The Bowie knife is popularly named after the hero of the Alamo, James Bowie. Rezin Bowie (Jim’s brother) has also taken credit for inventing the knife. The knife became commercially popular after Bowie’s death at the Alamo in March 1836, but “Bowie knives” had appeared in an ad as early as December 1830.
Wikipedia: Jim Bowie
James Bowie (probably April 10, 1796 - March 6, 1836), aka Jim Bowie, was a nineteenth century pioneer and soldier who took a prominent part in the Texas Revolution and was killed at the Battle of the Alamo. He was born in Kentucky and spent most of his life in Louisiana before moving to Texas and joining the revolution.
Bowie is also known for the style of knife he carried, which came to be known as the “Bowie knife”. Stories of his frontier spirit have made him one of the most colorful folk heroes of Texas history.
Wikipedia: Bowie knife
Bowie knife specifically refers to a style of knife designed by Colonel James “Jim” Bowie and originally created by James Black, though is commonly used to refer to any large sheath knife with a clip point.
The Sandbar Fight
The first knife Bowie became famous with was allegedly designed by Jim Bowie’s brother Rezin in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana, and smithed by blacksmith Jesse Cleft out of an old file. Period court documents indicate that Rezin Bowie and Cleft were well acquainted with one another. Rezin’s granddaughter claimed in an 1885 letter to Louisiana State University that she personally witnessed Cleft make the knife for her grandfather.
This knife became famous as the knife used by Bowie at the Sandbar Fight, which was the famous 1827 duel between Bowie and several men, including a Major Norris Wright of Alexandria, Louisiana. The fight took place on a sandbar in the Mississippi River across from Natchez, Mississippi. In this battle Bowie was stabbed, shot, and beaten half to death but managed to win the fight.
Jim Bowie’s older brother John claimed that the knife at the Sandbar Fight was not Cleft’s knife, but a knife specifically made for Bowie by a blacksmith named Snowden.
James Black’s Bowie Knife
The most famous version of the Bowie knife was designed by Jim Bowie and presented to Arkansas blacksmith James Black in the form of a carved wooden model in December of 1830. 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. Knives like that one, with a blade shaped like that of the Bowie knife, but with half or more of the back edge sharpened, are today called “Sheffield Bowie” knives, because this blade shape became so popular that cutlery factories in Sheffield, England were mass-producing such knives for export to the U.S. by 1850, usually with a handle made from either hardwood, stag horn, or bone, and sometimes with a guard and other fittings of sterling silver.
(Oxford English Dictionary)
[f. the name of one Colonel Bowie (see last quot.); originally, according to Bartlett, ‘pronounced boo-ee’]
A large knife, with a blade from ten to fifteen inches long and above an inch broad, curved and double-edged near the point, carried as a weapon in the wilder parts of the United States.
1842 DICKENS Amer. Notes (1850) 32/2 A sewing society..which..never comes to fisty cuffs or bowie-knives as sane assemblies have been known to do elsewhere.
24 December 1830, Daily National Intelligencer (Washington D.C.), pg. 2, col. 6 ad:
Bowie Knives, of superior quality and finish, at $5 each.
[ad appears in subsequent editions through Jan. 1831—ed.]
11 September 1835, The Mississippian (Jackson, Miss.), pg. 3, col. 3:
He then took out his large Bowie knife and commenced the attack and cut my shin and clothes all to pieces without giving me a mortal wound.
30 October 1835, The Mississippian (Jackson, Miss.), pg. 1, col. 4:
We see it stated in the “People’s Advocate,” that Governor Runnels’ friends and relations, are generally loaded down with pistols and Bowie knives.
13 January 1836, Nashville (TN) Banner and Nashville (TN) Whig, pg. 3 ad:
40 dozen Rodger’s Superior Pen and Pocket Knives,
Dirk, Deer and Sportmen’s Knives;
Arkansas and Bouey Knives;
Texas (Lone Star State Dictionary) • (1) Comments • Sunday, August 12, 2007 • Permalink
Very good find on the early use of the term “bowie knife.” Through a ProQuest search, I found a citation that says the term was used in the “Boston Weekly Magazine” of Sept. 21, 1830, vol. II, issue 3, p. 10. However, I have not been able to locate a copy of this magazine either on-line or at a library.