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  • Texas | Columns | Lone Star Diary

    What became of
    Jim Bowie's famous knife?

    by Murray Montgomery
    Murray Montgomery

    When we read stories about the heroes of the Alamo, namely Crockett, Travis, and Bowie, it’s very hard to separate fact from fiction. Legends about the lives of these men are numerous, and when the legend is more romantic than the fact, it seems fiction takes center stage.

    In the case of Jim Bowie, he has been labeled as a slave owner, womanizer, and knife-wielding brawler. From the research that I’ve found on the man, most of these descriptions of him seem fairly factual.

    Long before Bowie came to Texas his reputation as a formidable knife fighter had already been established in the South. Although he was said to be mild mannered, Bowie was quick to anger when he felt that he had been insulted and he often used his knife to settle the score.

    The famous knife used by Bowie is surrounded by more legends than the man himself. It is hard to find many stories that agree on who actually made the blade and how Bowie came by it in the first place. From what I’ve been able to glean from researching books and Internet sources, there are several different versions to the story.

    One source claims that Bowie’s first knife was given to him by his brother, Rezin, and that it was simply a large butcher knife. The Bowie brothers were raised in Louisiana and the story goes that Rezin designed the original blade and commissioned a blacksmith in Avoyelles Parish, named Jesse Cleft, to make one from an old file.

    It is claimed that this was the knife used by Bowie in the famous Sandbar Fight in Natchez, Mississippi, where he was stabbed, shot, and beaten half to death but still managed to win the fight. However, after this altercation Bowie’s older brother claimed that it wasn’t Cleft’s knife used in the fight but one especially made for Bowie by a blacksmith named Snowden. So it’s really anyone’s guess as to who actually made the knife.

    Probably the most popular version of how the knife originated comes from the claim that the great knife-fighter himself, Jim Bowie, actually designed it. The story goes that he carved a wooden model to represent how he wanted the blade to look and then presented that model to an Arkansas blacksmith named James Black in December of 1830. Black was said to have had a very unique process for making knifes and it was a trade secret that he shared with no one.

    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.

    After he took delivery of Black’s knife, Bowie went to Texas and was involved in a bloody fight with three men who had been hired to kill him. Bowie killed the three would-be 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.

    The mystery surrounding the famous Bowie Knife goes much deeper than how it came to be – fact is, it’s more important to historians as to what actually became of the famous blade after Bowie died in the Alamo battle. History tells us that Bowie was in poor health, confined to his bed, when Mexican soldiers came over the walls of the old mission on March 6, 1836 – according to The Handbook of Texas; Bowie was shot several times in the head.

    Chances are that one of the soldiers recovered the famous knife and it’s anybody’s guess as to what happen to it after that; but once again, be they fact or fiction, numerous stories are out there giving different versions of what became of the great knife.

    One version says that a Texas family named Moore hired a man of Hispanic descent in the 1890s who claimed he had been a private in the army of Santa Anna. Somehow he had acquired Bowie’s famous knife. The story goes that he owed the Moore family some money and gave them the knife in payment of the debt. There was another story going around that the legendary knife was found on the ground after the Battle of San Jacinto. It’s my understanding that none of these accounts have ever been verified.

    We may never know what happened to Jim Bowie’s extraordinary knife, but one thing we know for certain its owner was one of those responsible for the birth of a new nation – the republic known as Texas.

    When Jim Bowie's mother was informed of his death, she calmly stated, "I'll wager no wounds were found in his back."


    © Murray Montgomery
    Lone Star Diary
    June 13 , 2013 column
    More People | Columns | Texas Town List | Texas


    Forum:
    Subject: Bowie Knife

    I don't know where Jim Bowie's famous knife is & neither does anyone else. A collector in Dallas claims to own it, but what he has is a late-19th century Mexican-made knife.

    I have, however, held 2 copies of it, one made as an exact duplicate of the one Bowie himself carried. Both were made by Noah Smithwick. In EVOLUTION OF A STATE, Smithwick says he was approached by Bowie to make 10 exact copies of his famous knife for him to give to friends. Smithwick then states "I developed quite a trade in knives of the sort in various sizes."

    In 1958, in Austin, at his 'house behind the house' on Castle Hill street, which housed his collection of guns, knives, & other antiques, Mr. John A. Norris showed me a Smithwick bowie. It was obviously a 'commercial' knife, not 1 of the 10. The unpolished blade was 10 1/2 inches long, point at centerline. The clip--which had been sharpened at 1 time--was 3 inches long. The blade was 2 inches wide, 1/4 inch thick. The spine of the blade was flat. There was a full tang, an iron guard, and gripscales made of wood held on by copper or brass rivets. There was neither fuller nor ricasso. The trademark, on the left side of the blade, was Smithwick's post-1836 mark, a turkey-necked eagle, feet toward the hilt, with N. SMITHWICK in an arch over it.

    Just a few years ago I was allowed to examine a 2nd Smithwick bowie, obviously a presentation knife. It, too, came from the Norris collection & was given to a close friend of Mr. Norris by the Norris heirs as payment for helping to catalog & market the collection after Mr. Norris' death.

    The knife, while dimensionally identical to the knife I examined in 1958, was much more finely finished. The spine of the blade was rounded & the blade, at one time, had been polished almost to a mirror finish. Acid etched on the left side was a turkey-necked eagle with about a 4 inch wingspread. The grip scales were of ivory or bone & had been decorated with some sort of carving at 1 time, but were so worn the details of the carving could not be made out. The mark, also on the left side of the blade, was SMITHWICK BRAZOS, Smithwick's pre-1836 mark. The gentleman who owned this knife has since died. His heirs were approached by numerous collectors, all of whom pronounced the knife a fake--and then tried to buy it! I personally directed the man's daughter to Jackson Arms in University Park to get it appraised. I knew Jackson Arms would appraise it properly. The heirs, so I'm told, have since sold the knife. I don't know who bought it or where it is at present. - C. F. Eckhardt, Seguin, Texas, June 16, 2013

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