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.
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
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.
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
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
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."
Star Diary June
13 , 2013 column
| Columns | Texas
Town List | Texas
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."
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.
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