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Author Topic: The Bowie Knife by Miss Lucy Bowie  (Read 34713 times)
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Ed Fowler
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« on: November 02, 2007, 06:50:09 PM »

This is a start about the what I feel is some valuable informatioin for enthusiasts of the Bowie Legend to consider. This aspect of the Bowie began for me with  some converwsations with Dr Jim Lucie and a knife he owned. It will take a few days for the information to develop so enjoy while we type. The below information came to me through Dr James Lucie and Tom Stapleton MD

                           THE FAMOUS BOWIE KNIFE
By Miss Lucy Liegh Bowie
As the reason for the... interest in Colonel James Bowie of Louisiana and Texas lies the invention and use of the bowie knife, I will pass as briefly as possible over his early life and devote my time to the period when the knife plays a part.
   He claimed descent from the immigrant John Bowie, a stern Scotch Highlander who clamied to be of the clan and lineage of the Campbells of Argyle, and who settled in Prince Georges County, Maryland, early in the eighteenth century. From him has sprung a race of men known, accord to a Maryland historian, as the "Fighting Bowies."
   James Bowies father, Rezin Bowie, served in the War of the Revolution under General Marion, and married, while a prosoner of war at Savannah, into the Ap Catsby Jones family. They settled in Georgia where were born to them in 1783 one son, John Jones Bowie, and later two daughters.  THey then removed to Tennessee where three sons were born, viz. Rezin Pleasane, 1793; James, 1795 [sic]; and later Stephen. When James was five years old the family left Tennessee and settled in Louisiana, where a daughter was born in 1806. Their first years in the latter state were spent in the paris of St. Mary on Bayour Teche, but in 1808 they again removed, but only to the Opelousas Destrict of Lousisiana, where Rezin Bowie the elder died in 1820.  He was a plander, and both he and his wife were people of education, comforable means, and good social position.  Their sons appear to have been rather carefully educated, probably by a French refugee who taught them to speak French and Spanish fluently, deeply influenced their religious opinions and manners, and also make them proficient in swordsmanship. We have no record of their having ever addended college.
   James and Rezin were partners in everthing from babyhood, and Rezin's marriage in 1812 to Margaret Frances Neville, of Natchitoches, did not separate the brothers. About 1818 their father started them in life together as sugar planters.  He gave them each ten servants, horses and cattle.  They aquired land on Bayou Boeuf, and as both were progressive and able organizes, their plantation soon exhibited a high state of cultivation, which so enhanced its value that is paved their way to greater fortune; for it enabled them to engage in land speculations, and as their fortunes increased, larger land inventments followed.  In 1825 they sold the Bayou Boeuf plantaion and purchased Arcadia of Bayou Lafourche.  This, also, they skillfully improved unitl it becamd celebrated far and wide as a model estate.  The grinding season of 1827 witnessed an important event:  the Bowie brothers installed machinery for griniing cane by steam power, it being the first steam sugar pland in Louisiana.  Before that, mule power had been used.  In September of that year the bowie knife became known to the world, and it is with great ruluctance that I pass lightly over these ten years, as it is the period during which James Bowie is so often misrepresented by those who have written of his life.
    In 1827  the bowie knife was not a new invention.  It had been made for Rezin Bowie before he left his father's home in Opelousas.  He had been attacked, once when cattle hunting, by a young bull; his rifle missed fire and coming to close quaters he attempted to plunge his hunting knife into the head fo the bullock, but the oncoming animal drove the knife back and into his hand, whick impaled against the horn, severely wounding his hand and alost severing  the thumb.  This could not have occcured had the knife possessed a guard, so Rezin Bowie had a new one made from an old file, according to his fancies, by Jesse Cliffe, a white blacksmith on the plantation. The knife had a straight blade 9 1/4 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide, with a single edge down to the guard.  Rezin used this in hunting and found the steel wounderfully true, and the shape also make it more reliable than either a sword cane of the Spanish dagger, both which wre in universal use at the period.  Both wer afterwards superseded by the bowie knife
    The buisness method of the brothers was for Rezin to attend to the home plantation while James took charge of the outlying speculative properties.  A large tract of this lay in Rapides Parish, on the Red River.
    Living at that period in Alexanderia, Louisiana,were their cousins the Cunys, and the Wells brothers.  James Bowie had been engaged to the latters' sister, Cecelia Wells, who died of pneumonia two weeks before the date set for the wedding.  There existed a bitter feud between these men and some newcomers to Louisiana, viz. Major Morris Wright and Dr. Maddox from Maryland, and Colonel Crain and the two Blanchards form Virginia.  Major Wright was considered the best short in the parish, and on one occasion fired at James Bowie when the latter was unarmed. This caused Rezin Bowie to feel that is brother, when in Rapides, nedded a better weapon for protection that a pistol, which might miss fire at a critical time, so he gave him his hunting knife.  In wiriting of it eleven years later he said:
    "Col. James Bowie had been shot at by an individual with whom he was at variance; and, as I presumed a second attempt would be made by the same person to take his life,  I gave him the knife to use, as occasion might require, as a defensive weapon.  Someime afterward (and the only time the knife other than for what it was origonally destubed) it was resorted to by Col.James Bowie in a chance medley of rough fight  between himself and certain other individuals to whom he was then inimical.  The knife was used only as a defensive weapon and not otherwise until after he was shot down; it was then the means of saving his life.  The improvements in its fabricaion and the state of perfection which it has since aquired from eperienced cutlers were not brought about through my agency.  I would assert here also that neither Col. James Bowie nor myself at any period of our lives had a duel with any person whatsoever."
    This "medley or rough fight," as he so well called it, ws the much written of "Sand Bar Duel" fought on a sand bar in the Mississippi River opposite Natchez.  General Montford  Wells and Dr. Maddox were the principals, and after the affair was over, and no one hurt, Samuel Cuny went up to Colonel Crain, who was standing with a loaded pistol in each hand, and said, "This is a good time to settle our difficulty."  Boiwe was following Cuny to act as second and was drawing his pistol (the others aparently already had their knives in their hands) when Colonel Crain, without making any answer, fired one pistol at Bowie and the other at Cuny.  Cuny fell mortlly wounded.  Then followed a melee, with Crain, Maddox, Wright, and Blanchard attcking Bowie, who saved his life only by using his knife when Major Wright came at him with his sword cane.  Wright was killed, and Bowie desperately wounded, was considered dying.  He was taken to New Orleans for medical attention, and spent months slowly recovering his health and strength.  The fact of his coming through alive from the combinded attack of four men caught popular imagination.  The fact that in time he became reconciled with Colonel Crain, also hightened the romance of the situation.  Traced back, this affair will be found the genesis of all the duels attributed to him except one, which I find presents itself in various forms.  It is always with a  "haughty Spaniard;" no name, time, or place is ever given, but it occurs in a "paradise of plantations, mid the singing of birds, the blooming of roses, whee the air is redolent with sweetest odors."  This duel is fought with one using a  Spanish dagger, the other a bowie knife.  The result is unfortunate to the Spaniard.  This story, I am sure, is traslated from the Spanish and entirely spurious,  but is shows whar an appeal Bowie made to the Mexican and American alike.
    Colonel Bowie's manner of grasping the bowie knife was considered peculiar;  he held it as one would a sword, and once beyond the opponent's guard, the thrust was deadly.  The Sand Bar Duel created much talk and such knives became the fashion.  At first they were made as the original had been, but presumably, they were not in every case satisfactoy, and some handsome ones were manufactured by a Louisiana cutler, Searles of Baton Rouge, who turned out a wonderfully fine blade.  It became quite a fancy for Rezin Bowie to have these knives make fo his friends.  We know of four originals: one was presented by him to Governor E.D. White, of Louisiana, father of Chief Justice White of the United States Supreme Court, and is stil in the possessin of his family; another was given to Lieutenand H.W. Fowler, U.S. Dragoons, and is in the possession of Colonel Wahington Bowie Jr., of Baltimore.  A third was giben to Edwin Forrest, the actor ,and was said to have been in the Boothe Collection at the Players' club, in New York City; but if it ever was there, all trace of it is now lost.  A fourth was given to a MR. Stafford, of Alexandria, Louisiana, and is still owned by his descendants.  Of it, Mr. W.M. Stafford of Galveston, Texas, writes: " I carried the knife for years and many a time have cut a silver quarter in two, and to this day this is not a gap in its edge.  It is of the best of steel and in making a thrust of blow with it the weight seems to go to the point."
    The idea seems prevalent through family papers that Colonel James Bowie always carried with him the original knife, but it is not credible that men as particular in their dress and personal appointments as were the Bowie brothers would carry a crude weapon, such as this must have been, as a permanent part of their equipment.  It is more likely, that as soom as its virtue, had been attested, the knife was put into hands of a cutler, to be brought up to the standard of their other accountrements, and was, therefore, a highly finished weapon when given by Rezin Bowie to James Bowie; and it may be confideltly accepted that the knives given by Colonel Rezin Bowie to is friends were exace reproductions of the first onc given to his brother.  It is claimed that the one actually used by Colonel James Bowie is the one now owned by Colonel Washington Bowie Jr., who writes: " The knife I have is the perfection of workmanship, and while a file may have been used owing to the pure steel therin with high temper, the guard, pommel, and scabbard are the pure silver and the handle is studded with fine silver nails.  On the back of the blade near the guard there is set in a brass plate with the name Searles-Baton Rouge.  It shows the inscrtption from R.P. Bowie to H.W. Fowler, U.S.D.
   In 1832 the brothers went North: Rezin wished to consult the celebrated Dr. Pepper of Philidelphia , about his eyes.  While there, Rezin wrote for the Philadelphia  Atkinson's Casket an account of their expedition in search of th San Saba Silver mines, when occured one of the most thrilling Indian fights in history.  On that same nothern trip Rezin gave into the hands of a Philidelphia cutler the model of the Bowie knife on the market.  The blade was shortened to 8 inches, a curve was made in one side of the point, and both edges were somtimes sharpened.
    The next fact recorded of James Bowie after his recovery from the San Bar Duel, is of his attending a dinner given for President Jackson  by Stephen Fuller Austin, "The Father of Texas."  Prsident Jackson was a guest of the State of Louisiana and eas there to celebrate the anniversary of the victory of 1815.  The dinner is recored as "a meeting of choice spirits" and it ws Bowie who toasted the President in a speech, the fame of which has come down to us.  Afterwards, he evidently returned wit Austin to Texas and spent sixteen months looking around the country.  Part of that time was passed exploring the western part of the state, prospecting for gold and silver, and at some period he spent eight months with Captain William Y.Lacey in the wilderness on the headwaters of the Trinity.
    Of this time Captain Lacey wrote, possibly in some surprise that Bowie"never used profane lanuage and never spoke an indecent or vulgar work in the eight months passed with him.  As a matter of fact he was a man of sinular modesty."  He had the faculty of winning and holding the friendship of men.  In oney matters he was exceedingly liberal where there was occasion for liberality, but was too good a buisness man not to know the value of money.  He was dignified and courteous with something of the Old World in his manner, and absolutely sincere.  His mother, sisters and later his wife were woman who commanded his highest respect, and this was reflected in his manner toward all women; in the wild tales of him, never a word has been hinted against his moral character.  In fact there was about him no trace whatever of the border ruffian that these same wild tales have handed down to us; nor had he any dissipated havits.  He was over six feet tall, with chestnut hair and hazel eyes.
    While in Texas he formed a friendship with the Vice Governor of Coahuila of Texas Don Juan Martin de Veramendi, who, though born in Mexico was of pure Spanish blood and belonged to a noble family of Castile.  In Setember, 1830, the State Congress of Texas naturalized Bowie and under Veramendi's patronage granted him a charter for the erection of cotton and woolen mills at Saltillo;  it will be notices that James Bowie was, above all things, a creator of wealth.
    In April, 1831, he married Marie Ursula de Veramendi, the daughter of his patron and friend.  In his marriage settlements he stated that he was worth about  $222,800.00.  He was bery fortunate in his wife, Ursala as she singed herself, because she identifed herself thoroughly with her husband's interests.  She was sweet and gentle and at the same time a woman of sense and character.  Their marriage did not last long, however, because in 1834 she, her two baby boys, and her father died of cholera.
    The rest of Colonel Bowie's life belonged to Texas as a delegate to the conventions, adjutant to San Houston, and colonel of Texas Volunteers.  As a fighter he needs no fictinous reputation.  Each battle in his short career demonstrated his ability as a soldier.  At Nacogdoches he was successful; at Conception he displayed ability of a very high order as a strategist; at the Gras  [sic] fight his supurb and reckless dash held the field until Burleson came up with reinforcements.  Then followed his death at The Alamo.
    This is not the place to discuss the military side of the battle of The Alamo; the conflicting elements that  went into the making of the tragedy have no place here.  But let us picture those 150 beleaguered men in the mission surounded by 4,000 Mexicans, "detached from all Texas settlements more than seventy miles, the interventing territory swept by Mexican calvary."  What Colonel Bowie's esprit was to that little garrison is told by the following entries in Crockett's journal:
    "February 26, 1836, Col,Bowie had been taken sick from over excertion and exporsure; he did not leave his bed today unil 12:00 o'clock.  He is worth a dozen men in a situation like ours. ** Col. Bowie's illness coninutes, but he magages to crawl from his bed every day, that his comrades may see him.  His presence alone is tower of strength."
    In a Mexican officer's account of the battle of the Alamo he says: "Every inch was disputed from room to room, and to hand, Bowie knife to Boyonet."  David Crockett was found, his riflle broken, and the garrel grasped in one hand, a dripping bowie knife in the other.  From a Mexican source the story comes that Colonel Bowie, after being moratally wounded, plunged his knife into a Mixican and that both fell dying together.  There is also a Mexican who tells us how they lifted his body on their bayonets and bore him aloft to the pyre on which they burned the dead.
    At the battle of San Jacinto, the bloody field of vengeance where"the ghosts of brave men massacred at The Alamo flitted through the smoke of battle, and the uplifted hand could not be stayed," with the war cry "Remember the Alamo," after emptying their rifles and their pistols , the Texans, "drawing forth their bowie knives, literally cut their wasy through the dense masses of living flesh" to victory and freedom.  So, in truth the independence of Texas was won with the Bowie knife.  There was not a bayonet in the army, but every man had a bowie knife; it served as a hunting knife, a butcher's cleaver, a carving knife, a table knife, a dagger and a bayonet.  Lightly equipped as the texans were, it was a great advantage to have an implement that could serve so many ends.  After this it came into universal use by the pioneers and settlers of the Southwest.  The part it played in California amonst the Forty-Niners can be learned from Bret Harte; but its day is over now, although even yet, a cutler tells me, someone strolls in occasionally and asks for a bowie knife.

These are Miss Bowies words in a paper presented to the Bucks County Historical Society in 1916, the manuscript was worked on by Ben Palmer. 
Note: refferences will follow.
« Last Edit: November 09, 2007, 11:25:31 PM by Ed Fowler » Logged

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B.K. Mains
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« Reply #16 on: October 22, 2011, 10:26:30 AM »

In the talk of the high performance knife, I have to think of this always; Was the knife used? Was it a treasured working tool or merely an ornament. Interesting history about Rezin Bowie, Ed. Not all the brothers were Jim Bowie, huh.....

There are a few examples that were gifts from Rezin to another and these are not working knives to me, they are jewelry used by rich men to impress their friends. The man or men I wish could have told us the tales are the common men, the ones who used their knives everyday as what it is, a tool that has many uses. The Green River knives that were used on the frontier were cherished by the men who used them. And why not? The steel was the best English steel Russell could buy, and remember, he was very successful with his designs and idea's for the shapes and uses of his blades. Case in point would be the Green River skinners that were so widely used and praised by all. And an old saying back then was "I had to take him up to the Green River" which eluded my understanding until I found the proof mark on the blade, then it made sense to me. From the placement of the stamp it is easy to see why this phrase came about. In stabbing someone the penetration would be around the stamp, so hence the phrase, "To the Green River".

And this also struck me about this blade: Wouldn't it make sense that companies making knives would make a knife to match the "Bowie Knife"? If for no other reason than marketing? Following this line of reasoning, would it not make sense that a large knife made not twenty years after the Sandbar fight would be made like the Bowie knife? Of course it would. The more I learn about it the more I see the Bowie not as the jewelry knives we see from this time but the working knives that were used for chopping and prying and hunting and because of this use were lost to us as they wore out. When a knife is found like this that is in this condition and as old as she is, she does as you say Ed, she tells a story that touches the soul if we open up and listen to her tale....

I am long winded as you can see, but I have my ideas and beliefs about true quality in a blade and the Bowies made today are nothing more than artwork to me. If you use a knife for the myriad tasks it can do, you appreciate the design work that went into the handle, the blade, the handle material and the steel.

BK.....
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« Reply #17 on: October 22, 2011, 08:43:03 PM »

We have to remember that in the early 1800's news traveled by telegraph, not many photos around. When news of the "Bowie Knife" became sensationalized by the press, clients would go to a knife maker, black smith or someone with a grinder and say I want a "Knife like Bowies"! The maker not wanting to loose a sale would say OK and make what he thought Bowies Knife looked like and it became a Bowie to that client I feel this happened many times and there were many versions of what makers thought Bowies' knife looked like.

The "Bowie" knife became a big seller and tourists from England and other countries bought some of them, some took them back to Sheffield and Sheffield started making "Bowie Knives", so did Germany, France and probably others. They exported them back here for sale. Trade was brisk and still we know absolutely nothing about the original Bowie Knife.

What this means is that you and I are free to do as the first makers did when asked to make a "Knife like Bowies" our personal version is very likely to be as close as those some believe are the original Bowie. Some believe it was in fact a butcher knife - without a guard like Rezin used to stab the "wild Steer". Like Rezin, others learned about the advantages of a guard and they soon became a routine attribute of a "Bowie".

But - to hand craft a functional guard is time consuming work, it was easier (economically efficient) to simply stamp out a rectangle from a piece of sheet metal (usually brass or German Silver) and stick it between the handle and the blade. Thus we find junk blades that were fancy, rarely used and remain in the much sought after "Mint Condition" so sought after by collectors.

Next time you are at the Willow Bow I will give you a book to read about the English Bowies, written by a civil war arms maker.
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« Reply #18 on: October 23, 2011, 10:11:37 AM »

A book to read? That is very generous Ed. As a writer I love a well turned tome...... Wink

Pioneers. That's the stock I come from. The first traceable ancestor my family had was in a Dutch ship. They were Pieter and his son, Pieter, in 1723. They moved to Penns. and later during a small dust up called the Revolutionary War, one of their sons named George fought in the war. As a result of that service, George was given a piece of land in Kentucky in what is now Bracken County, Kentucky. George prospered being a pretty determined fellow, and had eight kids to help him work his land. That was my first ancestors, and we have been here ever since. I am proud of my heritage, and do not wish to insult or down any ones conception of the "Bowie Knife", it means a different thing to every one perhaps, but the family history I have has taught me that we made most if not all of our tools by hand, whether it be from file or random piece of metal found around the farm.

We were our own blacksmiths, as a proper forge was a luxury they didn't have, and the sons sent to war would have what was available around the farm. I have seen several old hand made knives around the farm, and when I asked where they were from the same answer came to me most of the time, "Your Grand Pap Sam made that one. He was the metal worker around the farm."

The Bowie knife? Perhaps my feelings can be best summed up by saying that as an amateur historian I know how time dulls the knife of truth, and lets it take on a different finish. I see the Bowie knife as merely another part of history that is a little dull. We accept the examples we see as Bowie's of course, but we all know how the fish gets bigger every time the story is told, and perhaps with the Bowie we are seeing the same thing. A rich man would not want an old dull file for a knife, he would want something special to show off to his friends. An artisan of the time able to fully express his ideas with steel and wood would surely make an exaggerated piece to not only show off the knife, but to draw new business with his expertise. These were not "High Performance" knives, they were the jewelry of the time and should perhaps be looked upon that way.

The Bowie knife? In my mind it is not a dog-bone or coffin handled beauty. It is a knife that could be used for anything, all day. I feel Ed has the right idea when it comes to knives. I also believe that thru his work we have come to a new plateau on the using knife, with the freezing and multiple quench he has not only made a great knife, he has shown his intelligence, dedication and his need to make a real, high performance knife.

How many makers can lay claim to Ed's quality? I see a lot of beautiful knives in the pages of Blade, and have bought and used a few myself. I could not get over the feeling though that I had a piece of jewelry disguised as a knife. I use them for a while and put them away or traded them for another, perhaps to continue my quest for a true, "High Performance" knife.

I have never held or seen a Fowler for sale. If I had a chance to use one, perhaps I would not need to seek my "Bowie" anymore. Perhaps I would find that one knife that would accompany me for the rest of my ride...... Wink

B.K......
« Last Edit: October 23, 2011, 11:12:03 AM by B.K. Mains » Logged

If I had one, good knife......
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