Instagram Follow on Instagram

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Now That's a Knife!

A classic style of Bowie Knife
James Bowie is a celebrated figure in history, even beyond the part he played during the last stand at the Alamo and the Texas war of independence from Mexico, But his notoriety was not always for noble reasons. His trademark was the Bowie knife, a large blade with a curved tip--it has long been a symbol for frontiersmen, hunters, and survivalists, and a favorite of collectors and knife aficionados since the 1820s. The knife became famous because of Bowie. And the man became famous because of the knife. Much like his massive blade, he could be counted on for certain degree of 'cutting." And to understand this in terms of the man and his legend, one must understand Bowie's roots.

Born in 1796 from tough Kentucky stock who liked to move around some, from Kentucky to Tennessee to Missouri. By 1801 they'd settled into Spanish territory, specifically what is now northeastern Louisiana not far from the town of Natchez. It was in Louisiana that Jim Bowie would grow into a man, and build his brand. Between 1809 and 1821, the family patriarch, Reason Bowie, became a plantation owner and significant slave trader. These are the years in which the young Jim Bowie began to make his mark. To earn a living he floated lumber to market and invested in property. Family tradition holds that young Jim enjoyed hunting and fishing, and that he not only caught and rode wild horses, he rode alligators, too. And not unlike a man he would meet in 1836 (David Crockett), Bowie also trapped bears. He makes the Robertson family of Duck Dynasty look like cub scouts.

Bowie was very straightforward and tough enough to defend his opinions. And if angered, his reaction was swift and mean, which will come into play later and account for the fame of his knife.

In 1808, the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves took effect. It meant that no longer was it legal to import slaves into the United States. Unfortunately, that didn't stop the activity. Other nations continued the practice, so shipping of slaves thrived in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico--and those were stomping grounds for Jean Laffite. Known as the gentleman pirate because rarely did he kill his raiding victims, Laffite originally operated out of New Orleans with his brother, Pierre. But it was decided that Jean would move to Galveston, displacing another pirate, and headquarter there. New Orleans is where Bowie and Laffite met, and where they concocted their slave smuggling operation. Much of the route was along the upper Texas and Western Louisiana coasts, but also included a labyrinth of bayous, rivers and marshes between Galveston Bay in what is now southeast Texas and Vermillion Bay of Louisiana. Bowie quit slave trading sometime around 1829 when he and his brother had amassed $65,000.

The first style of Bowie knife. 
For the most part, Bowie was a well-liked personality, although he had a knack for sometimes rubbing people the wrong way--and they him. One was a local banker in Alexandria, Louisiana. His name was Norris Wright, and he happened to be the Rapides parish sheriff. As banker he declined a loan to young Jim Bowie in 1826. Bowie didn't much appreciate Wright's refusal and tempers flared. Wright fired a pistol point-blank at Bowie. Somehow the bullet was deflected. But it was this event that convinced Bowie's brother that Jim needed protection, and that protection was the gift of a big ole hunting knife. And it was a wise gift, because Bowie and Wright would square off again.

Jim Bowie is likely the only individual to ever survive bringing a knife to a gunfight. September 19, 1827 was the occasion of the Sandbar Fight. The Sandbar fight was just that--a fight that took place on a sandbar outside of Natchez, Mississippi, probably along the Mississippi river. This is what made Bowie and his knife globally famous. The whole magillah started as a pistol duel between Samuel Levi Wells III and Dr. Thomas Maddox. Neither man hit the other and they shook hands and declared the matter resolved with honor. But not their seconds, which is important to note that Bowie and Samuel Cuny had been supporters of Wells. Supporting Maddox was a man named Alexander Crain, who fired at Cuny and missed. His shot struck Bowie in the hip and knocked him to the ground. A firefight ensued, sort of, these were single shot or double barrel pistols. Still, Cuny and Crain exchanged fire, with Crain suffering a flesh wound in the arm and Cuny a fatal shot to the chest.

James Bowie and his natural look of irritation.
In the meantime, Bowie gets to his feet while drawing his knife. He charged Crain who walloped him on the skull so hard with an empty pistol it broke. The impact knocked Bowie to his knees once more and Norris Wright, Bowie's credit nemesis, saw an opportunity. Wright took a shot at Bowie but missed. He then drew a sword cane and stabbed Bowie in the chest. Now get this. The thin blade was deflected by Bowie's sternum, but it stuck in his chest. Wright struggled to pull the sword free when Bowie yanked Wright down by the shirt and pushed that massive hunting blade into the banker's chest. Wright died quickly. Bowie, on the other hand, stands up with the sword still embedded in his chest, was shot again and stabbed by yet another member of the group. Bowie pulled the sword cane from his chest as the Blanchard brothers fired at him, hitting Bowie in the arm. That's when Bowie spun and cut off part of Alfred Blanchard's forearm. Carey Blanchard defended his brother with a second shot that missed Bowie. The Blanchard boys ran for the hills.

Seriously, this beats any Hollywood action movie contrivance ever. 

The Sandbar Fight was a ten minute tussle that meant the end for Samuel Cuny and Norris Wright, and wounding Alfred Blanchard, Carey Blanchard, Robert Crain and Jim Bowie—wounded. But wait, there is a twist. Crain, the man who missed Cuny and hit Bowie, helped carry Bowie to receive medical help. Witnesses say Bowie thanked Crain, saying, "Col. Crain, I do not think, under the circumstances, you ought to have shot me." One doctor reputedly said, "How he [Bowie] lived is a mystery to me, but live he did."

Accounts of the battle and of Bowie's performance and his lethal blade captured public attention, even in Europe. This exploit made him known as the South's most formidable knife fighter. From then on through today, men asked blacksmiths and cutlers to make a knife like Jim Bowie's.

Now, that is one helluva knife, but it was wielded by one helluva man. Like him or hate him, he was the stuff of legend. Even without his participation a fews years later at the Alamo, Bowie was destined for history.