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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Tale of James Black and the Bowie Knife

The following is excerpted from an article titled "A Survey of Historic Washington, Arkansas," written by Francis Irby Gwaltney and published in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Winter 1958. Unfortunately, the material is drawn entirely from Raymond Thorp's book Bowie Knife, which includes many apocryphal tales. It is presented here as for historical interest, as one of the many legends surrounding the birth of the bowie knife.

James Bowie, born in Logan County, Kentucky, enjoyed a rather wide reputation as a knife fighter long before he gave his name to the famous knife made in Washington. He was the principal in the so-called "Battle on Vidalia Sandbar," in which no less than a dozen men were killed. [PK: This is of course an exaggeration.]

But the principal character in the story of the Bowie Knife is not James Bowie of Vidalia, Memphis, and the Alamo. It is James Black of Washington, Arkansas.

James Black was the man who both designed and forged the Knife. It had a curved forward blade, a short dagger-like backhand blade and it was made from steel which was tempered by a secret process known only to James Black.

Bowie, already a famous man, won everlasting fame when he died at the Alamo. Black died an old man, blind and insane.

James Black was born in Hackensack, New Jersey, May 1, 1800. His mother died when he was four; and shortly thereafter James had a stepmother. He didn't like the woman and when he was eight years old he ran away to Philadelphia. Picked up by authorities, he refused to tell who he was and where he lived. According to the custom of the time, he was apprenticed out to a manufacturer. He was of strong physique and he was thought to be eleven years old.

The man to whom James Black was apprenticed was a manufacturer of silver plate. Black became an apt pupil. When he was officially twenty-one but actually eighteen, his apprenticeship served, he decided to follow the tide of the western migration.

After some wandering about, he landed at Fulton, Arkansas Territory, on the Red River in Hempstead County, and found his way to Washington in 1824. The town had recently been staked out by Elijah Stuart and others.

Black applied for and received employment with a blacksmith named Shaw. It was agreed that Shaw and his two sons would assume responsibility for the rough work, shoeing horses, etc., and Black was to devote his time to the manufacture of guns and knives, an agreement which afforded Black the opportunity he wanted, that of working with precious metals.

Because of Black's skill, the business flourished and Black was taken into partnership. It was a friendly arrangement and Black and one of Shaw's sons became inseparable friends. And Black fell in love with Shaw's daughter, Anne. Nobody knows why Shaw objected to the match. He was, however, violently opposed to the possibility of a marriage.

Black, discouraged but willing to try a plan, made a settlement with Shaw for Black's share of the business and then he moved further into the wilderness. He intended to return because, not understanding, Shaw's real character, he reasoned that the man would relent and the marriage would be approved.

But when he returned to Washington, he discovered that Shaw not only refused to allow the marriage, he also refused to pay Black that part of the money he still owed on the dissolution of the partnership. Disillusioned but not necessarily wiser, Black pressed Anne to marry him over her father's objections. They were married and Black had incurred Shaw's almost manic hatred.

The marriage was happy enough. And Black prospered. Orders for knives were so frequent that Black took his friend and now brother-in-law into the business. But Black never allowed young Shaw nor, for that matter, even Anne to witness his technique in making the knives. He worked alone, allowing only a boy, Daniel Webster Jones, later governor of the state, to enter the curtained-off portion at the rear of the shop.

According to Governor Jones, in whose home Black spent his tragic, declining years, Black didn't consider a knife worthy of carrying his name until it passed what Black called "the hickory test." The blade, when finished, was used to whittle on a piece of seasoned hickory for a period of an hour. If, after having received such punishment, the knife failed to shave the hair from a man's arm, the blade was thrown away."

Of course such skill and devotion to the making of a good product caused Black's knife to become known all over the South and the Southwest. And then, in 1830, James Bowie headed for the plantation belonging to his brother, Rezin (or sometimes spelled "Reason"), stopped in Washington to order one of the knives he had heard about.

Some accounts state that Bowie cut the model for his knife out of a cigar box top, others says he drew a picture of it on a piece of paper, and another merely says that he whittled out a model. Any of the three versions will do, for the model wasn't used.

Bowie, when he returned to Washington some four weeks later, found that Black had made the knife as ordered, but he had also designed and made another knife. Black, knowing of Bowie's reputation as a knife fighter, delicately said that he thought a knife should be made for peculiar purposes.

The knife designed by Black was the one Bowie chose to buy. Soon thereafter, on a journey to Texas, Bowie was set upon by three ruffians who had been hired by one of Bowie's enemies for the express purpose of killing him. They attacked from ambush. Bowie was slightly wounded on the leg, but the wound didn't stop him from killing all three men. The knife was used to completely sever the head of one man from his body. A second man was disemboweled by a vicious upthrust. The third man made an effort to flee but Bowie, his leg wounded, overtook the man and, with one blow, split the man's skull to the shoulders.

The incident became, of course, a piece of lurid news which was printed in almost every paper in the country. James Black became famous. The knife was the most terribly bloody devise of its kind ever made. Orders poured in for a "knife like Bowie's." Then, as more knives were made, it became known simply as "The Bowie Knife."

Even intrepid Davy Crockett, in his Autobiography when he met Bowie and had occasion to see Bowie draw the knife, remarked: "Colonel, you might tickle a fellow's ribs a long time with this little instrument before you'd make him laugh; and a many a time I have seen a man puke at the thought of the point touching the pit of his stomach."

Black became the father of three boys and a girl. Anne died in 1836, Black had tried, but he had failed in his efforts to appease his father-in-law.

It was in the summer of 1839 that the tragedy of Black's final days began, although he was to live many years. Black was very ill and was being cared for by his children. It should be pointed out, however needlessly, that the children present were the grandchildren of Shaw.

Shaw, seeing his opportunity, attacked the sick Black with a heavy club. Black's death would have come then had it not been for his dog. The beast rushed in and seized Shaw's throat. Shaw tore himself loose from the dog and fled.

But the damage had been done. The beating administered by Shaw and his club caused a severe inflammation of Black's eyes. He became almost totally blind. As soon as he was well enough, he traveled to the east in an effort to find a doctor who could help him. A quack in Cincinnati ruined what vision Black had left. He returned to Washington, his finances damaged by the search for help, and there he discovered that his father-in-law had somehow managed to liquidate all of Black's property and had fled with the proceeds from it.

The remainder of the tragedy can be best told by a manuscript written by Governor Jones and published in the book, Bowie-Knife, by Thorp:
Dr. Isaac N. Jones was my father, and at the time James Black came to live with us, I was an infant just beginning to Prattle. My father used his best skill in an effort to restore Black's sight, but all to no avail. Being honest, he told his patient that it would be futile to torture him with further treatments. "But said my father," you need have no fears. You shall live with us always."

My father died in February, 1858; but Black, with the full consent of the family, remained with us. Following the decease of my mother in January, 1867, I took him to my home, where he lived until his death, which occurred June 2, 1872. Altogether, he lived with us some thirty years.

Black was always a welcome member in our family. His kindly mien and fatherly advise to my brothers and myself endeared him to us all. He was especially attached to my eldest brother, Isaac, and after Isaac's death at the age of fourteen, the old man transferred his affection to me. While he lived in my father's house, the doctor's office was his room, and I slept there frequently, read to him, and led him about the premises.

Mr. Black was a man of extraordinary memory, and was always made the referee in controversies among the older settlers when they failed to agree concerning some occurrence of earlier times. Time and again, when I was a boy, he would say to me that notwithstanding his great misfortune. God had blessed him by giving him a good home among friends, and that one day, when I reached maturity, he would disclose to me his secret of tempering steel.

I did not press him as to this, although naturally very curious, and it was not until my mother's death, when he moved into my home, that it seemed he was getting ready to trust me with his secret.
On May 1, 1870, which was his seventieth birthday, Mr. Black told me that, since in the ordinary course of nature he could not expect to live much longer, he had decided that the time had arrived.

He stated that I was old enough and sufficiently well acquainted with the affairs of the world to properly utilize the secret, and that if I would procure pen, ink and paper, he would communicate his knowledge to me.

I lost no time in bringing the materials to him. After sitting in silence for awhile, he said: "In the first place"---and then stopped and began rubbing his brow with the fingers of his right hand.

He continued in this way for some minutes, as if trying to reconstruct something in his mind, and then, still rubbing his brow, said: "Go away and come back in an hour."

I did so, but remained close to the open door where I could see him, and not for one moment did he take his fingers away from his brow, or change his position.

At the expiration of the hour I went in and spoke to him. Without a perceptible movement, he said: "Go out again, and come back in an hour's time."

This I did, and the same process was again repeated, and again. When I came back to him at the end of the third hour Mr. Black burst into tears, saying: "My God! It is all gone from me! All these years I have accepted the kindness of these good people in the belief that I could partly repay it with this, my only legacy. Daniel, there are ten or twelve processes through which I put my knives---but I cannot remember even one of them. A few hours ago, when I told you to get the writing materials, everything was fresh in my mind. Now it has flown. I have put it off too long!" I looked at Mr. Black in awe and wonder. His forehead was raw and bleeding, where the skin and the flesh had been rubbed off by his fingers. His sightless eyes were filled with tears, and his face expressed utter grief and despair. I could only say: "Never mind, Mr. Black. It is all in the wisdom of God. He knows best; and undoubtedly He had His reasons for allowing the secret of the Bowie-Knife to remain with You.

The inventor of the Bowie-Knife lived with me slightly more than two years following this scene---but from that moment he was a hopeless imbecile. The struggle to impart the secret had destroyed his mind. God gave him the secret for His own purposes, but was unwilling for him to impart it to others.
So the old artisan, "a hopeless imbecile" because, indirectly, of the hostility of his father-in-law, was buried in the old cemetery at Washington.

It is called The Old Presbyterian Cemetery today. It has gone unused since pioneer days. The grave is unmarked because wooden headstones were used in those days and soon rotted.

Few authentic Bowie-Knives can be found today. Certain people do own knives they call Bowies, but the shape of the weapon was characteristic enough that the real thing is unmistakable.

For the artisan Black was the only one who made the real Bowie-Knife. Millions of knives were manufactured, mostly in England, and employed the shape of the blade, but the authentic Bowie-Knife was made by James Black at Washington, Arkansas.

To all but those who are interested in the true history of the Bowie-Knife, James Black is forgotten. Recently, however, since the publication of a popular novel The Iron Mistress, by Paul I. Wellman, and the subsequent motion picture, Black has become slightly more widely remembered.

Bowie himself, of course, died a death spectacular enough to match the life he had led. Killed at the Alamo, along with another one-time visitor in Washington, Davy Crockett, he used his Washington-designed and Black-made knife as a last melodramatic gesture: the knife was still with him, its blade bloody, and the sentimental Mexicans, appreciative of both the talent of the man and the effectiveness of the weapon, tossed both man and Knife upon the pyre. Bowie and his knife, along with the corpses of the other defenders of the Alamo, were burned. The knife has lived on, both in legend and history, and possibly for that reason, Bowie himself is remembered.


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  2. This is so interesting. I really don't think he was a embacil. And to know know I'm related to James black threw my blood line is remarkable.

  3. My cousin has done our family tree. And I have now found out he is my family. I have so many questions. This is absolutely amazing. I'm in shock mostly. But yes it's a fact werew related. She has documents to prove it. I'm a major history buff. God bless.

  4. James Black is my many great grandfather. I was blessed with a wonderful family that keeps great records and pictures. I am in shock that this is the first time I read this letter. Such a personal letter. Truthfully, it made my cry. ....My Grandpa Black of Texas recently passed away.He lived a well into his 90s. -This letter, written about my many great grandfather Black being so optimistic and grateful personality, even down to his memory in the end. All shown brightly, inherited if you will, in my Grandfather. His blood line and memory lives on through his children. Unfortunately, as far as I know.... with my grandfathers passing, the name also leaves. He passed the bloodline down through daughters, but never a son to continue the name. I would love any other information you might have obtained on the Black family. Thank you for posting.