Almost every individual in America, more particularly in the Southern States, carries some deadly instrument, or weapon about his person. The stiletto, the dirk, or the bowie knife; some, perhaps, for the murderous and secret purpose of assassination; whilst many no doubt are compelled to adopt this usage . . . as their best and almost only defence from personal injury and violation.In 1840, a British visitor to Texas, Captain Hamilton, had these observations:
Many murders were committed in the Island of Galveston and in the Country during my stay on the Coast, and I could never learn that one offender was brought to justice. It is considered unsafe to walk through the Streets of the principal towns without being armed. The Bowie Knife is the weapon most in vogue . . .A phrenologist who visited Mississippi in 1840 made far more conservative estimate as to the percentage of men armed with the bowie knife:
About one in forty of all the western people go thus armed. A law recently enacted, renders it criminal to draw a Bowie-knife, although it be not used.This is nearly the reverse of the estimate offered by the English traveler Edward Robert Sullivan:
There is hardly one man out of fifty from St. Louis right down south, that does not always carry a bowie-knife or a revolver.In 1846, English traveler George Warburton wrote:
The custom of carrying the bowie knife is universal in these southern States; even boys at school are not exceptions, and they not unfrequently have been known to use it for the settlement of their disputes.Accounts by English visitors cannot be entirely trusted. They wrote for an audience that was fascinated by the violence and coarseness of the American South and West, and it's hard to believe some of these stories were not exaggerated for effect.
We do know that immigrant parties heading West were well-armed---often to every man, woman, and boy. Frank King, who described his family's trip West in Wranglin' the Past, wrote:
Our men were well-armed for those days. Father, Mr. Horn, and the man Richardson carried the long rim-fire 16-shot Henry rifles. Uncle Bud, James, and the “Dutchman” (that’s the only name I ever heard him called) were equipped with 50-caliber needle guns. All carried Bowie knives, and all wore 44-caliber cap-and-ball Colt six-shooters. Mother always had a big number ten muzzle-loading shotgun by her, well crammed with buckshot. Father gave me a Remington 38-caliber five-shooter pistol and a dirk knife.He told me, if we ever got into it, to die fighting like the rest intended doing. He said the men would look after the women and little girls. They had no intention of permitting any hostiles to capture the women and children alive.
In 1865, King's uncle Jack King fought with Robert Carlisle in a hotel lobby in Los Angeles. King wrote, “before my uncle Jack King and Carlisle were separated that night, Carlisle had cut my uncle seriously with one of those Bowie knives most men carried in those days. . . “
A settler in Nebraska in 1866 wrote that, “Everybody, (even, of course, I) wears a revolver or so upon his person, usually in plain sight in a belt. I do not mean they do at their daily work, but no one thinks of going many miles in any direction without pistols, and often bowie knives.”
An account was published in 1870 once again suggested that nearly everyone was armed with either pistols, knives, or both:
Another custom which is queer enough at a proper distance is that of carrying arms. Such a thing is scarcely known in New England or the settled Northern States, but in some parts of the South and South-west it seemed to me that almost everybody carried some murderous weapon about with him.Describing the arms commonly carried in Tombstone during his sojourn there, from 1879 to 1882, Wyatt Earp said, "Bowie knives were worn largely for utility's sake in a belt sheath back of the hip; when I came on the scene their popularity for purposes of offense was on the wane."
So what percentage of men carried bowie knives? Hard to say. Certainly more men carried and used them in fights than one would imagine from western movies, in which they're almost never shown.