American heroine in the Mexican War (1846-1848). Sarah Borginis was born in Clay County, Missouri, in 1812. Married to a soldier by 1840, she worked for the U.S. Army as a laundress. Her duties included washing clothes and cooking for officers, as well as caring for the sick and wounded. Strong, athletic, and graceful, she stood over six feet tall with an hourglass figure. Borginis’s striking appearance brought her much attention. Her nickname, the Great Western, was inspired by the largest steamer afloat in its day.
Anticipating trouble in 1845 over the U.S. annexation of Texas, President James K. Polk authorized General Zachary Taylor to assemble the largest number of military troops since the Revolutionary War. Borginis and her husband joined Taylor’s forces in Corpus Christi, Texas. Borgi-nis, who idolized Taylor, was outspokenly confident in the general’s leadership ability. When orders came from Washington for Taylor’s forces to move into Mexico, Sarah drove her donkey cart full of supplies south with great skill. On the Rio Grande River opposite Matamoras, Mexico, Taylor hurriedly constructed Fort Texas. After the war officially began, Taylor maneuvered to protect his supply base, leaving Major Jacob Brown in charge of the fort and its 500 inhabitants. In May 1846, the Mexicans laid siege to Fort Texas for seven days. Borginis frequently exposed herself to danger as she served meals, dressed wounds, and loaded rifles. Brown was killed before Taylor returned to save Fort Texas, which was renamed Fort Brown in his honor.
Borginis achieved national attention when word of her courage and composure under attack appeared in U.S. newspapers. The Great Western became a notable part of western lore as the heroine of Fort Brown. Borginis maintained her reputation accompanying Taylor’s forces in several battles. After her first husband was killed in combat, she had several other male companions and husbands. Borginis, a woman of great business acumen despite being able neither to read nor write, managed two hotels, both called the American House, in the Mexican cities of Saltillo and Monterrey. The hotels provided soldiers with entertainment, food, lodging, liquor, and women.
The war’s end in early 1848 coincided with the discovery of gold in California. Borginis eventually moved to what became El Paso, Texas, where federal troops were ordered to protect westward migrating Americans. Borginis is remembered as El Paso’s first Anglo female resident, as well as its first madam. After a few years in El Paso, Borginis headed west with a new man, Albert Bowman, a European immigrant and Mexican War veteran. They settled in Fort Yuma, Arizona, where Borginis, Yuma’s first Anglo female resident, started a business cooking and cleaning for officers while her husband pursued mining. Soon she was running a restaurant, bar, boarding house, and brothel across from the fort. Her final years were spent managing her various businesses in Arizona, most of them in Yuma. Borginis, the only woman laid to rest in Fort Yuma’s cemetery, was buried with full military honors in 1866. Her body and others there were reinterred at San Francisco National Cemetery, where her gravestone is marked Sarah A. Bowman.