History of the Bowie Knife…Fact, Myth, Legend
By Major Ian Humphrey
Dan Certo asked me to contact Mr. Chris Nolen of Louisiana to write an article about his on-going quest to create historically accurate replicas of all the various knives attributed to the designs of Jim Bowie. Chris currently has 16 knives in his display and has two additional knives nearing completion.
When most people think of the “Bowie knife,” an image of a massive clip point blade with double guard comes to mind. What I have learned over the years is that this may not be completely accurate. Chris’s display and hard work proves this point by showing numerous knife designs that can all be traced back to Jim Bowie.
Chris has been collecting knives for over 40 years, and has always been interested in Bowie Knives. As a young man he would buy knives made by Case, Schrade-Walden, Edge, and the German made Knives. As he got older he was able to afford handmade knives by such great bladesmiths like Jerry Berry, John Fitch, Reggie Barker, Jimmy Lile, Daniel Certo, Bo Randall, Mark Banfield, Robert Blasingame, and many many more great artists.
Chris always remained interested in the large Bowies and the history of the Bowie Knife and the Bowie family. In 2007 Chris had the pleasure of meeting Joseph Musso, and with his help, he decided to research all the known knives associated with the Bowie Family; and have close replicas made of each knife. Chris learned very quickly that investigating this project was like reading a good murder mystery without the final chapter. Chris contacted seven major Museums: The Alamo, The Historical Arkansas Museum, The Mississippi Historical Museum, the Witte Museum, The Waco Ranger Museum, The San Jacinto Museum, and the Bob Bullock Museum in Austin, TX where he learned that there were many knives associated with the Bowies, and there are many stories as well, but nothing from Jim Bowie in his own hand.
Chris goes on to explain that as a matter of fact, in all his writings, Jim Bowie never mentions a knife of any sort. The only thing that proves he owned a knife is a store receipt from 1823 (which Chris has a picture of!). On the other hand, there are tons of stories about Jim's knife from family members and friends, as well as the media of the day. After the Sandbar Fight in 1827 the Bowie Knife Fad went crazy! From England to all over the world, everyone wanted a knife like Jim Bowie's.
In 2008 Chris had done enough research to conclude that there were 18 knives he would have built as replicas of The Bowie Knife...Fact ~Myth ~ Legend. There are currently 16 knives already made with 2 in the final stages of being completed. He started out with Robert Blasingame as his Bladesmith, and he built the first 11 replica knives. Sadly to say, Robert passed away in April 2010 with cancer. He was a dear friend to Chris and great artist. Chris is finishing the project using Tim Ridge of Swamp Fox Knives, Mark Banfield, and Rich McDonald who are all outstanding artists in their own right.
The knives are described by Chris as follows (Left to right in the display):
*The Caiaphas Ham Bowie Knife:
Ham was a known friend of the Bowies. He was with Jim and Rezin Bowie at the San Saba Indian fight and left Louisiana with Jim Bowie in 1830 to move to Texas. The knife was made by Lovelle Snowden, and given to Ham by Rezin Bowie. The original is housed in the Long Barrack at the Alamo in San Antonio.
*The Jesse Clifft Bowie Knife:
Clifft was a blacksmith residing in Avoyelles Parish, and is believed to have worked on the Bowie Plantation. In 1838 Rezin Bowie did a response in the Planters Advocate, to the infamous PQ’s remarks about Jim Bowie. In his response he stated that he made the original Bowie Knife that Jim used in 1827 to kill Norris Wright on a sandbar outside Natchez Mississippi. It was described as having a 9 1/4 inch straight blade with an oak handle. One of Rezin's direct decedents later added that Clifft actually made the knife under Rezin's supervision. The original is long lost to the ages. The replica in the display is Chris’s version of that knife.
The Bart Moore Bowie Knife
This knife was given to the Great Great Grandfather of Bart Moore, Sheriff James Moore to retire a debt of $5. It has been handed down through family, and is currently on display at the Historical Arkansas Museum in Little Rock. The knife has been tested, and dates back to the 1830s and is believed to have been made by James Black of Washington Ark. It has J. Bowie scratched on one side of the 8 1/2 inch blade and an acorn on the other.
The Barrera~Campbell Bowie Knife
This knife was one of 2 knives given to Augustine Barrera in 1835 by Jim Bowie. It was made by Broomhead and Thomas, and was given in pay for some silver work Barrera did for Bowie. The knife was handed down through the family and ended up with Dr. Charles Campbell, Barrera's Grandson. It was photographed in 1916, and posted in the San Antonio news. Later the knife was donated to the Witte Museum, but was mysteriously lost. Chris’s replica is from a design drawn by Joe Musso from the photo of the knife. The other knife was lost to the ages.
The Noah Smithwick Bowie Knife
Noah was a well known blacksmith in Texas and told his daughter, as she prepared for her upcoming book, Birth of a Nation - That Jim Bowie brought him a knife that he had reworked and set in silver with an Ivory handle for Noah to make a copy of it, so he would not degrade the original. Noah asked Bowie if he might make more copies, and sell them. Permission was granted, and Smithwick made and sold Bowie knives for $20....The original, or any copies are lost to the ages. Chris’s replica is his idea of the knife with ivory handles adorned in silver with a 10 inch blade and distinct clip point.
The Jesse Robinson Bowie Knife:
This big brass-back knife was given as a gift to Jesse Robinson from Jim Bowie according to the descendants of Jesse Robinson. The original was sold to Steve Miller, and he had replicas made of the knife by Robert Blasingame. It was on display at the Bob Bullock Museum in Austin, but removed and sold to Phil Collins along with a rifle, patch knife, and possibles bag. Jesse Robinson was a Texas Ranger, and was married to the infamous Sally Skull. Chris’s replica is an exact copy of the original, and was made by Robert Blasingame while he had the original in his shop.
The Madame Candelaria Bowie Knife
She was supposed to have been one of Bowie's nurses in the Alamo when he fell ill on the second day of the siege. Chris traced her back through census reports, and she was real, and she had an Inn, but accounts of her in the Alamo are very suspect. She reported to Sam Houston, and gave the small knife to him. The original is housed in the San Jacinto Museum. It was made by W&S Butcher, and has a 6 1/2 inch blade with a stag handle.
The Musso Brass-Back
Knife: This knife is believed to have been the knife Bowie had at the Alamo. It was found in an antique piece of furniture, and later sold to Musso by an art dealer. He was cleaning the knife in 1980, and discovered the JB on the guard, and sent the knife to DuPont for tests. It was proven to have come from the Southwest portion of Arkansas and built in the early 1800s. It was used as the model for the 2004 Alamo Movie, and is owned by Joseph Musso.
The Iron Mistress Bowie Knife:
This knife was built for the 1952 Movie of the same title, starring Alan Ladd. Chris included the knife in his collection because of its influence on collectors, and it brought forth the current Bowie craze. The knife was used in The Last Command, John Wayne's Alamo, Disney's Crockett series and the TV Series about the Life and Times of Jim Bowie, starring Scott Forbes. The original is also owned by Joe Musso.
The Bowie # 1
Very interesting knife made by James Black around 1830. This knife is believed by some experts to have been one of two knives made for Jim Bowie. It has a 13 inch blade, and is designed to fight with being held upside down. It is inscribed Bowie # 1 on the escutcheon, and has some very ornate silver work on the handle.
The original is housed in the Historical Museum in Little Rock Ar.
The James Black Bowie Knife
Black most likely made many knives for the Bowies. The most famous was the Thomas Tunstall Bowie which was given to him by Rezin Bowie. We know that Black knew the Bowies due to his business partner; Elisha Stewart who was married to John Bowie's daughter. The original is housed in the Saunders Museum in Berryville Arkansas. Chris’s replica is a general idea of the knives of James Black.
The Huber Steel Bowie Knife
This is the knife that Lucy Leigh Bowie described that Jim Bowie designed for his men in Texas. Henry Huber was a well known maker of fine cutlery in Philadelphia, and it is believed that Jim and Rezin could have had the knife built upon their visits to the area. The knife has a resemblance to the Barrera~Campbell knife as well as a knife housed at the Witte Museum that was picked up on the battlefield at San Jacinto, six weeks after the Alamo fell. The original is in a private collection.
The Schively~Perkins Bowie Knife
This knife is believed to be a copy of the knife Jim used at the sandbar fight. It was made by Henry Schively of Philadelphia. It has a 10 inch blade with a checkered handle, and fine silver trim. It was later given to Jesse Perkins, and was donated to the Mississippi Historical Museum in Jackson, Mississippi where it resides today. Chris’s replica is almost a mirror copy of the knife, even to the inscriptions on the blade and pommel. It was made by the late great Robert Blasingame.
The Searles~Fowler Bowie Knife
Daniel Searles was one of the most famous bladesmiths in the country for that time. He lived and worked in Baton Rouge LA. The knife belonged to Rezin Bowie, and has a unique shape for a bowie knife of that era. The handle is ebony, and it has raised checked panels on the handle with silver pins. There is a gold plate on the spine of the knife with the maker's mark on it. It was given to Henry Fowler of the Texas Dragoons in the mid 1830s. The original is housed in the Chapel of the Alamo.
The Edwin Forrest Bowie Knife
Forrest was a well known actor of the day, and became friends with Jim Bowie. It was told that Bowie and Forrest would visit the many pubs and bars of New Orleans while Forrest was visiting, and Jim gave Forrest the famous knife which was located in a trunk years later. It has a 12 inch blade with a checkered handle, and has a small clip point. The original is in a private collection.
The Juan Padillo Bowie Knife
According to legend Juan was a pirate with John Laffite's group, and became employed by the Bowie's during their years trading slaves. He stated that the knife was given to him by Bowie, and he later gave it to a cattle farmer in Texas. The original is lost to the ages, and Chris had the replica made the from Juan’s description in a letter.
Juan Seguin Bowie Knife
Legend says Bowie gave it to Seguin as he left the Alamo with one of Travis' messages. There is a lot of controversy about the knife due to a test run by the Waco Ranger Museum which proved that the silver solder shield atop the spine of the blade with Searles mark was done after 1860 while Searles died in 1860. The owner retrieved the knife and will not discuss it futher.
*The 2 knives being built that will complete the display are the Juan Seguin Knife, (Complete) and the Lovelle Snowden Knife.
I have been meaning to send this picture to you for a while....It was the final knife from my Bowie Knife collection.
This is the Juan Seguin Knife. It is said to be in Bowie's hand in the C.P.A. Healey potrait of 1834.....Legend says Juan Seguin left the Alamo on Jims horse and the knife was in the bags with a message to Fannin.
Hope all is good for you and enjoy the photo....its quite a blade
* The Snowden Knife: This knife was described by John Bowie and Caiaphas Ham as being the blade Jim Bowie had with him early in his life, and at the Sandbar Fight...It will be completed this summer, and the original is long lost to the ages........
I cannot thank Chris Nolen enough for taking the time out of his busy schedule to provide the information on his incredible collection. You can tell he shares a true passion for the Bowie knife and wants to do his part to help explain the fact, myth, and legend behind one of the great symbols of American spirit.
Relentless Knives Rattle Snake Bowie
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