Who Invented the Bowie Knife?The year 1844 marked the end of an era. In that year, Captain Jack Hays and part of a company of Texas Rangers, newly equipped with the Walker model of Samuel Colt’s revolver, fully demonstrated the superiority of that weapon over all others for close combat. This history-making event occurred during the Battle of the Pedernales in what is now Kendall County, Texas, where the fifteen Texas Rangers stood off and severely defeated about seventy Comanche Indians.
The repeated volleys from Hays and his men sounded the death knell of a weapon which until that time had been the favorite for infighting. 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 argued 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 about the origin of the Bowie knife, it is now impossible to draw the line where history leaves off and legend begins.
The Bowie Family
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, searcher for lost mines, and fighter for Texan independence. Of all the characters connected with the history of the Southwest, James Bowie comes closer to being a true folk hero than any other. His brave and tragic death in the Alamo in 1836 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 only be 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. Their names are among the certain facts of Bowie history that have come down to us.
Relatively little is known about James Bowie’s early life. Tradition makes him a participant in a desperate encounter on the Vidalia Sandbar in the Mississippi River on September 19, 1827--the so-called “Sandbar Duel”--in which, after being badly wounded, he killed his opponent with his now-famous knife. About 1828 he traveled to Texas, making his home in San Antonio and searching in the San Saba region for the lost mine that bears his name.
If numbers count for anything, then James Bowie may well have been responsible for the Bowie knife, for he figures in more different accounts of the origin of the first blade than any other member of the clan. One account with an early and wide circulation is that of the broken sword: Bowie, while 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. Harper’s Weekly printed this version at the time of the Civil War as the true story of the origin of the Bowie knife, a weapon that was again finding favor with Southern troops.
But still other accounts give Bowie credit for devising the first blade rather than accidentally contriving it. One has it that in preparation for the Sandbar Duel, he took a fourteen-inch file to a cutler named Pedro, in New Orleans. It seems that Pedro had learned his trade in Toledo, the famous sword-making center in Spain. Another version tells that James Bowie whittled a pattern of the knife from soft wood--but after the “Sandbar Duel,” while he was recovering from his wounds--and that a blacksmith named Lovel Snowden fashioned the weapon. Yet another story maintains that James Bowie injured himself in an Indian fight by letting his hand slip from the hilt to the blade of his knife. Bowie afterward discussed the addition of a guard, with John Sowell, a blacksmith of Gonzales, Texas, who made the first weapon from a wooden model carved by Bowie, according to a descendant of Sowell.
Other members of the Bowie family are also given credit for the invention of this lethal weapon. John S. Moore, a grandnephew of James Bowie, claimed the original blade was modeled as a hunting knife by Rezin Bowie, the father of James Bowie 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 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, learned 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 butchering wild cattle and decided to design a knife that would not slip from 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 Major Wright, and how the faulty pistol had prevented him from evening the score, Rezin immediately gave his knife to his brother, with the advice: “Here, Jim, take ‘Old Bowie.’ She never misses fire.”
The Sandbar Duel
If stories of the Sandbar Duel that followed are to be believed, the knife fully lived up to its expectations. What started out as a duel between Dr. Thomas H. Maddox and Samuel Levi Wells became a free-for-all fight among about ten partisans of the duelists, in which two men were killed and three badly wounded. Bowie himself was shot in the arm and hip and stabbed in the chest. This 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 the death of Rezin Bowie Sr.
Knowledgeable readers may point out that the “Sandbar Duel” did not take place until 1827, eight years after Rezin Bowie had died, 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.” 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 thePlanters’ Advocate, a small weekly newspaper in French and English published in Donaldsonville, Louisiana. A series of articles by a NewOrleans correspondent signing himself “P. Q.” had appeared in the Baltimore Commercial Transcript on June 9 and 11, 1838, and were subsequently copied byAlexander’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 Parish 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 then dead brother had been a bloodthirsty duelist. That he was unsuccessful can be concluded from the legends that remain current about Jim Bowie’s prowess as a knife wielder.
For a long time the Bowie knife was also known as the “Arkansas toothpick,” and that state takes credit in some versions for a part in the manufacture of the first Bowie weapon. But the true Arkansas Toothpick is a heavy dagger with a narrow blade up to 25 inches long. A former judge in Arkansas, William F. Pope, insisted 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 maintained that no genuine Bowie knives were ever made outside the state of Arkansas.
Another claimant, Daniel Webster Jones, Democratic governor of Arkansas from 1897 to 1901, concurred that James Black had a hand in making the first Bowie knife, but insisted that Black was also responsible for the design. His story was 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. Now part of Old Washington Historic State Park, with 40 restored buildings and facilities, including Black's shop. In 1830, James Bowie came to Black's shop and gave him an order for a knife, furnishing the desired pattern. Black completed the knife according to Bowie’s pattern and, because he had never made a knife that had really suited his own taste, he made another based on his idea of what a knife should be. When Bowie returned, Black showed both knives to him, offering him his choice at the same price. Bowie immediately selected Black’s design. The fame and reliability of this knife soon spread, until people were telling Black, “Make me a knife like Bowie’s.” This eventually became “Make me a Bowie knife.”
Governor Jones claimed 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 knife making, 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 blacksmiths scorned such prosaic tests as whittling hickory axe-handles and instead drove their newly made Bowie knives through silver dollars. Others rejected blades that did not quiver at the touch of a finger, or give off a bell-like, vibrating tone when plucked with a thumbnail.
In Texas, the knife is sometimes attributed to Noah Smithwick, a pioneer blacksmith and gunsmith in the town of San Felipe on the Brazos River--although Smithwick said only that he had cut a pattern of the original knife carried by James Bowie and set up a factory to manufacture authentic copies of Bowie knives. The completed blades brought him from five to twenty dollars, depending upon the finish desired. Antiquarians in Pennsylvania have claimed that James Bowie himself hammered out the first model there when he visited the city of Philadelphia. In Natchez, Mississippi, it is said that the design was Rezin P. Bowie’s, that a blacksmith’s file furnished the crude steel for the first Bowie knife, and that the cutler was a Natchez craftsman.
What Happened to the Original?
Stories about 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; when he rode back to get it, it was gone. He decided that a wolf had found it and carried it off because of the traces of blood on it. Another tradition is that Bowie gave the original knife to the famous actor Edwin Forrest, who used it in his presentation of the play Metamora. And still another claims that many years ago a Louisiana descendant of Rezin P. Bowie lost the original knife in a bog.
Accounts of the fall of the Alamo in 1836 usually include the claim that James Bowie had the original knife with him there. The heap of dead Mexican attackers said to have been found around his cot (he was ill at the time of the attack) would seem to bear witness to the corpse-making qualities of the blade. One Juan Padillo, said to have been a member of Jean Lafitte’s band of pirates, presented a Bowie knife with a silver plate on the handle bearing the name “Jim Bowie” to a Texan. An “original” Bowie knife is among the relics exhibited in the Alamo today; the Witte Museum in San Antonio has another that is supposed to have been presented by Bowie to a friend. The Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock displays in its knife gallery more than 100 historic and modern Bowie knives, including one attributed to James Black and confirmed to be of his manufacture.
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 pioneer and hunter found it handy for skinning game, cutting up meat, eating or fighting. The handle could be used 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.
Texas folklorist and historian J. Frank Dobie once attempted to unravel the many conflicting tales connected with the first Bowie knife in an attempt to separate truth from legend. He concluded, however, “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.