Texas Primer: The Bowie Knife
The fearsome weapon that terrified enemies, ensured supper, and made its namesake a hero.
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The bowie knife lives as a symbol of passionate times, when men were bold and brave and easily offended. They killed for their honor, hunted their food, and dealt personally with cheaters, murderers, angry Indians, and bears, and that’s just a partial list. There was a lot of fighting going on. Forged by the demands of survival on the Southwestern frontier, the bowie knife has a significance in the evolution of American weapons comparable to that of the Kentucky rifle and the Colt revolver. Almost any Texan can summon up a nightmarish image of its huge and shining form, with a sharpened upper edge specially designed for ripping out the guts of an adversary.
Jim Bowie, for whom the knife was made, was as much at home in the outlaw woods as in the best drawing rooms. He was born in the 1790’s and raised on a plantation in central Louisiana, and he studied fencing in New Orleans. Restless and hot-tempered, he frequently became involved in duels and fights and killed many men in his journeys through his home state and Texas. In those days pistols were unreliable, single-shot affairs, useless if one’s powder got wet. A dagger or a sword was necessary equipment for a gentleman, as was a large butchering knife for the frontiersman. Bowie was both.
Though the facts are obscure and contradictory, the first version of the bowie apparently was designed in 1827 for Jim by his brother Rezin. It was a hunting knife with a straight, single-edged blade about nine inches long and one and a half inches wide. Bowie, then around 30, made the knife famous in a brawl called the Vidalia Sandbar Duel, near Natchez, Mississippi. Acting as a second, he is said to have used the knife to disembowel an attacker armed with a sword cane.
The following year Bowie moved to Texas, where in San Felipe de Austin, a blacksmith named Noah Smithwick duplicated the knife for him—or claimed to. Word got around, and the demand for bowies became so great that Smithwick set up a factory and began selling the knives for $5 to $20 apiece. The monstrous new weapon was a perfect multipurpose tool, useful not only for fighting but also for chopping wood, dressing out game, digging postholes, and, if necessary, paddling up a creek.
Sometime around 1830 Bowie had another knife made, in Washington, Arkansas, a gateway town to Texas. According to legend, that knife was even larger than the first, with a blade almost fourteen inches long and three inches wide. Somewhere along the way the shape had also become curved, “clipped,” and sharpened on the upper edge—for performing deadly backstrokes. Jim Bowie became the lord of knife fighters, and his weapon, which historian T. R. Fehrenbach compares to the Roman short sword or the Japanese samurai sword, became popular fighting equipment in the 1830’s throughout the South west of the Appalachians. It was used by troops in the Mexican War and spread rapidly west with the gold rush. In the Civil War the bowie was used by soldiers on both sides.
But what is a bowie, really? “What isn’t a bowie?” says custom-knife maker Ed Thuesen of Houston, who made a fifteen-inch-long bowie for Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby. “It’s big—just a big knife.” Even in Bowie’s time, when knives on the frontier were pounded out of files or any other handy piece of metal, there was no standard model, nor is there a reliable record of what Bowie’s own knife truly looked like. Bowie carried his weapon at the Alamo, where it inspired admiration. Upon arriving at the site and seeing Bowie draw his famous knife to cut a strap, Davy Crockett wrote, “The very sight of it was enough to give a man of squeamish stomach the colic, especially before breakfast.”
Today the bowie seems as popular as it was on the frontier, though carrying a bowie in Texas is illegal and has been since early statehood. Knife magazines and catalogs are filled with articles and advertisements for bowies, and bowies are stored away on shelves and mantels, in closets and display cases in homes all over the Southwest.
The bowie signifies a spirit of individualism, aggression, and resourcefulness, of adventure and an inflamed sense of honor that is part of the idea of Texas. In the fierce blade of the bowie knife is a souvenir of the merging of civilized society with the wild frontier and of the westward march of history that drew many of us here in the first place.