Jim Bowie stabs a Louisiana banker with his famous knife

Jim Bowie stabs a Louisiana banker with his famous knife

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After a duel turns into an all-out brawl on September 19, 1827, Jim Bowie disembowels a banker in Alexandria, Louisiana, with an early version of his famous Bowie knife. The actual inventor of the Bowie knife, however, was probably not Jim Bowie, but rather his equally belligerent brother, Rezin Bowie, who reportedly came up with the design after nearly being killed in a vicious knife fight.

The Bowie brothers engaged in more fights than the typical frontiersman of the day, but such violent duels were not uncommon events on the untamed margins of American civilization. In the early nineteenth century, most frontiersmen preferred knives to guns for fighting, and the Bowie knife quickly became one of the favorites. Rezin Bowie had invented such a nasty looking weapon that the mere sight of it probably discouraged many would-be robbers and attackers.

Designs varied somewhat, but the typical Bowie knife sported a 9- to 15- inch blade sharpened only on one side for much of its length, though the curved tip was sharpened to a point on both sides. The double-edged tip made the knife an effective stabbing weapon, while the dull-edge combined with a brass hand guard allowed the user to slide a hand down over the blade as needed. The perfect knife for close-quarter fighting, the Bowie knife became the weapon of choice for many westerners before the reliable rapid-fire revolver took its place in the post-Civil War period.

Bowie knife

A Bowie knife ( / ˈ b uː i / BOO -ee [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] ) [a] is a pattern of fixed-blade fighting knife created by James Black in the early 19th century for Jim Bowie, who had become famous for his use of a large knife at a duel known as the Sandbar Fight.

Since the first incarnation, the Bowie knife has come to incorporate several recognizable and characteristic design features, although in common usage the term refers to any large sheath knife with a crossguard and a clip point. [9] The knife pattern is still popular with collectors in addition to various knife manufacturing companies there are hundreds of custom knife makers producing Bowie knives with different types of steel and variations.


According to his older brother John, James Bowie was born in Logan County, Kentucky, on March 10, 1796 (Historical marker: 36° 46' 25"N 86° 42' 10"W). [5] Historian Raymond Thorp in his 1948 gave Bowie's birth date as April 10, but did not support it with any documentation. [6] Bowie's surname was pronounced / ˈ b uː i / BOO -ee. [1] [2] [3] [7] (Some reference works refer to an incorrect alternate pronunciation / ˈ b oʊ i / BOH -ee [7] [8] [9] ).

Bowie was the ninth of ten children born to Reason (or Rezin) and Elve Ap-Catesby (née Jones, or Johns) Bowie. [10] His father was of Scottish descent and his mother was of Welsh ancestry. His father had been wounded while fighting in the American Revolutionary War. In 1782 he married Elve, the young woman who had nursed him back to health. The Bowies first settled in Georgia and then moved to Kentucky.

At the time of Bowie's birth, his father owned eight enslaved African Americans, eleven head of cattle, seven horses, and one stud horse. The following year the family acquired 200 acres (80 ha) along the Red River. They sold that property in 1800 and relocated to what is now Missouri. In 1802 they moved south to Spanish Louisiana, where they settled on Bushley Bayou in what soon became Rapides Parish. [11] [12] [13]

The family moved again in 1809, settling on Bayou Teche in Louisiana before finding a permanent home in Opelousas in 1812. [14] Raised on the frontier, the Bowie children worked from a young age, helping clear the land and plant and cultivate crops. All the children learned to read and write in English, but James and his elder brother Rezin could also read, write, and speak Spanish and French fluently. [15] The children learned to survive on the frontier, ranging from how to fish, butcher meat, and run a farm and plantation. James Bowie became proficient with pistol, rifle, and knife, [16] and had a reputation for fearlessness. When he was a boy, one of his Native American friends taught him to rope alligators. [17]

In response to General Andrew Jackson's plea for volunteers to fight the British in the War of 1812, James and Rezin enlisted in the Louisiana militia in late 1814. The Bowie brothers arrived in New Orleans too late to participate in the fighting. [18] After mustering out of the militia, Bowie settled in Rapides Parish. [12] [19] He supported himself by sawing planks and lumber, and floating them down the bayou for sale. [12] [20] In June 1819, he joined the Long Expedition, an effort to liberate Texas from Spanish rule. [21] [22] The group encountered little resistance and, after capturing Nacogdoches, declared Texas an independent republic. The extent of Bowie's participation is unclear, but he returned to Louisiana before the invasion was repelled by Spanish troops. [23] [24]

Shortly before the senior Bowie died circa 1820, he gave ten slaves and horses and cattle to both James and Rezin. For the next seven years, the brothers worked together to develop several large estates in Lafourche Parish and Opelousas. [20] Louisiana's population was growing rapidly, and the brothers hoped to take advantage of its rising land prices through speculation. Without the capital required to buy large tracts, [25] they entered into a partnership with pirate Jean Lafitte in 1818 to raise money. By then, the United States had outlawed the importation of slaves from Africa. Most southern states gave incentives for informing on an illegal slave trader informers could receive half of what the imported slaves would earn at auction as a reward.

Bowie made three trips to Lafitte's compound on Galveston Island. On each occasion, he bought smuggled slaves and took them directly to a customhouse to inform on his own actions. When the customs officers offered the slaves for auction, Bowie purchased them and received back half the price he had paid, as allowed by the state laws. He could legally transport the slaves and resell them at a greater market value in New Orleans or areas farther up the Mississippi River. [26] [27] Using this scheme, the brothers collected $65,000 to use for their land speculation. [27] [28]

In 1825, the two brothers joined with their younger brother Stephen to buy Acadia Plantation near Thibodaux. Within two years, they had established there the first steam mill in Louisiana for grinding sugar cane. [12] [20] [29] The plantation became known as a model operation, but on February 12, 1831, they sold it and 65 slaves for $90,000. With their profits, James and Rezin bought a plantation in Arkansas. [20]

Bowie and his brother John were involved in a major Arkansas court case in the late 1820s over land speculation. When the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, it promised to honor all former land grant claims made to French and Spanish colonists. For the next 20 years efforts were made to establish who owned what land. In May 1824, Congress authorized the superior courts of each territory to hear suits from those who claimed they had been overlooked.

The Arkansas Superior Court received 126 claims in late 1827 from residents who claimed to have purchased land in former Spanish grants from the Bowie brothers. Although the Superior Court originally confirmed most of those claims, the decisions were reversed in February 1831 after further research showed that the land had never belonged to the Bowies and that the original land grant documentation had been forged. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the reversal in 1833. [30] [31] When the disgruntled purchasers considered suing the Bowies, they discovered that the documents in the case had been removed from the court left without evidence, they declined to pursue a case. [32]

Bowie became internationally famous as a result of a feud with Norris Wright, the sheriff of Rapides Parish. Bowie had supported Wright's opponent in the race for sheriff, and Wright, a bank director, had been instrumental in turning down a Bowie loan application. [33] After a confrontation in Alexandria one afternoon, Wright fired a shot at Bowie, after which Bowie resolved to carry his hunting knife at all times. [34] The knife he carried had a blade that was 9.25 inches (23.5 cm) long and 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) wide. [35]

The following year, on September 19, 1827, Bowie and Wright attended a duel on a sandbar outside of Natchez, Mississippi. Bowie supported duellist Samuel Levi Wells III, while Wright supported Wells's opponent, Dr. Thomas Harris Maddox. The duellists each fired two shots and, as neither man had been injured, resolved their duel with a handshake. [36] [37] Other members of the groups, who had various reasons for disliking each other, began fighting. Bowie was shot in the hip after regaining his feet he drew a knife, described as a butcher knife, and charged his attacker, who hit Bowie over the head with his empty pistol, breaking the pistol and knocking Bowie to the ground. Wright shot at and missed the prone Bowie, who returned fire and possibly hit Wright. Wright drew his sword cane and impaled Bowie. When Wright attempted to retrieve his blade by placing his foot on Bowie's chest and tugging, Bowie pulled him down and disemboweled Wright with his large knife. [38] [39] Wright died instantly. Bowie, with Wright's sword still protruding from his chest, was shot again and stabbed by another member of the group. The doctors who had been present for the duel removed the bullets and patched Bowie's other wounds. [40]

Newspapers picked up the story, and named it the Sandbar Fight, describing in detail Bowie's fighting prowess and his unusual knife. Witness accounts agreed that Bowie did not attack first, and the others had focused their attack on Bowie because "they considered him the most dangerous man among their opposition." [41] Bowie's reputation across the South was set as a superb knife fighter. [29]

Scholars disagree as to whether Bowie's knife used in this fight was the same as what is now known as a Bowie knife, fabricated by a knifemaker in Arkansas who created another large blade known as the Arkansas toothpick. Multiple accounts exist of who designed and fabricated the first Bowie knife. Some claim that Bowie designed it, while others attribute the design to noted knife makers of the time. [42] However, in a letter to The Planter's Advocate, His brother Rezin Bowie claimed to have designed the knife. [43] Many Bowie family members as well as "most authorities on the Bowie knife tend to believe it was invented by" Rezin. [44] Rezin Bowie's grandchildren, however, said that Rezin supervised his blacksmith, who was the designer of the knife. [45]

After the Sandbar Fight and subsequent battles in which Bowie used his knife in self-defense, the Bowie knife became very popular. Many craftsmen and manufacturers made their own versions, and major cities of the Old Southwest had "Bowie knife schools" that taught "the art of cut, thrust, and parry." [46] His fame, and that of his knife, spread to Great Britain. By the early 1830s, many British manufacturers were producing Bowie knives for shipment to the United States. [47] The design of the knife continued to evolve but a Bowie knife is now generally considered to have a blade 8.25 inches (21.0 cm) long and 1.25 inches (3.2 cm) wide, with a curved point, a "sharp false edge cut from both sides", and a cross-guard to protect the user's hands. [48]

In 1828, after recovering from being wounded in the Sandbar Fight, Bowie decided to move to Coahuila y Texas, at that time a state in the Mexican federation. [49] The 1824 Constitution of Mexico banned religions other than Roman Catholicism and gave preference to Mexican citizens in receiving land. [50] Bowie was baptized into the Roman Catholic faith in San Antonio on April 28, 1828, sponsored by the alcalde (chief administrator) of the town, Juan Martín de Veramendi, and his wife, Josefa Navarro. [51] For the next 18 months, Bowie traveled through Louisiana and Mississippi. In 1829, he became engaged to Cecilia Wells. But she died in Alexandria, on September 29, two weeks before they were to be married. [29] [52]

On January 1, 1830, Bowie left Louisiana for permanent residency in Texas. He stopped at Nacogdoches, at Jared E. Groce's farm on the Brazos River, and in San Felipe, where Bowie presented a letter of introduction to Stephen F. Austin from Thomas F. McKinney, one of the Old Three Hundred colonists. On February 20, Bowie took an oath of allegiance to Mexico and proceeded to San Antonio de Bexar. [29] At the time, the city was known as Bexar and had a population of 2500, mostly of Mexican descent. Bowie's fluency in Spanish helped him get established in the area. [53]

Bowie was elected a commander, with the rank of colonel, of the Texas Rangers later that year. [54] Although the Rangers would not be organized officially until 1835, Stephen F. Austin had founded the group by employing 30 men to keep the peace and protect the colonists from attacks by hostile Indians. Other areas assembled similar volunteer militias, and Bowie commanded a group of the volunteers. [55]

Bowie renounced his American citizenship and became a Mexican citizen on September 30, 1830, after promising to establish textile mills in the state of Coahuila y Tejas. [55] To fulfill his promise, Bowie entered into partnership with Veramendi to build cotton and wool mills in Saltillo. [56] With his citizenship assured, Bowie had the right to buy up to 11 leagues of public land. He convinced 14 or 15 other citizens to apply for land and transfer it to him, giving him 700,000 acres (280,000 ha) for speculation. Bowie may have been the first to induce settlers to apply for empresario grants, which could be sold in bulk to speculators as Bowie had. [56] [57] The Mexican government passed laws in 1834 and 1835 that stopped much of the land speculation. [58]

On April 25, 1831, Bowie married nineteen-year-old Maria Ursula de Veramendi, the daughter of his business partner, who had become the vice governor of the province. Several days before the ceremony, he signed a dowry contract promising to pay his new bride 15,000 pesos (approximately $15,000 then, or $365,000 today [59] ) in cash or property within two years of the marriage. At the time, Bowie claimed to have a net worth of $223,000 ($5,420,000 today), mostly in land of questionable title. Bowie also lied about his age, claiming to be 30 rather than 35. [60]

The couple built a house in San Antonio on land Veramendi had given them near the San José Mission. After a short time, however, they moved into the Veramendi Palace, living with Ursula's parents, who supplied them with spending money. [61] The couple had two children, Marie Elve (b. March 20, 1832) and James Veramendi Bowie (b. July 18, 1833). [62]

Maria Ursula, her parents, and both children died in September 1833 from a cholera epidemic that swept through the South and along major waterways. [29]

Shortly after his marriage, Bowie became fascinated with the story of the "lost" Los Almagres Mine (also known as the lost San Saba Mine and the lost Bowie Mine), said to be northwest of San Antonio near the ruin of the Spanish Mission Santa Cruz de San Saba. [35] According to legend, the mine had been operated by local Indians before being seized by the Spanish. After Mexico won independence from Spain, government interest in the mining potential waned. A number of native groups roamed the area, including Comanche, Lipan Apache, Tawakoni, and Tonkawa. Without government troops to keep hostile natives at bay, mining and mineral exploration were impossible. Some believed that after the Mexican citizens left the area, the Lipan took over the mine. [62]

After obtaining permission from the Mexican government to mount an expedition into Indian territory to search for the legendary silver mine, Bowie, his brother Rezin, and ten others set out for San Saba on November 2, 1831. Six miles (10 km) from their goal, the group stopped to negotiate with a large raiding party of Indians—reportedly more than 120 Tawakoni and Waco, plus another 40 Caddo. The attempts at parley failed, and Bowie and his group fought for their lives for the next 13 hours. When the Indians finally retreated, Bowie reportedly had lost only one man, while more than 40 Indians had been killed and 30 were wounded. [28] [35] [63] In the meantime, a party of friendly Comanche rode into San Antonio bringing word of the raiding party, which outnumbered the Bowie expedition by 14 to 1. The citizens of San Antonio believed the members of the Bowie expedition must have perished, and Ursula Bowie began wearing widow's weeds. [64]

To the surprise of the town, the surviving members of the group returned to San Antonio on December 6. [64] Bowie's report of the expedition, written in Spanish, was printed in several newspapers, further establishing his reputation. [65] He set out again with a larger force the following month, but returned home empty-handed after two and a half months of searching. [29]

Bowie never talked of his exploits despite his increasing fame. [66] Captain William Y. Lacey, who spent eight months living in the wilderness with Bowie, described him as a humble man who never used profanity or vulgarities. [67]

Texan rumblings

Between 1830 and 1832 the Mexican Congress passed a series of laws that seemed to discriminate against Anglo colonists in the province of Coahuila y Tejas, increasing tension between the Anglo citizenry and Mexican officials. In response to the rumblings, Mexican troops established military posts in several locations within the province, including San Antonio de Béxar. [68] [69] Although much of the military supported the administration of President Anastasio Bustamante, Antonio López de Santa Anna led an insurrection against him in 1832. [70] Anglo colonists in Texas supported Santa Anna and General José Antonio Mexía, who led soldiers into Texas to oust commanders loyal to Bustamante. [71]

After hearing that the Mexican army commander in Nacogdoches, José de las Piedras, had demanded that all residents in his area surrender their arms, Bowie cut short a visit to Natchez in July 1832 to return to Texas. [29] On August 2, 1832, he joined a group of other Texans and marched into Nacogdoches to "present their demands" to Piedras. [68] Before the group reached the building housing the town officials, they were attacked by a force of 100 Mexican cavalry. The Texans returned fire and the Battle of Nacogdoches began. After the cavalry retreated, they initiated a siege of the garrison. [68] After a second battle, in which Piedras lost 33 men, the Mexican army evacuated during the night. Bowie and 18 companions ambushed the fleeing army and, after Piedras fled, marched the soldiers back to Nacogdoches. [29] Bowie later served as a delegate to the Convention of 1833, which formally requested that Texas become its own state within the Mexican federation. [72]

Several months later, a cholera epidemic struck Texas. Fearing the disease would reach San Antonio, Bowie sent his pregnant wife and their daughter to the family estate in Monclova in the company of her parents and brother. The cholera epidemic instead struck Monclova, and between September 6 and September 14, Ursula, their children, her brother, and her parents all died of the disease. Bowie, on business in Natchez, heard of his family's deaths in November. From then on, he drank heavily and became "careless in his dress." [72]

The following year, the Mexican government passed new laws allowing land sale in Texas, and Bowie returned to land speculation. He was appointed a land commissioner and tasked with promoting settlement in the area purchased by John T. Mason. His appointment ended in May 1835 when President Antonio López de Santa Anna abolished the Coahuila y Tejas government and ordered the arrest of all Texans (including Bowie) doing business in Monclova. Bowie was forced to flee Monclova and return to the Anglo areas of Texas. [29]

The Anglos in Texas began agitating for war against Santa Anna, and Bowie worked with William B. Travis, the leader of the War Party, to gain support. Bowie visited several Indian villages in East Texas in an attempt to persuade the reluctant tribes to fight against the Mexican government. Santa Anna responded to the rumblings by ordering large numbers of Mexican troops to Texas. [29]

Battle of Concepción

The Texas Revolution began on October 2, 1835, with the Battle of Gonzales. Stephen F. Austin formed an army of 500 men to march on the Mexican forces in San Antonio with the cannon that had precipitated the fight. The name "Texian Army" sometimes is applied to this militia. On October 22, Austin asked Bowie, now a colonel in the volunteer militia, and James W. Fannin to scout the area around the missions of San Francisco de la Espada and San José y San Miguel de Aguayo to find supplies for the volunteer forces. [73] The scouting party left with 92 men, many of them members of the New Orleans Grays who had just arrived in Texas. After discovering a good defensive position near Mission Concepción, the group requested that Austin's army join them. [74]

On the foggy morning of October 28, Mexican General Domingo Ugartechea led a force of 300 infantry and cavalry soldiers and two small cannons against the Texian forces. [75] [76] Although the Mexican army was able to get within 200 yards (183 m), the Texian defensive position protected them from fire. As the Mexicans stopped to reload their cannon, the Texians climbed a bluff and picked off some of the soldiers. The stalemate ended shortly after Bowie led a charge to seize one of the Mexican cannons, at that time only 80 yards (73 m) away. Ugartechea retreated with his troops, ending the Battle of Concepción. One Texian and ten Mexican troops had been killed. [75] One of the men under Bowie's command during the battle later praised him "as a born leader, never needlessly spending a bullet or imperiling a life, who repeatedly admonished. Keep under cover boys, and reserve your fire we haven't a man to spare." [77]

Grass Fight and commission difficulties

An hour after the battle ended, Austin arrived with the rest of the Texian army to begin a siege of San Antonio de Béxar, where General Martín Perfecto de Cós, the overall commander of Mexican forces in Texas, and his troops were garrisoned. [78] Two days later, Bowie resigned from Austin's army because he did not have an official commission in the army, and he disliked the "minor tasks of scouting and spying". [79]

On November 3, 1835, Texas declared itself an independent state, and a provisional government was formed with Henry Smith of Brazoria elected provisional governor. Austin requested to be relieved of his command of the army, and Sam Houston was named army chief. Edward Burleson was chosen as temporary commander of the troops in San Antonio. Bowie appeared before the council at some point and spoke for an hour, asking for a commission. [80] The council refused Bowie's request, likely because of lingering animosity over his land dealings. [81]

Houston offered Bowie a commission as an officer on his staff, but Bowie rejected the opportunity, explaining that he wanted to be in the midst of the fighting. [81] Instead, Bowie enlisted in the army as a private under Fannin. [29] [79] He distinguished himself again in the Grass Fight on November 26. Cós had sent approximately 187 men to cut grass for his horses. [82] As they returned to San Antonio, Bowie took 60 mounted men to intercept the party, [83] which they believed carried valuable cargo. [82] The Mexican troops quickened their pace in the hopes of reaching the safety of the city, but Bowie and his cavalry chased them. At the end of the fight, the Texians had two wounded men but had captured many horses and mules. [83]

Shortly after Bowie left San Antonio, Ben Milam led an assault on the city. In the ensuing fighting, the Texians suffered only a few casualties, including Miliam, while the Mexican army lost many troops to death and desertion. Cós surrendered and returned to Mexico, taking with him the last Mexican troops in Texas. Believing the war was over, many of the Texian volunteers left the army and returned to their families. [84] In early January 1836, Bowie went to San Felipe and asked the council to allow him to recruit a regiment. He again was turned down as he "was not an officer of the government nor army." [85]

Battle of the Alamo

After Houston received word that Santa Anna was leading a large force to San Antonio, Bowie offered to lead volunteers to defend the Alamo from the expected attack. He arrived with 30 men on January 19, [86] where they found a force of 104 men with a few weapons and a few cannons, but not many supplies and little gunpowder. [87] Houston knew that there were not enough men to hold the fort in an attack and had given Bowie authority to remove the artillery and blow up the fortification. Bowie and the Alamo commander, James C. Neill, decided they did not have enough oxen to move the artillery, and they did not want to destroy the fortress. On January 26, one of Bowie's men, James Bonham, organized a rally that passed a resolution in favor of holding the Alamo. Bonham signed the resolution first, with Bowie's signature second. [88]

Through Bowie's connections because of his marriage and his fluency in Spanish, the predominantly Mexican population of San Antonio often furnished him with information about the movements of the Mexican army. After learning that Santa Anna had 4,500 troops and was heading for the city, [88] Bowie wrote several letters to the provisional government asking for help in defending the Alamo, especially "men, money, rifles, and cannon powder". [89] In another letter, to Governor Smith, he reiterated his view that "the salvation of Texas depends in great measure on keeping Béxar out of the hands of the enemy. It serves as the frontier picquet guard, and if it were in the possession of Santa Anna, there is no stronghold from which to repel him in his march toward the Sabine." [89] The letter to Smith ended, "Colonel Neill and myself have come to the solemn resolution that we will rather die in these ditches than give it up to the enemy." [89]

On February 3, Davy Crockett appeared with thirty Tennesseans. Neill went on furlough on February 11 to visit his sick family, leaving Travis, a member of the regular army, in command. [90] Bowie was older than Travis with a better reputation and considered himself a colonel, thus outranking Travis, a lieutenant colonel. [91] [92] He refused to answer to Travis, who called an election for the men to choose their own commander. They chose Bowie, infuriating Travis. [91] Bowie celebrated his appointment by getting very drunk and causing havoc in San Antonio, releasing all prisoners in the local jails and harassing citizens. Travis was disgusted but two days later the men agreed to a joint command Bowie would command the volunteers, and Travis would command the regular army and the volunteer cavalry. [29] [91]

On February 23, the bells of San Fernando sounded the alarm of the approach of the Mexicans. Travis ordered all the Texan forces into the Alamo. [93] [94] Bowie hurried to gather provisions and herd cattle into the Alamo compound. [95] Fearing for the safety of his wife's relatives in San Antonio, Bowie invited her cousins Getrudis Navarro and Juana Navarro Alsbury, as well as Alsbury's 18-month-old son, Alijo Perez Jr., to stay inside the walls of the Alamo. [96] Bowie also brought several black servants, some of whom worked at the Veramendi Palace, into the security of the Alamo fortress. [97] [98] Bowie had been ill, and two doctors, including the fort surgeon, were unable to diagnose his illness. [89] Travis became the sole commander of the forces when Bowie was confined to bed. [99] Santa Anna and his army began a siege of the Alamo on February 24. The Mexican army raised a red flag to warn the defenders that no quarter would be given. [100]

Bowie and Travis began sending out couriers with pleas for provisions and assistance. [101] Travis sent Juan Seguin on Bowie's horse, to recruit reinforcements on February 25, and 32 additional men arrived. [102] [103] On February 26, Crockett reported that Bowie, though suffering from his affliction, continued to crawl from his bed around noon every day and presented himself to the Alamo's inhabitants, which much boosted the morale of his comrades. [104] Thirty-five years after the Alamo fell, a reporter identified Louis "Moses" Rose as the only man to have "deserted" the Texian forces at the Alamo. According to the reporter's version of Rose's account, when Travis realized that the Mexican army would likely prevail, he drew a line in the sand and asked those willing to die for the cause to cross the line. At Bowie's request, Crockett and several others carried the cot over the line, leaving Rose alone on the other side. [105] After its publication, several other eyewitnesses confirmed the account, [106] [107] but as Rose was deceased the story can only be authenticated by the word of the reporter, who admitted to embellishing other articles, "and thus many historians refuse to believe it." [107]

Bowie perished with the rest of the Alamo defenders on March 6, when the Mexicans attacked. [29] Most of the noncombatants in the fort, including Bowie's relatives, survived. [108] Santa Anna ordered the alcalde of San Antonio, Francisco Antonio Ruiz, to confirm the identities of Bowie, Travis, and Crockett. [109] After first ordering that Bowie be buried, as he was too brave a man to be burned like a dog, [110] Santa Anna later had Bowie's body placed with those of the other Texians on the funeral pyre. [109]

When Bowie's mother was informed of his death, she calmly stated, "I'll wager no wounds were found in his back." [111] Various eyewitnesses to the battle gave conflicting accounts of Bowie's death. A newspaper article claimed that a Mexican soldier saw Bowie carried from his room on his cot, alive, after the conclusion of the battle. The soldier maintained that Bowie castigated a Mexican officer in fluent Spanish, and the officer ordered Bowie's tongue cut out and his still-breathing body thrown onto the funeral pyre. This account has been disputed by numerous other witnesses, and it is thought to have been invented by the reporter. [112] Other witnesses maintained that they saw several Mexican soldiers enter Bowie's room, bayonet him, and carry him, alive, from the room. [113] Various other stories circulated, with some witnesses claiming that Bowie shot himself and others saying he was killed by soldiers while too weak to lift his head. [114] Alcalde Ruiz said that Bowie was found "dead in his bed." [114] According to Wallace O Chariton, the "most popular, and probably the most accurate" [4] version is that Bowie died on his cot, "back braced against the wall, and using his pistols and his famous knife." [114] One year after the battle, Juan Seguin returned to the Alamo and gathered the remaining ashes from the funeral pyre. He placed these in a coffin inscribed with the names of Bowie, Travis, and Crockett. The ashes were interred at the Cathedral of San Fernando. [115]

Despite his continual pronouncements of wealth, Bowie's estate was found to be very small. His possessions were auctioned for only $99.50. [116] His larger legacy is his position as "one of the legendary characters of the American frontier." [22] Bowie left a "frustratingly sparse paper trail" of his life, and for many "where history failed, the legends prevailed." [117] Although Bowie's name and knife were well known during his lifetime, his legend grew after October 1852, when DeBow's Review published an article written by his brother John Jones Bowie called, "Early Life in the Southwest—The Bowies." The article focused primarily on the exploits of Jim Bowie. [118] Beginning with that article, "romanticized stories" about Bowie began appearing in national press. [117] In many cases, "these stories were pure melodrama, with Bowie rescuing some naïve planter's son or damsel in distress." [117]

Jim Bowie was inducted posthumously into the Blade Magazine Cutlery Hall of Fame at the 1988 Blade Show in Atlanta, Georgia, in recognition of the impact that his eponymous design made upon generations of knife makers and cutlery companies. [119]

A number of films have depicted the events of the Battle of the Alamo, [120] and Bowie has appeared as a character in each.

From 1956 to 1958, Bowie was the subject of a CBS television series, The Adventures of Jim Bowie, which was primarily set in 1830s Louisiana, although later episodes ventured into the Mexican province of Texas. [121] The show, which starred Scott Forbes as Jim Bowie, was based on the 1946 novel Tempered Blade. [122]

Rock star David Bowie, who was born David Robert Hayward-Jones, adopted the folk legend's surname. Jones changed his last name in the 1960s because he feared confusion with Davy Jones, a member of the already famous The Monkees. He chose the Bowie eponym because he admired James Bowie and the Bowie knife, although his pronunciation uses the BOH -ee ( / ˈ b oʊ i / ) variant. [123]

Bowie County in northeast Texas, and the city of Bowie in Montague County, Texas, were both named in honor of James Bowie. James Bowie Elementary in Corsicana, Texas was also named in his honor.

Coffee with the Hermit

One name comes to mind very quickly when we talk about weapons of the old west. Jim Bowie.

What made Bowie famous was his well known knife and Bowie's willingness to put it to use. They both developed quite a reputation, both good and bad!

After a duel turns into an all-out brawl on this day in 1827, Jim Bowie disembowels a banker in Alexandria, Louisiana, with an early version of his famous Bowie knife. The actual inventor of the Bowie knife, however, was probably not Jim Bowie, but rather his equally belligerent brother, Rezin Bowie, who reportedly came up with the design after nearly being killed in a vicious knife fight.

The Bowie brothers engaged in more fights than the typical frontiersman of the day, but such violent duels were not uncommon events on the untamed margins of American civilization. In the early nineteenth century, most frontiersmen preferred knives to guns for fighting, and the Bowie knife quickly became one of the favorites. Rezin Bowie had invented such a nasty looking weapon that the mere sight of it probably discouraged many would-be robbers and attackers. Designs varied somewhat, but the typical Bowie knife sported a 9- to 15- inch blade sharpened only on one side for much of its length, though the curved tip was sharpened to a point on both sides. The double-edged tip made the knife an effective stabbing weapon, while the dull-edge combined with a brass hand guard allowed the user to slide a hand down over the blade as needed. The perfect knife for close-quarter fighting, the Bowie knife became the weapon of choice for many westerners before the reliable rapid-fire revolver took its place in the post-Civil War period.

Good or bad, the name Jim Bowie will likely be well known for many years to come as a legend in the stories of the Old West.

Coffee on the patio again today. Won't be long before we'll be forced inside because of the 'skeeters.


I will always remember Jim Bowie from the old Westerns on TV. His name is synonymous with The West. That knife would scare the bejesus out of me. I'll be happy to join you before the "skeeters" carry me off.

Hey Linda.
I think that the knife was designed as much for intimidation as anything else. The Army is spraying for the nasty 'skeeters almost daily, so maybe they won't get too bad.
Thanks for stopping by this morning!

So Jim Bowie wasn't such a hero? That knife sounds pretty bad I always thought it was for him to fight off bear.

Hey Jo.
The knife wasn't for bear, but for people. Seemed to work just fine for that, too!
Thanks, sweetie, for dropping by today!

The Bowie Knife Lives On

No one knows what happened to Bowie’s knife. Most likely, it was picked up by one of the men who killed him and either taken back to Mexico or lost or re-swiped at the Battle of San Jacinto, at which Santa Ana’s army was defeated.

This was the “real” Bowie. Probably it was a big knife, with a heavy blade of 10 inches, give or take a few. It probably had a concave false edge, sharpened, and twin quillons. It was a weapon, not a tool, and copies of it became enormously popular in the South and on the frontier. The demand became so great that England’s Sheffield cutlers became a major supplier of Bowies we know of at least 40 manufacturers. There were an additional 40 American firms making them, and some smaller cutlers such as Will & Finck in San Francisco and Searles in Baton Rouge who produced very fine Bowies.

And there were untold thousands turned out by blacksmiths. These were big, crude, and heavy. Confederate soldiers loved to be photographed with colossal Bowies stuck in their belts, but I think mostly this was for the camera. Of all the wounds inflicted in the Civil War, .04 percent were caused by edged weapons, and this includes swords and bayonets. I suspect that bayonetting a Yank or hacking him to death was just a little too grim for all but the most dedicated Rebs.

Also, a Bowie was not useful except as a weapon, and if you were a Secesh infantryman making 30-mile marches at 4 miles per hour, day after day, with not enough to eat, the last thing you needed was 3 pounds of occasionally useful steel stuck in your belt.

After the Civil War ended and the cartridge-firing revolver ascended, the Bowie in its original form became a relic. But it continues to thrive. The Ka-Bar, which is a much-scaled down Bowie, has been in the inventory of our armed forces since 1943. It’s a tool first and a weapon second. The Randall Model 1 All Purpose Fighting Knife has been around the exact same amount of time and served in every war we’ve been in. It, too, is a Bowie.

Collectors love Bowies. If you go to the website of Arizona Custom Knives, which is the biggest purveyor of such, you can see all manner of Bowies from all manner of smiths. There are plain ones and fancy ones, big ones and little ones, ugly ones and graceful ones. All are, I’m certain, of far higher quality than anything Jim Bowie carried or dreamed of.

If you’d like to own one, I suggest the Western Cutlery Model W49, which is that (now defunct) company’s big Bowie. It’s an excellent knife. There are a lot of them around, and some can be had quite cheaply. The Marine Raiders issued it to their members as the V49 during World War II, and Robert Redford carries one in Jeremiah Johnson. From there on, the sky is the limit. If you’d like a Bowie from the legendary smiths Bill Moran, or D.E. Henry, you’ll need to take out a second mortgage to pay for it.

Bowie, by today’s standards, was not an admirable guy, and if Cancel Culture ever finds out about him, he’s done for. But if you admire courage, no one had more. And no one questioned his…and lived.

Jim Bowie

T he name Jim Bowie often evokes images of a large, fierce hunting knife and a desperate battle for Texas freedom at the Alamo. Although he was branded a hero by Texas history, Bowie actually spent most of his life in Louisiana. In the Bayou State, records affirm that Bowie’s aspirations were routinely pursued through forgery, bribery, perjury, and intimidation. Partnering with the pirate Jean Laffite, he ran a contraband slave-smuggling operation, and his illegal land schemes created chaos for land-hungry settlers. In this regard, Jim Bowie can be considered an extreme example of the many ambitious but unscrupulous men of his time and place.

James “Jim” Bowie was born in the spring of 1796 (reported dates vary) in Logan County, Kentucky, to Reason Pleasant Bowie and Elve Ap-Catesby Jones Bowie. His father was of Scottish descent his mother, Welsh. Reason, always seeking frontier opportunities, crossed the Mississippi River in 1800 and settled his family in southeastern Missouri. In 1803, while Thomas Jefferson was working out the details of the Louisiana Purchase, the elder Bowie obtained a Spanish grant of eight hundred arpents—one arpent equals approximately 192 feet—along Bushley Bayou in Catahoula Parish, about thirty miles west of Natchez, Mississippi. There, in this wilderness setting, Jim spent much of his early boyhood alongside his brothers John, Stephen, and Rezin. The family moved once again in 1809 to St. Landry Parish near Opelousas, where they farmed and raised livestock using slaves.

Until British invasion threatened New Orleans, the War of 1812 barely impacted most Louisianans, but the sudden menace resulted in a flurry of enlistments that included Bowie and his brother Rezin. However, on the very day of their enlistment into the Second Division Louisiana Militia, January 8, 1815, Gen. Andrew Jackson repelled the British near New Orleans, effectively ending the war. Disappointed with missing the action, nineteen-year-old James struck out on his own later that same year along Bayou Boeuf in Avoyelles Parish, where he purchased land and slaves on credit and began cutting virgin timber and floating it to downstream markets.

The Schemes

Bowie’s adult behavior revealed an ambitious opportunist who did not permit matters of honesty and moral conduct to stand in the way of personal gain. Congress had abolished the African slave trade in 1808, but expanding agriculture in the Deep South created a greater demand for labor than could be met with domestic slaves. The result was a surge in slave runners, including the mercurial French privateer Jean Laffite. From his headquarters on the Texas coast just west of the Sabine River, Laffite sold his pirated contraband to Bowie, who devised a plan to smuggle them into the Louisiana interior. He then claimed to have captured the illegals and turned them over to authorities for a reward. As per the law, officials then sold the slaves at auction, and Bowie bought them back for resale—this time with a legal title. Dozens of slaves were involved, and Bowie accrued considerable profits during the two years he ran this scheme.
Bowie’s most ambitious ploys stemmed from the chaotic state of Spanish land grants and land titles following the Louisiana Purchase. Compounding the problem, most of the Spanish records had been moved out of the country. Bowie saw an opportunity and began to personally forge Spanish land grants of prime properties in several parts of the state. He then boldly manufactured deeds of sale of the grants to himself. The scale of the ruse was astounding, as he claimed up to 80,000 acres in Louisiana and almost as much again in Arkansas. Bowie’s claims were immediately suspect when he attempted to formally register them, but his conniving and political influences kept the matter alive throughout the 1820s. He was even able to sell some of the counterfeit titles and reap a profit before the scheme eventually collapsed.

The Sandbar Fight

Bowie’s corrupt business practices earned him many enemies in a culture where a slight often ended in a deadly duel. One disagreement involving Rapides Parish sheriff and banker Norris Wright resulted in Wright shooting Bowie point-blank with a pistol. Poorly armed at the time, Bowie survived the deflected shot but vowed to never again be without a large knife in his belt. Accordingly, the legend of the Bowie knife was born, and the stage was set for a gruesome encounter. On September 19, 1827, on a Mississippi River sandbar near Natchez, Bowie was present at a duel between Dr. Thomas Maddox and Samuel Wells III. No one was injured when the principals exchanged shots. The affair seemed over until members of their entourages became embroiled in a melee. Alexander Crain shot Gen. Samuel Cuny. Wright shot Bowie through the lower chest. George McWhorter shot Wright in the side, causing a flesh wound. Bowie drew his famous knife and attempted to chase Wright, but was shot in the thigh by another gunman. Wright and Alfred Blanchard stabbed Bowie with sword canes. In a desperate lunge, Bowie grasped Wright by the collar and thrust his long knife into his enemy’s chest, killing him instantly. The violence ended abruptly, and attending physicians rushed to treat the injured. Cuny and Wright were dead, and Bowie’s recovery took months. A grand jury was convened afterward but handed down no indictments. The brawl made national news and enhanced Bowie’s notoriety.

By the end of the 1820s, Bowie’s land schemes were crumbling on all fronts, and there was an increasing chance he would be held legally accountable. At the same time, his sugar plantation in Lafourche Parish, where he and his brothers attempted to establish the state’s first steam-powered sugar mill, was facing financial ruin. Having made several brief trips to Texas in recent years, Bowie sensed the region held new opportunities and reprieve from his longstanding troubles. In early 1831, he sold most of his remaining assets and moved to the tumultuous, Mexican-owned territory of Texas.

Bowie’s history in Texas continued the drama of his early life. Once again, he became involved in land schemes and shifting politics. He married Ursula de Veramendi, from an affluent Mexican family, on April 25, 1831, only to lose her to cholera two years later. He fought both Indians and Mexican soldiers while trying to force his way into a position of wealth and prominence. His life—along with the lives of 187 other men—ended on March 6, 1836, in defending the Alamo for a new republic of Texas. In spite of his past indiscretions, most of which took place in Louisiana, Bowie lived his final hours as a hero.


Suggested Reading

Davis, William, C. Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.

Lindley, Thomas R. Alamo Traces: New Evidence and New Conclusions. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publications, 2003.

Roberts, Randy, and James S. Olson. A Line in the Sand: The Alamo in Blood and Memory. New York: Free Press, 2002.

The Legend of the Bowie Knife

I copied this from my website as I thought our readers here might enjoy it. I have always been fascinated by my favorite style of knife, the Bowie knife, and the history of it.

No knife in history has gained as much notoriety or has been the source of more myths and speculation than the Bowie knife. The modern Bowie is my favorite style of knife but what we call a Bowie knife today bears little resemblance to the original.

The Bowie knife came to fame through a bloody fight in Louisiana in 1827 which became known as the "sandbar fight".

Colonel James Bowie (1796-1836) was a famous soldier, land speculator, slave trader, gambler and, some say, a con man.

James (or Jim) was in a fight in 1826 where a sheriff name Norris Wright fired at James at point blank range but the bullet was deflected and James survived the encounter.

After the fight, James' brother, Rezin Bowie, gave James a large knife for protection in the event he would ever find himself in a similar situation. Understand that in those days people carried single shot pistols that were very unreliable and prone to misfires. The revolver did not become widely available until after 1836.

On September 19, 1827, James was involved in the famous Sandbar Fight near Natchez. There was a duel between Samuel Levi Wells III and Dr. Thomas Maddox. Both men fired at each other and both shots missed. They reloaded and fired again. Again they both missed. They decided that their honor had been satisfied. They shook hands and began to leave when others who were present began to argue and fight.

Alexander Crain shot Samuel Cuny and then James fired at Crain but missed. Jim Bowie's old nemeses from the previous year, Norris Wright, shot Bowie in the chest and James drew his knife and chased after Wright. The Blanchard brothers shot Bowie in the leg and when James fell, Wright and Alfred Blanchard stabbed him several times with sword canes and knives.

Laying on the ground with a sword sticking in his chest, James plunged his knife into Wright's chest killing him and then slashed Blanchard severely. All the witnesses remembered Bowie's "big butcher knife". Even though Bowie had been shot twice and stabbed several times, he recovered and went on to a number of ventures before dying along with 187 other defenders during the fall of the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas on March 6, 1836.

The famous fight was reported in newspapers around the country and the legend of Jim Bowie and his Bowie knife was born. People everywhere wanted a Bowie knife and countless versions of various sizes and styles were made by countless cutlers and blacksmiths.

Word of the famous knife spread to England and cutlery companies in Sheffield were quick to supply the sought after Bowie knives. Thousands were made and sent to the United States.

Nobody really knows for sure what the original Bowie knife looked like but it is pretty certain that what has become known as the Bowie knife today bears little resemblance to the original. The famous knife has been redesigned over the years and was popularized again in 1952 in the Hollywood movie "The Iron Mistress". There have been numerous books, movies and TV shows about James Bowie and his famous namesake knife. Today almost any knife with a blade more than a few inches long and a clip point is often called a Bowie knife.

Many believe the original Bowie knife was made by an Arkansas blacksmith name James Black but this has never been authenticated and it has largely been debunked as a manufactured legend. James Black was a silversmith who moved from Pennsylvania to Arkansas sometime AFTER the first bowies were made. The first claim for him having made a bowie knife was published in 1841, 14 years after the sandbar fight. One knife in particular which has become known as "Bowie No. 1" is claimed to have been made by Black.

However, other experts believe this knife was made in Ohio in the mid 1800s. Black supposedly did not mark his knives with a makers mark and no known knives today can be definitely traced to James Black.

The original Bowie knife was actually designed and commissioned to be made by James Bowie's older brother Rezin Bowie and given to James so that he would never again be caught unarmed. In a letter written by Rezin in 1838 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”. Rezin went on to describe the knife "The length of the blade was nine and one-quarters inches, its width one and one-half inches, single edged and not curved". The is very different from the modern Bowie knives seen today but does sound like the knife witnesses of the sandbar fight described as "a large butcher knife".

In a recently discovered letter written in 1885, Rezin's granddaughter, Mrs. Eugene Soniat, wrote “This instrument, which was never intended for ought but a hunting knife, was made of an old file in the plantation blacksmith shop of my grandfather’s Bayou Boeuf plantation, the maker was a hired white man named Jesse Clift [sic], he afterwards went to Texas. My mother, Mrs. Jos. H. Moore, then a little girl, went to the shop with her father, heard his directions, and saw Clift make the knife.

Jesse Cifft was a blacksmith living on Bayou Boeuf in Louisiana and was a close friend and neighbor of the Bowies in the 1820s. On April 10, 1827 James Bowie went to Marksville, LA to conduct a business transaction with William Hargrove. A document defining the transaction was written by Herzehian Dunham, the Notary Public in and for the parish of Avoyelles, and was signed by the principals and by witnesses Jesse Cifft and Caiaphas K. Ham. This document serves as further proof that Clifft and Rezin were together at the right place and at the right time.

The knife that Clifft made to Rezin's specifications was later given to James Bowie by Rezin and was very likely the knife that James used in the sandbar fight six months later near Natchez, Mississippi on September 19, 1827.

In the months and years following the sandbar fight, newspapers and novels far and wide regaled the story of the now famous sandbar fight and the legend of Jim Bowie and the Bowie knife were born. It has been said that Jim Bowie did not seek publicity or celebrity but Rezin relished it and basked in the spotlight of his famous brother. As Rezin traveled around the country he had more "Bowie" knives made by various craftsmen. He sometimes presented these knives to friends as special gifts.

It is known that Daniel Searles of Baton Rouge LA, Rees Fitzpatrick of MS, and Henry Schively Jr of Philadelphia made knives for Rezin Bowie. Some were inscribed presentation knives with fancy silver fittings and others were plain. Some of these knives have been authenticated and are in collections today. It is likely that Rezin had others made, maybe by someone in nearly every town he visited at any length. Each maker would have imparted his own style and interpretation to the knife and perhaps Rezin even refined the design himself. The "Bowie" knife could actually be several different knives by different makers.

One of the knives made by Searles was claimed to have been given to Edwin Forrest, a nationally famous actor of the time. Forrest claimed that is was given to him by Jim Bowie and claimed it to be the very knife used at the sandbar fight. There are no markings or inscriptions on the knife and it was not known until many years after James and Rezins deaths so so there is some doubt about the authenticity of the knife. Its blade is twelve inches long with a very slight clip point.

It is noticeable that the Forrest Bowie, as with the Fitzpatrick, Schively and other authenticated Bowies of the period, had no cross guard or clip point as we see in modern "Bowies". It is not known when or where these features first appeared but it is likely that they were additions made by the Sheffield knives imported in the 1830s-1840s. The knives used in the movies and TV shows of the 1950s popularized the modern style of Bowie we usually see today.

Whatever the true facts were and whatever the original knife looked like, the Bowie knife has become a part of American folklore and is one of the most famous knives of all time. Untold numbers of Bowie knives have been made and sold over the last 180 years. Nearly every knifemaker has made one and most collectors of fixed blade knives have at least one in their collection. For that reason, the Bowie knife deserves his spot in knife history as one of the most famous and often copied knives in the world.

Talk Like a Texan: The Pronunciation of Bowie Knife, Jim Bowie, and David Bowie

A pronunciation investigation involving two Bowie men known for living large.

How do you, as a Texan, say the name Bowie? Does it rhyme with Louie, or snowy? Or do you say it differently depending on if you are talking about the Alamo hero, or the British rock star?

According to a dialect survey from Joshua Katz&rsquos North Carolina State University, Texans are among the only Americans to still rhyme Bowie with gooey, though the portion of us who do appears to be shrinking as Ziggy Stardust&rsquos fame eclipses that of Texas&rsquos own James.

With Alamo season upon us, let&rsquos take a look back at Jim Bowie, the knife he made famous, and how he inspired the name of a transcendent English rock star.

It&rsquos safe to say that no blade is more acutely identified with Texas than the Bowie knife. James Bowie sported it on his hip dating back to his swashbuckling days as a land hustler in Arkansas and Louisiana, years before he came to Texas and cemented his national reputation through his death at the Alamo.

The origins of the Bowie knife, also known as an &ldquoArkansas toothpick,&rdquo are obscure and hotly contested. But it is generally agreed that if Bowie did not invent it, he did make it famous, even if there&rsquos a possibility that he didn&rsquot even wield one in his sole experience in a knife fight.

That would be the Sandbar Fight in 1827, a sort of precursor in violent American lore to the Shootout at the O.K. Corral that occurred near Natchez, Mississippi. A pistol duel between two men devolved into a deadly no-holds-barred brawl on a tiny island in the Mississippi River. It involved about a dozen of the duelers&rsquo partisans, two of whom were killed and two more of whom were badly wounded. Bowie was among the wounded, and in fact, his refusal to die in that fight was downright Rasputinesque. He was bonked once over the head with a heavy pistol, shot through a thigh and a lung, and stabbed at least seven times, but managed somehow to fatally stick one of his assailants with a long knife that his brother Rezin had given him for self-protection.

As colorful details of the fight traveled from papers in nearby Natchez to Philadelphia and New York to audiences overseas, the myth of Jim Bowie, knife-fighting frontier folk hero, was born. So was a new form of knife: the long-bladed, curve-pointed, double-edged knife equipped with a hand-protective cross-guard. Historians still debate who invented it&mdashmost claim it was Rezin Bowie, maybe supervising an anonymous blacksmith, or perhaps it was the work of an Arkansas smith named James Black. But as Bowie biographer William C. Davis says, its invention is immaterial, as is whether the knife he used in the Sandbar Fight actually looked like the type given his name. After that day, James Bowie was irrevocably tied to the Bowie knife.

After the brawl, the Bowie knife took on a life of its own. Those knives were something like the assault rifles of their times: popular and controversial. In an age when pistols were unreliable and hard to reload, it was the ideal weapon for close combat &mdash portable, reliable, easy to use repetitively, and very lethal. It was a full-on craze accompanied by much bloodshed, and several Old South states banned them in the years after the fight.

According to the Texas State Historical Association, between the 1830s and the Civil War, Bowie knife-fighting dojos popped up all over the frontier, from Mississippi and Arkansas to Texas. The Red River Herald of Natchitoches, Louisiana, reported, &ldquoAll the steel in [this] country it seemed was immediately converted into Bowie knives.&rdquo British steel companies recognized the opportunity and flooded the American market with knives, some of whose blades were etched with bloodthirsty, patriotic slogans like &ldquoPatriot&rsquos Self Defender,&rdquo &ldquoDeath to Abolition,&rdquo &ldquoDeath to Traitors,&rdquo &ldquoAmericans Never Surrender,&rdquo and, according to the Texas State Historical Association, even the purely sociopathic declaration &ldquoI&rsquom A Real Ripper.&rdquo A Mississippi newspaper took inspiration from the craze by naming itself The Bowie Knife, with the motto, &ldquoYou touch, and we pierce.&rdquo

Over a century later, similar words were spoken by an Englishman born David Robert Jones. &ldquoThe name Bowie just appealed to me when I was younger,&rdquo David Bowie once said to William Burroughs, Beat Generation cult writer (and one-time Texan pot farmer). &ldquoI was into a kind of heavy philosophy thing when I was sixteen years old, and I wanted a truism about cutting through the lies and all that.&rdquo

Two years later, Bowie told People that he settled on the name because it was &ldquothe ultimate American knife,&rdquo and claimed that the persona it created in him was &ldquothe medium for a conglomerate of statements and illusions. I have no confidence in David Jones as a public figure.&rdquo

Bowie&rsquos homage wasn&rsquot the only Alamo fandom from across the pond. John Wayne&rsquos 1960 film and Jim Bowie, a 1950s TV show, spurred an Alamo craze in early 1960s Britain. Phil Collins has a singular obsession with the place. The Rolling Stones draped themselves in Confederate and U.K. flags before it on a 1975 tour. Donovan, once billed as &ldquothe British Bob Dylan,&rdquo wrote a song called &ldquoRemember the Alamo&rdquo (in which he pronounces James Bowie&rsquos name in the &ldquosnowy&rdquo manner). And, of course, there was Ozzy Osbourne&rsquos fiasco of drunken stupidity.

When the singer adopted the Alamo fighter&rsquos name, he pronounced it &ldquoBow-ey,&rdquo to rhyme with &ldquoshowy.&rdquo This is confusingly verified by the fact that he named his son Zowie Bowie, but pronounced that first name as &ldquoZo&rdquo rather than &ldquoZow-ee.&rdquo

Even so, half of England pronounced his stage name as if rhymed with &ldquowow-ee.&rdquo It was enough to befuddle even David himself.

In 2000, a BBC interviewer asked him if he felt more like &ldquoBowie [pronounced like &lsquowow-ee&rsquo] or as David Jones, the boy from South London?&rdquo

&ldquoLess and less as Bowie [like &lsquoboh-ee&rsquo], Bowie [like &lsquowow-ee&rsquo], Bowie [like &lsquoboo-ee&rsquo] &ndash I don&rsquot even know how to pronounce it any more, I&rsquove lost track,&rdquo he replied. &ldquoI always thought it was &lsquoboh-ee,&rsquo I thought it&rsquos a Scottish name, it must be &lsquoboh-ee,&rsquo but no-one in Scotland pronounces it like that, they pronounce it &lsquoboo-ee&rsquo I think.&rdquo

Indeed they do, as in the Scottish liqueur Drambuie. &ldquoDram&rdquo means drink in Scottish Gaelic, and &ldquoBuie&rdquo (rhymes with gooey) is a variant on buidhe, the same root word that gives us the surname Bowie. According to company legend, the honeyed and herbed Scotch whiskey-based liqueur&rsquos name means &ldquothe drink that satisfies,&rdquo so in that sense, with &ldquodram&rdquo meaning drink, &ldquobuie&rdquo must mean satisfaction. According to the surname history for the name Bowie, that same root word means &ldquofair-haired&rdquo (which describes both Bowies, James and David).

Today, there are scant similarities between the singer and the American folk hero, beyond a propensity to live large. (There is no evidence of a decade of cocaine use from James Bowie, but he was known to sample more than a dram or five at one sitting, and loved to gamble.) The Texan Bowie is viewed by some as an imperialist conqueror, and it is universally acknowledged that he was not just a slave-owner, but also a slave smuggler, a profession seen as distasteful even in the Antebellum South. That&rsquos a far cry from David Bowie, bisexual and androgynous creator of anthems that resonated most strongly with theater kids (and theater kids at heart) on both sides of the Atlantic.

But there is one last big picture quality they had in common: they were both as edgy in their own way as the knife James gave his name to and from which David took his. That&rsquos true no matter how you slice the name &ldquoBowie&rdquo&mdashwhich we Texans, who can now legally own Bowie knives again after last year&rsquos House Bill 1935, pronounce right.

History of the Bowie Knife

The first knife Bowie became famous with was allegedly designed by his brother Rezin in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana and smithed by blacksmith Jesse Cleft out of an old file. Period court documents do indicate that Rezin Bowie and Cleft were well acquainted with one another. Rezin's grandaughter claimed in an 1885 letter to Louisiana State University that she personally witnessed Cleft make the knife for her grandfather.

This knife became famous as the knife used by Bowie at the Sandbar Fight, which was the famous 1827 duel between Bowie and several men, including a Major Norris Wright of Alexandria, Louisiana. The fight took place on a sandbar in the Mississippi River across from Natchez, Mississippi. In this battle Bowie was stabbed, shot, and beaten half to death but managed to win the fight.

Jim Bowie's older brother John claimed that the knife at the Sandbar Fight was not Cleft's knife, but a knife specifically made for Bowie by a blacksmith named Snowden.

James Black's Bowie Knife

The most famous version of the Bowie knife was designed by Jim Bowie and presented to Arkansas blacksmith James Black in the form of a carved wooden model in December of 1830. Black produced the knife ordered by Bowie, and at the same time created another based on Bowie's original design but with a sharpened edge on the curved top edge of the blade. Black offered Bowie his choice and Bowie chose the modified version. Knives like that one, with a blade shaped like that of the Bowie knife, but with half or more of the back edge sharpened, are today called "Sheffield Bowie" knives, because this blade shape became so popular that cutlery factories in Sheffield, England were mass-producing such knives for export to the US by 1850, usually with a handle made from either hardwood, stag horn, or bone, and sometimes with a guard and other fittings of sterling silver.

Bowie returned, with his knife, to Texas and was involved in a knife fight with three men who had been hired to kill him. Bowie killed the three erstwhile assassins with his new knife and the fame of the knife was established. Legend holds that one man was almost decapitated, the second was disemboweled, and the third had his skull split open. Bowie died at the Battle of the Alamo five years later and both he and his knife became immensely famous. The fate of the original Bowie knife is unknown, however a knife bearing the engraving "Bowie No. 1" has been acquired by the Historic Arkansas Museum from a Texas collector and has been attributed to Black through scientific analysis.

Black soon did a booming business making and selling these knives out of his Washington, Arkansas shop. Black continued to refine his technique and improve the quality of the knife as he went. In 1839, Black was nearly blinded by an attacker and was no longer able to continue in his trade.

Black's knives were known to be exceedingly tough, yet flexible, and his technique has not been duplicated. Black kept his technique secret and did all of his work behind a leather curtain. Many claim that Black rediscovered the secret to producing true Damascus steel.

In 1870 at the age of 70, Black attempted to pass on his secret to the son of the family that had cared for him in his old age, Daniel Webster Jones. But Black had been retired for many years and found that he himself had forgotten the secret. The only thing Black could remember was that ten separate steps were involved. Jones would later become Governor of Arkansas.

Other Bowie Knives

Over the years many knives have been called Bowie knives and the term has almost become a generic term for any large sheath knife. During the early days of the American Civil War Confederate soldiers carried immense knives called D-Guard Bowie knives. Many of these knives could have qualified as short swords and were often made at home from old saw or scythe blades.

The Bowie knife is sometimes confused with the "Arkansas toothpick". The toothpick is essentially a heavy dagger with a straight 15-25 inch blade. The toothpick is balanced and weighted for throwing and can also be used for thrusting and slashing. James Black is also credited with inventing the "Arkansas Toothpick" but no firm evidence exists for this claim.

In recent years the Bowie style knife has sometimes been referred to as the Buck knife, for the Buck Knife Company.


I thought I would continue the Bowie thread here since it is getting rediculously long, and I have some questions. We apparently have several people that know a considerable amount about bowies, and I'm definitely not one of them, so here are my questions:

What was the size of the original Bowie?

What ended up being the most common size, thereafter?

I noticed that the Smithsonian Randall Bowie is 3/8 inch thick. Was this typical bowie knife thickness?

What was the orignal style bowie most like? Bagwell, Cold Steel, Randal? etc.

I'm trying to understand the bowie styles a little better.


I have decided not to let others put down my interests. I have felt and tried the balance of the Randall Smithsonian Bowie. It may not be the ultimate, I have not felt the balance of a Bagwell blade, but it is surprisingly well balanced and fast. Sort of like a well balanced broadsword, if you follow me. The knife may not be historical, but it is a dead-on copy of the "Iron Mistress" blade that was also used in the Jim Bowie tv show and, I believe, in John Wayne's film "The Alamo". All of these are a part of my youth and what got me interested in knives, so I still yearn for one. I may actually get one one day. Right now, I am looking into the Bart Moore Bowie that Mr. Fisk put me onto. As I said before, this knife was reputedly carried out of the Alamo by a Mexican officer and there are some other indications that it may have been Jim's knife. It is a most impressive weapon and, forged or not, a fascinating piece. Another form of Bowie is the Searle Bowie. G.D. Searle was a knifesmith in Baton Rouge, LA, and made a number of knives in a pattern of the Mediterranean Dagger, a sort of butcher knife shape. Dixie Gun Works has one, the stud sheath being extra, that is a very good replica. I would be careful of the Bowies, including a Searle Bowie, sold by Atlanta Cutlery, if what I have heard of the quality of their swords is true. In any case, Rezin Bowie, Jim's brother liked the Searle Bowies and, apparently gave them to friends as gifts. I have read that the knife that Jim carried at the Sandbar Fight was a Searle Bowie.


Very interesting! As a San Antonio native, I have seen the original Bowie many times at the Alamo. It is displayed under glass for all to see and it is AWSOME. I can't tell you any specifics abou the knife, but I can tell you that it is not pretty in the usual sense. What does strike you though, is the thought of how many people he fought with it and how many Mexican soldiers he killed with it. The Alamo is, of course, a shrine so you can't take pictures inside except on Texas Independence Day( PeeWee be damned) but you might find some on the web.
Joe "I Say Secede. " Rosenthal

National Living Treasure & Subject Matter Expert

The knife that James Bowie was handed at the sandbar duel was a butcher knife made on the farm by their blacksmith Snowden.

The Bowies, James and Rezin had several "Bowie" knives made for them to be presented to various people. A couple of these would be Shively and Searles. Both of these are essitenialy straight backed with some degrees of differences.
While traveling to Arkansas James stopped in Washington Arkansas and had James Black make a bowie for him. This one and two others made by Black are documented and two of the knives are on exhibit at the ATR/American Bladesmith Society Hall of Fame and Museum. The big one approx 12inch blade has the name "Bowie #1" engraved on the side plate. It is a coffin handle with the oddity of the handle being placed what looks like upside down. The Bart Moore bowie believed by some people to also belong to Bowie is also on exhibit there. I have played with each of these knives and all have good balance and good w
orkmanship. The designs are much different. As to what big knife he had at the alamo when he fell we will never know. It is acknowledged that he did have one knife with him for sure. The knife was stolen from the Alamo in the 1940's. The sheath remains. It is approx. 6 inches long and apears to be of English orgin. My guess was that is was one of the little silver handled bowies to preform light duties with.
The Searles is on exhibit at the Alamo. They let me play with that as well as the little sheath. The Searles is on exhibit because that is the only knife they have that they can tie to the Bowie family. There are several Searles bowies out there as well as a number of fakes. All of the Searles have very good workmanship.
It is generally accepted that "The Bowie" was generally 9 inches to 9 1/2" long in blade length. When Shieffield got into the act of making bowies and sending them over here they got to making the blades longer and with many logos etched on the sides of the blade to attract clients. Much as makers do today. By the time the civil got here and finished the bowies had gotten smaller. Most bowies made after the war are much smaller. A lot of 6 inch blades etc. A few large ones were still put out.
Most of the bowies were not thick in the spine. I have seen only a few that were measured at 3/8" thick. The Iron Mistress was made for a movie even though people think of it as historical. I have handled that knife as well it is also 3/8" thick. Most of the ones I have handled were 1/4" or less in spine thickness.
During the late 30's and through the 40's the blades were at that largest size and most popular. Even the collectors of today that collect the old bowies give more for the bowies from this time period.
The term bowie knife came to be associated with any large knife. It did not even have to have a clip on it. I have seen as many bowies with a false edge as I have with a sharpened top edge. Probally a bit more with the false edge. There are literaly hundreds of bowie patterns out there from the last century. Hundreds more varations from modern makers. I have access to two of the orginial blue print books from the Joesph Rogers Co. that was in Shiefield and they show several hundred themselves.
My standard bowie I make is from a Noah Smithwick style. He as an old Texas Ranger. However I do get up the occasional orginial style that I like since there are hundreds to choose from.
The ones claiming fame to being the one he had when he died is the Musso Bowie, The Bart Moore Bowie and the Bowie #1. The Edwin Forrest bowie is also claiming to be an orginial owned by bowie. Of these all the Bowie #1 is the only one I agree with being owned by bowie. No telling what he died with in his hand.
The only man that we can be sure of he killed with a knife is at the sandbar duel. They have not been able to prove any others.
This is all my opinion. There may be better sources that this out here.
On april 30 we are having a James Bowie/Bowie knife symposium at the ABS knife shool. I should learn more then.
We are also having our annual spring cutting competetion. That should be a hoot. This spring it is Camp knife or Bowie knife, their chose. I have some new things for them to try. Hope this helped some. If not I can try and scratch my head again.
Sorry for all of the bad spelling. I was sick the day they had spelling in grammer school. fisk

National Living Treasure & Subject Matter Expert


Fuller, I saw the Smithsonian and it is one heck of a blade. You don't even need it sharpened. Blunt, it would still do damage to anything in front of it. I do like it.

Jerry, there are so many bowie styles floating around out there, that I have never been able to nail down the original style. For example, I always thought that the style similar to the Ontario marine raider bowie shape was the typical style. But from what you mention, the style would apper to be closer to the Busse batle mistress. I mention these bowies, because that's what I have seen.

Does this mean then that the Bagwell and Blackcloud bowies are basically a modernized, advanced fighting bowie, and not spinoffs of the original?

Also, 9 to 10 inches seems like a really good blade size for me, but I always here people say that the originals were much bigger, closer to 12 inch blades. Yet the typical bowie made today is around 9-10 inches in blade length.

60 Yrs. Ago

On this day in 1957, the United States detonates a 1.7 kiloton nuclear weapon in an underground tunnel at the Nevada Test Site (NTS), a 1,375 square mile research center located 65 miles north of Las Vegas. The test, known as Rainier, was the first fully contained underground detonation and produced no radioactive fallout. A modified W-25 warhead weighing 218 pounds and measuring 25.7 inches in diameter and 17.4 inches in length was used for the test. Rainier was part of a series of 29 nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons safety tests known as Operation Plumbbob that were conducted at the NTS between May 28, 1957, and October 7, 1957.

Watch the video: Jim Bowie Knife Fight


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