Who Invented the Bowie Knife?
by Robert F. Scott
About 1844 a short but eventful era of western history came to an end. In that year, Captain Jack Hays and part of a company of Texas Rangers, newly equipped with the Walker model of Samuel Colt's revolver, fully demonstrated the superiority of that weapon over all others for close combat. This history-making event occurred during the Battle of the Pedernales in what is now Kendall County, Texas, where the fifteen Texas Rangers stood off and severely defeated about seventy Comanche Indians. The rapid volleys from Hays and his men sounded the death knell of a weapon which until that time had been the favorite for infighting and a part of the regular equipment of frontiersmen and backwoodsmen from the Mississippi to California. That weapon was the Bowie knife and its many imitations and modifications.
The question of the identity of the originator of the first Bowie knife has been around for many years. Today the answer can be only that no one really knows who made the first of these famous weapons. At least a dozen different accounts have been accepted as true, depending on the author and the locality--for even the place of origin is difficult to fix--and the exact time when the first Bowie knife was made is anybody's guess. As a matter of fact, in dealing with the many stories that have come down through the years regarding the origin of the Bowie knife, it is impossible now to draw the line where history leaves off and legend begins.
However, all accounts--or legends, if you choose to call them that--are agreed on one point: Some member of the Bowie family had a hand in the design, manufacture (either purposeful or accidental), or use of the first blade. Like everything else connected with the Bowie knife, the history of the Bowie family itself is rather difficult to trace, even though the name was an old one in America even before the Revolution, with branches in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina. By all odds, the most colorful member of this family was James Bowie--soldier, lost-mine hunter, and fighter for Texan independence. Of all the characters connected with the history of the Southwest, James Bowie comes nearer to being a true folk hero than any other. His brave and tragic death in the Alamo only added to the legends already begun by the hair-raising tales of his fights with Indians, his duels to the death while lashed to his opponent, and his fondness for alligator-wrestling, to name but a few.
"Big Jim," as he was called, was born in Georgia, or in Kentucky, or in Tennessee--historians are not clear about the place. The date is variously given, as 1795, 1796, or 1799; some writers place it as late as 1805, but this date is inconsistent with the generally accepted statement that his parents moved to Louisiana in 1802, taking him with them. He was the son of Rezin Bowie and Alvina (or Elvira) Jones; again, the surname of his mother may be only a blundering attempt to write the name "Jane" on the early Spanish records in which it appears. He had four brothers--David, Rezin P. (also spelled Resin, and Reason), John J., and Stephen--whose names are among the certain facts of Bowie history which have come down to us. Relatively little is known about his early life. Tradition makes him a participant in a desperate encounter on the Vidalia Sandbar in the Mississippi River on September 19, 1827--the "Sandbar Duel"--in which, after being badly wounded, he killed his opponent with his now-famous knife. About 1828 he went to Texas, making his home in San Antonio and searching in the San Saba region for the lost mine that bears his name.
If numbers count for anything, then James Bowie may well have been responsible for the Bowie knife, for he figures in more different accounts of the origin of the first blade than any other member of the clan. One account with an early and wide circulation is that of the broken sword: James Bowie, while he was engaged in a fight with some Mexicans, it is said, broke off his sword some fifteen or twenty inches from the hilt. He found the broken blade so useful in hand-to-hand fighting that others rushed to imitate his weapon. This version was printed by Harper's Weekly at the time of the Civil War as the true story of the origin of the Bowie knife, a weapon that was again finding favor with Southern troops.
But there are still other accounts, in which James Bowie is given credit for devising the first blade rather than fortuitously contriving it. One has it that in preparation for the "Sandbar Duel," he took a fourteen-inch file to a cutler named Pedro, in New Orleans. It seems that Pedro had learned his trade in Toledo, the famous sword-making center in Spain. Another version tells that James Bowie whittled a pattern of the knife from soft wood--but after the "Sandbar Duel," while he was recovering from his wounds--and that a blacksmith named Lovel Snowden fashioned the weapon. Yet another story avers that James Bowie injured himself in an Indian fight by letting his hand slip from the hilt to the blade of his knife. Bowie afterward discussed the addition of a guard, with John Sowell, a blacksmith of Gonzales, Texas, who made the first weapon from a wooden model carved by Bowie, according to a descendant of Sowell.
Other members of the Bowie family are also given credit for the invention of this lethal weapon. According to John S. Moore, a grandnephew of James Bowie, the original blade was modeled as a hunting knife by Rezin Bowie, the father of James, and was wrought by his plantation blacksmith, Jesse Cliffe. Later, according to Moore, James Bowie met Major Norris Wright while riding, and Wright, in a very unneighborly manner, took a shot at Bowie, whose life was saved by the fortuitous presence of a silver dollar in his pocket. Bowie drew his own gun to return Wright's fire, but his flint was faulty and the gun "snapped." When his father, Rezin Bowie, heard of the incident, he gave his hunting knife to his son, telling him, "This will never snap."
But even the lineal descendants of the Bowie family are not agreed on the subject. Notes kept by another, Dr. J. Moore Soniat du Fosset of New Orleans, give credit for the design to James Bowie's brother, Rezin P. (for Pleasant or Pleasants) Bowie. This version has it that Rezin P. Bowie cut his hand on a knife while killing wild cattle and decided to design a knife that would not slip through his hand. He drew the design of the desired knife and gave it to the previously mentioned Jesse Cliffe, together with a file, from which Cliffe fashioned the knife. Apparently, the resulting weapon was highly prized by Rezin P. Bowie; but when James Bowie told his brother about the encounter with Wright and how the faulty pistol had prevented him from evening up the score, Rezin immediately presented his knife to his brother, with the advice: "Here, Jim, take 'Old Bowie.' She never misses fire."
If the stories of the "Sandbar Duel" that followed are to be believed, the knife fully lived up to its expectations. What started out as a duel between Dr. Thomas H. Maddox and Samuel Levi Wells became a free-for-all fight among about ten partisans of the duelists, in which two men were killed and three badly wounded. Bowie himself was shot in the arm and hip and stabbed in the chest. The same Major Wright had rushed up to Bowie in the course of the fight and stabbed him with his sword cane, saying, "Damn you, Bowie, you have killed me." Bowie made this statement completely accurate and final by disemboweling Wright. But if the version ascribing the invention of the knife to Bowie's father is correct, it must have occurred before 1819, the year of Rezin Bowie's death. The careful reader may point out that the "Sandbar Duel" did not take place until 1827, eight years after Rezin Bowie was dead, but history has no more business challenging legend than legend has challenging history. However, the evidence is certain that Bowie used a knife in the "Sandbar Duel"; but whether it was only a butcher knife or a true Bowie knife is unknown.
Rezin P. Bowie has received wide acceptance as the inventor of the Bowie knife; the chief evidence to support this is the word of Rezin P. Bowie himself, contained in a letter dated August 24, 1838, to the Planters' Advocate, a small weekly newspaper in French and English published in Donaldsonville, Louisiana. A series of articles by a New Orleans correspondent who signed himself "P. Q." had appeared in the Baltimore Commercial Transcript on June 9 and 11, 1838, and were subsequently copied by Alexander's Weekly Messenger, a Philadelphia newspaper. The articles claimed that the first knife had been made in Arkansas by Rezin P. Bowie, with the help of an itinerant blacksmith, and described the duels of the Bowie brothers in great detail. But the facts, according to Rezin P. Bowie's letter, were these: The first knife had been made by him in the parish of Avoyelles in Louisiana as nothing more than a hunting knife. In what may have been a reference to the "Sandbar Duel," Rezin P. Bowie stated that the knife was used by his brother only once after its manufacture--"in a chance medley or rough fight"--and then only after he had been shot and as a means of saving his life. He disclaimed any credit for the fine state of perfection the knife had since acquired in the hands of experienced cutlers and asserted that neither he nor his brother had ever had a duel with any person. It seems probable that Rezin P. Bowie was anxious to destroy the growing legend that his dead brother had been a bloodthirsty duelist. That he was unsuccessful can be concluded from the legends which remain current about Jim Bowie's prowess as a knife wielder.
For a long time the Bowie knife was also known as the "Arkansas toothpick"; and that state takes credit in some versions for a part in the manufacture of the first weapon. A former judge in Arkansas, William F. Pope, insists that Rezin P. Bowie carved a pattern of the first knife from the top of a cigar box and gave it to James Black, an early-day smith in Washington, Arkansas. Black's charge for making this knife was ten dollars, but Bowie was so pleased with the workmanship that he gave the smith a bonus of fifty dollars. In a burst of state patriotism, Judge Pope maintains that no genuine Bowie knives were ever made outside the State of Arkansas.
Another claimant, Daniel Webster Jones, governor of Arkansas from 1897 to 1901, concurs that Black had a hand in making the first Bowie knife, but insists that Black was also responsible for the design. His story is that Black, who had been a silversmith in Philadelphia, came to Washington, Arkansas, and set up a blacksmith shop there on the route of the Southwest (or Chihuahua) Trail to Texas, specializing in the making of knives. In 1830, James Bowie came to his shop and gave Black an order for a knife, furnishing the desired pattern. Black completed the knife according to Bowie's pattern and, because he had never made a knife that had really suited his own taste, he made another based on his idea of what a knife should be. When Bowie returned, Black showed both knives to him, offering him his choice at the same price. Bowie immediately selected Black's design. The fame and reliability of this knife soon spread, until people were telling Black, "Make me a knife like Bowie's." This eventually became, "Make me a Bowie knife."
Governor Jones claims that Black had worked out a process something like that used in making Damascus steel, and kept it a jealously guarded secret. After making and tempering a knife and before polishing it, Black would test it by carving on a tough old hickory axe-handle for half an hour. Then, if the knife would not easily shave the hair from his arm, he would discard it. After many years of knifemaking, Black grew old and blind and was treated by Dr. Isaac N. Jones, father of Governor Jones. In 1870, Black, then living with Jones, tried to impart the secret to him but discovered, to his consternation, that he could not remember a single one of the dozen processes through which he had put the knives.
Some of the blacksmiths scorned such prosaic tests as whittling hickory axe handles and instead drove their Bowie knives through silver dollars. Others rejected blades that did not quiver at the touch of a finger, or give off a bell-like, vibrating tone when plucked with a thumbnail. In Texas, the knife is sometimes attributed to Noah Smithwick, a pioneer blacksmith and gunsmith in the town of San Felipe on the Brazos River, although Smithwick said only that he had cut a pattern of the original knife carried by James Bowie and set up a factory to manufacture authentic copies of Bowie knives. The completed blades brought him from five to twenty dollars, depending upon the finish desired. Antiquarians in Pennsylvania have claimed that James Bowie himself hammered out the first model there when he visited the city of Philadelphia. In Natchez, Mississippi, it is said that the design was Rezin P. Bowle's, that a blacksmith's file furnished the crude steel for the first Bowie knife, and that the cutler was a Natchez craftsman.
Stories concerning the fate of the "original" Bowie knife are today almost as numerous as those describing the circumstances of its manufacture. One story is that Bowie left it on the ground after butchering a deer with it near the Goliad road, and that when he rode back to get it, it was gone. He decided that a wolf had found it and carried it away because of the scent of blood on it. Another tradition is that Bowie gave the original knife to the famous actor, Edwin Forrest, who used it in his presentation of the play, Metamora. And still another avers that a Louisiana descendant of Rezin P. Bowie lost the original knife in a bog many years ago. The stories of the fall of the Alamo usually include the information that James Bowie had the original knife with him there. The heap of dead Mexican attackers said to have been found around his cot (he was ill at the time of the attack) would seem to bear witness to the corpse-making qualities of the blade. A Bowie knife with a silver plate on the handle, bearing the name "Jim Bowie," was presented to a Texan by one Juan Padillo, said to have been a member of Lafitte's band of pirates. An "original" Bowie knife is among the relics on exhibition in the Alamo today, and the Witte Museum in San Antonio has another that is supposed to have been presented by Bowie to a friend.
A comparison of several descriptions indicates that the original knife had a superbly tempered blade, from ten to fifteen inches long, curved concavely along the back, and convexly along the edge near the point. It was about two inches across at its broadest part and was equipped with a wide guard and a man-sized hilt, the whole thing being so well balanced that it could be thrown with unerring accuracy, as well as wielded. The hilt was usually of wood, but in the more elaborate versions was often of inlaid horn or ivory. Whatever the original knife may have looked like, it was soon copied throughout the Southwest. About 1840, copies were being made in large quantities by a cutlery firm in Sheffield, England, exclusively for the Texas trade.
The Bowie knife was a weapon of many uses. The hunter and pioneer found it handy for skinning game, cutting up meat, eating, or fighting. The handle was ideal for hammering nails or pounding a bag of coffee beans. On the trail the knife was unexcelled for cutting firewood, blazing a trail, or even for hacking a path through the underbrush.
A Texas folklorist and historian, J. Frank Dobie, once attempted to unravel the many conflicting tales connected with the first Bowie knife and to separate the truth from the legend. He concluded, however, that "Bowie's knife has become nothing less than the American counterpart of King Arthur's 'Excalibur' or of Sigmund's great sword ‘Gram.’ Its origin is wrapped in multiplied legends as conflicting and fantastic as those that glorify the master weapons of the Old World." And so it seems destined to remain.
 Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Plains (Boston, Mass.: Ginn and Company, 1931), p. 174. Surprisingly enough, the exact date of this important battle has been the subject of speculation. Some writers place it as early as 1842, but Webb dates it as May 27, 1844, on the strength of the diary kept by Mrs. Mary A. Maverick of the pioneer Texas family, who recorded the visit of Captain Jack Hays to her home less than two weeks after the battle. For an account of the search for the lost Bowie mine, see: J. Frank Dobie, Coronado's Children (New York: The Literary Guild of America, 1931), pp. 1-61. "Concerning Fire-Arms," Harper's Weekly, Vol. V, No. 240, August 3, 1861, p. 495. As much space is devoted to a description of the Bowie knife as is given to siege artillery. J. Frank Dobie, "Bowie and the Bowie Knife," Southwest Review, XVI (193l), 355. Ibid., P. 356. Gid L. Sowell of Rosedale, Oklahoma, in Frontier, August, 1925, as quoted by W. J. Ghent in his article on James Bowie in the Dictionary of American Biography (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1929), II, 510. In an unpublished letter dated 1890 in the Archives of the University of Texas. Dobie, "Bowie and the Bowie Knife," op. cit., pp. 354-355. The number of participants range; from ten to fifty in various accounts. Descriptions of the duel purportedly written by spectators are spurious; there were no witnesses other than the actual participants. Dobie, "Bowie and the Bowie Knife," op. cit., p. 363, says that estimates of the number of men James Bowie killed with a knife vary from sixteen to nineteen. William F. Pope, Early Days in Arkansas (Little Rock, Arkansas: Frederick W. Allsopp, 1895), pp. 44-46. Judge Pope may have mistaken Rezin P. Bowie for James Bowie, for he describes the man for whom the knife was made, as follows: "There was then living at Walnut Hills, Lafayette county, a wealthy planter named Reason Bowie, who afterwards fell at the storming of the Alamo." Governor Jones's remarkable manuscript account of the design and manufacture of the first Bowie knife by James Black was long unpublished but was finally printed in the Centennial Edition of the Arkansas Gazette, Little Rock, November 20, 1919. It has since been reprinted several times. This origin of the name "Bowie knife" is also described in Dallas T. Herndon, The High Lights of Arkansas History (Little Rock: The Arkansas History Commission, 1922), p. 55. U. S. Works Progress Administration, Arkansas: A Guide to the State (New York: Hastings House, 1941), p. 217. Noah Smithwick, The Evolution of a State (Austin, Texas: The Gammell Book Company, 1900), pp. 136--137. Arkansas: A Guide, p. 217. U. S. Works Progress Administration, Mississippi: A Guide to the Magnolia State (New York: The Viking Press, 1938), p. 328. Dobie, "Bowie and the Bowie Knife," op. cit., pp. 366-367. American Notes and Queries, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Vol. 1, No. 5, June 2, 1888, pp. 49-50, citing Durand's History of the Philadelphia Stage. Metamora, a drama of Indian life by John H. Stone and starring Edwin Forrest, was first produced at the Park Theatre in New York on December 15, 1829. Dobie, "Bowie and the Bowie Knife," op. cit., p. 366. Dallas T. Herndon, Centennial History of Arkansas (Chicago and Little Rock: The S. J. Clarke
Publishing Company, 192 2), I, 985. American Notes and Queries, Vol. II, No. 21, March 23, 1889, p. 251, reprinting a clipping from the Honey Grove (Texas) Special of unidentified date. Dobie, "Bowie and the Bowie Knife," op. cit., pp. 351-368. Since the completion of this article, a detailed study of the Bowies and the Bowie knife has appeared: Raymond W. Thorp, Bowie Knife (Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1948).
Author Thorp relates some of the many accounts of the invention of the Bowie knife but accepts James Black as the "true" inventor of the original Bowie knife. Unfortunately, this work is marred by frequent errors that indicate faulty research and checking. For example, because of an omission, a quotation on pages 32 and 33 seems to indicate that the owner of an original Bowie knife was a resident of Philadelphia, whereas the owner in question actually lived in Texas.
On page 39, the author speaks of the Green River knife as having been made "at the famous Green River works." The Green River knife was not manufactured at any Green River works; the origin of the name is a far more interesting bit of folklore: The Green River from which the knife took its name is the Green River that flows through Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah and whose waters make the chief contribution to the Colorado River. It was for many years the favorite trapping ground and rendezvous area of the American fur trappers, who made this knife famous. However, the connection of the Green River with this name actually resulted from a misunderstanding. In the early days of the Western fur trade, knives were highly desired by the Indians, who often bartered away many valuable furs for a particularly fine example of the cutler's art. The best knives were made in Sheffield, England and bore the initials "G R" incised on the blade near the hilt. The letters, of course, stood for "Georgius Rex" and indicated the then British ruler's name in Latin. To meet the highly competitive trade, the same initials were also stamped on American-made knives. (Paradoxically, even down through the reign of Queen Victoria, when the correct inscription on the British product should have been "V R" for "Victoria Regina," the letters "G R" were retained to convince the wary Indians that they were getting the genuine article.) But to the American trappers "G R" meant only one thing: "Green River," and soon knives bearing these initials were everywhere referred to as "Green River knives."
Again, on page 39, Thorp speaks of "Al Parker, 'The San Juan Man-Eater,' " but that killer's name was Alfred Packer, not Parker. On page 92, he states that "John Henry Brown, in his Indian Wars and Pioneers of Texas, has James Bowie contriving the knife while recuperating in Texas." As a matter of fact, Brown in this book credits Rezin P. Bowie with the invention of the Bowie knife on the basis of his own statement. On pages 145 and 148, in a description of Japanese swordmaking procedure, the author speaks of a "kakemona"; the correct word is kakemono.
Thursday, February 10, 2011
The following article appeared in Western Folklore in 1949. Some of the issues that the author raises have been settled, while others continue to stir debate. I've included all the footnotes; the last one, a critique of Thorp's book, which had only recently been published at the time the article was written, is of particular interest.