Sunday, December 4, 2016

“Damn you Bowie, you have killed me”

One of the South’s greatest historians, Clement Eaton, viewed Code Duello as evidence of Southerners military-mindedness, cult of virility, and disinclination to use courts to deal with matters of personal honor. Often cited was Andrew Jackson’s mother’s advice to her son: “Never tell a lie, nor take what is not your own, nor sue anyone for slander or assault and battery. Always settle them cases yourself!”
Bernhard Thuersam,   The Great American Political Divide

Sword Cane Versus Jim Bowie’s Knife

“Another hero of the old Southwest was James Bowie, born in Tennessee in 1795, killed in action at the Alamo if 1836. His father, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, operated a small plantation near Elliot Springs, growing cotton, corn, sugar cane, and tobacco. When James was seven years old, the Bowies moved further into the Southwest, seeking more productive soil, bringing their half-dozen slaves along with them. They finally settled outside Opelousas, in Louisiana, and here they prospered.

James and his brothers John and Rezin, Jr., became known as “those wild Bowies,” because of the way they hunted wild cattle with lasso and knife, instead of using the conventional long spear and pistol. Rezin invented the famous Bowie knife, with its ten-inch long, single edged, slightly curved blade, and its guard at the handle. Jesse Cliffe, his blacksmith friend, first made it. But Brother James brought it fame.

The Bowie boys teamed up in 1818 with Jean Lafitte, the pirate leader who had distinguished himself at the Battle of New Orleans. Lafitte, during this period, was operating out of Galveston, in Spanish Mexico; his business was the smuggling of slaves into the United States.

But the most repeated stories concerning James Bowie dealt with his famous knife, which ornamented numerous encounters in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. For example, there was the fracas of September 18, 1827, which started at Natchez-under-the-Hill, rendezvous of brawlers, gamblers and worse. Eleven Louisianans, bent on arranging a duel between two of their group, met at Natchez to complete plans.

After picking up two doctors they recrossed the river to Louisiana near the village of Vidalia. The duelists were Colonel Samuel Welles and Dr. Thomas Maddox, bitter political opponents in a recent campaign. James Bowie was acting as a second. Pistols were decided upon for weapons.

The duel proper turned into a fiasco when two shots, fired on each side, went wild. The politicians were about to shake hands and forget it all but the spectators had been stirred by the proceedings to remember certain grievances they had against one another.

Suddenly, a Colonel Crain fired at Jim Bowie without warning and wounded him in the thigh; another of Bowie’s enemies, Major Wright, attacked him with a sword cane. Calmly, Jim drew the famous knife and sliced the cowardly Major to the backbone. “Damn you Bowie, you have killed me,” remarked the Major and expired.”

(Romanticism and Nationalism in the Old South, Rollin G. Osterweis, LSU Press, 1949, pp. 196-197)


  1. In point of fact it wasn't until after this duel that Bowie and his knife achieved notoriety - - the knife was one that Bowie's brother Rezin had loaned him after Bowie had an earlier encounter with Crain, during which a pistol Bowie was armed with failed to fire, a common occurrence in the percussion cap/blackpowder era. The knife that Rezin loaned his brother was Rezin's butcher knife that he used for hunting, with a cross-guard added to prevent his hand sliding onto the blade. This was the knife that Bowie used to kill Crain.

    Later Bowie had another, better knife made by James Black of Washington, Arkansas, and used this knife to kill some assassins who were sent after him by an enemy. From this point on Bowie seemed to have both commissioned and been gifted additional knives, and all the tales become confused; it's not certain which knife (or knives) he was in possession of at the Alamo, and what their fate was. After Bowie's death a craze began for similar knives, and Arkansas actually became known as the "Bowie State" because of all the knife duels that were fought. Some of the first 2nd Amendment cases to really gain attention came not from guns, but from people going armed with Bowie knives in the south after the Alamo, and Bowie knives were legislated against just as "assault weapons" are today.


    2. Interesting, because although D-Guard bowie knives were popular at the beginning of the WBTS, most infantry soldiers quickly threw them away to reduce weight on the march. It's possible that cavalry and artillery had the wherewithal to carry the extra weight, but in general practice the Confederate soldier at the end of the war might own a jackknife as his only cutlery.

    3. Excuse me, in my original reply I should have said that Bowie killed Maj. Norris Wright, not Crain. Wright, just as Bowie, was participating as a second in the duel.

    4. Thanks and here's a goodie if you haven't seen it before: