Thanks to Vivian Waters for taking this photo at the National Military Cemetery at the Presidio outside of San Francisco. Sarah Bowman is honored there for her courage under fire at the Battle of Ft. Brown in March of 1846, and for her bravery in caring for the fallen on the battlefield. (She also once proposed to Zachary Taylor’s entire army, but that’s another part of her extraordinary career).
Sarah Bowman stood six feet tall at a time when the average soldiers’s height has been recorded as five-foot six-inches. Her height explains why she was nicknamed The Great Western, after the largest steamship afloat back then. One soldier observed that she was so tall you had to hug her in installments, and added that she had enough sand for a lakefront.
One of the few images of Sarah is this one, drawn by Samuel Chamberlain, a soldier who knew her and wrote a biography, of sorts, of her. (notice that she’s packing). After the War with Mexico ended, Sam, who until then I had become fond of, took up the unsavory career of scalp hunter with the infamous Glanton gang.
When Zachery Taylor marched his army into Mexico in 1845, Sarah went along as a laundress. But even at six-feet tall, she was a woman in a man’s world. One evening, while warming up in Tom Fox’s karate class on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the banter turned to my latest writing project and Sarah. In that class the ratio of two women to eighteen or twenty extraordinarily fit young guys gave me some inkling of Sarah’s situation.
This is martial arts sensei Tom Fox. I can’t find my photos of the class when I was in it, but during that particular warm-up, classmate and black belt Tom Harner said Sarah had to “shoot the puppy.”
My friend Tom Harner is a former Para-Jumper, a tough Air-Force unit with the nickname “Ninja brain surgeons.” He explained that “shooting the puppy” meant picking an individual from the pack and making an example of him the others wouldn’t forget. He got me to thinking about how Sarah might have established her place in the pecking order of a rough-and-tumble frontier. Here’s the way I imagined her entrance into the make-shift settlement around Colonel Kinney’s trading post.
This excerpt is from the original website that Ginny Stibolt created for me in 2001 at www.luciastclairrobson.com/old_site/Fearless.htm . It’s not included on my new website. www.luciastclairrobson.com
Fearless: A Novel of Sarah Bowman
(This is the Texans’ introduction to The Great Western. I figure Sarah understood the importance of first impressions).
The population of Colonel Kinney’s trading post had multiplied tenfold from the original hundred or so inhabitants. The palisade was barely visible beyond the sprawl of tents and leantos and hastily-erected shacks, most of which advertised themselves as saloons. It seemed as though everyone who wasn’t hammering was playing cards. Sarah steered the mare into the smell of manure and newly-sawn wood. Others abandoned their tasks to watch.
“Looky at this sorrel-top. She’s a frockful, ain’t she?” The man approached spraddle-legged and ripe with menace. “I reckon I’ll be your first customer, Ma’m.”
“I’m not in that business, sir.”
“Then I’ll surely be your first customer.” His laugh sounded like a dry axle churning through deep sand.
Sarah regarded him fondly. He would do just fine. He was a great hairy brute, almost as tall as she was. He wore a chimney-pot hat, a mangy wool vest, and Indian leggings. He liked attention and he was attracting an audience. Yes, he would do just fine.
He made a grab for the mare’s bridle and Sarah unhooked the iron skillet. It weighed twenty pounds, but she regularly hefted sodden wool uniforms that weighed more. She swung the skillet with one hand. It clanged when it hit the side of his head, unseating the chimney-pot hat. Sarah thought of it as a school bell for the uneducated. He fell as abruptly as a sack of nails dropped from a height.
She balanced the frying pan on her knee. “Do any of you gallants know where Mister Delfinius Burch has pitched camp?”