AN INSTANT LEGEND
A HISTORY OF THE BOWIE, AMERICA’S MOST PROLIFIC KNIFE
A look at the illustrious history of America’s most prolific knife, with some modern examples of the Bowies of today. BY DAVID JAYE
On a misty 1827 September morning, on a ribbon of sand known as the Vidalia Sandbar in the Mississippi River near the city of Natchez, two shots pierced the still air.
An affair of honor, between Doctor Thomas Maddox and Samuel Levi Wells, with pistols at 20 paces was agreed on, both shots missing their target. The code of Duello demanded a second round, and again both shots missed. The parties agreed that honor had been satisfied and they agreed to retire to the shade of the treeline, where their friends were preparing a picnic luncheon.
As they approached the treeline, they were startled by a fifth shot, fired by Judge Crain of the Maddox party, to settle an ongoing dispute with General Cuny of the Wells party. Once again, the ball did not find its target, instead striking James Bowie in the hip, felling him. In the ensuing melee, Bowie received another pistol ball to the shoulder, two chest wounds from sword canes and a head injury from a thrown pistol. After, with his knife, he went on to kill Sherriff Norris Wright and seriously wound Alfred Blanshard, both of whom had stabbed him.
Thus was borne the knife that went to live on in infamy as America’s most recognized and duplicated knife.
The Knife Design
In the months following, while recuperating in Natchez, Bowie had time, according to author Raymond Thorpe in his book “Bowie Knife,” to ponder improvements to the knife that had saved his life. His brother, Rezin, a few months previously, had given James the knife after Sherriff Norris Wright had shot James in the chest with a pistol. James had attempted to shoot back, but his pistol misfired. Grabbing Wright, he attempted unsuccessfully to open a large folding knife with his teeth before the combatants were separated by their friends. James told his
“AFTER HIS DEATH, BOWIE’S STATUS AS A HERO ONLY INCREASED, AS DID THE DEMAND FOR BOWIE KNIVES, AND AMERICAN MANUFACTURERS COULD NOT KEEP UP.”
brother that he would never trust his life again to a pistol or a folding knife. Rezin gave his brother his knife, telling him a knife was always loaded and never misfired. Rezin, in an 1838 letter to “The Planter’s Advocate,” stated he had forged the 9.25-inch, straight, single-edged blade from a file, exclusively for the purpose of hunting. However, his brother James was forced to use the knife to defend his life in a chance melee. After his recovery, James took a wooden model of the improved knife design to Arkansas blacksmith James Black, who was reputed to have a secret tempering process, which he never revealed even, at his death. Black agreed to follow the knife pattern, but according to Thorpe, he made a second knife of his own design, which Bowie preferred and purchased. After this purchase, Thorpe reports that Bowie was attacked by three assassins sent
by a member of the criminal element of Natchez, named “Bloody” Jack Sturdevant. When word was received that Bowie had killed all three with his knife, the newspapers of the day, which had previously reported the Vidalia Sandbar fight, now informed readers that he had used a knife to defend his life against multiple attackers. Bowie was catapulted into the American psyche as a hero. Men of all walks began to order knives like Bowie’s—or “Bowie” knives.
This Black-designed and forged knife, according to California Bowie knife-collector Joseph Musso, was purchased by him in 1970, and when reported to the knife community, detractors of his claim began a healthy debate, which resulted in Musso having his knife tested at the Truesdaile Labs. They determined the steel used in the blade was specifically smelted in the U.S. in the early nineteenth century. The brass in the guard and pommel contained elements of green clay from the sand used to cast them—available only from the area of Arkansas where Black had his forge and smithy.
Musician Phil Collins purchased this knife from Musso and believes the knife had been a gift from Bowie to a fellow Texan, Jesse Robinson, who
served as a volunteer under Bowie, as well as being a Texas Ranger under John “Coffee” Hayes. The knife, on Robinson’s death in 1882, was a part of his estate.
Another debated Bowie knife is known as “Bowie No. 1,” which is engraved on an escutcheon on the coffin-shaped handle scale of this knife, believed to be consistent with other knives made by James Black. Some Alamo and Bowie scholars believe this may have been the knife designed by James Bowie and left behind with Black, in preference to the Musso knife designed by Black. Black did not sign any of his work, perhaps because he may have, like many devout Christians, believed his talent was a gift from God. There is much speculation in these debates
A Struggled Climb to Heroism
The Bowie brothers, started in the logging business in the 1820s and expanded into sugar and cotton mills, as well as the illegal international trafficking of slaves into the U.S.
(outlawed in 1803 by Congress) from Jean Lafitte’s pirate base on Galveston Island, Texas (which was still part of Mexico at this time). James, having seen Texas in his overland trips with the contraband slaves, became interested in the American colony headed by Stephen Austin, and put his sights on Texas land grants. On October 5, 1830, he was granted Mexican citizenship in Texas and Coahuila, on the condition that he would build a cotton mill in Texas. He married Ursula, daughter of Don Juan Martin de Veramendi, the governor of Texas and Coahuila, and began speculating in land. He is also known to have lead a search for the lost Spanish silver mines of San Saba and became involved in the separation of Texas from Mexico. James fathered two children, but by September 1833 his wife, children and in-laws all died in the Cholera epidemic and Bowie turned to the bottle, remaining an alcoholic until his March 6, 1836 death as a defender of the Alamo.
After his death, Bowie’s status as a hero only increased, as did the demand for Bowie knives, and American manufacturers could not keep up. But Sheffield, England, with a guild of cutlers over a hundred years old, could and did meet the demand, even though they had not seen a true Bowie knife. Soldiers, Mountain Men, scouts, plainsmen and the 49ers on route to the gold fields of California, as well as the War Between the States saw Sheffield Bowie knives on American belts.
After the War Between the States, repeating cartridge guns—more reliable than muzzle-loading firearms—caused a wane in the popularity of the Bowie knife, and by the 1890s, they became known as American Pattern Hunting Knives, possibly to get around the strict laws in many anti-bowie sentiment states like Tennessee, in which it was illegal to sell, gift, carry or use a Bowie knife. WWI saw the need for a knife for trench warfare, and the Pacific Conflict in WWII began the issue of Bowie knives to Marines in the form of the Marine Combat knife as well as the U.S. Navy’s MKII, and the private purchase of handmade knives, many of Bowie knife design.
If there is a golden age of Bowie Knives, it is the present day. Scagel, Randall, Moran, Ruana, Morseth and Lile lead the way, but as illustrated in these photographs, present-day artisans are dedicating their talents, as well. From the finest steels ever smelted, and exotic, as well as indestructible manmade handle materials, they are producing increasingly superior Bowie knives—some of the finest knives the world has ever seen. KI