My book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques is available from Paladin Press. This blog contains additional information about the bowie knife, as well as the fighting knives of other nations.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Edwin Forrest and James Bowie

Edwin Forrest (1806-1872) 

A celebrated 19th-century stage actor, Edwin Forrest, claimed to have been a close friend of James Bowie when both lived in New Orleans; in fact, Forrest claimed that Bowie gave him the knife he had used at the Sandbar fight. Forrest made his claim at a time when the Bowie name had become famous and there is no independent evidence that the two ever knew each other. Perusing my copy of The Bowie Knife: Unsheathing an American Legend, I note that its author, Norm Flayderman, shares my suspicion that Forrest concocted his relationship with Bowie for purposes of self-aggrandizement. The "relationship" was described in several sycophantic biographies of Forrest. The following is from Edwin Forrest (1881), by Lawrence Barrett:
His associates, if we may trust his biographers, were not of a character to purify his nature or refine his manners. While an awful curiosity hovers about the inventor who gave his name to the bowie-knife, it seems unreasonable to attach any great importance to the friendship of the man upon that ground alone. He may have had qualities mitigating the ferocity which characterized his many bloody contests at arms, but these are not dwelt upon, and the only advantage which Forrest ever reaped from this intimacy was the possession of the identical knife which had played so prominent a part in the hands of Colonel Bowie. At least this is all the benefit which his biographers have shown as growing out of their friendship. At no time of Edwin Forrest's life did he need masculine or barbarian influence, — he always had a surplus in that direction, — and it would have been better for him could he have drawn his inspiration from the gentle and refining spirits which have ever animated the audiences and society of the Crescent City. He made his choice, and selected the coterie which was most congenial to him. We see in this no natural outcropping of a "Democratic" spirit; rather the haughty conceit of the self-made man who scorned to submit to judicious training. With Bowie, with a large-hearted, powerfully built, fighting steamboat captain (whose best exploit was not in conquering a crowd of loafers by his muscle, but in the tenderness of his care of Forrest when ill of the fever), with Push-ma-ta-ha, the Indian who is said to have suggested the production of "Metamora," and with other original spirits like these, Forrest passed his unoccupied time in New Orleans. They charmed the young athlete by their novel freedom, and he was too full of the warm blood of the barbarian himself to resist their fascination.
Bowie was a "steamboat captain"? Methinks the biographer had him confused with Mike Fink of flatboat fame. Also, Bowie tenderly nursed Forrest back to health when he was ill with a fever? Sounds unlikely, somehow.

The "original bowie knife" Forrest claimed was given to him by Bowie himself.

The following is from Life of Edwin Forrest, the American Tragedian, Volume 1 (1877), by William Rounseville Alger:
The one of Forrest's New Orleans friends first to be named is James Bowie, inventor and unrivalled wielder of that terrible weapon for hand-to-hand fights named from him the bowie-knife. He was a member of the aristocratic class of the South, planter, gentleman, traveller, adventurer, sweet-spoken, soft-mannered, poetic, and chivalrous, and possessed of a strength and a courage, a cool audacity and an untamable will, which seemed, when compared with any ordinary standard, superhuman. These qualities in a hundred conflicts never failed to bring him off conqueror. In heart, when not roused by some sinister influence, he was as open as a child and as loving as a woman. In soul high-strung, rich and free, in physical condition like a racing thoroughbred or a pugilist ready for the ring, an eloquent talker, thoroughly acquainted with the world from his point of view, he was a charming associate for those of such tastes, equally fascinating to friends and formidable to foes. As a personal competitor, taken nakedly front to front, few more ominous and magnificent specimens of man have walked on this continent.

His favorite knife, used by him awfully in many an awful fray, he presented as a token of his love to Forrest, who carefully preserved it among his treasured keepsakes. It was a long and ugly thing, clustering with fearful associations in its very look; plain and cheap for real work, utterly unadorned, but the blade exquisitely tempered so as not to bend or break too easily, and the handle corrugated with braids of steel, that it might not slip when the hand got bloody. Journeying in a stage-coach, in cold weather, after stopping for a change of horses a huge swaggering fellow usurped a seat belonging to an invalid lady, leaving her to ride on the outside. In vain the lady expostulated with him; in vain several others tried to persuade him to give up the place to her. At last a man who sat in front of the offender, so muffled and curled up in a great cloak that he looked very small, dropped the cloak down his shoulders, took his watch in his left hand, lifted a knife in his right, and, straightening himself up slowly till it seemed as if his head was going through the top of the coach, planted his unmoving eyes full on those of the intruder, and said, in a perfectly soft and level tone which gave the words redoubled power, "Sir, if within two minutes you are not out of that seat, by the living God I will cut your ears off!"

The man paused a few seconds to take in the situation. He then cried, "Driver, let me out! I won't ride with such a set of damned murderers!"

That was Bowie with his knife. Fearful, yet not without something admirable. Another anecdote of him will illustrate still better the atmosphere of the class of men under whose patronizing influence Forrest came in the company of his friend Bowie.

The plantations of Bowie and a very quarrelsome Spaniard joined each other. The proprietors naturally fell out. The Spaniard swore he would shoot Bowie on the first chance. The latter, not liking to live with such an account on his hands, challenged his neighbor, who was a very powerful and skilful fighter with all sorts of weapons and had in his time killed a good many men. The Spaniard accepted the challenge, and fixed the following conditions for the combat. An oak bench six feet long, two feet high, and one foot wide should be firmly fastened in the earth. The combatants, stark naked, each with a knife in his right hand, its blade twelve inches in length, should be securely strapped to the bench, face to face, their knees touching. Then, at a signal, they should go at it, and no one should interfere till the fight was done. The murderous temper of the arrangements was not more evident than the horrible death of one of the men or of both was sure. But Bowie did not shrink. He said to himself, "If the Spaniard's hate is so fiendish, why, he shall have his bellyful before we end."

All was ready, and a crowd stood by. Bowie may tell the rest himself, as he related it a dozen years after to Forrest, whose blood curdled while he listened:
"We confronted each other with mutual watch, motionless, for a minute or two. I felt that it was all over with me, and a slight chill went through my breast, but my heart was hot and my brain was steady, and I resolved that at all events he should die too. Every fight is won in the eye first. Well, as I held my look rooted in his eye, I suddenly saw in it a slight quiver, an almost imperceptible sign of giving way. A thrill of joy shot through my heart, and I knew that he was mine. At that instant he stabbed at me. I took his blade right through my left arm, and at the same time, by an upward stroke, as swift as lightning and reaching to his very spine, I ripped him open from the abdomen to the chin. He gave a hoarse grunt, the whole of his insides gushed out, and he tumbled into my lap, dead."
If Bowie told Forrest this story a dozen years afterward, one wonders when it could have occurred. It would have had to have predated the Sandbar Fight by four or five years, yet that would not correspond to the account of Bowie's life given by his brothers John and Rezin.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Fighting With the Straight Razor

While I was researching bowie knife fighting, I came across a fair amount of material on another aspect of knife fighting in America, that of razor fighting.  A few representative news stories are reprinted below. As you will note, the use of the razor as a weapon was associated primarily with African Americans, for reasons I will attempt to explain. It is generally not my practice to censor racially insensitive language in primary source material, but I did replace a certain term with "n-----".
Dallas Morning News (October 18, 1887)
A BLOODY FIGHT
Texarkana, Ark. At a dance a few miles west of here Saturday night, given by Jim Young, colored, two negroes, named John C. Breckinridge and Monroe Ross, got into a difficulty over a woman whom Ross had carried there. Breckinridge wanted to dance with her, but Ross insisted on monopolizing her. Ross beat his antagonist severely on the head with a chair and broomstick, but Breckenridge finally got in his work with a razor and cut Ross, the blade entering behind the left ear and coming around to the front, making a gash five inches long, severing an artery and just missing the jugular vein. Breckenridge is in jail and Ross lies in a critical condition.
Dallas Morning News (May 20, 1893)
A BLOODY FIGHT
Brenham, Tex. At 4 o'clock this afternoon Jim Sutton, an officer of Austin county, whose home is said to be at Sealy, while walking down the street came upon Henry Lee, a negro, who was standing near the corner of Sandy and Ant streets. Sutton hauled away and cuffed the negro in the face. Lee then pulled out a razor and began carving Sutton, and Sutton reached in his hip pocket to pull his pistol, but Lee caught his wrist with his left hand and prevented him from drawing it, while with his right he slashed Sutton pretty severely, cutting his throat to rags and making three long deep gashes across the back and left side, and also cutting his left ear nearly off his head.     
At this juncture bystanders interfered and took their weapons away. After this they continued fighting with rocks, chasing one another up and down the street, the white man hitting the negro in the face one time and the negro returning the compliment until both were as bloody as beeves. This amusement was kept up about ten minutes or more before any officer arrived, when finally Constable Boyd reached the scene and arrested them. The negro was locked in jail and Sutton was carried to Luhn's drug store, where Drs. Styles and Young dressed his wounds. Sutton, being asked why he slapped the negro, replied that he (Lee) had been monkeying with his affairs and interfering with his business for several years and he had got tired of it.

Brooklyn Eagle (July 10, 1897)
FOUGHT TO DEATH IN DARKNESS
Greenwood, Ark. A dance was hold at the home of Frank Finn, a miner, near the Austrian camp, last night, at which beer flowed freely. Tom Sturgai and Anthony Dollar became involved in a difficulty over a woman. When the dance was over Sturgai followed Dollar to his room and a bloody fight began. Sturgai used a long knife and Dollar defended himself with his razor. The candle was extinguished and the deadly combat continued in the dark until Sturgai lay dead, literally cut to pieces, and Dollar was fatally wounded, having received fifteen knife thrusts. The room in which the fight took place presented a gruesome sight when the duel was over, blood being spattered all over the floor, walls and furniture. Dollar's razor blade was found embedded in the body of his victim.

Brooklyn Eagle (July 20, 1901)
BLOOD WAS SPILLED FREELY
During a race riot that took place last night on the Bowery, Coney Island, several colored men and one white man were severely slashed with razors and knives and another negro was rendered unconscious with a brick. The police were called out to quell the riot and several of them found it a difficult undertaking, as they had to pick their way between the negroes who were running about armed with razors. The white man who was cut is Paul Matley, a special policeman who is employed at Lawrence's concert hall, at the corner of Bowery and Jones' walk, and in front of which place most of the cutting was done. Lots of blood was spilled and the boardwalks are well sprinkled with it.     
The row was started by two negroes who began to fight, it is said, over one of the colored soubrettes [dancers] employed in the concert hall. One of these men named Cook drew a razor and commenced to slash the other fellow and then the latter's friends went to his rescue. Matley and another special policeman employed at the place soon heard the noise outside the pavilion and they ran out in time to see several negroes brandishing razors. Cook soon received his quietus by being cut in the neck with a razor and Matley was then set upon by a crowd of negroes, who downed him and cut him about the head and face. His hand was also badly slashed near the wrist.      
The regular police were all this time busily engaged in trying to break some heads and they were somewhat successful. A waiter named Sullivan was badly hurt and it was said his skull was fractured. Matley was attended to at the Emergency Hospital, where it is said fourteen stitches were taken in his face and head.

Dallas Morning News (August 20, 1908)
TWO NEGROES IN DESPERATE FIGHT
Corsicana, Tex. Last night Will Morris and Lee Evans, negro section hands on the Trinity and Brazos Valley [Railroad], fought desperately, one using a knife and the other a razor. When hostilities had ceased both were terribly slashed and bloody. The fight occurred some distance from town and Evans walked to town, where he received medical aid, thirty-six stitches being necessary to close the wounds he had received. Morris also left the scene, saying he, too, was coming to town to a physician, but he has not been seen or heard from.

Moberly Daily Monitor (August 5, 1915)
MEXICAN NEGRO HAD HIS THROAT CUT LAST NIGHT
But for the fact that the point of the razor being wielded by his antagonist caught on the point of his chin, there would have been a dead negro in Moberly today, and a murder to chronicle in the news.

The negro came here from Mexico yesterday to celebrate Emancipation Day. Late yesterday evening he visited a house on East Rollins street where the Moberly negroes congregate and became engaged in an argument with a strange darkey. The latter pulled out a razor and started to work. He cut the Mexican man's throat from a point under the left ear to a point on his left cheek bone. Had he not given the razor an artistic upward thrust, the Mexico man would have been killed. But the razor stuck into the point of his cheek bone, and the negro's assailant fled. He has not since been found by the police.    The injured negro was given medical treatment and it is said will recover from his wound.
So stereotypical was the image of African Americans fighting with the razor that it seemed to startle journalists when other groups utilized that weapon. In 1893, in New York, when an Irishman named Timothy McDermott murdered George Clancy with a straight razor, the incongruity was deemed worthy of note by the Brooklyn Eagle, which reported:
It is not often that an Irishman commits murder with a razor. The negro is supposed to have a monopoly of that weapon for purposes of bloodshed, just as the Italian is understood to have a monopoly of the stiletto, the American of the pistol and the Frenchman of the garrotte. Race characteristics and prejudices may be easily traced in the weapons which ornament the offices of our public prosecuting officers, and assassination with a sword cane or razor by an Irishman is as much of a novelty as murder with a club in the hands of an inhabitant of Chili or Peru. McDermott's use of the razor was extremely dexterous. He slashed the victim five times, every cut being on the hips and three of them going to the bone.
In 1902, the Brooklyn Eagle revisited this theme in a tongue-in-cheek report of another case involving an Irishman and the razor:
IRISH BOY FLOURISHED RAZOR
Sylvester Hanley of 422 Chauncey street accused his brother George in the Gates Avenue Court this morning of flourishing a razor and threatening him.
“Are you boys Irish?” asked Magistrate Watson.
   
“Aye,” responded Sylvester, “we are of Irish descent.”
   
“I thought the colored race had a monopoly in the razor line,” commented the magistrate. “A person with Irish blood in his veins using a razor for fighting purposes! Isn't that an anomaly?” continued the magistrate, turning to Court Officer Sheedy.

“Axes would be more in order,” responded the officer.

“Will your honor allow me to withdraw the charge?” asked the complainant at this juncture.
   
“For the honor of a noble race I will,” said the magistrate as he dismissed the proceedings.
So routinely were African Americans believed to be equipped with a razor that an article in an 1871 issue of the Fort Wayne Daily Sentinel demonstrated the point with the following, probably apocryphal, anecdote:
Two gentlemen were uptown in a [street]car, when they got to talking about the habit negroes had of carrying razors. One gentleman offered to bet that a negro sitting near him had a razor in his pocket. The bet was taken, and to find out, the gentleman sitting next to the negro pretended that something was the matter with his boot. Turning to the darkey, he said, “Johnny, let me take your razor a minute to cut off this piece of loose leather.”

The n----- pulled out a murderous looking razor and handed it to the gentleman, who won the bet. It is best not to step on a n-----'s heel, if you don't want a Suez canal cut into you.
Want a straight razor of your own? There's a company named Zowada Custom Knives that makes exquisite Damascus-steel straight razors (for shaving only, of course!).

That the African American seemed to gravitate to the razor is not hard to understand. After the Civil War, laws were passed throughout the South that limited the rights of blacks to keep or bear arms legally. For example, in Mississippi the law stated that "any freedman, free Negro, or mulatto, not in the military service of the United States nor having a specified license, who should keep or carry firearms of any kind or any ammunition, dirk, or bowie-knife should be punished by a fine of not over ten dollars, and all such arms, etc., should be forfeited to the informer." The law further provided that, "if any white person lent or gave a freedman, free Negro, or mulatto any firearms, ammunition, dirk, or bowie-knife, such white person should be fined not over fifty dollars, or imprisoned not over thirty days."

However, the razor, an indispensable tool of personal hygiene, could not realistically be banned as a weapon. A black man could buy one without arousing suspicion and it was so flat as to be undetectable when kept in a pocket. Later, this oversight would be addressed by making it illegal to carry a razor unless one was also carrying a shaving brush--an item much more difficult to conceal.

 The razor can be held in such a way as to expose only a small amount of the cutting edge.

The razor made a less-than-ideal weapon due to its blunt tip, non-locking blade, and the temper of its steel which, while it held a good edge, was brittle.  However, it did have certain qualities to recommend it, such as its small size, its concealability, the ease with which it could be hidden in the hand until brought into action,  and finally, the fact that the user could exercise some control over the seriousness of the wounds he inflicted depending on how he held the blade.

In The Field of Honor (1883), by Ben Truman, the use of the razor is described by a black policeman:
How is an attack made with a razor? Rough-and-tumble, any way to get there. If the man who is attacked doesn't turn and run, he gets slashed in the face and arms, or both. If he tries to run away he is likely to get a rake in the back which will lay open the flesh so wide that the surgeon can look through the man's ribs into his interior like a small boy peeping through the pickets of an orchard fence. A razor is a terrible weapon. I would rather face a revolver than one of them any day.
Though African Americans were forced to rely on a weapon far less effective than the bowie knife, their purported skill with it soon became legendary.  Two old racial jokes relied on the listener being familiar with the black man’s reputed expertise with the razor. One goes like this:
During the trench warfare of World War I, there was a Negro soldier who begged for permission to go into action armed with his razor "What chance would you have with a razor against a Boche?" asked his captain.
"I'll take ma chances, boss," replied the Negro soldier. 
"The Boche'll get you, sure as shootin'," said the captain, but at last he gave his permission. During the next trench raid, the Negro took a mighty swipe at a German with his razor. "Ha, ha," laughed the German, "you never touched me!"

"Oh, yeah?" answered the Negro. "Just try shakin' yoah head."
Another story:
A black man in a shiny new Cadillac pulls into an Alabama gas station during the worst days of Jim Crow and says, "Fill 'er up." 
Sitting on a bench out front, the gas station owner, drawls, “We don’t serve yoah kind heah.”
With that, he takes an apple off a tray beside him, throws it in the air, and draws and fires his pistol, putting a hole through it.

The black man then walks over, takes another apple from the tray, throws it in the air, and tosses his razor after it. In a few seconds the razor drops back into his hand and the apple lands back on the tray--peeled, cored, and cut into eight neat slices.

The gas station owner stands up and says, “Will that be regular or high test, suh?”
Oddly enough, in his  memoir Luck on the Wing (1920), an American WW I veteran,  Elmer Haslett, describes meeting a German veteran whose war-time experience seems to validate the first joke.
There was one real character on the train -- a hard-boiled Feldwebel, which was the German name for Sergeant-Major, and corresponding pretty largely to our First Sergeant of the line. . . . With great pride he told us of all the battles he had been in since the beginning of the war . . . . He, himself, had specialized in bayonet fighting and proudly stated that he was one of the best bayonet fighters in the whole German Army, to which fact all the others agreed. He said that with his blade he had whipped four Russians single handed; that unassisted he had cleaned up on four Italians, and he pointed to a coveted ribbon as a recognition of his feat; that at Arras he had gotten the better of three Englishmen, and he pointed to still another ribbon; and that at Verdun, in the early days, he had even bested three Frenchmen in a deadly bayonet combat; and he had individual bayonet victories galore; "but," he said, throwing up his hands and laughing good naturedly, "an American gave me this -- a negro," and he showed me a bronze button that he wore for having been wounded in defense of the Fatherland. He opened his blouse and shirt collar and showed us a long scar along his neck and shoulder. I had heard conflicting stories as to the fighting qualities of the American negro, so I asked him to explain how it happened. He said it was during a raid near Verdun; the negroes were, undoubtedly, in training with the French Foreign Legion in that sector. It started with a regular bayonet fight in which he quickly knocked the bayonet and rifle from the negro's hands, but as the Feldwebel was just about to give the final fatal stab the negro pulled out the proverbial razor from somewhere. The scar was the final result. He dramatically summed it up by telling us that he would willingly fight the Russians, the Italians, the Englishmen and the Frenchmen at unequal odds, at any time or place, but he was absolutely through with all Americans because they were crazy; they didn't care whether they got killed or not. "The colored troops, as a whole, are poor fighters," he said, in words to that effect, "but the American negro is the exception -- he fights, and fights dirty."
For more information on razor-fighting technique, see James Keating's excellent on-line article "Razor Fighting."

Friday, February 25, 2011

Bowie Knives by Jerry Fisk

If you had a change to go back in time and meet Jim Bowie, you'd want to bring him a really nice gift, and you couldn't go wrong with one of Jerry Fisk's investment-grade Damascus-steel bowies. Fisk, an Arkansas Master Bladesmith who has been designated a National Living Treasure, has been making knives for more than three decades. His work has graced seven magazine covers and won him numerous awards. The following photos are taken from his website.

A midsize bowie knife with an antique ivory handle. 


A drop-point bowie with mother-of-pearl scales, and 24-karat gold borders and pins.


A "Southwest Bowie," Fisk's favorite large knife pattern.


Persian-influenced bowie with an 11-inch blade and scales of fossil walrus tusk.

Fisk was once asked why he made knives. He answered, "To show that I lived. My work will last hundreds of years longer than I will. But now they will know I was here."

That seems like a safe bet.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Col. James Bowie at the Battle of Concepción

James Bowie is of course well known for his role in the defense of the Alamo and, ultimately, his death there. However, he had a leadership role in several earlier battles of the Texas War of Independence, such as the Battle of Concepción. On October 28, 1835, Col. James Bowie and Capt. James W. Fannin Jr. led a force of 92 men against a Mexican force four times their number, led by Gen. Martín Perfecto de Cos, brother-in-law of General Santa Anna.

The following newspaper article, which was published on the 100th anniversary of the battle, tells the story, relying on the report written by Bowie and an account left by Noah Smithwick.
FIRST BLOOD DRAWN
Bowie's Men Win at Concepción Battle
A century ago today the Battle of Concepción was fought and won by the Texas army. The story is told in the following article.
By Bess Carroll 
Topping the cupola of Mission Concepción was a shock of wild red hair, as an incongruous figure peered into the foggy dawn.

Henry Karnes and his Kentucky rifle were out of place. Monks who had greeted other days here would doubtless have uttered sudden prayers had they come face to face with such a stranger, in their sanctified confines. Yet Henry Karnes of Tennessee was in reality a high priest of another creed, that of the freemen who lay on their arms below him 500 yards away in the bend of the San Antonio river. Within the bend a stretch of river bottom nearly 100 yards wide had sunk lower than a plain in front, and this depression was bounded by a bluff which, the night before, had seemed to James Bowie an excellent cover for his men in case of attack. Behind the natural embankment his command slept, each man clasping a long rifle.

Bowie and his brother officer, Capt. James W. Fannin Jr., anxiously scanned the cupola for signals. They had disobeyed orders to spend the night here because they had reached the spot late. Now. at the first faint hint of day, they planned to break camp and return to their commander, Stephen Austin, whose main army lay waiting at Espada.

Texans Surrounded by Cos' Soldiers
They had no way to knowing that late in the afternoon of the previous day, Gen. Martin Perfecto de Cos (who held Bexar) had himself gone on a reconnoitering trip, and had discovered the small detachment of Texans at Concepción. Nor could they know that Cos had sent all of his cavalry and a body of infantry, with an artillery company, to surround the little detachment under Bowie during the night. The dense fog added to the grayness of early dawn and made it impossible to see. And now perhaps Bowie's report to Austin can tell the story best: “The night passed quietly off, without the least alarm, and at dawn every object was obscured by a heavy dense fog which entirely prevented our guard, or lookout from the Mission, seeing the approach of the enemy.

“At about half an hour by sun an advance guard of their cavalry rode upon our line, and fired at a sentinel who had just been relieved, who returned the fire and caused one platoon to retire; but another charged on him (Henry Karnes) and he discharged a pistol at them, which had the same effect.

Henry Karnes was earning his breakfast. “The men were called to arms; but for some time were unable to discover their foes, who had entirely surrounded the position and kept up a constant firing, at a distance, with no effect other than a waste of ammunition on their part.

Bowie Disposes Men Cleverly
“When the fog rose it was apparent to all that we were surrounded and that a desperate fight was inevitable, all communication with the main army being cut off.

“Immediate preparation was made by extending our right flank to the south, and placing the second division on the left, on the same side, so that they should, be in a position to rake the enemy should they charge into the angle, and prevent the effects of crossfire on our own men; and, at the same time, be in a compact body, that each might reinforce the other . . . The men, in the meantime, were ordered to clear away bushes and vines, under the hill [the embankment] and along the margin, and at the steepest places to cut steps for footholds.”

Noah Smithwick, one of the soldiers, describes at this period of the battle how one man fell “thinking was killed,” but “he was just sick from the impact of a bullet on his Bowie knife, which he had tucked over his stomach. The bullet only broke his knife, which saved his life.”
 Noah Smithwick
As the Mexican bullets whizzed through the pecan trees, Smithwick said, “a shower of ripe nuts rained down on the Texas soldiers. And I saw men picking them up and eating them with as little apparent concern as if they were being shaken down by a norther.”

Enemy Makes First Advance
Bowie's account continues: “The work of clearing the embankment of brush was not completed to our wish before the enemy infantry were seen to advance, with arms trailed, to the right of the first division, and form the line of battle at about 200 yards from the right flank. Five companies of their cavalry supported them, covering our whole front and flanks.

“In this manner, the engagement commenced at about the hour of 8 o'clock, on Wednesday, the twenty-eighth of October, by the deadly crack of a rifle from the extreme right. The engagement was immediately general. The discharge from the enemy was one continual blaze of fire, whilst that from our lines was more slowly delivered, but with good aim and deadly effect, each man retiring under cover of the hill and timber to give place to others whilst he reloaded.”

Smithwick says that in those moments Bowie proved himself a “born commander.” He never needlessly spent a bullet or imperiled a life, Smithwick recalled.

“Keep under cover, men, and reserve your fire; we haven't a man to spare,” Bowie would shout. And now the one tragedy of the episode occurred for the Texans. In crossing a small number of men to Fannin's flank, a few reckless troops exposed themselves to Mexican fire. Among them was Richard (“Dick”) Andrews. A bullet dropped him and he remained where he fell; Smithwick a little later paused beside him as the battle moved forward and was won. “Great drops of sweat were already gathering on his drawn, white face, and the life blood was gushing from a hole in the left side. ‘Dick,’ I cried, ‘are you hurt?’ ‘Yes, Smith,’ he replied, ‘I’m killed. Lay me down.’ I laid him down and put something under his head. It was the last time I saw him alive. There was no time for sentiment.”

Mexicans Bring Cannon Into Play
Bowie wrote: “The battle had not lasted more than 10 minutes before a brass double-fortified four-pounder was opened on our line with a heavy discharge of grape and canister, and a charge sounded.

“But the cannon was cleared, as if by magic, and a check put to the charge. The same experiment was resorted to with like success three times, the division advancing under the hill at each fire, and thus approximating near the cannon and victory. ‘The cannon and victory’ was truly now the war cry, and they only fired it five times and it had been three times cleared, before a disorderly and precipitate retreat was sounded and most readily obeyed, leaving to the victors their cannon.”

The last Mexican gunner to attempt to stem the tide of Texans was killed with a match in his hands. The farmers and the barristers and the carpenters and their neighbors of the colonies reached the silent cannon, yelling madly, running now, yet still taking deadly aim.

On the field of battle lay 67 dead Mexicans and many wounded. Not a man of their artillery company had escaped unhurt. The inert forms and the writhing forms were passed by those avenging Texans. There were 16 lifeless figures around the cannon. But the Texans were interested in the Mexicans who rode ahead, those left of the 400 in the attack. They were dropping their muskets in their flight, and splashing through the shallow water of the river crossing, they “fled helter-skelter as if pursued, by all the furies.” [Smithwick quote]

Pickets on the mission roof gave the dragoons a parting volley.

Mexicans Vanish as Austin Arrives
And now as the last Mexicans vanished Austin's main army appeared, and the commander spurred his horse into the swarming Texas troops to find Bowie. A historic argument took place in the din and confusion then, with Austin anxious to follow the frightened enemy into San Antonio and take the town at once.

Bowie, who had seen the town's fortifications, begged Austin not to do this. The commander-in-chief reluctantly yielded to Bowie’s advice. He knew that had he not been delayed for two hours that morning, his main army would have met the Mexicans at Concepción and would have succeeded in killing or capturing so many that Cos would have been left without a garrison, and San Antonio could have I been taken easily without further bloodshed. That knowledge dimmed  the glory of the victory of Concepción for Austin.
But there were no bitter ashes in the mouths of the victorious colonists. They ran after the uniformed dragoons afoot until they were exhausted. Back on the battlefield the wounded Mexicans, “having no knowledge of civilized warfare,” believed they were to be killed. “It was pitiful to hear them begging for the miserable lives that no one thought of taking. Soon a padre came out with a train of carts and after a parley with Austin, carted the dead and wounded away to San Antonio, leaving us in undisputed possession. of the field.” [Smithwick quote]

Triumphs always have their price. The returning soldiers ceased shouting and removed their hats as they paused beside the spot where Dick Andrews lay. He had lived long enough to know that the fight was won. “He recklessly, foolishly threw away his life; but his was the first freeman's blood that wet the soil where the germ of the young republic was just bursting into life,” Smithwick writes. “We buried him at the foot of a pecan tree on the battlefield, where his bones were left to mingle with the silent dust, ‘with not a stone to mark the spot.’ The tree has no doubt long since gone to decay, the battlefield has been converted into a cotton field whose snowy fleece bears no trace of the crimson tide which that day soaked its soil. Thus the first gun, the first flag and the first martyr have all gone down to oblivion together.”
While the James Bowie of legend comes off as a habitual brawler whose greatest joy was arranging bizarre knife fights, the James Bowie of the historical record appears to have been highly intelligent and enterprising individual, a capable military officer, and a natural leader of men. Bowie's full reports can be read in A History of Texas and Texans, Volume 1.

Smithwick's full account can be read here.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Murder on a Steamboat; Bowie Knife Involved

From Vincent’s Semi-Annual Register, May 1860:
A TERRIBLE TRAGEDY. -- TWO MEN MURDERED. 
This day, a terrible tragedy occurred on board the steamer B. L. Hodge, while on her way to New Orleans, and near Shreveport, La., a man named B. L. Heath being the chief actor. His reasons for committing the atrocious deed are variously ascribed to insanity, the ill and morbid disposition of a deformed man who believes himself shunned by his fellow-men, and, lastly, to his being crossed in his love for a beautiful woman, whom he has haunted for years, and by whom he was peremptorily denied and rebuked some two months ago. While Mr. Charles M. Forb, of Robinson county, Tenn., and Mr. R. J. Lyle, of Nashville, were playing cards in the cabin, about midnight, Heath entered and seated himself by them, who paid him no attention. In a few minutes he rose deliberately from his seat, and, drawing a large bowie-knife, seized Forb by the hair of the head, and, before the others of the party were aware of his intentions, stabbed him to the heart, producing almost instant death. Lyle immediately grasped the murderer by the arm, but, freeing himself by a deadly effort, the latter plunged the deadly weapon into the former's neck, inflicting a wound from the effects of which he in a few moments expired. Another man, Mr. F. G. Jernigan, was also stabbed by the monster, but not fatally, when a bystander, getting a large iron chair, dealt Heath a blow on the head which felled him senseless to the floor, and, before he had recovered, he was securely bound and taken to New Orleans. The murderer had upon his person at the time of his arrest several other knives and a revolver. He is a deformed creature, small in stature, broken-backed [hunchbacked], and about twenty-eight years of age. He said he was a native of Weston, Lewis county, Va., and that he had been teaching school at a place called Knoxville, in Cherokee county, Texas. The reason given by him for committing the deed was, that they were the parties who were seeking his life, although they had never met before.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Chronology of Rambo Knives


My Friend Bob Dickerson sent me a link to this site which shows the progression of knives used in the Rambo movies. It's probably old stuff, but I hadn't seen it all in one place.


Reactionary that I am, I have to admit that of all the knives shown, my favorite is the knife in the photo above. It is a prototype that was not even shown to Sylvester Stallone. Simple, clean, functional. Better pictures of it can be seen here.


I'm not a fan of the Gil Hibben cleaver-type knife featured in Rambo IV.  It seems that they wanted to play against all the futuristic designs they had used previously by coming up with something that looked crude and (barely) functional. The blade has a broken-off look, reminding me that one of the theories of the origin of the bowie knife is that Jim Bowie, during a fight with  Mexicans, had a saber blade break off about 12 inches from the handle and found he preferred it at that length. (This theory doesn't hold up because Bowie did not fight Mexicans until the six months of his life, and the bowie knife was already a household word by then.)


This is Gil Hibben's knife design for Rambo III, with optional battleaxe crosspiece. Can someone explain this one to me?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Medical Student Stabs Two Constables With Bowie Knife

On June 18, 1850, in Cincinnati, one constable was killed and one seriously wounded by John C. Walker, wielding a bowie knife, in a case that set a precedent for self-defense law.

Walker, a slightly built Ohio Medical College student, had gone to a show at the Van Amburg's Circus, getting there early so he would be able to stand at the front. Two off-duty city watchmen, Peter Davison [or Davidson] and Alexander Dalzell, had been hired by the circus to keep order. They wore no uniforms or badges. When the tent was nearly full, Dalzell went to the front of the crowd and ordered everyone to stand back. When Walker didn't move, Dalzell violently shoved him back about ten feet. Walker protested and moved his hand toward the breast pocket of his coat. Seeing this, Dalzell threatened to kill him if he pulled a knife, and then punched him in the face, knocking him down. Dalzell then jumped on Walker and held him against the ground as Davison came up and grabbed him with one hand while his other held an upraised cane. Walker drew a bowie knife and stabbed each of them. Davison hit him on the head with his cane, but whether this happened before or after he was stabbed is not clear.
   
Walker got to his feet and called for a policeman, and when one arrived, he surrendered his knife. The knife had been given to him by a friend when he had been considering enlisting for the Mexican War, and he had been advised to carry it for protection when he was in Cincinnati.
   
Davison died of his wound a week later, but Dalzell recovered after lingering near death for weeks.
   
Walker was tried for murder. However, as Dalzell and Davison were in private hire and had attacked Walker without provocation, he was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.

A detailed account of the case is given in Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in Ohio Courts of Record, Volume 1.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Kentuckians and Their Knives

Sir Charles Augustus Murray was one of a troop of writers from the British Isles (in his case, Scotland) who traveled America in the early 19th century to report back home on the doings here. In  his Travels in North America During the Years 1834, 1835, & 1836 (1841), he deplores the American backwoodsmen's habit of carrying knives and fighting with them--Englishmen no longer dueled with deadly weapons, but resolved their differences in a fair and manly fashion with fisticuffs. Murray describes the knives that were carried as folding dirk knives rather than bowie knives, but even folding knives were often referred to as bowies, if they were large. In fact, the earliest instance I have come across in which the term "bowie knife" was used in print was in an advertisement for folding "spring lock Bowie Knives" in December 1830.
The character of the Kentuckians has greater merits, and greater faults; their moral features are more broadly and distinctly marked. Descended, as I before said, from the western hunters, and some of them from the more wealthy planters of Virginia and North Carolina, they are brave, generous, proud, frank, and hospitable, but apt at the same time to be rough, overbearing, and quarrelsome. They are extremely vain of their State, and inclined to play the braggart, as well in her praises as their own; the former fault, I, for one, can freely forgive them, as the want of local or home attachment is one of the least agreeable features of American character. They are, moreover, pretty strongly imbued (probably through their Virginian descent) with a taste for gambling, horse-racing, &c., which is perhaps strengthened by their frequent intercourse on their northern and western frontier with the numerous gamblers, or "sportsmen," who come up the river in spring and summer to avoid the heat and malaria of New Orleans and the adjacent country.

In addition to the above traits of character, there is one of which I cannot speak otherwise than with unqualified reprobation -- I mean the cowardly and almost universal practice of carrying a dirk-knife. This instrument, which, like the Italian stiletto, is only fit for the hand of an assassin, is displayed upon every occasion. It has ordinarily a blade about six or eight inches long, sharp on both sides towards the point, and comes out of the handle by a spring, which also prevents its closing on the hand of the owner. I have seen several well-dressed Kentuckians, who would probably think themselves much injured if they were not considered gentlemen of the first grade, picking their teeth with these elegant pocket-companions, in public; and I have repeatedly seen them while engaged in conversation employ their hands in opening and shutting this dirk-spring, as a London dandy on the stage raps his boots and shakes his watch-seals, or sometimes in real life, for want of manual employment, draws his glove on and off, or smooths down the felt of his hat. Now, I would ask any candid Kentuckian, from what "chivalrous" precedent (which epithet they are very fond of applying to themselves), or from what principle, just, noble, or Christian, is this habit derivable? Man is sufficiently irascible, and when angry, prone enough to inflict injury on his fellow-creature, without deliberately furnishing himself with a weapon calculated to occasion death, or permanent mutilation, upon the occasion of the slightest dispute or ebullition of temper. I believe it is Virgil who, in describing a savage popular tumult, says, Furor arma ministrat ["one uses any weapon in a rage"], and surely experience attests its truth; but this people determine, that the voice of reason or reflection shall not have one moment to whisper a suggestion, but that their passions (naturally hot and ungovernable) shall never want a sudden and deadly minister.


Folding knives such as the modern one shown above were sold in the 19th century as "bowie knives." They had to be carried in a sheath, as the blade extended beyond the handle when folded.

It might be supposed, that the coarse and brutal method of fighting, still frequently adopted in this State under the name of "rough and tumble," is sufficiently savage to satisfy the parties concerned. In this, as is well known, they tear one another's hair, bite off noses and ears, gouge out eyes, and, in short, endeavour to destroy or mutilate each other; but this is not considered sufficient, and Birmingham and Pittsburgh are obliged to complete by the dirk-knife the equipment of the "chivalric Kentuckian." I am fully aware that the stories current respect "gouging" are exaggerated, and mostly invented; and I am also aware, that many gentlemen, especially among those of advanced age, in Kentucky, disapprove of these practices; but the general argument remains nevertheless untouched; the "rough and tumble" fight is still permitted by the spectators; and if two angry men have one another by the throat, and there is no check upon their fury, either in their own feelings and habits, or in public opinion, the result in any country would be similarly savage. They may formerly have had an excuse for constantly carrying a weapon, when their houses and families were hourly liable to be surprised by the war-whoop of the Indian: but against whom is the dirk-knife now sharpened? Against brothers, cousins, and neighbours!

One feature that I have always admired in the English character, and, indeed, have looked upon with envy, (as my own countrymen, especially the highlanders, have it not,) is their contempt for all lethal weapons, and their honest determined support of fair play in all personal rencounters. If a combatant in England were to practise any  "rough and tumble" tricks, such as kneeling on a man's throat or chest when on the ground, or gouging, or biting, he would receive a hearty drubbing from the spectators, and conclude the entertainment (in my opinion, very deservedly) in the nearest horse-pond in which he could be immersed. I trust that the progress of civilisation, and increasing weight of a sounder public opinion, will soon put a stop to the custom above censured, which is not confined to Kentucky, but is more or less prevalent in the whole valley of the Mississippi, especially in Louisiana.
There is more on rough-and-tumble fighting at this earlier entry.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Bowie Knives for the Troops: 1943

In the early stages of the Pacific campaign during World War II, the military's failure to provide troops with a serviceable knife was recognized as a problem, one that civilians took it upon themselves to rectify. Citizens donated bowie and hunting knives, the machine shop at Crozier Technical High School in Dallas began turning out knives by the hundreds, and one Missouri farmer took it upon himself to do what he could. The following article appeared in the Maryville Daily Forum on December 15, 1943.
Farmer Makes Bowie Knives for Soldiers
Maryville, Missouri. --When it comes to "beating plow-shares into swords," Les Kenny, Wilcox farmer, is doing his part to discommode the Japs and the rest of the Axis crew. He is making Bowie-type knives for county boys in the Southwest Pacific.

Although he has done the work as a hobby for the last six years, his present entire production, which is from three to eighteen knives a week in his spare time, is sent to Nodaway county servicemen. Kenny ventured a rough guess that he had made between 400 and 500 knives, 'the majority of which are now being used to "point out" to the Japs that the U. S. wants to revenge the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

From Saw Blade
Several years ago he made a knife from the blade of a cross-cut saw, adorning it with a carved handle of second-growth hickory. It was of such fine quality that several restaurant men ordered similar knives from Kenny, who lives in Wilcox with his mother and uncle, Mrs. Eva Kenny and Edson German. When he started, he had to devise a means of cutting the knife's blank blade from the hard steel of the cross-cut saw blade. The steel was so hard that it could not be cut or drilled.

He takes a hard point punch and marks out the blank knife, "breaking it out" with a few blows of the hammer. He finds this method the best, because it does not destroy the high temper of the steel.

Three Knives a Day
He then heats one side of it and pounds the temper into the opposite side of the blade, the cutting edge, then grinding it down, shaping it and, sharpening it on a small emery wheel attached to an orchard motor.

If everything goes well, he can turn out three knives in one day.
After the knife has been shaped and sharpened, the blades being from six to 22 inches long, depending on the wishes of the recipient, he carves out a handle in hickory.

With due modesty, Kenny, who operates a small orchard and vineyard on a lease, said that he could make the handles as "pretty as a doll," and carving any design wanted.

Boys Come First
At present he has orders for more than 100 knives, most of them for servicemen, but some for private individuals who will have to wait until after victory, for Kenny says "the boys come first."

Last week he sent about a half dozen knives to Africa and the Southwest Pacific, he said, remarking that Capt. Earl Wyman, Maryville, is wielding one of his knives. Most of the knives are ordered by the parents of the boys in service, for the legend of the Kenny knives is growing. To have one made, they must bring an old crosscut saw blade with them, which Kenny uses, saving the scraps for other use. He makes a small charge for the knives, due to the expense of running the motor and cost of other materials.

Work Is "Essential"
The story came out that he was engaged in the work when he appeared at the Wodaway county-rationing board to make application for a spread allotment of gasoline for the motor. He was asked if his work was essential. Kenny couldn't answer that, for he knew that there might be a lot of red tape in getting the allotment. But he did tell his story.

The only reply, when he received his allotment was, "Sure, that's essential."

Friday, February 18, 2011

Three Bowie Knife Crimes

Three random bowie-knife crimes of no particular significance.

From the Freeman and Messenger, May 7, 1840:
The Natchez Courier of the 14th says: - A brutal and horrid affray is said to have taken place a few miles above Vicksburg, on the Louisiana, side of the river some day last week, between two citizens of Hinds county, who had formerly been partners in trade, Messrs. William B. Wade and J. H. Robinson. They fought with Bowie knives, and, it is said, frequently rested, during the sanguinary conflict, to gain strength and breath for a more savage and brutal onslaught. The spirit or demon of Cain, the first murderer, must have gibbered over the horrid scene. Wade was stabbed to the heart and died instantly, while Robinson, it is said, must die soon, if he is not already gone to his last account.
From the Defiance Democrat, August 7, 1845:
Dreadful Fight With Bowie Knives.
A correspondent of the Herald at Mobile, states, that a young man named John Bigley, of New York, and Leonard Wilson, of Richmond, Va., fought with bowie knives on the 25th inst. near that city, and after slashing at one another for about half an hour, in which Wilson was cut piecemeal, his second interfered, and it was ended. He further states that Wilson died of his wounds, and that Bigley is on his way to New York.
From the Olean Democrat, December 9, 1892:
Fought a Duel on Horseback.
NAVASOTA, Tex., Dec. 9.--A duel on horseback occurred near Mclntyre's gin, in this county, between two negroes, Robert Warfield and Lige Allen. They fought with bowie knives and both were badly carved and will probably die.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Fighting Knife Through the Ages


In the picture above, we see two daggers that were entombed with King Tut (1341 BC – 1323 BC). The top has a blade of what is called "hardened gold," presumably gold alloyed with copper or some other metal, and the lower one has a blade made of iron, which appears to have held up quite well over the millennia. A detailed description of the gold dagger can be found here. The overall length of the gold dagger is 31.9 centimeters (12.5 inches), with the blade being 20.1 centimeters, or just shy of eight inches.

My friend Bob Dickerson sent me the link and observed how similar in design these daggers, over 3,400 years old, are to knives sold today. For example, compare the shape of the gold dagger to the coffin-handled dagger made by Elk Ridge:
Elk Ridge Dagger

And compare the iron dagger to a Randall #2 Fighting Stiletto:

Randall #2 Fighting Stiletto

Granted, the Randall has a crossguard and a more ergonomically shaped handle, but the wound it creates is going to be substantially the same.

Though the topic of "who invented the bowie knife" is much discussed, the fact is that there is no element of its design that cannot be found on earlier knives, particularly the Spanish navaja. An interesting article by J. O. Dyer, titled “Truer Story of the Bowie Knife,” was published in the Galveston Daily News in 1920. Dyer wrote:
Men have made knives from the time when primeval man first scratched his roast with a piece of sharp flint; and since the Stone Age knives of stone and of bone have successively been superseded by those, of bronze, iron and steel. Possibly by the time that James Bowie first looked upon the stormy turmoil of this world, all kinds of slashing, cutting, stabbing instruments had been invented, from the metal cutting disk of the Greeks to the razor; from the dagger to the butcher knife, from a pen knife to a machete. Therefore it is rather doubtful if James invented anything new as to shape or size in the carver line. Now in the preceding part of this sketch stress has been laid on the murderous quality of the blade, endowed by a particular grade in its temper, when rather the temper of the fighter should be considered.

Given a blade sharp enough to cut; long enough to penetrate; strong enough not to break readily; given also a hand strong enough to dexterously wield such a simple weapon, and it requires no Bowie record; such a one in the hands of a madman has often wreaked terrible execution.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bowie-Knife Murder as Demonstration of Dexterity

A bowie-knife murder in what is now Washington state was described in Tacoma: Its History and Its Builders; a Half Century of Activity (1916), by Herbert Hunt.
John Scolla, an Indian who had dissolved his tribal relations and had become a citizen, was murdered in August, 1873, by Gus Lyttle, in front of the Indian's home in Steilacoom. Lyttle was a desperado, who had been plotting to kill and rob Paymaster Bingham, of the Northern Pacific, and he had been giving exhibitions of his skilfull use of the bowie knife and dagger. As far as could be learned he killed the Indian merely as a further demonstration of his dexterity. He cut the Indian in sixteen places, most of the wounds being close to the heart. He fled, and a reward of $200, offered by the county commissioners, procured his capture within a few hours. At the hearing he pleaded self-defense, but he was convicted.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Gaucho's Skill at Knife Throwing

A facón worn at the rear of the belt.

The following excerpt from Lewis R. Freeman's "On the Pampas,”  an article in a 1920 issue of Living Age magazine, describes the Argentinian gaucho's fabled skill at throwing his facón, a large knife carried for fighting and general tasks, much like the bowie.
The danger zone encircling a gaucho with his knife in his hand is by no means limited to the circle he sweeps with his extended arm. I am not sure just how far it does go, nor have I the least desire to find out. I heard, however, a crack revolver shot, a man who could blot out the spots on a ten of spades at a dozen paces, say that he would be extremely reluctant to take his chance at a draw-and-let-go with a gaucho at any distance under twenty yards. An illuminative case in point came to my attention in Buenos Aires. As a class the American agricultural machinery experts sent to Argentina are as handy with six-shooters as any I have ever met. They are mostly Westerners, have used revolvers from their childhood, and their arms, from which they never separate themselves for a moment while in campo, are always of the best and latest pattern.

Not once or twice, but on dozens of occasions, have I seen one or another of these men with his Colt's or Mauser 'automatic,' after a preliminary shot or two to get the range, bowl over a rabbit running at full speed across the pampa. This is good shooting, as will be appreciated by anyone who has had experience of the revolver. Yet the case I have in mind is that of a threshing machine expert from Texas - a crack shot - who had trouble with his Argentine maquinista [machine operator], had an even break on a draw at twenty-five or thirty feet, and was retired from action with a knife through his shoulder before his revolver was clear of its holster.

My own experience of the gaucho's skill in knife-throwing, though not as serious, was quite as convincing as the one I have just detailed. It chanced that a man at an estancia [ranch] I visited was famous for his skill in this particular, and one day I was ill-advised enough to admire the marvelous deftness with which he was plotting out the outline of a human profile upon the woodwork of a threshing machine by chucking his facón into it from a distance of eight or ten feet. He acknowledged my compliments with a characteristic gaucho bow and smile, but assured me that what I had seen was nothing, since it required no exercise of nerve on his own part nor that of anybody else; but if I would do him the honor to walk off about fifteen paces and hold up the little piece of paper I saw on the ground there, he would perhaps be able to show me a feat that was really worth while.

I walked meekly off as directed, but with a sinking heart, for I didn't need to be told that I was to hold that accursed bit of paper up while my blackbearded, careless-eyed friend tried to hurl his eighteen-inch-bladed knife through the middle of it without amputating my hand, and I was never so lacking in enthusiasm for any proposition in my life. Courage to hold the thing up I knew I had -- that was a small matter -- but I didn't want to hold it up, and of courage to refuse I had none at all. Besides, I had admired the fellow's skill, and he undoubtedly figured he was doing me no small honor in permitting me to be a party to his exhibition; to refuse to act the part of a passive foil would be, under the circumstances, an offence unpardonable.

Inwardly, I was in a terrible turmoil, but focussing all my attention upon the parts that showed, I managed to present a fairly unruffled exterior. The piece of paper I found to be a page from the popular Buenos Aires weekly, Caras y Caretas, measuring, I should say, about five inches by eight. This, after cramming my pipe in my mouth, I held out in one hand with all the appearance of nonchalance I could muster, but grasping no bigger a piece of the corner than was absolutely necessary to keep it from fluttering away. With my free hand I scratched a match; then nodded what was intended for an indifferent acquiescence in response to the gaucho's interrogation as to whether or not I was 'listo,' and at the moment when the knife went 'whicking' through the paper without so much as tearing its edges I was vigorously puffing away for a light. I continued to puff until my match went out before I discovered that I was trying to light an empty pipe. For the next two weeks I had 'facón' nightmares every time I dropped off to sleep.

This little incident, in no consequence of itself, was the immediate cause of another that resulted more seriously. It appears that scarcely had I left the harvesting outfit to return to the estancia house, when one of the Italian hands declared that he, too, was an expert in knife-throwing, and called for a volunteer to hold up the paper that he might give proof of his skill. The gauchos and Argentine peons laughed at his pretensions, but an English sailor, who had deserted his ship in Bahia Blanca to take advantage of the high wages paid in harvest time, foolishly walked over and held up the punctured sheet. Probably he did not appreciate how difficult a thing the feat really was. If he had, after the Italian had missed the paper by a foot the first throw, he would have seen he was dealing with a novice and withdrawn before it was too late. As it was, the knife, at the second trial, struck the unfortunate fellow upon the inside of the wrist, tore its way through bone and sinew, to leave the hand hanging by only a few shreds of flesh and tendon. We saved him from bleeding to death with a tourniquet, but the hand, of course, had to be sacrificed.
More on gauchos and their knives here.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Valentine's Day Story, with Bowie-Knives

The New York Times reported the following tale of love, jealousy, and bowie knives that occurred in Texas in 1889:
A Duel With Bowie Knives.
St. Augustine, Texas. --Rube Polk, Jr., and George Andry, two young men of this city, fought a duel to the death with bowie knives Tuesday night for a woman. The men attended a party, and left together apparently the best of friends.

While on the way home they quarreled over one of the girls. They dismounted, and, drawing their knives, fought it out on the roadside. Polk was killed in a few minutes. He was stabbed to the heart. Andry received a fearful cut in the side and one in the leg. He was carried home from the battleground, and told his friends to inform the Sheriff that he was ready to give himself up.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Another Pistol vs. Bowie Knife Fight

The following syndicated article appeared in the North Adams, Massachusetts, Evening Transcript in 1900.
QUICK GUN PLAY.
It Saved a Government Detective's Life In a Street Duel.


George T. Bell, for years a Texas ranger and later in the employ of the government secret service, carries marks of six knife wounds and seven bullet wounds received while on duty as a ranger for the government. Possibly the most thrilling experience through which he passed was a duel on the streets of Tucson, A. T. [Arizona Territory], in that town's palmiest days.

Bell had been instrumental in rounding up and capturing a gang of counterfeiters known as the "Shang Brooks" gang. They had their "mint" up in the Peloncillo mountains in the Gila river country.

All were sent to the penitentiary and had been released save Brooks, who escaped. A warrant, endorsed "dead or alive," was placed in Bell's hands for service. He located Brooks in a saloon in Tucson and, walking up, notified him that he was under arrest.

Shang glanced patronizingly upon Bell, for he was 6 feet 2 in his stocking feet and a giant in strength. Then he announced, "Sonny, you'se'll have to grow some."

He had half turned from the bar as he spoke, and Bell did not know that the movement was shielding his hand as it crept to his pistol. Someone in the saloon yelled a warning, and instantly there came a shot. Shang reeled and then sank to the floor with a bullet through his abdomen. Bell had fired through his coat pocket. The wound was fatal, though it did not at once cause Brooks to lose command over himself.

Pulling himself together, the desperado drew his weapon, which lay beneath him, and was leveling it at Bell when the detective sent another bullet through his pistol wrist, ending his ability to do harm. He died a few hours later.

Though Bell did not know it at the time, Brooks had two companions in the town, Jack and Jim Styles, brothers.

They heard of the shooting and decided to avenge the death of their pal. Later in the day as Bell walked past a general store in the frontier town some one yelled, "Look out, Mr. Bell!" Turning like a flash, at the same time drawing his revolver, the detective saw Jim Styles on the opposite side of the street. He saw smoke issue from Styles' weapon, and a bullet seared his temple. Jim Styles continued shooting, his brother Jack, on the same side of the street with Bell, coming to his assistance.

One shot at Jim Styles laid that worthy on the ground. Jack Styles gave a yell of anger as he saw his brother fall and advanced toward Bell, firing as he came. The two men paused within ten paces of each other, and there they emptied their weapons. Bell had no knife, and when Styles saw this he gave a yell of triumph, tossed his revolver from him and jumped in with a bowie knife in his hand.

The two closed in upon each other. At Styles' first slash of the knife Bell side stepped, though the point of the knife made a painful wound over his right eyebrow. Another vicious thrust he parried, though the keen weapon laid open his left forearm, pierced his upper lip, knocking out two front teeth. By this time the two men were upon the ground, Bell beneath his antagonist. He heard someone call his name and another moment felt something strike his side.

Reaching out, his hand fell upon a pistol. A sigh of relief followed this discovery, and he placed the weapon full against Styles' chest just as the latter raised his knife for a last thrust. Bell pulled the trigger and sent a bullet through his heart.

Both brothers lay dead, and Bell fainted from loss of blood.
Great story, but I can find no supporting evidence for it; no mention of a Texas Ranger named George Bell and no mention of such a fight in Tucson. A fight in which three men were killed would not have gone unnoticed by the newspapers of the time. However, since bowie-knife lore is part fact and part fiction, I present it for whatever it might be worth.

Stories like this seem to get a pass under the Geezer Rule. If an old guy tells you a great story about something he claims to have done or witnessed in his youth, you can publish it without any fact checking. If he's lying, it's his bad thing. Click here for another geezer story recounted in this blog.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Pistol and Bowie Knife Fight Between Doctors

The following article appeared in the British medical journal The Lancet on November 5, 1859. It describes an exchange of pistol shots, which almost turned into a bowie knife fight, between Dr. John D. Foster and Dr. Choppin, two house-surgeons at the Charity Hospital in New Orleans. True or false? Who knows? Nevertheless, the story was widely reprinted  as an example of the astonishing things that went on in the American South.
On Saturday morning (says an American paper), the wife of a man who was afflicted with aneurism, and was at the Charity Hospital, applied to have a dangerous operation (that of tying the subclavian artery) performed by Dr. Choppin. He agreed to do it if the man left the hospital and came to his infirmary. This the man desired to do, but on asking the deputy clerk for his discharge, he was informed that Dr. Foster had left instructions that he should not be permitted to go out of the hospital. The man waited at the gate until Dr. Choppin came, who told him he could leave if he chose, as a matter of course, for they had no right to detain him in the hospital as if he was a prisoner. The man then went out.

Then commenced a scene disgraceful to relate-a scene of mingled cowardice, bloodshed, and brutality. The medical art had not softened their ways, and had suffered the disputants to remain as savages. These two physicians met on the steps of the hospital; two angry sentences passed; then commenced the wager of battle, in the pagan fashion of those parts. While Dr. Choppin was cocking his pistol, Dr. Foster, who had a self-cocking revolver, shot him in the left side of the neck. The ball cut the external jugular vein, and paralysed his arm for a moment, causing his pistol to go off, slightly wounding his left hand, and sending him staggering back down the side walk nearly ten feet. Dr. Foster then shot him again, the ball entering the left iliac region, and passing out at his side just over the hip. Dr. Choppin then drew his other "Derringer" and fired, but the ball struck and glanced off from the iron gate post. Immediately throwing away the pistol, he drew a bowie knife, and dared Dr. Foster to fight with knives. Dr. Foster fired again, an ineffectual ball. Dr. Choppin was then advancing upon him knife in hand, and Dr. Foster slowly retiring with his revolver levelled, when the students interposed. Dr. Foster was arrested. It was not known whether the ball entering the iliac region of Dr. Choppin had wounded the membranes of the abdomen.

What a picture of society in New Orleans! Two physicians, who visit their patients revolver at hand, and make their rounds in the wards armed with loaded pistols! As the story is told, it is impossible to say which is the more blameable. It is a state of society of which we can but imperfectly realize the existence. Such outrages on morality are not possible here. It were absurd to say only that such men dishonour medicine, since they violate humanity, and offend alike the laws of justice and the dictates of religion.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Lincoln's Bodyguard, Col. Ward Hill Lamon

Ward Hill Lamon, photographed by Matthew Brady.

In the months before his inauguration on March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln embarked on an 1800-mile speaking tour accompanied by a few friends, among them Col. Ward Hill Lamon, a tall, barrel-chested man of enormous brute strength. Born in Virginia, Lamon had been Lincoln’s law partner in Illinois and was intensely loyal to him.

During Lincoln’s appearance in Buffalo, a member of his entourage, Major David Hunter, had his shoulder dislocated when the crowd broke through the police line and almost overwhelmed the presidential party. Later, looking at Hunter's arm in a sling, Colonel Lamon remarked, “Well, Major, if you had had the good sense to stick close to me, you would not have met with that ugly accident. Yesterday the crowd at Pittsburg were hemming us in on all sides, eager to catch a glimpse of the President, and the situation was becoming dangerous, when I seized Mr. Lincoln by the arm, and drawing my bowie-knife, and waving it around me in a circle, cried, ‘Just smell of that!’”

Hunter wrote: "Suiting the action to the word the Colonel snatched at a tow string around his neck and quickly brought to light one of the most formidable knives it has been my pleasure to encounter in a somewhat wide experience in different parts of the world. There is no doubt that Mr. Lincoln owed his freedom from bodily harm, on that and some other occasions, to the quickness and courage of his staunch friend Ward Lamon."

Lincoln was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on February 22, 1861, when detective Allan Pinkerton warned him of an assassination plot and advised him to return to Washington in secrecy that night. At the time, the president and his company were dining with Governor Allan G. Curtin and a circle of friends. Deciding that only one man should accompany him, so as not to attract attention, Lincoln chose Lamon. Before they left the room Governor Curtin asked Colonel Lamon whether he was armed, and from under his coat Lamon pulled a brace of pistols, a large bowie knife, a blackjack, and a pair of brass knuckles. Curtin declared, “You'll do.”

Pinkerton, who joined the two on the train, was shocked when Lamon offered the president a pistol and bowie knife. “I at once protested saying that I would not for the world have it said that Mr. Lincoln had to enter the National Capitol armed,” said Pinkerton.

Lamon had many enemies in Washington, D.C., some who considered him a dangerous buffoon and others who suspected him of harboring Southern sympathies. Lincoln trusted him implicitly, and appointed him United States Marshal for the District. On one occasion Lamon was walking with Lincoln when a man professing to be a supporter grabbed the president’s hand and shook it with a grip that caused him to cry out in pain. It was not the first time a Confederate sympathizer had played this trick and Lamon reacted by punching the man in the head and knocking him unconscious.  Lincoln admonished him, “Hereafter, when you have occasion to strike a man, don't hit him with your fist! Strike him with a club or crowbar or something that won't kill him.”

On election night, November 8, 1864, Lamon was so concerned about Lincoln’s safety that he “lay down at the President's door, passing the night in that attitude of touching and dumb fidelity, with a small arsenal of pistols and Bowie knives around him.”

On December 10, 1864, Lamon wrote to Lincoln, reminding him that he was in constant danger and urging him to take better precautions as to his safety. He noted, “Tonight, as you have done on several previous occasions, you went unattended to the theatre. When I say unattended, I mean that you went alone with [Senator] Charles Sumner and a foreign minister, neither of whom could defend himself against an assault from any able-bodied woman in this city.”

On April 13, 1865, Lincoln sent Lamon on a mission to Richmond. Before he left, he had a meeting with the president. “I wanted him to promise me that he would not go out after night while I was gone, particularly to the theatre,” Lamon later recalled.

Lincoln laughed off the warning. He was assassinated the following evening.

“As God is my judge," Lamon said later, "I believe if I had been in the city, it would not have happened, and had it, I know that the assassin would not have escaped the town.”

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"Who Invented the Bowie Knife?"

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.
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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

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,[7] 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."[8]

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,[9] 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.[10]

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,[11] 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[12] 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."[13]

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,[14] 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.[15] Antiquarians in Pennsylvania have claimed that James Bowie himself hammered out the first model there when he visited the city of Philadelphia.[16] 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.[17]

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.[18] Another tradition is that Bowie gave the original knife to the famous actor, Edwin Forrest,[19] who used it in his presentation of the play, Metamora.[20] And still another avers that a Louisiana descendant of Rezin P. Bowie lost the original knife in a bog many years ago.[21] The stories of the fall of the Alamo usually include the information that James Bowie had the original knife with him there.[22] 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.[23] 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.[24] 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.[25]


[1] 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.
[2] 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.
[3] "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.
[4] J. Frank Dobie, "Bowie and the Bowie Knife," Southwest Review, XVI (193l), 355.
[5] Ibid., P. 356.
[6] 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.
[7] In an unpublished letter dated 1890 in the Archives of the University of Texas.
[8] Dobie, "Bowie and the Bowie Knife," op. cit., pp. 354-355.
[9] 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.
[10] 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.
[11] 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."
[12] 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.
[13] 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.
[14] U. S. Works Progress Administration, Arkansas: A Guide to the State (New York: Hastings House, 1941), p. 217.
[15] Noah Smithwick, The Evolution of a State (Austin, Texas: The Gammell Book Company, 1900), pp. 136--137.
[16] Arkansas: A Guide, p. 217.
[17] U. S. Works Progress Administration, Mississippi: A Guide to the Magnolia State (New York: The Viking Press, 1938), p. 328.
[18] Dobie, "Bowie and the Bowie Knife," op. cit., pp. 366-367.
[19] American Notes and Queries, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Vol. 1, No. 5, June 2, 1888, pp. 49-50, citing Durand's History of the Philadelphia Stage.
[20] 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.
[21] Dobie, "Bowie and the Bowie Knife," op. cit., p. 366.
[22] Dallas T. Herndon, Centennial History of Arkansas (Chicago and Little Rock: The S. J. Clarke
Publishing Company, 192 2), I, 985.
[23] 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.
[24] Dobie, "Bowie and the Bowie Knife," op. cit., pp. 351-368.
[25] 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.