Saturday, September 6, 2014

A History of the Bowie Knife

Gold Rush era Spear-point Bowie found encased in an
Adobe brick at the Rancho Dana, Nipomo, CA
Maker, "WOODHEAD, SHEFFIELD" [England].
 

Throughout my life, I have been a fan of the Bowie knife. When I was very young I used to stop into the local sporting goods store to stare at the huge Bowie inside the W.R. CASE KNIVES display. I vowed someday I would own one. I believe this infatuation led me to become a student of the history of the Bowie knife and the man who made it a legend, Colonel James Bowie. The following information is based on what I have been able to glean of the Bowie's history, from various sources:  

Early Life of James Bowie

James Bowie was born in Logan County, Kentucky in April of 1796.  In about 1802 his family moved to Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana.  There in the bayou, Bowie and his brother, Rezin Pleasant Bowie III learned to hunt and grew to manhood. 

During this time an accident occurred which helped to start the legend of the Bowie knife. It was the practice in those days to "stick" the carcass of a deer or butchered animal to allow it to bleed out.  According to a member of the Bowie family, a member of the family was performing just such a task and had blood on his hands, making them quite slippery.  When he thrust the knife into the animal's carcass, his hand slid forward onto the blade, very nearly severing his fingers. 
 
After this incident, Rezin Bowie had a knife made by a plantation blacksmith named Jesse Clift.  Rezin designed the knife with a "cross-guard" which would prevent the hand from sliding forward onto the blade.  Rezin Bowie later verified this himself in 1838 when he wrote: 

"The first Bowie knife was made by myself in the Parish of Avoyelles, in this State [Louisiana], as a hunting knife, for which purpose, exclusively, it was used for many years.  The length of the knife was nine and one quarter inches, its width one and a half inches, single edged and blade not curved." 

Large hunting knives or "Rifleman's Knives" were not unusual in those days, being intended to perform camp functions along with skinning game. It's often said, "A large knife can perform a small knife's tasks, but a small knife cannot perform a large knife's tasks", and I imagine those early woodsmen understood this principle quite well. In the southwest, the Spanish and Mexican peoples had long been using a large, clip-point bladed knife known as a Belduque, which may have contributed to the Bowie's clip point blade. More on that later...
 
According to some sources, Bowie and his brother initially made their fortune from trafficking in slaves.  After acquiring some financial capital, they began purchasing land in Rapides Parish.  They developed a lumber mill business that they sold at a substantial profit. 

Birth of a Legend: The Sandbar Fight

In about 1826, James Bowie attempted to obtain a loan from a banker named Norris Wright, who was also the Sheriff of Rapides Parish. Wright denied the loan, causing Bowie some financial difficulties. This situation became further exasperated when Bowie became involved in local politics and supported another man who was running against Wright for Sheriff. Bowie later met Wright on the street.  Words were exchanged and Wright drew a pistol.  Bowie drew his own, but it "snapped" or failed to take fire. Wright's ball struck Bowie, but apparently was deflected when it struck a bone. After he recovered from his wound, his brother Rezin gave him his hunting knife. He is quoted as saying to James, "Here, take old Bowie...he never snaps", meaning the knife would not misfire.

Bowie was probably carrying his brother's hunting knife with him when, in September 1827, he and several other men were acting as seconds for a pistol duel between Samuel Wells and Dr. Thomas Maddox. Amongst the seconds on the opposing side was Norris Wright. The duel was being fought on the Vidalia Sandbar near Natchez, Louisiana. The combatants discharged their weapons twice, neither man striking the other. Their honor satisfied, they shook hands and declared the matter resolved. However, the seconds were not satisfied and a brawl broke out between them.

Once again, Bowie was wounded by a ball from Norris Wright and fell to the ground.  Although some sources report Bowie giving chase to Wright, the most often told version reports Wright as producing a sword from his cane and approaching Bowie to finish the job.  Bowie reportedly achieved a sitting position and was able to grab Wright, pull him in close and proceeded to kill him with his side knife.  Word of this fight spread like wildfire and Bowie and his knife became national celebrities. Soon people everywhere were seeking to purchase "a knife just like Bowie's"...or in other words, "A Bowie knife".  

During the California Gold Rush, Bowie knives were imported in great numbers from Sheffield England and made locally by renown knife makers like Michael Price, S.F. They provided an effective and less expensive means of self-defense, especially when one considers the nature of period combat, which was often up close & personal, deriving from sudden quarrel or conflict, possibly in a bar or crowded situation where drawing and cocking a firearm was not possible.

Bowie knives were produced in wide variety of materials, with plain wooden scales, bone, or even ivory scales and fancy silver cross guards and escutcheon plates. Double-edged or "Spear Point" Bowie blades were also available, and useful because they offered the user two edges. Typically, one edge was kept keenly sharp for fine work while the other was abused for rough, day-to-day utility work such as chopping.

Undoubtedly, much of this Bowie popularity was due to fad, but many people recognised the practical value of a knife as a back up to the unreliable single-shot firearms of the period. Either way, it quickly became the fashion to wear a "Bowie knife" in addition to ones firearm. It was also the practice in that period to carry "openly".  Concealed carry of weapons suggested malevolent intentions. Schools also began to spring up which taught the skillful combat use of the Bowie knife, based on fencing techniques.

After the Sandbar fight, Bowie relocated to Texas. In about February 1830, Bowie took the Oath of Allegiance to Mexico and became a Tejano. Using the land speculator skills he had acquired in Louisiana, he soon began to acquire large tracts of land. 

While in Texas, he allegedly had the blade of his brother's knife polished and set into a fancy ivory handle with silver mountings and scabbard, this according to a blacksmith named Noah Smithwick, who operated a shop in San Felipe.  Smithwick went on to say,” I made a duplicate knife for Bowie, who did not wish to degrade it by ordinary use." A shrewd businessman, Smithwick made a pattern from Bowie's knife and began making copies of it.  He stated he received from $5 to $20 each, depending upon the finish. 
 
Not to be outdone, Rezin Bowie had a cutler named Searles make up a number of Bowies for presentation to important people. He apparently wanted to get his share of fame and remind folks or at least make it known that "he" was in fact the Bowie knife's designer, and his brother merely the person wielding it. Known as a "Searles Bowie" it is probably the true pattern of the *original* Bowie knife...small guard, long blade with a very shallow clip. And, actually it very closely resembles a southwest Belduque knife, but this could just be coincidence.

Searles Bowie
 
 In the winter of 1830-1831, Bowie had yet another knife made for him by blacksmith James Black of Washington, Arkansas. Some hold that this knife still exists, and is known as the "The Bart Moore Bowie" [more to follow...]..
 
In 1831, Bowie became romantically involved with Ursula de Veramendi, daughter of the Mexican Governor of Texas, Don Juan Martin de Veramendi and Dona Maria Josefa Navarro On April 25, 1836, Bowie and Ursula de Veramendi were wed in San Fernando de Bexar by the parish priest, Don Refugio de la Garza. Bowie became heir to a huge land grant and entered into business with his father-in-law. Also during this time he was commissioned a Colonel and led Ranging companies [an early Texas Ranger militia] against raiding Comanche Indians.

Bowie is said to have had children with Ursula de Veramendi, some sources stating they had twin daughters. In September 1833, Bowie returned home from a business trip to learn that he had lost his wife [and children] to a cholera epidemic. Reportedly, Bowie was grief-stricken and became an inconsolable drunk over the loss of his wife and children.

The Alamo
 
As was inevitable, James Bowie became involved in the cause of Texas independence. He was assigned by Sam Houston to evacuate the Alamo and mine it with explosives, lest it fall into the hands of Santa Anna and his army and become a base for conducting operations against the Texans.  However, upon reaching the Alamo, he found the men well-entrenched and unwilling to abandon the mission.  Their stubborn Commander, Colonel William Barrett Travis, had convinced them that relief was on the way and steeled their resolve to take on the Mexican army. Bowie had little choice to remain, and may have even been too ill by then to leave [more on that in a moment...]. 

In his memoirs, Colonel Davy Crockett described meeting James Bowie soon after arriving at the Alamo. In his autobiography, "Davy Crockett's Own Story, As Written by Himself", Crockett described the encounter as follows:

"...I found Colonel Bowie, of Louisiana, in the fortress, a man celebrated for having been in more desperate personal conflicts than any other in the country, and whose name has been given to a knife of peculiar construction, which is now in general use in the southwest.  I was introduced to him by Colonel Travis, and he gave me a friendly welcome, and appeared to be mightily pleased that I had arrived safe.  While we were conversing, he had occasion to draw his famous knife to cut a strap, and I wish to be shot if the bare sight of it wasn't enough to give a man of a squeamish stomach the colic, especially before breakfast.  He saw I was admiring it, and, said he, "Colonel, you might tickle a fellow's ribs a long time with this little instrument before you'd make him laugh; and many a time have I seen a man puke at the idea of the point touching the pit of his stomach."    

Some accounts also hold that by this time, Bowie was a very sick man.  Some have speculated that he was suffering from pneumonia and others "consumption" [tuberculosis].  Regardless, Bowie probably was not in the best condition for making crucial decisions when he capitulated to Travis and threw in with the Alamo's 180 defenders, thus the mission was not destroyed as per Sam Houston's instructions. accounts state that soon thereafter, Bowie became so ill however, that he was bedridden and confined to a cot in a room in the low barracks of the mission and was attended to by a Mexican woman.

Santa Anna's army [variously numbered as between 1,500 and 4,000 troops] arrived in San Antonio de Bexar on the morning of February 23, 1836 and encamped within sight and sound of the mission. Santa Anna's troops paraded [probably for psychological warfare effect] and then unlimbered their artillery and commenced sporadic bombardment of the mission.  This harassment continued for twelve days until March 6, 1836 when, in the early morning hours of that date, waves of Mexican soldiers assaulted the mission and breached the wall near the low barracks.  It was probably in one of the first buildings cleared by the Mexican troops that they found Bowie and killed him.  His body was later identified by a witness. 
 
The Great Mystery

Perhaps the greatest mystery of all is what became of James Bowie's personal knives? Knives plural...that is to say, 1.) The knife he fought the Vidalia Sandbar fight with; 2.) The copy he had made by Noah Smithwick for ":common use";  and, 3.) The knife made by James Black.
 
And which of these did he have in his possession at the Alamo, as observed by Crockett?  Several Bowie's have surfaced over the years, each claiming to be Bowie's personal knife. One of the most well known of these is the "Bart Moore Bowie", which is on display at the Arkansas Territorial Museum in Little Rock.
 
The Bart Moore Bowie

The story goes as follows: The Bart Moore Bowie was given to a Texas Farmer in lieu of a debt in about 1890 by a Mexican who claimed to be a veteran of the assault on the Alamo and removed the knife from among a pile of bodies. This Bowie bears the initials "J.B." and incorporates an acorn design said to be James Black's maker’s mark [Black's shop sat beneath the shade of an Oak tree].  Some have dismissed this however, stating it has characteristics of a "typical" Mexican Bowie.

Another possible Bowie knife is known as the "Juan Seguin Bowie", which is on display at the Texas Ranger Museum in Waco, Texas. Juan Seguin was a Mexican Tejano, who chose to ally himself with the Texas independence movement, and was a defender at the Alamo. It is a documented fact that on the eighth day of the siege, Seguin rode out of the Alamo on Bowie's horse to carry a message seeking reinforcements.  It is possible that Bowie may have given Seguin at least one of his knives along with his horse.
 
 
The Juan Seguin Bowie

As can be seen in the photograph above, the Seguin Bowie has a distinctive D-guard handle with an "Eagle's head pommel".  An identical guard and pommel are visible in Bowie's left hand in his 19th Century portrait:
 
 
Life portrait of James Bowie, circa 1820
 
It seems probable that Bowie, having made his reputation with this famous knife, would have wanted to have it included in his portrait.     

The Bowie knife in the Modern Era

Fortunately, this outstanding knife pattern did not die with it's namesake at The Alamo. rather, for over 187 years now, James Bowie's knife has been regarded as the definitive American fighting/hunting/utility knife; it has even been adopted and used by foreign nations, including our British allies who incorporated it into bayonets designed for their post-war No.4 Enfield Rifle and No. 5 Jungle Carbine.

In recent years, historians have begun to debate whether the clip-point blade is in fact the original "Bowie" blade pattern.  In fact, most blade historians now agree that the clip-point blade had long been in existence prior to the introduction of the Bowie knife [again, witness the Belduque southwest knife of Nuevo (New) Mexico]. They also agree that there probably was no "one true" Bowie Knife, but rather, a succession of patterns which have ultimately resulted in the clip-point pattern which is today generally accepted as the archetypal Bowie knife.

Regardless of its origin or true design, the Bowie knife remains America's knife. Bowie knives were a "must have" tool for many Argonauts traveling to the California Gold Fields in 1849.  They have been incorporated into numerous hunting and military knife patterns, such as the U.S. Krag rifle's Bowie bayonet and later the U.S. Marine Corps fighting/utility knife [the vaunted Ka-Bar], to name but two examples. Even today, in the 21st Century, a Bowie pattern knife can undoubtedly be found on an American soldier's belt defending freedom in some far-flung corner of the World. Thus, James Bowie's legacy lives on wherever and whenever American patriots, like those brave souls at the Alamo, take up the Bowie knife to defend our way of life and our country.  
 
Bushcraft and Camp use of the Bowie

In a more peaceful role, Bowie knives serve well for performing hunting, general camp, and Bushcraft tasks. The larger blades can be used as machete's and for splitting and chopping wood, replacing a belt axe. On the Frontier, the wide blade could be used as a field-expedient shovel to dig with. The large blade can be used to quarter game animals, as well as small tasks like whittling camp stakes and notching. Medium sized Bowie's, like the
KA-BAR knife can perform many of these tasks well and yet provide a handier size for comfortable day-long belt carry.

Modern KA-BAR Bowie with rubber handle.

Another useful Bowie pattern are large folding blades that incorporate the Bowie's clip-point. As can be seen in the photograph below, the Bowie's point provides a wide belly and an up swept point useful for skinning and butchering game, as well as a fine point for delicate tasks. The user can also choke up on the rear of the blade near the haft, which can be used for shaving, notching, and carving chores. In this example, a folding saw has been incorporated, useful for harvesting camp wood or other projects. I carry mine in a surplus CONDOR single M9 magazine case. I replaced the ALICE clip with a FIELD & STREAM carabiner and then attached my ferro rod via a self-made paracord lanyard:

 
WESTERN folding Bowie with saw blade.
 
Below are 2 photographs of my V-44 pattern Bowie knife on a 1-night/2-day camp out in September, 2013. It has a 10" blade and a laminated wood handle. I have chopped camp wood up to about 6" diameter using this knife, which is hollow ground, and the blade has not snapped. I wore it daily on the trip and did not notice the weight at all. At night, I looped it over a post I'd whittled to support the head corner of my parka shelter. A video of that outing can be viewed here: September 2013 Sulphur Pots outing.  

V-44 pattern Bowie with laminated handle
Performing camp chores. 

 
V-44 Bowie dwarfs CONDOR "Hudson Bay" knife,
But both are still excellent camp chore blades.
 
Conclusion
 
I hope the reader has enjoyed this blog post and perhaps has even learned some historical facts they may not have previously been aware of. I think the Bowie knife has a rich history that goes beyond it's early use by Colonel James Bowie and has undoubtedly proven itself a useful tool for both combat and peacetime pursuits such as camping and hunting.  
 
 

© Manny Silva, 2014.  All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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