Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford:
Tall, sandy-haired, and charismatic, Bowie was an early prototype, perhaps the first, of the roaming western gunfighter who sought to parlay his fame—and he was famous in his day—into the big score he never quite pulled off. Raised in a large frontier Louisiana family, he grew to become a strapping backwoodsman adept with guns and knives. After surviving the 1819 Long Expedition, he went into business with two of his brothers, and here his story darkens considerably. The Bowies’ big moneymaking scheme, the venture that defined Jim’s early adulthood, revolved around two unsavory projects, smuggling illegal African slaves into the United States and flat-out real estate fraud.
The importation of enslaved people into the United States had been illegal since 1808, but as we’ve seen, that created an opportunity for Jean and Pierre Lafitte, who smuggled African slaves from Cuba and sold them for a pittance at their base on Galveston Island. The Bowies signed on as middlemen, driving groups of emaciated, enslaved Black people into Louisiana. At the border they cloaked themselves as customs officers, earning a reward of half their purchase price. Their costs halved, they then swooped in and bought their own slaves at auction, giving them legal title to resell them. The profits were huge.
Jim Bowie used his share of the profits to launch a land fraud “on an almost industrial scale,” as one biographer, William C. Davis, put it. In 1821 he forged dozens, perhaps hundreds, of deeds and used them to snatch up thousands of acres in unclaimed land all across northern Louisiana. A lengthy investigation ensued, but at some point all of Bowie’s paperwork mysteriously disappeared from the investigators’ offices, ending the probe.