The Bowie Knife's Origins

By Bill Williamson

Loungers on the sun-warm steps of the Avoyelles Parish Court House were startled from their lethargy by an unexpected roar. Merchants and customers alike stepped onto the sidewalks to investigate. Gazing skyward, they viewed the Louisiana State Police helicopter circling low over Marksville’s town square, and except for Sheriff Potch Didier, they were puzzled.

From the cockpit, Compton LaBauve, Jr., Louisiana State Police Officer, Bowie knife collector and friend, scrutinized the scene, particularly the court house building. The parish’s historical society had proposed that my collection of antique Bowie knives be exhibited in the structure, and I had requested LaBauve’s advice on security.

Why was this location chosen for an important exhibition of Bowie Knives and what was the event’s significance?

Only by momentarily turning back the clock can the importance of this Louisiana locale be appreciated. It was in the sleepy little village of Marksville in central-east Louisiana that an important document in Bowie knife history was signed. It was a spring day, April 10, 1827 to be exact. Rezin P. Bowie, brother of Alamo hero James Bowie rode into Marksville, dis- mounted his horse and assisted his wife Margaret from her sidesaddle. Small as it was, Marksville served as the seat of government for the parish (county), and the Bowies had business to conduct in the presence of Herzehian Dunham, “the Notary Public in and for the parish of Avoyelles. “

Accompanying Rezin and Margaret Bowie that day were Caiaphas K. Ham and Jesse Clifft. The Bowie plantation on Bayou Boeuf (pronounced buff or beff, depending on where one lives in Louisiana) was, as the crow flies, about fifteen miles distance. It was there at the plantation that Jesse Clifft, under Rezin P. Bowie’s direction and using his design, handcrafted the first Bowie knife.

Important evidence now settles the question of who made that first Bowie knife. “The first Bowie knife was made by myself in the parish of Avoyelles,” wrote Rezin Bowie went on to describe the knife. In a recently discovered letter to Col. David F. Boyd, dated September 14, 1885, Rezin’s granddaughter, Mrs. Eugene Soniat, gave further details. “This instrument, which was never intended for ought but a hunting knife, was made of an old file in the plantation blacksmith shop of my grandfather’s Bayou Boeuf plantation, the maker was a hired white man named Jesse Clift [sic], he afterwards went to Texas. My mother, Mrs. Jos. H. Moore then a little girl, went to the shop with her father, heard his directions, and saw Clift make the knife.

The document signed in Marksville that spring day provides further proof of the connection between Bowie and Clift. When William Hargrove met with Rezin P. and Margaret Bowie, Herzehian Dunham penned an agreement explicitly linking Rezin Bowie, the designer, with Jesse Clifft, the maker of the first Bowie knife.

The document read in part:
In consideration of four thousand dollars... the said R.P. Bowie and the said M. Bowie his wife does by these presents grant, bargain, sell and convey unto the said Wm. Hargrove nine certain slaves to wit, Bill age about 25, Stephen aged about 30, Sally and child about 25, Harry about 40, Tom about 45, Willoby about 25, Bartlett about 27 and Lewis aged about 18 years, all slaves for life....

The principals signed the document, Rezin with his usual flourish, “R.P. Bowie,” incorporating a series of fancy line swirls beneath the name. “C.K. Ham” and “Jesse Clifft” signed as witnesses. Until this writing, Clifft’s name has been misspelled in the literature, usually as Cliff or Cliffe.

The origin of the first Bowie knife is now very clear. With this very knife James Bowie killed Maj. Norris Wright of Alexandria, Louisiana in the famous sandbar fight near Natchez, Mississippi on September 19, 1827. The sandbar affair started both James Bowie and the Bowie knife on the road to fame.

If Rezin Bowie had attended the 1980 exhibit in honor of his knives, he would have been surprised to see helicopters over Avoyelles parish; he would have been no less surprised by the appearance of the nearby parishes of Rapides (pronounced, Rap-eeds), Catahouia, St. Landry and Nachitoches (pronounced, Naka-tosh), all important to the Bowie narrative.

When James Bowie arrived in the area of Bayou Boeuf (boeuf is French for beef), the land was cheap, speculation rampant and the settlers, soon to be the landed gentry, a fiercely independent breed who often terminated differences with knives, swordcanes and pistols. African slaves, sometimes legally purchased, sometimes smuggled, were brought in to supply the backbreaking labor required to push back the forest and create large plantations.

James Bowie had located on Bayou Bouef some time before 1820. (An old ledger, dated 1817, records purchases made by James at a general store, later Bennett’s Store, on Bayou Boeuf near the town of Cheneyville, Louisiana.) Both he and brother Rezin P. Bowie owned, lumbered and developed properties along the Boeuf, in the area where the Bayou departs Rapides parish, cuts into the south-west corner of Avoyelles and then flows into St. Landry parish. Today, the town of Bunkie, nonexistent in the Bowies’ time, is the largest in the vicinity.

Among the people today who love the history, people and parish of Avoylles is Dr. Sue Eakin of the University of Louisiana at Alexandria. She is a historian, author, newspaperwoman and teacher. After she learned of my Bowie Knife Exhibition held at the Sheffield City Museum in England, an invitation was soon forthcoming from the historical society, La Commission des Avoyelles, for a showing in the small town of Marksville.

Friends in Baton Rouge and New Orleans expressed disbelief when they learned of the idea. “You are not really going to display up there in the boondocks? Why not Baton Rouge or New Orleans?” They had a point. Marksville’s small population of 6,000 did not compare to the population of these cities or to the 500,000 in Sheffield.

Yet there could be no more appropriate site than Marksville, which was founded about 1813 by Marc Elisha. In Cajun country, the area was a wilderness when French speaking Creoles moved into Avoyelles from the Pointe Coupee.

Even by 1852, a quarter-century after the Bowie’s sale to Hargrove, there had been little development. Simon Northup observed in Twelve Years A Slave:

Marksville, although occupying a prominent position, and standing out in impressive italics on the map of Louisiana, is, in fact, but a small insignificant hamlet. Aside from the tavern, kept by a jolly and generous boniface, the courthouse, inhabited by lawless cows and swine in the seasons of vacation, and a high gallows, with its disservered [sic] rope dangling in the air, there is little to attract the attention of the stranger.

This stranger, albeit 127 years later, was attracted to Marksville by the plans, desires and enthusiasm expressed by the people of Avoyelles in support of a Bowie Knife Exhibition. It is difficult to conceive a more apropos location than the parish where the Bowles lived and where the Bowie knife was born.

All civic and governmental organizations backed the event. Joining the La Commission des Avoyelles were the Avoyelles Parish Police Jury County Board of Supervisors), the town of Marksville and its parish-wide elected officials, the Union Bank of Marksville, the Avoyelles Sheriffs Department, the Louisiana State Police and prominent individuals. For security reasons the exhibit location was moved from the Parish Court House to Union Bank, with the latter providing, in addition to accommodations, full and generous support. No expense was spared; all was first rate. “Relive a Bit of History-An Official Bowie Knife Exhibit” was the theme.

The exhibit was scheduled to open on Sunday, October 7, 1979 and to extend for a period of one month. Collectors who have prepared small exhibits for gun and knife shows can appreciate the preparation required for a large exhibition.

The Friday prior to the exhibit’s opening, a very special event had been organized in nearby Rapides parish. An air of expectation permeated the auditorium on the campus of the University of Louisiana, Alexandria. The public and news media were there, and distinguished guests were in attendance. The first symposium ever held on James Bowie, the Bowie knife and the famous sandbar duel was about to commence.

This imaginative event was the inspiration of Dr. Sue Eakin, who had gathered a panel of outstanding historians, academicians, university presidents, researchers, genealogists and descendents of the Bowie family and of other men who fought the Sandbar Fight.

In the evening, Dr. Larry Crain, Director, Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism introduced the author for a lecture and slide presentation on the origin and development of the Bowie knife. When the curtain fell on a day of days for Bowie aficionados, the subject had attained new heights of recognition.

The Marksville town square echoed with sound as the high school band struck up the music, the street fronting Union Bank was roped off and a crowd gathered. The program for this sunny and bright Sunday afternoon announced the grand opening of “An Official Exhibit of Bowie Knives,” and the hour had arrived. Dignitaries and officiates, state and local, were much in evidence with many taking an active part in the ceremonies. The Honorable James Fitzmorris, lieutenant governor of Louisiana, had arrived from the capitol to extend greetings and to sever the opening day ribbon with a large Bowie knife.

The interest in the event was impressive. There stood State Representative Raymond Laborde talking with Marksville’s Mayor Dr. Richard Michel, Chamber of Commerce President Sheldon Roy and Union Bank Director Charles Masters. Exhibit Chairperson Sue Eakin and the energetic Carlos Mayeux, president of La Commission des Avoyelles, appeared pleased all was going smoothly as did Marion Roy, president of Avoyelles Parish Police Jury.

Many had travelled from other areas, individuals such as Bowie knife collector Tommie Jones of Brook. haven, Mississippi, who arrived in a chartered plane with wife Mary Ellen and an entourage of friends. There in support of the exhibit were such well- known deep South collectors as William D. Moore, Logan Sewell, Maurice Garb, President of Pelican Arms Collectors, Compton La Bauve, Jack Swinney and others. Following the opening day program, Lieutenant Governor Fitzmorris cut the bright red ribbon with a sharp Bowie knife, and the Bowie Knife Exhibit was open.

That evening, more than 200 guests attended a reception organized by the Union Bank at the Charles Masters Camp on Spring Bayou. The occasion was a joy; Southern hospitality is real.

The Bowie Knife Exhibit was a popular and well-attended affair. One case depicted the evolution of the Bowie knife from its ancestor, the Spanish dirk knife. These dirks were popular in the area as hunting and fighting knives before and during the reign of the Bowie. It is therefore, not surprising that Rezin P. Bowie’s design for the first Bowie knife was drawn from these. A wide variety of nineteenth century Bowie type knives was displayed, along with a few contemporary examples. Most viewers were fascinated with a case featuring push daggers, fancy dirks, Bowles, derringers, antique gambling devices and personal effects used by the New Orleans and Mississippi riverboat gamblers. This opportunity to “Relive a Bit of History” was an obvious source of pleasure and enjoyment for most of the public.

Hundreds of school children from Marksville and surrounding communities bussed in to view the Bowie knives. Eyes popped and fingers pointed. One such trip was headlined in the local paper, “ Marksville Middle Students View Bowie Knives - A trip right here in Marksville was what one eighth grade student said of her visit to the Bowie Knife Exhibit on a very rainy Monday morning. Mickey Webb found the visit a learning experience and most educational.”

A forty-page tabloid type publication was printed for sale in connection with the exhibition. Entitled “Bowie Knives - Origin and Development,” the work is filled with information, articles, photographs and illustrations. The large quantity printed reduced the price per copy to a minimum. The tabloid may be purchased for $2.50 postpaid and is available from Carlos Mayeux, President, La Commission des Avoyelles, P.O. Box 28, Hamburg, Louisiana 71339. All funds received will benefit the historical society.

October’s leaves fell all too swiftly on those busy, provocative and productive times enjoyed in the Bayou Boeuf country. November’s arrival signaled the finale for the Bowie Knife Exhibit. Thousands had enjoyed a bit of history and learned more of their own colorful heritage. The history of the remarkable Bowies and the Bowie knife holds a new identity and significance for those who trod the same ground today. The case for Bowie knives was firmly established.

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