A Brief History of the Bowie Knife – Foundry Outdoors

A Brief History of the Bowie Knife

Antique Bowie Knife

    The Bowie Knife is, without a doubt, one of the most prominent icons of the American frontier. However, there is considerable controversy these days concerning what is or is not considered a Bowie Knife as well as who actually made the knife that Jim Bowie used to defend himself during the infamous Sandbar Fight which took place on a sandbar in the Mississippi River just below Natchez Under-the-Hill because the only description of it we have of it is from eye witnesses who described it as being a "large butcher knife".

     However, there is little doubt that the knife Jim Bowie used to dispatch his assailants that day on the sandbar was atypical of the knives of the day since most personal defense knives at that time were based on the European dagger or dirk which featured a long, slim, double-edged, blade due to the fact that most duels in the “Old World” of Europe were generally fought by gentleman over points of honor using sabers, rapiers, or dueling pistols. Consequently, Americans of the time did not have a strong tradition of dueling except in the South where tempers tended to run hot and honor among gentleman was paramount. Therefore, it is ironic that it was in fact a duel that that actually vaulted the iconic Bowie Knife to the forefront of American legend!

     For those of you who are not familiar with the story, on September 19, 1827, two duelists named Samuel Levi Wells III and Dr. Thomas Harris Maddox (both of whom were from Alexandria, Louisiana) agreed to a duel using pistols which was to take place on a sandbar in the Mississippi River. Therefore, according to the rules of the time, both men had brought along "Seconds" whose job it was to see that the rules were adhered to and to avenge their respective duelist if they were not. Therefore, James (Jim) Bowie was there to act as a Second for Wells while another man named Major Norris Wright seconded Maddox. However, in addition to the duelists and their Seconds, a large group of approximately fourteen men also came to witness the duel; among whom were Major George McWhorter, General Samuel Cuny, Colonel Robert Crain, Carey Blanchard, Alfred Blanchard, and several unnamed others.

     Consequently, as the duel commenced, both Wells and Maddox faced off at the prescribed distance and each used his pistol to fire a single shot at their opponent. But, both opponents missed their intended targets and thus, their honor having been satisfied, they resolved to end their duel with a handshake. So, as the two duelist turned to leave, Bowie and Wright joined them.

     However, several of the witnesses were not satisfied that the duel had been properly concluded and thus, an argument ensued. Consequently, upon commencement of the argument among the witnesses, Dr. Maddox, who was one of the duelist, along with several of his friends, also came forward to assert their opinions at which point, General Cuny, who had previously fought with Colonel Crain upon a different occasion, is said to have called out to Crain "Colonel Crain, this is a good time to settle our difficulty"; at which point, Crain drew a pistol and fired at Cuny. However, he missed his intended target and instead and struck Bowie in the hip. This attack, in turn, caused Crain to also draw his pistol and return fire at Cuny and, during the ensuing firefight, Crain sustained a flesh wound in the arm while Cuny died from a shot to the chest.

     At this point, Bowie then rose to his feet, drew his famous knife, and charged Crain who then struck Bowie in the head with the barrel of his pistol; thus knocking Bowie to his knees. Then, Wright drew a pistol and shot at Bowie but missed. Thus, Wright then drew his cane sword and stabbed Bowie in the chest but, the blade was deflected by Bowie's sternum as he twisted to avoid the deadly thrust. Then, as Wright proceeded to pull his blade free of Bowie's chest, Bowie grabbed Wright's shirt, pulled him down, and proceeded to disembowel Wright with his knife which caused Wright to immediately die from his wound.

     Next, Bowie was both shot and then stabbed by other members of the group and then, both of the Blanchard brothers also drew pistols and fired at Bowie. But, one bullet missed and the other one struck Bowie in the arm. In retaliation, Bowie used his knife to cut Alfred Blanchard on the forearm; thus disabling him. Next, Carey fired a second shot a Bowie but also missed and, as the Carey brothers fled, one was shot and wounded by Major McWhorter.

     Thus, by the end of the brawl, Samuel Cuny and Norris Wright were dead and another four men (Alfred Blanchard, Carey Blanchard, Robert Crain and Jim Bowie) were all wounded. Consequently, from that day forward, the knife that Jim Bowie used during that fateful event, as well as the man himself, became famous and suddenly, everyone wanted a "knife like Bowie's"!

     However, here is where the story gets murky because there is no definitive, documented, evidence as to exactly what Bowie's knife looked like or who made it. However, the general consensus is that the knife was designed by Jim's brother Rezin and was forged by a local blacksmith named James Black.

     But what we do know is that in 1827, Jim's brother Rezin, who was an Arkansas plantation owner at the time, was attacked by a bull and, in self-defense, Rezin drew his belt knife and attempted to stab the bull in the head! But, his knife proved inadequate to the task because it could not pierce the bull’s skull. However, Rezin did managed to survive the attack and, in his quest for a more reliable knife, he allegedly commissioned a local blacksmith named James Black to grind down an old file to create a large, single-edged, knife with a blade that measured over 9" in length and approximately 1 1/2" in width which he then fitted with large quillions and a simple, wooden, grip. Thus, it is believed that this is the knife (or one like it) that Rezin gave to his brother Jim prior the infamous sand bar fight.

     Of course, this knife was a much larger knife than was commonly carried by men of the time and was considered to be very unusual because most personal defense knives of the time were patterned after the European double-edged dagger. Consequently, as tales of the Sandbar Fight began to spread, local blacksmiths and surgical instrument makers were flooded with orders for this new style of knife which, in turn, led to several different standardized styles such as the Searle's Bowie, the Sheffield Bowie, the Natchez Bowie, the California Bowie, the Rio Grande Bowie, etcetera.

     In fact, use of the Bowie Knife for personal defense became so wide spread that schools were established to teach the use of this large knife in hand-to-hand combat. However, by the late 1830's, the knife had gained such a fearsome reputation as a killer of men that many states enacted legislation banning the carry and use of Bowie Knives. Then, in the 1950's, the American public regained interest in the Bowie Knife after reading fictional stories about Jim Bowie and Davy Crocket which, in turn, led to a movie called "The Iron Mistress" starring Alan Ladd as Jim Bowie and later, his portrayal by Jason Patrick in The Alamo.

     Today, the Bowie knife continues to enjoy considerable popularity as both a combat weapon and as a tool for wilderness survival. Consequently, there are now many different styles of Bowie knives on the market ranging from cheap wall hangers to excessively expensive custom knives and, there are many avid collectors with extensive collections of vintage Bowie knives as well as many authoritative books on the subject. Plus, there is a plethora of information on Bowie Knives available online. Thus, if you are one of those people for whom the Bowie Knife holds special appeal, then you too can own a “knife like Bowie’s”.



Written by,

Bill Bernhardt

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