You've gotta love a guy who would title a book Christmas and the Bowie Knife. It is a 65-page collection of short articles and is available here.
Its author, J. Frank Dobie (1888-1964), was a Texas writer, journalist, and folklorist who wrote many articles about James Bowie. He retold the Bowie legends in a number of newspaper articles, but also published more scholarly examinations of the Texas hero in historical society journals. The following article was published in the Southwest Review in 1931:
BOWIE AND THE BOWIE KNIFEThere's an entry on J. Frank Dobie at Wikipedia. Interestingly, he identified himself as a liberal Democrat, which might not be apparent from his writing.
By J. Frank Dobie
A "cutting scrape" nowadays is apt to connote Negroes with a razor, Mexicans with any sort of knife settling "their jealousies over some señorita at a fandango," or Italians in a back-alley dive. The glory of the "knife men" wearing proudly their ivory-handled Bowies in embroidered sheaths has indeed faded. Nevertheless in the traditional tales of the frontier tales yet to be heard all over the Southwest, Bowie's knife has become nothing less than the American counterpart of King Arthur's "Excalibur" or of Sigmund's great sword "Gram," forged with runic rhymes by the dwarf smiths of the old Norse gods. And its origin is wrapped in multiplied legends as conflicting and fantastic as those that glorify the master weapons of the Old World.
On the bloody grounds of Kentucky, in the mountains of Tennessee, and all down the Mississippi Valley the frontiersman's knife was used with deadly effect for years before the Bowie men of history came on the scene, in the 'twenties and 'thirties of the last century; but it was one or more of the Bowie men who gave it a name and a final form and brought its vogue to a climax. The fame of the Bowie knife is forever interwoven with that of the Bowie men.
Of all the characters connected with pioneer history in the Southwest, James Bowie comes nearer being unadulterated legend than any other. He did nothing really great or constructive; yet his name has probably been more widely popularized than that of the truly great and constructive founder of the Texas Republic, Stephen F. Austin. He affected the destiny of the nation little, if at all, and merely a scrap of his paper survives; yet the stories that sprang up about him are second in number only to those about the voluble and spectacular Sam Houston. He is remembered popularly for three things: first, his brave death in the Alamo, fighting for Texan independence; second, his supposed connection with a lost Spanish mine on the San Saba River that came to bear Bowie's name and that today, after thousands of men over a period close to a hundred years have vainly sought to find it, is yet the object of ardent search; third, the knife that bears his name--and that to many people symbolizes his character.
All three of these claims to remembrance are wrapped legend. The traditional tales, some of them truly extraordinary, centering around the Lost Bowie Mine would, if compiled, fill a volume. History is clear as to Bowie's part in the Alamo, but the best stories about him there do not get into documented histories. Nor do the tales of how he succored abused slaves, took the part of bullied preachers, and rescued wronged women. But our subject is the Bowie knife.
The known facts about James Bowie's early life are that he was born in Tennessee in 1795, two years later than his distinguished brother, Rezin P. Bowie, and that in 1802 he came with his parents and their numerous progeny to Louisiana. The name Bowie at that time was already more than a century old in Maryland and had been known two generations in Virginia and South Carolina, the several branches of the family having shot out from a stout clan of Scottish Highlanders. The male members of it--hard riding, hard-headed, well propertied, decently educated, contentious in politics, and ready to die in adherence to the code of the Cavaliers--generally deserved the epithet given to them, "the fighting Bowies".
The pair that whelped James were equal to holding their own in a wilderness where turbulent men were made more turbulent by the confusion of land claims following the Louisiana Purchase. On one occasion, relates the historian of the Bowie family, Rezin Bowie, Sr., father of James, in defending his land against a gang of squatters killed one of them. He was arrested, charged with manslaughter, and put in jail to await trial. Mrs. Bowie, accompanied by a slave, rode on horseback to the jail, demanded entrance, and entered. In a few minutes she and her husband reappeared, each armed with a brace of pistols. While the jailer retreated, they mounted the horses in waiting and rode away. It is not recorded that Rezin Bowie was again molested. Years later when this wife and mother was told how her son had been killed by Mexicans in the Alamo, she calmly remarked, "I'll wager no wounds were found in his back."
In time James Bowie and his brother Rezin P. came to own and operate a great sugar plantation on Bayou Lafourche called Arcadia. Meantime John J., a third brother, had moved to Arkansas and established a large plantation that he proudly named "Bowie." The times and the territory carved out of the Louisiana Purchase were conductive to the wildest speculation and the most glaring frauds in land. There is evidence that James Bowie, in partnership with John, sold "honest but ignorant" settlers in Arkansas land titles that, despite claims of Spanish origin, were held by the Federal courts to be fraudulent.
Whatever his activities in land may have been, Jim Bowie was a man of surpassing vigor, of headlong energy, and of great ambition to lead. He was six feet tall and all muscle. He roped and rode giant alligators for fun. Generally polite and courteous, in anger he appeared "like an enraged tiger." He was somehow connected with Doctor Long's filibustering schemes against Mexico, and with one or more of his brothers he seems to have carried on an extensive business in slave smuggling. The Bowies are said to have bought blacks from the pirate Lafitte on Galveston Island at a dollar a pound. On one occasion, says the historian Thrall, Jim Bowie while driving ninety of his purchases through the swamps of Louisiana lost the entire band. Thereafter he prepared himself against a similar disaster by wearing "three or four knives" so that he could transfix any nigger that tried to run away. Jerking a knife was quicker by far than reloading a horse pistol at the muzzle. "Big Jim," as they called him, showed the "knife men" among Lafitte's crew several things in the art of knife throwing.
And this brings us to our theme--a theme concerning which history must stand abashed before the riot of legend. Who made the first Bowie knife? How did it originate?
According to an unpublished letter, dated 1890 and preserved among the historical archives of the University of Texas, from John S. Moore, grandnephew of James Bowie, the original knife was modeled as a hunting knife by Rezin Bowie, Sr., and wrought by his own blacksmith, Jesse Cliffe. Some time later Jim Bowie had a "difficulty" with one Major Morris Wright, in which a bullet from Wright's pistol was checked by a silver dollar in Bowie's vest pocket. While Wright was in the act of shooting, Bowie "pulled down" on him, but his pistol snapped and the two foes parted expecting to meet another day. When Jim told his father of the trouble and of how his pistol had snapped, the old gentleman got out his prized hunting knife and presented it to his son with these laconic words: "This will never snap."
In the "Sandbar Duel," as it is called, that followed, the knife fully realized all expectations. This duel was in reality a free-for-all fight that took place among twelve men who met on a sandbar of the Mississippi River near Natchez, September 19, 1827. In it two men were killed and three badly wounded. Bowie was down, shot in four places and cut in five, when his mortal enemy, Major Wright, rushed upon him, exclaiming, "Damn you, you have killed me." Bowie raised himself up and stabbed Wright to the heart. At once Bowie's knife became famous and copies of it were widely disseminated.
According to notes kept by another scion of the Bowie family, Dr. J. Moore Soniat du Fosset, of New Orleans, now deceased, it was Rezin P. Bowie, the brother of James, who devised the knife. The occasion for it arose thus:
The Bowie brothers were very fond of riding wild cattle down--a sport popular among planters of Louisiana at the time. There were two ways of dealing with the maverick animals. One was to shoot them from horseback as sportsmen on the plains shot buffaloes; the other was to ride against them and stab, them with a large couteau de chasse [hunting knife]. Sometimes the cattle were lassoed and then stabbed. The chase with knife and lasso was wilder and more exciting than the chase with pistol or rifle. Hence the Bowies preferred it.
One day while Rezin P. was thrusting his knife into a ferocious bull, the animal lunged in such a way as to draw the blade through the hunter's hand, making a severe wound.
After having his hand dressed, Rezin called the plantation blacksmith, Jesse Cliffe, and told him that he must make a knife that would not slip from a man's grasp. Using a pencil in his left hand, he awkwardly traced on paper a blade some ten inches long and two inches broad at its widest part, the handle to be strong and well protected from the blade by guards. The model having been settled upon, Rezin gave the smith a large file of the best quality of steel and told him to make the knife out of that. With fire and hammer the smith wrought the weapon--just one. It proved to be so serviceable in hunting and Rezin came to prize it so highly that for a long time he kept it, when he was not wearing it, locked in his desk.
Then one day, Dr. Soniat du Fosset's account goes on, Jim Bowie told his brother how his life had been jeopardized by the snapping of a pistol while it was pointed at a man firing on him. After hearing the story and learning how the final reckoning between the enemies was yet to be made, Rezin unlocked the desk, took out his prized personal possession, and handed it to his brother with these words: "Here, Jim, take 'Old Bowie'. She never misses fire."
Another story has it that in preparation for the "Sandbar Duel" Jim Bowie himself took a fourteen-inch file to a cutler in New Orleans known as Pedro. Pedro had learned his trade in Toledo, where the finest swords in all Spain were forged; and all his skill went into the making of a blade which was to be, in Bowie's words, "fit to fight for a man's life with." Yet another story avers that while recovering from wounds sustained in the famous fight Jim Bowie whittled from soft wood a pattern of the knife that was to make his own name historic, and had a blacksmith named Lovel Snowden fashion the weapon.
When in doubt go to the encyclopedia. This is what the Encyclopedia Americana (1928) sets forth: "Colonel James Bowie is said to have had his sword broken down to within about twenty inches of the hilt in a fight with some Mexicans, but he found that he did such good execution with his broken blade that he equipped all his followers with a similar weapon"--the Bowie knife.
But let us not be too rash in drawing conclusions. Arkansas has yet to be heard from, and Arkansas has better right to speak on the subject than any encyclopedia. The Bowie knife used to be commonly known as the "Arkansas toothpick," and Arkansas is sometimes yet referred to as "the Toothpick State." Arkansans certainly knew their toothpicks. The very spring that Bowie died in the Alamo, Arkansas became a state, and, fittingly enough, history records that the members of the first legislature used, after adjournment in the cool of the evening, to take their knives and pistols and repair to a grove hard by, there to practice throwing and shooting at the trees.
Some members of the legislature were in fine practice. The speaker of the house was John Wilson, sometimes known as "Horse Ears," from the fact that when he was excited, whether by love, humor, or anger, his ears worked up and down like those of an aroused horse. One of his political enemies in the house was Major J. J. Anthony. When a bill relating to bounties on wolf scalps came up, Anthony arose and in the course of his remarks made a cutting allusion to Speaker Wilson.
With ears working and quivering "in a horrific manner," Wilson leaped from his chair, at the same time drawing a Bowie knife and started towards his antagonist. Alfred W. Arrington, the author of a very scarce and lurid item entitled The Lives and Adventures of the Desperadoes of the Southwest, describes the blade of this particular Arkansas toothpick as being engraved on one side with a coiled rattlesnake about to strike and on the other with a bear hugging a man to death while the man fiercely gouged at its heart with a Bowie knife.
Anthony was waiting for Horse Ears with his own knife drawn. A legislator thrust a chair between them. Each seized a rung in his left hand and went to slashing with his right. Anthony cut one of Wilson's hands severely and in the scuffle lost his knife. Wilson came on and literally disemboweled his enemy. He fell on the floor beside the dead man. However, he quickly recovered, was in court triumphantly cleared of the charge of murder, and at a meeting of the legislature a few years later drew his Bowie on another member. Those were the days when the Bowie knife governed in Arkansas.
So it is not without reason and just basis for pride that Arkansas insists on having originated the Bowie knife. It has already been said that John J. Bowie established a plantation in that state. A former Arkansas judge, William F. Pope, maintains in his Early Days in Arkansas (1895) that Rezin P. Bowie once came to Washington, Arkansas, and engaged an expert smith named Black to make a hunting knife after a pattern that he, Bowie, had whittled out of the top of a cigar box. "He told the smith that he wanted a knife that would disjoint the bones of a bear or deer without gapping or turning the edge of the blade. Black undertook the job and turned out the implement afterwards known as the Bowie knife. The hilt was elaborately ornamented with silver designs. Black's charge for the work was ten dollars, but Bowie was so pleased with it that he gave the maker ten dollars [more].
"I do not hesitate to make the statement," concludes Judge Pope, "that no genuine Bowie knives have ever been made outside the state of Arkansas. . . . Many imitations have been attempted, but they are not Bowie knives."
Despite such strong assertions, it would appear that Judge Pope based his judgment on a false premise. The classic Arkansas story comes from Dan W. Jones, governor of Arkansas from 1897 to 190 1. The manuscript containing it lay long unpublished but finally saw the light in the Arkansas Gazette, November 20, 1919, and has since been several times reprinted.
According to Governor Jones, the James Black who alone made the only "genuine" Bowie knife also designed it. Black was born in New Jersey, May 1, 1800, and, after having served as apprentice to a Philadelphia silver-plate manufacturer, came south in 1818, settling that year at Washington, Hempstead County, Arkansas.
Here he found employment with Shaw, the village blacksmith. Shaw was an important man and he had ambitions for his daughters. Consequently, when Anne fell in love with the young smith, only a hired hand, Shaw objected. The young people married nevertheless, and James Black set up a smithy of his own.
He specialized in making knives, and very soon they had won a reputation. "It was his rule," to quote the Governor Jones narrative, "after shaping and tempering a knife, and before polishing it, to cut very hard wood with it, generally an old hickory axe-handle which had been used for a long time and had become quite tough and hard. This he would do f or half an hour, and then if the knife would not easily shave the hair from his arm, he would throw it away. . . .
"About 1831 James Bowie came to Washington and gave Black an order for a knife, furnishing a pattern and desiring it to be made within the next sixty or ninety days, at the end of which time he would call for it. Black made the knife according to Bowie's pattern. He knew Bowie well and had a high regard for him as a man of good taste as well as of unflinching courage. He had never made a knife that suited his own taste in point of shape, and he concluded that this would be a good opportunity to make one. Consequently, after completing the knife ordered by Bowie, he made another. When Bowie returned, he showed both the knives to him, giving him his choice at the same price. Bowie promptly selected Black's pattern.
"Shortly after this Bowie became involved in a difficulty with three desperadoes, who assaulted him with knives. He killed them all with the knife Black had made. After this whenever anyone ordered a knife from Black, he ordered it made 'like Bowie's', which finally was shortened into 'Make me a Bowie knife.' Thus this famous weapon acquired its name. . . .
"Other men made knives in those days, and they are still being made, but no one has ever made 'the Bowie knife' except James Black. Its chiefest value was in its temper. Black undoubtedly possessed the Damascus secret. It came to him mysteriously and it died with him in the same way. . . . He often told me that no one had taught him the secret and that it was impossible for him to tell how he acquired it. Large offers were made him for the secret, but he refused them all. He was stealthily watched, in order that his process might be discovered, but his reputation for courage was such that no one approached him too closely after having been warned to desist."
The death of the secret is a part of the story. About 1838 Black's wife died. Not long thereafter Black himself was confined to his bed by a fever. While he was down, his father-in-law, who had all along been jealous of Black's growing reputation, came into him and beat him over the head with a stick. Probably he would have killed him had not Black's dog seized Shaw by the throat. As it was, inflammation set up in Black's eyes and he was threatened with blindness. As soon as he had strength enough to travel, he set out for expert treatment. A quack doctor in Cincinnati made him stone blind. He returned to Arkansas to find his little property gone and himself an object of charity. A Doctor Jones, father of the future Governor Jones, gave him a home. When Doctor Jones died, the blind man went to live with the son.
"Time and again," recalls Governor Jones, "when I was a boy, he said to me that notwithstanding his great misfortune, God had blessed him in a rare manner by giving him such a good home and that he would repay it all by disclosing to me his secret of tempering steel when I should arrive at maturity and be able to utilize it to my own advantage.
"On the first day of May, 1870, his seventieth birthday, he said to me that he was getting old and could not in the ordinary course of nature expect to live a great while longer; that I was now thirty years old, with a wife and growing family, and sufficiently acquainted with the affairs of the world to utilize properly the secret which he had so often promised to give me; and that, if I would get pen, ink, and paper, he would communicate it to me and I could write it down.
“I brought the writing material and told him I was ready. He said, 'In the first place'--and then stopped suddenly and commenced rubbing his brow with the fingers of his right hand. He continued this for some minutes, and then said, 'Go away and come back again in an hour.'
"I went out of the room, but remained where I could see him, and not for one moment did he take his fingers from his brow or change his position. At the expiration of the hour I went into the room and spoke to him. Without changing his position or movement, he said, 'Go out again and come back in another hour.' I went out and watched for another hour, his conduct remaining the same.
"Upon my speaking to him at the expiration of the second hour, he again said, 'Go out once more and come back in another hour.' Again 1 went out and watched. The old man sat there,
His frame sunken, immobile, his only movement the constant rubbing of his brow with the fingers of his right hand.
"When I came in and spoke to him at the expiration of the third hour, he burst into a flood of tears and said: 'My God, my God, it has all gone from me! All these years I have accepted the kindness of these good people in the belief that I could repay it all with this legacy, and now when 1 attempt to do it, I cannot. Daniel, there were ten or twelve processes through which 1 put the knives, but I cannot remember one of them. When I told you to get pen, ink, and paper, they were all fresh in my mind, but they are all gone now. My God, my God, 1 have put it off too long!'
"I looked at him in awe and wonder. The skin from his forehead had been completely rubbed away by his fingers. His sightless eyes were filled with tears, and his whole face was the very picture of grief and despair. . . .
"For a little more than two years longer he lived on, but he was ever after an imbecile. He lies buried in the old graveyard at Washington, and with him lies buried the wonderful secret of the genuine Bowie-knife steel."
Texas, too, has asserted her claim to being the place where Bowie originated the knife. There are other stories-many of them. However they may contradict each other, the preponderance of evidence goes to show that the knife used by Jim Bowie in the "Sandbar Duel" of 1827 set the fashion for Bowie knives. It was duplicated in many places-by solitary smiths over a vast pioneer country, by a factory in Sheffield, England. It was improved upon and elaborated upon, and until the six-shooter supplanted it, it was the chief weapon employed to settle personal difficulties over a vast territory of the South and West where pioneer conditions obtained. (The knife that the "Mountain Men" of the Northwest relied most upon was, from a trademark, known as the Green River knife.)
The exact proportions of the original Bowie knife will probably never be known, though the blade was undoubtedly about ten inches long. The ideal Bowie knife was forged from the best steel procurable. It was differentiated from other knives by having more curve to the blade, near the point, by having a heavier handle--often of horn--and by having handle, blade, and guards all so well balanced that the knife could be cast a maximum distance with the most deadly effect.
It was the rule to "use a knife and save powder and lead." The Bowie knife was the best possible knife to use, and knife throwing and thrusting were arts to be excelled in as well as shooting and wrestling. Indeed, many frontiersmen regarded any other weapon than the knife, for work in close quarters, as "fit only for the weakly." Bowie himself, it is claimed, could juggle a number of knives in the air at the same time and at twenty paces send one through a small target of thick wood.
The handiness of the Bowie knife and the skill of the frontiersman in its use are well illustrated by an incident taken from the memories of a Texas Ranger named Maltby. After a raid by Kiowa Indians, Maltby and his men rushed to a well known crossing on the San Saba River, hoping there to waylay the marauders. By the time they struck camp they had been two or three days with almost nothing to eat, for a gun could riot be fired at game without risk of alarming the expected Indians. At dark Maltby took one man with him and, leaving the other rangers to guard the crossing, went up the trail a short distance to keep watch.
The two men sat down under a live-oak tree three or four feet from the trail. About midnight they saw an object approaching. Presently it revealed itself to be a buck deer. Noiselessly Maltby drew his Bowie, cautiously raised himself up against the trunk of the tree, and threw the knife. The deer gave but one leap before falling dead, its heart pierced. The surprise of the men in camp next morning when they saw dressed venison for breakfast was equalled only by their appetites. Noiselessness in operation often gave the knife a value appreciated as highly as its not "snapping".
For dozens of purposes the Bowie knife was "as handy as a shirt pocket." The hard bone or horn handle of it was often used as a kind of pestle to grind coffee beans, the blade, sometimes as heavy as a Mexican machete, served to hack limbs from trees and to cut underbrush as well as to dress and skin game. An Englishman named Hooten who visited Texas in 1841 and straightway wrote a book had much to say about this striking phenomenon of the frontier. A blow from a well wielded knife, he recorded, "is sufficient to break a man's arm. . . . I have myself seen skulls of unburied Mexicans brought in from the battle-ground of San Jacinto that were cleft nearly through the thickest part of the bone behind, evidently at one blow, and with sufficient force to throw out extensive cracks, like those of starred glass."
How many men Bowie killed with the blade that saved his life on the Mississippi sandbar we do not know. Rezin P. Bowie flatly affirmed that the knife was never used more than the once for other than hunting purposes. Maybe Bowie used at other times an improved model, though, as we shall see, he was passionately devoted to "Old Bowie." Estimates of the number he stabbed--exclusive of his work in the Alamo--vary from sixteen to nineteen. In the absence of authentic history the rule for readers and writers alike to follow in considering killers is to choose the most interesting number. (See accounts of Billy the Kid and Wild Bill Hickok.) It is significant that Rezin was careful to make a distinction between a "difficulty" and a "duel"; consequently his flat assertion that neither he nor James "ever had a duel with any person whatsoever" is to be taken technically.
The technically trained judge Pope, already quoted from, overruled, we might say, Rezin's definition--or assertion. "Several months ago," he records, "I met a descendant of the Bowies who informed me that his great-uncle James once fought a desperate duel with a Mexican with knives, the combatants, face to face and within mutual striking distance, sitting on a log to which the stout leather breeches each wore were securely nailed." The historian of the Bowie family inserts the tale that on one occasion James and a neighboring Spanish planter, having become "involved in a difficulty, decided to fight it out with knife and dagger." The Spaniard, of course, was the man who chose the dagger. The left hands of the two opponents were lashed securely together. The duel was brief. "As the Spaniard drew his arm back to strike, Bowie thrust forward and drove his awful knife through his antagonist's body; then, coolly cutting the cords that held them, he allowed the corpse of his adversary to sink to the ground."
Bowie was as gallant as he was gory. One time, so another yarn goes, he met in Natchez Under-the-Hill a young man named Lattimore whom he recognized as the son of a much esteemed friend. Young Lattimore had sold a large amount of cotton and in a faro game was being cheated by "Bloody Sturdivant," a notorious gambler.
"Young man," said Bowie, "you don't know me, but your father does. Here, let me take your hand."
In a short time Bowie exposed the cheat. Then he won back the money Lattimore had lost and gave it to him with the advice to gamble no more. "Bloody Sturdivant," meantime, ignorant of who his opponent was, had become so incensed that he challenged Bowie to a duel, proposing that they lash their left hands together and fight with knives. Bowie accepted, at the first stroke disabled the right arm of his antagonist, and then forebore to take his life.
Duels of this character, between men lashed together, were not exactly everyday affairs, but the fact that they occurred at all bespeaks the spirit of the times-and the popularity of the Bowie knife. In the region of Texas below San Antonio they were called "Helena duels," from the fact that the town of Helena fostered them rather frequently. Sometimes they were known as "Mexican fights."
More dramatic perhaps, and certainly as chilling to the imagination, was another form of duel that Bowie is said to have inaugurated. He was challenged, so the story goes, and had the privilege of arranging the combat. He stipulated that the fight should take place at night in a dark room into which the combatants, stripped to the waist, barefooted--so that sound would not reveal movement--and armed with Bowie knives, were to be locked.
In the dead of night they were accompanied to the appointed room, in a deserted house. They entered. The door was locked. The seconds outside listened for long minutes without hearing a sound. Then they heard a scuffle, accompanied by a click of steel, a moan, and a voice crying, "Come in." By the light of a lantern Bowie was seen standing in a pool of blood, the other man dead.
Two testimonials have come down regarding Bowie's attitude towards the knife that bears his name.
In 1828, the year after the "Sandbar Duel," Noah Smithwick was a blacksmith in San Felipe de Austin on the Brazos River when James Bowie came along with his knife.
"The blood-christened weapon," says Smithwick, "was an ordinary affair with a plain wooden handle, but when Bowie recovered from his wounds, he had the precious blade polished and set into an ivory handle mounted with silver; the scabbard also being mounted. Not wishing to degrade it by ordinary use, he brought the knife to me at San Felipe to have a duplicate made. The blade was about ten inches long and two broad at the widest part. When it became known that I was making a genuine Bowie knife, there was a great demand for them; so I cut a pattern and started a factory, my jobs bringing all the way from five to twenty dollars, according to finish."
The other testimonial is from David Crockett's rollicky Adventures in Texas, probably written by someone other than Crockett:
"I found Colonel Bowie, of Louisiana," Crockett is made to say, "in the fortress [of the Alamo], a man celebrated for having been in more desperate personal conflicts than any other in the country, and whose name has been given to a knife of peculiar construction now in general use in the Southwest. I was introduced to him by Colonel Travis, and he gave me a friendly welcome, and appeared to be mightily pleased that I had arrived safe. While we were conversing, he had occasion to draw his famous knife to cut a strap, and I wish I may be shot if the bare sight of it wasn't enough to give a man of squeamish stomach the colic, specially before breakfast. He saw I was admiring it, and said he, 'Colonel, you might tickle a fellow's ribs a long time with this little instrument before you'd make him laugh; and many a time have I seen a man puke at the idea of the point touching the pit of his stomach.' "
So Bowie still had his knife at the Alamo, then--at least a Bowie knife. Dallas T. Herndon, Arkansas historian, says that he died in the Alamo "with the knife made by James Black clasped in his hand." Others have said that around Bowie's cot--for he was ill--was a heap of Mexicans whose ribs had been tickled by the knife. Among the relics in the Alamo itself at present is a not very formidable specimen of cutlery that some man by the name of Bowie donated a few years ago as the original Bowie knife. The Witte Museum, in San Antonio, has another knife that is supposed to have been owned by Bowie and presented by him to a friend. (Bowie seems to have been fond of making presents of the knife, very much as an author presents his own books.) One tradition is that Bowie gave the original knife to the great actor Forrest. No doubt Bowie admired actors. Another report has it that one of the Louisiana descendants of Rezin P. Bowie lost the original knife in a boggy river some forty years ago.
Old Cephas K. Ham, who went with the Bowie expedition in quest of the lost Spanish mine on the San Saba and was with the expedition in the astounding fight against a band of Indians that outnumbered them sixteen to one, used to tell how Bowie after having worn his precious knife for years finally left it on the ground, near the Goliad road, where he had butchered a deer. He was miles away before he missed it, but he rode back to get it, only to find it gone. "He supposed a wolf had found it and packed it off on account of the blood upon it."
Happily, Bowie died before the knife that bears his name was supplanted by the six-shooter. It is generally said that Captain Jack Hays of the Texas Rangers, at the battle of the Perdanales with Comanche Indians, about 1842, first fully demonstrated the superiority of the Colt's revolver over all other weapons in close combat. It was about this time that Robert M. Williamson, better known as "Three Legged Willie," a lawyer and one of the most singular characters among the highly individualized men of Austin's colonies, made a gesture that signified the waning dominance of the Bowie knife in the Southwest.
The President of the Republic of Texas commissioned Judge Williamson to go to a certain county and there hold a term of court. No court had been held in the county for years; the citizens were principally engaged in feuds and wanted no legal meddling. Just before court was to be convened, a mass meeting of the feudists adopted a resolution declaring that no court should be held. When "Three Legged Willie" took his seat on the bench, a lawyer who had been selected to set forth the resolution arose and read it aloud. The courtroom was crowded with armed men. After the lawyer had concluded and taken his seat, the judge asked him if he could cite any statute to warrant the adjournment of court for any such reasons as he had set forth. Coolly enough, the lawyer again arose, pulled out his long Bowie knife, laid it on the table, and said: "This is the statute that governs in such cases."
At this the fiery Williamson leaped from his chair, drew one of the new Colt's revolvers, pointed it at the lawyer, and roared: "And this is the constitution that overrides the statute. Open court, Mr. Sheriff, and call the witnesses in the first case."
Whether they be literally true or largely the product of imagination--and many of them must be fabrications--the tales that have come down regarding the origin of the Bowie knife and of its use by Bowie and other frontiersmen reflect, in a phrase from Henry Adams, "what society liked to see enacted on its theater of life." Indeed, they reflect not only what society "liked to see enacted" but what was enacted. As truly as documented history, they reveal a time and a people.