the most famous incidents in Jim Bowie’s life the expedition comes with two mysteries.

After recovering from the Sandbar fight, and after some shady land deals catching up to him, Jim Bowie and his brother Rezin (pronounced like Reason) moved to Mexican controlled Texas. Jim applied for, and was granted Mexican citizenship, becoming Don Santiago Bouie. As part of the deal to become a citizen Jim was to build an agricultural mill. Jim lived in San Antonio and was soon engaged to the daughter of a government official named Veramendi . Bowie promised to bring a large dowry to the marriage, but nearly all his wealth were in land deals back east, and nearly all of those were worthless. After the marriage he hit up his father in law for a loan. Possibly the reason Jim wanted citizenship was so he could acquire vast tracks of land in Texas. And that land would have made him rich, had he kept the land and survived another decade or two. But, at the time, the land was not worth much.

Jim needed to make some money and fast. His father-in-law was connected to the government and probably had access to records of where silver mines were thought to have been. All in territory controlled by the Comanche. It appears that the father-in-law funded and expedition to go north from San Antonio and explore for minerals. The men Bowie took were not hand picked soldiers or fortune, but mainly people he already knew, including his brother, and the crew that was supposed to set up the agricultural mill he had promised the government.

For sure they tried to find the San Saba Mine, somewhere around the old fort near today’s town of Menard. Probably Rezin Bowie had been there previously, taken to a shallow pit not far from the old fort by a Mexican guide. A sample of ore had been taken and it assayed well. Now Jim Bowie wanted to check it out and claim it, and possibly plan how best to work it. On the way there, the Bowie party caught word from some friendly natives that a different tribe was out to get them. They set out at a mad pace to get to the “houses” on the San Saba River, taken to be the abandoned stone fort or maybe whatever was still standing of the burnt down mission.

The could not find the “houses” and instead headed north of the river and made an impromptu fort. The next day they fought a ferocious battle, driving off the natives, but themselves suffering injuries and one death, that of a mechanic who was to assemble the mill. The natives moved on. The Bowie party spent several days recuperating from wounds, and some of them ventured out and found their way to the stone fort, and looked for the shallow pit that was supposed to be within a mile of it. Rezin, who had been there before, was having eye problems and that could not have helped. Finally well enough to travel then beat a trail back to San Antonio, arriving just after the had all been given up for dead. No mine was found, but they were alive. In 1832 Jim Bowie raised a force of volunteers to go north, allegedly to punish the natives who had attacked them, but the common thought that he was again after a mine. One that was apparently not found. Later in life Jim Bowie told others that he thought the pit had been filled in by natives to keep outsiders from moving in.

The Mysteries

There are two mysteries in all of this. The first is that it took the group twice as long as they should have to reach the old fort on the San Saba. More than a week longer than it should have. What were they doing in that time? It seems they traveled towards the old fort from the East, so could they have first gone on a trip to the Los Almagres mines, near today’s Llano County? Mines had been claimed there, and dug there, ever since, or maybe even before, Miranda’s trip there in the 1750s to look for the silver the Apache claimed was there (see Ray Carter’s Book Texas Gold Rushes for more information). Could be that, and probably was, but whatever they were up to, it was kept a secret.

The other mystery was where the fight took place. The fight took place at their make shift fort, so where was that? The fort they made was more about what they took away than what they put in. Before bedding down for the night they cleared a circle of brush from within a grove of trees. The day of the fight they would hide in the shadows of the trees then roll to one side or the other and reload. Their opponents could rarely get a good aim on them. The point was that the Bowie fort was mostly cleared out brush and shallow dirt embankments. It was not a stone fortress. After brush fires and wind and rain took its course, it may not have been much of anything just a few years later.

In 1936 the state of Texas decided the fight took place in McColloch County on Calf Creek. The evidence being local tradition and a lot of arrow heads and lead bullets found in firewood cut from that location. The issue though, is it is about 14 miles away from where Rezin Bowie said they were. Affirmed by Caiaphas Ham, one of the people on the Bowie expedition, many years later. They both said they were six miles from the fort. Ham filling in that during the days of recuperation after the fight some of them went exploring, found the fort, and agreed that it was about six miles away. Calf Creek is about 20 miles from the fort. So it seems unlikely that the fight took plave in McColloch County. There seems to be no reason in this instance to doubt Rezin and Ham. Taking them at their word, they were six miles from the fort and about three miles north of the river. 14 miles away from Calf Creek. Will the real fight location ever be found? Where ever it is, there used to be a stream nearby, a trail to the east, and a hill with a cave one mile distant. The Bowies buried some things at their camp: their fallen mechanic and their tools (presumably digging instruments). Will the real fight location ever be found? Who knows.

There is a grave marker for the Mechanic around Menard, but it is to the west of town, not the east. It was not far from the “egg shapped” basin where the colorful characters Longworth, Norton, and Wenonah searched. Norton and Wenonah claimed to have found a grave and old artifacts (a rifle barrel, a knife, and some bridles) were nearby. They erected a cross of pipe at that location, and it is still there.

David C Lewis wrote this article. His author page and a link to purchase his book on the San Saba Treasure, which includes a chapter on the Bowie search, is here