Knives with an attitude

Original Bowie knife found by: Mark McLean
Forward by: Daniel M. Certo
Mark McLean wrote to me saying there was a chance that he found the original Bowie knife.
I figured he read the article by Lt Col Humphrey "The History of the Bowie knife". After over
a quarter century of knife making,  the realization that each and every knife I've made gets
sent to it's original owner, and begins a life of it's own.  If the knife is well made, it can live for thousands of years. So, rather than being a skeptic I realized that stranger things have happened. King Tut lived on earth, he owned a knife, it was found in his grave and lives today.
Mark's story is both interesting and informative. Hopefully you'll enjoy it as it adds yet another chapter to the legacy of a Great American Hero Jim Bowie.

Note: The content of this article are the opinions of the writer Mark McLean,
and are solely based on his experiance research etc. Daniel M. Certo, Relentless Knives et al
have no historical knowledge of anything related to the factual significance stated in his writing, other than people do find old things and occasionally they turn out to be genuine.

Has the Sandbar Bowie Knife Been Found?
The knife I discovered in a Maryland antiques shop could be a contender — or a pretender.
By Mark McLean
Photos by Craig Gerhart

I collect antique knives, primarily from the 18th and 19th centuries, that are mostly big American-made knives: hunting, long, belt, butcher, and Bowie knives.  I especially like old, individually hand-forged knives.  Like a lot of young boys, I suppose my interest was sparked by TV shows from the 1950 and ‘60s featuring frontiersmen such as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Jim Bowie.  My father gave me my first hunting knife with an antler grip when I about ten years old.  I went on to collect a few more knives here and there, but didn’t take the hobby seriously until about eight years ago.
While looking through an antiques and collectibles store in Maryland a couple of years ago, I happened upon a cardboard box full of old kitchen-type knives.  Among the various knives was one that had been hand-forged. For this, I paid a princely sum of $10.00.  It is this knife that this article is about (figure 1).
Figure 1
I was happy to have come across this knife and even happier to add it to my collection.  My guess was that a blacksmith crafted this knife in the latter 18th or early 19th century.  The overall length is 15 and one quarter inches.  It has a file-forged blade that is nine and three quarter inches long, one and a half inches wide at mid-belly, and three-sixteenth inches thick.  Aside from some lengthwise streaks along the blade-faces, it is very well finished, with no hammer marks.  The only reason I know it was made from a file is that under magnification I detected faint remnants of file-teeth on the top of the tang (figure 2).  The wood grip is five and one half inches, with two hammer-flared iron pins.  It is not quite a full tang, as the tang stops an inch from the butt-end.  I’m not a wood expert, so all I can say is that the grip is a medium-brown color with fine dark grain.
Figure 2
Last year I came across an article in the Contemporary Longrifle Association’s American Tradition journal titled “A Knife Like Bowie’s?” (reference 1). This article was authored by T.C. Albert, with contributions from Joseph Musso.  The story included a picture of the Cephas Ham knife (figure 3, “Caiaphas Ham Bowie Knife.  Donated by Miss Graves Dewees.  Alamo Collection #32563.  The Alamo, San Antonio, TX”).  This is a hunting knife that is believed to have been made originally for Rezin Bowie (Jim Bowie’s older brother).
Figure 3, Caiaphas Ham Bowie Knife.  Donated by Miss Graves Dewees.  Alamo Collection #32563.  The Alamo, San Antonio, TX
The grip on the Cephas knife is oddly similar to the grip of my knife. They both appear to be made of the same type of wood, with iron pins.  But the most striking resemblance is the way the grips are atypically cut at the choil.  Both knives’ grips are carved at the front, at about a 45 degree angle from where the top of the blade meets the tang, and then is slanted back to the bottom of the tang approximately one half inch.  Though the grips’ likeness in construction is by itself notable, that may be just a coincidence.   However, of the hundreds of knives I’ve examined (either in hand or in photographs), I have not seen this slanted feature before.  It certainly roused my interest and resulted in me doing much research.
As an amateur in the area of knife collecting and history, I relied on the writings of several qualified experts such as T.C. Albert, Joe Musso, Norm Flayderman, Ben Palmer, Madison Grant, and Gordon Minnis.  I will be referencing some of them from the sources listed below.  What follows are speculations, conjectures, and theories based on my observations and research from these experts.
First, the knives themselves. As I observe, the blades of both knives were forged from files, and both have similarly constructed grips; is it possible they might have been made by the same skilled blacksmith? The blacksmiths most mentioned as creators of the Cephas knife were either Jesse Cliffe (aka Clifft) or Lovell Snowden.  Both, at one time or another, worked on the Bowie’s plantation. 
If you aren’t laughing yet, the following will surely result in snickers and howls: My knife may be the original knife used by Jim Bowie at the infamous 1827 Vidalia Sandbar fight near Natchez, Mississippi.
Is that howling I hear?
Here’s how two renowned scholars describe the knife used by Jim Bowie at the Sandbar fight.  Madison Grant, describing what he calls ‘The American Big Knife’ says, “Probably no other form of American knife has excited the imagination, or assumed such a position of authority in its field as the big knife.  Without question, it started life as a butcher knife and it was so designated in descriptions of its use over the past several centuries.  Even newspaper accounts of the famous Vidalia Sandbar fight between James Bowie and his intended assassins, termed his oversized blade a butcher knife.  From the mundane duties of dismembering game, farm animals
and other meat cutting chores, the simple large blade with substantial but plain handle, began to receive extra attention from hunters, adventurers and the military” (reference 2, page 6).  Norm Flayderman writes, “Most early reports of the Sandbar fight mentioned the weapon merely as a ‘large butcher knife’ or ‘large knife.’  Neither term carried more awe inspiring connotation than they do currently; a simply shaped relatively unattractive, sturdily made knife, with a straight single edged blade, usually plain wood handle and likely not fitted with a crossguard.  It may very well have resembled the so-called ‘Forrest knife.’ A consensus among knife students would generally agree on those cardinal points.  Beyond that all is speculative” (reference 3, Chapter 12, page 317).  While these quotes present a description similar to my big knife, they don’t quite prove that the knife I found is the original Sandbar Bowie knife.
T.C. Albert, in his article cited above, says that Rezin’s description of the Sandbar knife is a typical-style butcher knife that one might find sitting in a kitchen drawer.  He also mentions its likeness to a type of chef knife associated with French cutlers, particularly under the Sabatier brand (figure 4).  “When one remembers the Bowies lived on a Louisiana plantation named Bayou Beof, in a region known for its overtly French overtones and influences, it is easily imagined the brothers would have at least heard about this famous French knife.  Interestingly, the basic French knife pattern fits all the criteria attributed to the Sand Bar butcher knife.  Nearly ten inches long, straight backed, not curved but coming to a point.”
Figure 4
Albert goes on to say, “The Bowie brothers were prone to cut themselves when hunting.  The basic backwoods shapeless lump of a knife, so familiar on the frontier was not up to the tasks at hand, so Rezin had his plantation blacksmith make one that stood up to the hard chores found on a 19th century Southern plantation.  Though the blade was finished from a file the knife was more refined and closely resembled a standard French butcher or chef’s pattern.  This is understandable, given the region in which the Bowies lived, and the growing popularity of that pattern elsewhere around the world.  Jim was in trouble, Rezin gave him the knife, and Jim proved its worth during the fight at the Sand bar” (reference 1, pages 41 and 42).  My knife also somewhat resembles the design of a typical French butcher or chef knife.
As I previously mentioned, Rezin Bowie had the Cephas knife made for him as a hunting knife.  And as the story goes, either he or his younger brother James cut his hand with it when stabbing a bull, or a bear, or while skinning a rabbit, because his hand slid down the handle due to lack of a guard.  Supposedly, Rezin then had his blacksmith make him a new knife that would prevent a hand from sliding while doing hard chores.  This is when the addition of a guard was thought to have been added to the new knife’s construction.  It is also this knife that Rezin later gave to James to use as a defensive weapon.  However, in most of my readings, it is said that there was no guard on the knife used by Jim at the Sandbar fight.
So here’s my theory: Rezin instructed his blacksmith to include a lanyard to the grip, rather than a guard, to prevent his hand from sliding down the blade.  Figure 5 shows the tang on my knife ending an inch before the grip’s butt.  The wood-scales beyond the end of the tang do not join together for another five-sixteenth of an inch.  Thus, the hole was purposely created. (Why add a hole, if not to hold a lanyard?) Whether a lanyard would have been effective or not at preventing a hand from sliding is another matter for another discussion.
Figure 5
Another clue: the spine of my knife’s blade is battered as would perhaps happen from beatings by some sort of baton or tree branches (figure 6).  This could occur from dressing game, as Rezin probably would have done as a hunter, or from doing other chores on his plantation.
Figure 6
This is where purists will no doubt object to my speculation that my knife may be the original Sandbar Bowie knife.  Rezin Bowie, in a contemptuous response to an 1838 newspaper article written by an individual known as P.Q., disputes P.Q’s description of the original Sandbar Bowie knife.  P.Q. stated that the blade was twelve inches in length and two inches wide at the heel. He also said it had a curved point that was hollow at the back and cut both ways like a two-edged sword (what I would call a clip point). Rezin’s retort stated that the length of the knife was nine and a quarter inches, its width one and a half inches, with a single-edge blade that was not curved.  And as you can see in figure 1, my knife also has a single-edge and a straight-back, except for a slight downward curve two and one quarter inches before the point. While Rezin said his knife was straight-backed without a curve, he was obviously addressing the fact that his knife’s point was not curved and hollow at the back like a typical clip point knife.
Then there’s the matter of the disparity between the length of Rezin’s and my knife’s blade.  As I mentioned, my knife’s blade is nine and three quarters inches in length, a half-inch longer than the blade Rezin described. However, Rezin’s reply to P.Q. was published eleven years after the Sandbar fight, and the knife existed for an unknown period of time before that.
Now, I’m a collector as well as a novice knife-maker. But if you were to ask me the length of any of my knives (collected or made by me), I could not accurately tell you how long any of the blades are.  I suspect many knife enthusiasts would also struggle, offhand, to give a precise length of the blades they have.  Even Mr. Flayderman may have slipped in his final description of the blade on the first Bowie knife when he said (twice) that it was only nine inches long (reference 3, page 492).
Another possibility is that 1838 was near the time that Rezin had Daniel Searles, a noted cutler and gun maker, make him a presentation-knife.  That knife had the exact same measurements and description that Rezin gave in his response to P.Q.’s article, so the measurements and description were fairly fresh in Rezin’s mind. It’s also possible that Rezin intentionally offered a similar measurement and description to match Searles’ presentation-knife, as Rezin was known to be an occasional entrepreneur. 
Figure 7

Here is where I see the most compelling evidence supporting my hypothesis. In figure 7, you can see — close-up — that there are a number of small sharp nicks down the blade’s back. There are about ten or so, all facing downward from the point.
My hunch is that these nicks were the result of hits to the blade-spine from another blade-like implement. Their similarity in appearance makes me think that the nicks may have resulted from the same incident.

The Sandbar fight was precipitated by a pistol duel. The two protagonists fired at each other twice, missed both attempts, and ended the duel in a draw. However, each had a small group of backers whose tempers were still raging from the initial confrontation when a furious fight broke out. During this post-duel melee Jim Bowie, who was not a principal in the original duel, was badly wounded. Two men on the opposing side (Major Norris Wright and Alfred Blanchard) had a previous grudge against Bowie. Seeing Jim was hurt, they took the opportunity to finish him off with sword canes. Flayderman wrote that Bowie, in a crouch-like position, deflected the two men’s sword cane thrusts with both his free arm and the arm wielding the big knife (reference 3, page 289).

Ben Palmer recounts that Bowie’s manner of grasping his knife was considered peculiar; he held it as one might grasp a sword (reference 4, page 12). If true, then I imagine that Bowie’s blade would have protruded up from his clenched fist, rather than down. Typically when fighting with a knife, one tends to hold the handle with the blade pointing from the bottom of the fist — but from a crouched position Bowie’s blade would likely be pointing skyward.
Palmer goes on to say that the technique of fighting with a knife is not the same as in sabre fights, where the swords themselves are used to parry blows (reference 4, page 12). Palmer notes that this could account for the lack of parry-marks on the blades of the numerous bowie specimens he’s examined. I think the nicks on my knife’s blade-spine could be the parry-marks of sword cane blows. Picture it: Bowie, in a crouched position with both arms raised, points his knife up to the sky like a sword. Using that knife, he manages to fend off Wright and Blanchard’s sword cane strikes before finally thrusting his knife up and decisively dispatching Major Wright.

Now, why would the original Bowie knife be found in an antiques shop in Maryland almost two centuries after the Sandbar fight? It’s hard to say, but here are a couple plausible scenarios: First, Jim was severely wounded and close to death. As such, he probably did not think to secure his knife. Any of the various duel participants or spectators could have kept it as a souvenir. Second, the Bowie brothers supposedly had relatives in Maryland. Many Bowie knife historians say the original knife was of a non-descript butcher variety, and therefore not high caliber enough that one would necessarily want to keep it, especially since the knife was also a murder weapon at an illegal duel. The knife could have been returned to someone in the Bowie family, and because it was used to kill Major Wright, they may have decided to keep it hidden from view. One indication of this scenario is that my knife’s blade-edge shows little sign of sharpening. If my knife is as old as I believe it to be, then either it was simply not sharpened that much over the years, or it was discreetly put aside, hidden and then forgotten.

Finally, there appears to be a bit of dried blood on my knife. The markings were there when I bought it and are still visible (figure 8). I shared this intriguing mystery with a pathologist friend of mine and she agreed, after a visual inspection, that the stains do look to her like dried blood. Of course, it would need a scientific test to determine whether it’s actually blood of human origin. And if it proved to be human material, then perhaps DNA testing could be done. That’s presuming of course that descendants of the Bowies, Wright, and maybe even Blanchard too, still exist and could be found. If DNA testing can’t be done, maybe it can at least be shown that there are multiple sources of human blood.
Figure 8

Personally, I do not have the wherewithal for expensive undertakings such as laboratory analysis and genealogy research. At a minimum, testing of my knife to determine its age should be done. And of course, it should be examined and compared side-by-side with the Cephas knife.

This concludes my astounding story that I may actually own the original Bowie knife. I imagine naysayers are already formulating rebuttals. However, as Norm Flayderman writes “There is little doubt that weapons attributed to Jesse James and Jim Bowie and other famous and infamous figures will continue to surface. Among them, it is quite possible for an authentic specimen to appear” (reference 3, Chapter 16, page 457). If my knife is the authentic specimen, then just think how satisfying it would be to add a definitive final chapter in the history of the Bowie knife, and to actually see and know the fabled weapon that first enshrined Jim Bowie as an American icon and legend.

If ever there is a knife fight (competition, that is) as to what knife will wear the crown as the true “Bowie” original, I offer my Big Knife up as a contender.

Let the debate commence!

American Tradition, The Journal of the Contemporary Longrifle Association; Volume 3, No. 2, July 2012

The Knife in Homespun America and Related Items; by Madison Grant; Published by Madison Grand; Copyright 1984 by Madison Grant; Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 83-83195

The Bowie Knife (Unsheathing of an American Legend); by Norm Flayderman; Lincoln, R.I.: Andrews Mowbray Inc. – Publishers 512 pp.; ISBN: 1-931464-12-X

Bowie Knives and Bayonets of the Ben Palmer Collection; by Ben Palmer, Bill Moran, and Jim Phillips; Copyright 2002 – 2nd Edition by Phillips Publications, P.O. Box 168, Williamstown, NJ

Relentless Knives Rattle Snake Bowie
Relentless Knives Rattle Snake Bowie

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