Without a doubt the Bowie is the most famous and recognizable of American knives. The original Bowie knife is lost and there is never-ending debate about what they actually looked like and who originally made them. Many believe the original Bowie knife was made by an Arkansas blacksmith name James Black but this has never been authenticated and it has largely been debunked as a manufactured legend.
The "Bowie" knives we see today probably bear little resemblance to the original Bowie knife. Historic accounts describe the original Bowie Knife as looking like a big butcher knife. Somewhere along the line they seen to evolved into the clip point knives as seen above.
Colonel James Bowie (1796-1836) was a famous soldier, land speculator, slave trader, gambler and, some say, a con man. James was in a fight in 1826 where a sheriff name Norris Wright fired at James at point blank range but the bullet was deflected and James survived the encounter. After the fight, James' brother Rezin Bowie gave James a large knife that resembled a large butcher knife.
James' brother Rezin Bowie actually designed the knife and commissioned the first one to be made. It is also widely believed that Rezin traveled the country basking in the glow of his famous brothers accolades and had the "Bowie" knife made by several knifemakers and blacksmiths in various towns he visited. Whatever the real origin of the knife, James Bowie was known to carry it and use it in at least one legendary event.
On September 19, 1827, James was involved in the famous Sandbar Fight near Natchez. There was a duel between Samuel Levi Wells III and Dr. Thomas Maddox. Both men fired at each other and both shots missed. They reloaded and fired again. Again they both missed. They decided that their honor had been satisfied. They shook hands and began to leave when others who present began to argue and fight.
Alexander Crain shot Samuel Cuny and then James fired at Crain but missed. Jim Bowie's old nemeses from the previous year, Norris Wright, shot Bowie in the chest and James drew his knife and chased after Wright. The Blanchard brothers shot Bowie in the leg and when James fell, Wright and Alfred Blanchard stabbed him several times with sword canes and knives.
Laying on the ground with a sword sticking in his chest, James plunged his knife into Wright's chest killing him and then slashed Blanchard severely. All the witnesses remembered Bowie's "big butcher knife". Even though Bowie had been shot twice and stabbed several times, he recovered and went on to a number of ventures before dying along with 187 other defenders during the fall of the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas on March 6, 1836.
The famous fight was reported in newspapers around the country and the legend of Jim Bowie and his Bowie knife was born. People everywhere wanted a Bowie knife and countless versions of various sizes and styles were made by countless cutlers and blacksmiths. Word of the famous knife spread to England and cutlery companies in Sheffield were quick supply the sought after Bowie knives. Thousands were made and sent to the United States.
Nobody really knows for sure what the original Bowie knife looked like but it is unlikely that it was what has become known as the Bowie knife today. The famous knife has been redesigned over the years and was popularized again in 1952 in the Hollywood movie "The Iron Mistress". There have been numerous books, movies and TV shows about James Bowie and his famous namesake knife. Today almost any knife with a blade more than a few inches long and a clip point is often called a Bowie knife.
Many believe the original Bowie knife was made by an Arkansas blacksmith name James Black but this has never been authenticated and it has largely been debunked as a manufactured legend. James Black was a silversmith who moved from Pennsylvania to Arkansas sometime AFTER the first bowies were made. The first claim for him having made a bowie knife was published in 1841, 14 years after the sandbar fight. One knife in particular which has become known as "Bowie No. 1" is claimed to have been made by Black.
However, other experts believe this knife was made in Ohio in the mid 1800s. Black supposedly did not mark his knives with a makers mark and no known knives today can be definitely traced to James Black.
The original Bowie knife was actually designed and commissioned to be made by James Bowie's older brother Rezin Bowie and given to James so that he would never again be caught unarmed. In a letter written by Rezin in 1838 he wrote “The first Bowie knife was made by myself in the parish of Avoyelles, in this state (Louisiana), as a hunting knife, for which purpose, exclusively, it was used for many years”. Rezin went on to describe the knife "The length of the blade was nine and one-quarters inches, its width one and one-half inches, single edged and not curved". The is very different from the modern Bowie knives seen today but does sound like the knife witnesses of the sandbar fight described as "a large butcher knife".
In a recently discovered letter written in 1885, Rezin's granddaughter, Mrs. Eugene Soniat, wrote “This instrument, which was never intended for ought but a hunting knife, was made of an old file in the plantation blacksmith shop of my grandfather’s Bayou Boeuf plantation, the maker was a hired white man named Jesse Clift [sic], he afterwards went to Texas. My mother, Mrs. Jos. H. Moore then a little girl, went to the shop with her father, heard his directions, and saw Clift make the knife.
Jesse Cifft was a blacksmith living on Bayou Boeuf in Louisiana and was a close friend and neighbor of the Bowies in the 1820s. On April 10, 1827 James Bowie went to Marksville, LA to conduct a business transaction with William Hargrove. A document defining the transaction was written by Herzehian Dunham, the Notary Public in and for the parish of Avoyelles, and was signed by the principals and by witnesses Jesse Cifft and Caiaphas K. Ham. This document serves as further proof that Clifft and Rezin were together at the right place and at the right time.
The knife that Clifft made to Rezin's specifications was later given to James Bowie by Rezin and was very likely the knife that James used in the sandbar fight six months later near Natchez, Mississippi on September 19, 1827.
In the months and years following the sandbar fight, newspapers and novels far and wide regaled the story of the now famous sandbar fight and the legend of Jim Bowie and the Bowie knife were born. It has been said that Jim Bowie did not seek publicity or celebrity but Rezin relished it and basked in the spotlight of his famous brother. As Rezin traveled around the country he had more "Bowie" knives made by various craftsmen. He sometimes presented these knives to friends as special gifts.
It is known that Daniel Searles of Baton Rouge LA, Rees Fitzpatrick of MS, and Henry Schively Jr of Philadelphia made knives for Rezin Bowie. Some were inscribed presentation knives with fancy silver fittings and others were plain. Some of these knives have been authenticated and are in collections today. It is likely that Rezin had others made, maybe by someone in nearly every town he visited at any length. Each maker would have imparted his own style and interpretation to the knife and perhaps Rezin even refined the design himself. The "Bowie" knife could actually be several different knives by different makers.
One of the knives made by Searles was claimed to have been given to Edwin Forrest, a nationally famous actor of the time. Forrest claimed that is was given to him by Jim Bowie and claimed it to be the very knife used at the sandbar fight. There are no markings or inscriptions on the knife and it was not known until many years after James and Rezins deaths so so there is some doubt about the authenticity of the knife. Its blade is twelve inches long with a very slight clip point.
It is noticeable that the Forrest Bowie, as with the Fitzpatrick, Schively and other authenticated Bowies of the period, had no cross guard or clip point as we see in modern "Bowies". It is not known when or where these features first appeared but it is likely that they were additions made by the Sheffield knives imported in the 1830s-1840s. The knives used in the movies and TV shows of the 1950s popularized the modern style of Bowie we usually see today.
Whatever the true facts were and whatever the original knife looked like, the Bowie knife has become a part of American folklore and is one of the most famous knives of all time. Untold numbers of Bowie knives have been made and sold over the last 180 years. Nearly every knifemaker has made one and most collectors of fixed blade knives have at least one in their collection. For that reason, the Bowie knife deserves his spot in knife history as one of the most famous and often copied knives in the world.