Knives Illustrated - - Contents - STORY BY DAVID JAYE, PHO­TOS BY CALEB ROYER

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


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.

His­tor­i­cal Con­tention

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

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