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 P. Bowie, Planters Advocate: August 24, 1838. 1
Outnumbered, shot and bludgeoned, James Bowie held four assailants, killing one and wounding another with what witnesses called a "big butcher knife"2(or just a large knife). After an earlier assault in Alexandria, Louisiana, James's older brother Rezin [pronouncedReason] gave him the knife so that he would never again be caught unarmed. This first assault was by Major Norris Wright who, incidentally, was the same person who later died by Bowie's knife on that Mississippi sandbar.3
Rezin Bowie said, "The length of the blade was nine and one-quarters inches, its width one and one-half inches, single edged and not curved" quite different from the Bowie knife as it came to be recognized. 4
Many legends surrounded the final disposition of the "Sandbar Bowie" knife, but mystery shrouds its ultimate fate. According to Bowie family legend, James Bowie returned the knife to his brother, Rezin, and one of Rezin's grandchildren lost it. 5Some, however, speculate James Bowie always carried it.
Noah Smithwick, a Texas blacksmith, claims that James Bowie brought the knife, which had now been fitted with Ivory handles and silver and did not wish to degrade it with ordinary use, to him in San Felipe to have duplicated. 6It seems that the Bowie brothers had a penchant for giving presentation Bowies to friends and acquaintances, which only adds to the confusion surrounding the knife. According to Smithwick, the knife he worked on was the one that made its way to the Alamo. Whatever its end, we have clues to the knife's appearance and to a few surviving period knives that also claim to be "The Knife."
Presently on display at the Mississippi State Historical Museum in Jackson, Mississippi, the Schively/Perkins Bowie matches the original description of the Knife used in the Sandbar fight. Evidence strongly suggests that the Schively/Perkins Bowie was not intended as a presentation piece, but may have been Rezin Bowie's personal knife. Eventually, the knife became a gift to Jesse Perkins of Natchez, Mississippi.7
The knife had a 10-1/4 inch straight back blade with no guard, fitted with checked Ebony handles and mounted with silver. The pommel of the knife bears the initials R.P.B. in a script engraving. The silver sheath bears the inscription "Presented to Jesse Perkins by R P. Bowie - 1831". The knife is a simple and functional piece, beautiful in its simplicity and this author's choice for what the original resembled.
Daniel Searles, a cutler from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, made the Searles/Fowler Bowie now on display in the Alamo. It is one of the finest examples of an early Bowie in existence. Daniel Searles appears to have been Rezin Bowies favored cutler. Although there are four presentation knives attributed to his shop, only two can be positively identified as a Searles knife. This bit of information comes from Miss Lucy Leigh Bowie a family relative who made one of the earliest efforts to separate legend from truth.8
The Searles/Fowler knife was a gift to Captain Henry Walker Fowler a member of the United States Dragoons. Fowler owned the knife until his death in 1848. The Searles/Fowler knife is a straight back knife finished with silver and checked ebony handles. It has a 9-1/4" blade with a shape much like the Schively/Perkins. A small, almost non-existent cross-guard, if seen from a distance, could easily cause it to be mistaken for a butcher knife. A gold-plated insert on the back of the blade bears the inscription "Searles, Baton Rouge, La.." The silver scabbard is inscribed "R. P. Bowie to H.W. Fowler, U.S.D. 9
The Stafford/Searles Bowie, presented to a Mr. Stafford of Alexandria, La., looks much like theFowler/Searlesknife only slightly larger and without an inscription. It is still owned by descendents of Mr. Stafford and remains in a private collection. Miss Bowie named two other knives that she believed were made by Daniel Searles for Rezin. One was given to Governor E.D. White of Louisiana. The knife and any description of it have long since disappeared. Subsequently, there is no proof that it was actually a Searles Bowie or that it was presented by Rezin. 10
The other blade Miss Bowie attributed to Searles is a knife that was once owned by Edwin Forrest, a well-known actor of the period. He alleged that Jim Bowie personally gave him the knife. Its blade is twelve inches long with a very slight clip point. While it has checked wood scale handles, it bears more of a resemblance to the Schively/Perkins knife than it does to any other known knives made by Searles. No markings or inscriptions appear on the knife. It was not until many years after the deaths of James and Rezin Bowie that this knife became known. This made it suspect as actually being aRezin/Searlespresentation knife. 11
The knife presently on display in the Alamo Long Barracks Museum is attributed to Rezin Bowie as presentation piece given to Cephas Ham. Ham was a companion and friend of the Bowies and a member of the party who searched for the fabled San Sabá mines in 1831. The Knife has a 8 - 1/4" blade with no guard a very crude clip point and checked wooden scales, made from an old file it still shows some of the files surface. The Alamo has almost no documentation on this blade only that the donor claimed it was given to Ham about 1834 making it another chapter in the Bowie legend 12
Several knives claimed the title of "Original Bowie Knife" or at least that they were the knife that traveled with James Bowie to the Alamo. Most assume, however, that the Sandbar knife was the one Bowie carried for the rest of his life. It is likely that as his reputation and social standing grew, James replaced that first knife with a better, fancier knife and may have done so several times.
The Bart Moore knife is a claimant for the title of Bowie's Alamo knife. The Moore family asserts that an old Mexican soldier, who claimed to have participated in the storming of the Alamo, gave the knife to Mr. Moore's grandfather. The soldier supposedly retrieved the knife from where it lay by one of the funeral pyres and had kept it for many years. He offered it to Mr. James F. Moore as payment for a five-dollar debt.
The Moore Knife is a Clip point blade 8-1/4" long with iron furniture and an oak handle that appears to have been replaced. The blade has "J. Bowie" scratched on one side and the initials J.B. on the other. This knife not only claims to be the Alamo Bowie, but also the knife made by Arkansas blacksmith James Black from Bowie's original idea. Black claimed to have made two knives, one as Bowie requested and one of Black's own design. Bowie chose Black's design over his own. 13
The Saunders museum in Berryville, Arkansas has another knife that James Black supposedly made for Rezin Bowie as a presentation knife. It has a 6-1/2" clip point blade and finely made hardwood coffin handles attached by six pins with a silver wrapped pommel, silver bolster and escutcheons. The blade is engraved "Made and Presented To His Friend Capt. Thos. Tunstall by Col. Bowie - White River - Arkansas Ter. Near Batesville - 1833". This is a well-made and finely detailed knife with engraving similar to the inscription on the Schivley/Perkins knife. This leads some authorities to speculate that it could be another Schively crafted blade. 14
The San Jacinto Museum has a spear point Bowie on display that Madame Candaleria alleges she took from the Alamo and later gave to the family of Sam Houston. Candaleria claimed that she was the nurse of James Bowie during the Alamo siege and took it from his body after his death. The English-made knife is marked W. & S. Butcher. It has a six-inch blade with a small nickel cross guard and is fitted with stag scale handles. There is also a second Alamo Bowie given by Candaleria to Charles Campbell of San Antonio who displayed it in his drug store. 15
It is unlikely we will ever know the actual appearance of the original Bowie knife. Its metamorphosis from a big butcher knife to the huge clip point knife in just a few short years prompted Rezin Bowie to say: "The improvements in its fabrication and state of perfection it has acquired from experienced cutlers, was not brought about through my agency." 16
This comment from Rezin seems to hint that the "original Bowie knife" was only a simple hunting knife. It had no clip point, nor massive cross guard, like the knives Rezin was so fond of giving as gifts. Whatever the fate, whatever the actual design, the knife baptized in blood that September day began a legend that has inspired generations to want "a knife like Bowie's."
John Bryant, Staff Writer for Alamo de Parras, March 2000.
Bowie, Rezin P., Open letter to the editor, Planters Advocate, Iberville, Louisiana (24 August 1838).
Davis, William C.,Three Roads to the Alamo: the Lives and fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie and William Barret Travis. N.Y., New York, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1998.
Edmondson, J.R., Dixie Gun Works 1991Blackpowder Annual, "The Quest for Bowies Blade." Union City, Tenn., Pioneer Press, 1990.
______________, Dixie Gun Works 1999Blackpowder Annual, "The Riddle of the Original Bowie Knife". Union City, Tenn., Pioneer Press, 1998.
______________, Dixie Gun Works 1993Blackpowder Annual, "Legacies of Steel." Union City, Tenn., Pioneer Press, 1992.
The Natchez Ariel, October 19, 1827
Smithwick, Noah.,The Evolution of a State or Recollections of Old Texas Days, Austin, Texas: Universtiy of Texas Press,1983
Winter, Butch, Dixie Gun Works 1988Blackpowder Annual, "The Real Bowie Knife." Union City, Tenn., Pioneer Press, 1987.
Bowie, Rezin P., Letter to the Planters Advocate, 24 August 1838.
The Natchez Ariel, 19 October 1827.
Bowie, Rezin P., Letter to the Planters Advocate, August 24, 1838
Edmondson, J.R., Dixie Gun Works,1999Blackpowder Annual, "The Riddle of the Original Bowie Knife",pp. 91. Dr. J. Moore Soniat, Great Grandson of Rezin Bowie claimed the original knife was lost in Bayou Pierre in Mississippi but the original silver tip from the scabbard was still in the possession of Bowie descendents in New Orleans.
Smithwick, Noah.The Evolution of a State or Recollections of Old Texas Days.
Edmondson, J.R., Dixie Gun Works 1991Blackpowder Annual, "The Quest for Bowies Blade", pp.47.
Edmondson, J.R., Dixie Gun Works 1993Blackpowder Annual, "Legacies of Steel", pp.66.
Edmondson, J.R., Dixie Gun Works,1999Blackpowder Annual, "The Riddle of the Original Bowie Knife", pp. 95.
Edmondson, J.R., Dixie Gun Works 1991 Blackpowder Annual, The Quest for Bowies Blade, pp.102.
Davis, William C., Three Roads to the Alamo: the Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie and William Barret Travis. There is no existing evidence that James Black ever made a knife for James or Rezin Bowie.
Edmondson, J.R., Dixie Gun Works 1991Blackpowder Annual, "The Quest for Bowies Blade", pp.101.
Edmondson, J.R., Dixie Gun Works 1991Blackpowder Annual, "The Quest for Bowies Blade", pp.103 - 104.
Bowie, Rezin P., Letter to the Planters Advocate, 24 August 1838.