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BOWIE KNIFE

BOWIE KNIFE. In 1838 Rezin P. Bowie, brother of Alamo hero James Bowie,qqv claimed that he made the first Bowie knife while the Bowies lived in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana. He designed it as a hunting knife and gave it to James for protection after his brother had been shot in a fight. Blacksmith Jesse Clifft, who lived on Bayou Boeuf and was a close friend and neighbor of the Bowies in the 1820s, forged the knife according to Rezin Bowie's design. The original Bowie knife was like a butcher knife in profile, with a thin blade but no silver mounts. Bowie wore it in a silver-mounted black-leather sheath. The Bowie knife gained widespread notoriety after the celebrated Sandbar Fight on September 19, 1827, near Natchez. On that date Samuel Levi Wells and Dr. Thomas Maddox engaged in a duel on the first large sandbar above Natchez on the Mississippi state side of the river. After firing pistols at each other without effect, Wells and Maddox shook hands and started off the field. But members of the Maddox group suddenly fired at Wells's followers, who included James Bowie. Bowie fell, shot through a lung. An archenemy, Norris Wright, along with Alfred Blanchard, stabbed him repeatedly with swordcanes. In a final effort Bowie raised himself, grabbed Wright, and sank the big knife into his assailant's heart, killing him instantly. Combatants and eyewitnesses described the "large butcher knife" in letters and interviews, and a legend began. Newspapers across the nation printed lurid and detailed stories of the Sandbar Fight. The public reveled in the prowess of James Bowie and his lethal weapon. In a day when pistols frequently misfired, the Bowie knife was a reliable and effective backup weapon. As its popularity spread, schools were established, especially in the old Southwest, to teach the arts and dodges of Bowie knife fighting. The Red River Herald of Natchitoches, Louisiana, reported, "All the steel in the country it seemed was immediately converted into Bowie knives."

In 1828, some months after the Sandbar Fight, James Bowie made a trip to the East. In Philadelphia he apparently placed his knife in the hands of Henry Schively, a cutler. His brother Rezin wanted a high-quality knife drawn on the lines of the first, complete with a fancy silver sheath. Rezin wore the knife for several years, his initials R. P. B. engraved on the pommel cap. In 1831 he gave the knife to a friend, Jesse Perkins, of Jackson, Mississippi. The Clifft knife is the immediate progenitor of the classier Schively knife. Rezin Bowie basked in the glory surrounding his brother James and the knife. He regularly wore a silver-mounted Bowie, which he eventually presented to a friend, usually an important individual. He had several knives made by Daniel Searles of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the 1830s. Rezin presented the Searles knife now displayed in the Alamo to H. W. Fowler, United States Dragoons. Fowler's name is engraved on the sheath.

Early Bowie knives do not fit the popular image of the weapon. One thinks of a blade with a concave arch (clip point) cut into the end of the blade, and a cross-guard to protect the hand. Early examples, however, had a thick, heavy butcher-knife-like blade, with a straight back (top) and no clip point or hand guard. The blade varied in length from 8½ to 12½ inches and was sharpened on the true edge. Wooden handles were attached with silver pins and washers. The Searles knives of the 1830s were one-piece ebony, checkered, and decorated with small silver nails. Blacksmiths fashioned most of the subsequent Bowie knives and added rudimentary crossguards to keep the hand from sliding onto the blade. Eventually, they lengthened the guards as protection from an opponent's blade, but the owner often found the extended guards clumsy and cut them off. The clip point, a curve on the top of the blade back of the point, became popular. The clip was often sharpened so that a backstroke would inflict a serious wound. Spear-point Bowie blades also were forged, dagger-shaped, with both edges sharpened. Blacksmith-made Bowies were generally plain and unsigned, had iron or brass mountings, and hardwood, bone, or horn handles. The knife was both a hunting knife and a tool. With it, one could clear a path, hack a sapling, dig a hole, or butcher game. In the siege of Bexar in 1835, Texans used Bowie knives to dig through roofs and walls and engage in hand-to-hand combat with the Mexicans. The knife was not designed or balanced for throwing.

Southerners replaced their swordcanes with Bowie knives, and sought expert cutlers, North and South, to craft fine blades. The cutlers usually were surgical and dental instrument makers in large cities. Most signed their works; Peter Rose and John D. Chevalier were prominent in New York, English & Huber and Clarenbach & Herder in Philadelphia, Reinhardt in Baltimore, Thomas Lamb in Washington, Dufilho in New Orleans, Alfred Hunter in Newark, Marks and Rees in Cincinnati, Daniel Searles in Baton Rouge, and Rees Fitzpatrick in Natchez. Henry Schively also made improved versions in various styles. English cutlers in Sheffield, who had dominated the American cutlery market since colonial times, took advantage of the fascination with the Bowie knife. They capitalized on vivid reports by English journalists of murder and mayhem in America involving the weapon. A trickle of Sheffield Bowie knives in the early 1830s developed into a flood before the Civil War. Bowie knife collections indicate that only about one in ten was American made. English cutlers applied clever motifs and blade etchings that appealed to American tastes and patriotic spirit. Examples include such labels as "American Bowie Knife," "Texas Ranger Knife," "Arkansas Toothpick," "Patriot's Self Defender," "Death to Abolition," "Death to Traitors," "Americans Never Surrender," "Rio Grande Camp Knife," and "I'm A Real Ripper." Handle and guard mountings also carried symbols and slogans with American appeal. Cutlers attached handles of ivory, pearl, tortoise shell, black and gray buffalo horn, India stag horn, and fine woods. Handle pommels of nickel silver featured horseheads, shells, and geometric designs. Manufacturers generally signed their blades and added such distinctive trademarks as I*XL, B4ANY, and XCEED. At the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846, the Bowie knife was a popular weapon in Texas. Texas Rangersqv under Jack (John Coffee) Hayes and Ben McCullochqqv carried Bowie knives and Colt Dragoon pistols into battle. Knife blades stamped and etched with Mexican War motifs appeared. Zachary Taylor, mounted on Old Whitey, was a favorite subject. Bust etchings included "Old Zach," "General Taylor Never Surrenders," "Palo Alto," and "Buena Vista." Pommels featured a Taylor bust with a patriotic slogan.

In the late 1830s an alarmed public in several Southern states demanded stringent laws to curtail the increasing "rule of the Bowie knife." In January 1838 the Tennessee legislature passed "An Act to Suppress the Sale and Use of Bowie Knives and Arkansas Toothpicks in this State." However, the sale of the knives continued to accelerate, reaching a peak after the Civil War. During that war, crude Bowie knives were popular among Confederate soldiers. Some had large, wide blades, like those of artillery shortswords; most were unmarked. The Confederates considered the knife an essential accoutrement in the early months of the war, but as the conflict wore on the knife was replaced with the bayonet. The knives had hickory or hardwood handles and iron mounts, and were worn in heavy leather sheaths with throats and tips of tin, iron, or brass. Blades had scratch engravings and crude acid etchings, with such patriotic motifs as "Sunny South," "Confederate States Defender," or "Death to Yankees." A few Confederate Bowie knives were made by experienced cutlers and exhibited excellent workmanship. Union soldiers generally wore Sheffield-made Bowie knives.

"In the history of American arms," wrote historian Harold L. Peterson (1958), "three weapons stand out above all the rest: the Kentucky rifle, the Colt's revolver, and the Bowie knife." Each became a part of the "great American Legend." The popularity of the Bowie was established in the 1830s, expanded during the 1840s, and reached its peak in the 1850s. After the Civil War the knife diminished in favor, and by the mid-1870s was relegated to use as a hunting knife. The efficiency, reliability, and wide distribution of Colt revolvers retired the Bowie knife from its prominent role in the nation's history.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Avoyelles Parish Courthouse Records, Marksville, Louisiana. James L. Batson, James Bowie and the Sandbar Fight (Madison, Alabama: Batson Engineering and Metalworks, 1992). Walter W. Bowie, The Bowies and Their Kindred: A Genealogical and Biographical History (Washington: Cromwell Brothers, 1899). Harold Leslie Peterson, American Knives: The First History and Collectors' Guide (New York: Scribner, 1958). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. William R. Williamson, Bowie Knife, Dirk and Dagger: Articles (1979).

William R. Williamson

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

William R. Williamson, "BOWIE KNIFE," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/lnb01), accessed August 27, 2014. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.