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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.


  1. Maybe you already know it, but just in case I'll mention that this type of knife is called "à la d'Estaing".
    I don't know who this d'Estaing person was.


  2. Update : Charles Henri d'Estaing, count and admiral is said to have designed this knife in 1780, according to a french knife online knife shop.


  3. Thanks for the information! I was not aware this knife design's history. I've seen different versions, most made in England. To me, it combines the worst features of a folding and fixed-blade knife, but it would be an interesting thing for the collection.

  4. Dagger "à la d'Estaing" do not support mediocrity and cheap build. This dagger is a combination table knife and sidearm to dispatch game in traditional Horse mounted hunts with hounds(like Fox Hunt but for wild board, Roe & Red Deer ..).