JAMES BOWIE AND THE SANDBAR BRAWL -
There had long been bad blood between Bowie and Major Norris Wright and this was not the first time they had faced off against each other. In December of 1826, Wright made accusations against Bowie and his questionable land claims, which resulted in Bowie confronting him. Wright’s response was to pull a pistol on Bowie. The latter grabbed a chair to use as a shield and a standoff ensued. Bowie then raised the chair and prepared to hit Wright, who then fired and hit Bowie in the chest. Bowie dropped the chair and charged Wright and while holding him down with his free hand, attempted to draw and open a folding knife from his pocket. At this moment, friends of Wright swarmed Bowie and a few seconds later his own friends separated the two groups and probably saved Bowie’s life.
The lead ball had been stopped by coins in his pocket and other than a missing tooth and some bruising on his ribs, Bowie survived with only wounded pride. Wright had lived only because Bowie had been unable to open his clasp knife with his teeth and kill him before Wright’s friends intervened. “He resolved that he would never again lose those precious moments in a fight, nor would he allow his fondness for fine dress to leave him unarmed.”
Following that incident, Bowie constantly wore a large hunting knife that his brother Rezin had made for him. On September 19th, 1827, Bowie was present on behalf of Thomas J. Wells during his duel with Dr. Thomas Maddox. In addition to the long knife, Bowie also wore two pistols were thrust through his belt. The duel ended without a scratch on either side, but shortly thereafter a violent brawl broke out between the entourages on either side.
In the initial volley Bowie emptied both of his pistols with no success then drew his knife and gave chase to one of Wright and Maddox’s friends. This fellow staggered Bowie by throwing his empty pistol at the knife-wielding man pursuing him, hitting him in the head. Bowie forced off Maddox’s attempt to grapple and Major George McWhorter handed Bowie a pistol. Bowie and his enemy Wright fired at each other and missed, then Wright pulled out another pistol and fired again at the same time as McWhorter did. McWhorter’s shot wounded Wright in the side and Wright’s passed through one of Bowie’s lungs. The wounded Bowie staggered after Wright and had managed to grab Wright when he was hit and knocked down by a shot to the thigh from one of the Blanchard brothers (friends of Wright’s). Wright and Alfred Blanchard attacked Bowie with their sword canes.
Bowie managed to ward off some of the blows, parrying them with his knife and his empty hand, and got a couple of small cuts on Wright’s arm, but he was getting the worst of it. After being stabbed in the hand and in the chest, Bowie was able to grab a hold of Wright and pull himself up to a standing position. After uttering the words “’Now, Major, you die!’ With a single savage thrust, he drove the knife through Wright’s chest, boasting afterward that he ‘twisted it to cut his heart strings.” Wright’s dying body fell on Bowie and pinned him to the ground and Blanchard continued to stab at Bowie. Well’s brother shot Blanchard in the arm and Bowie managed to escape from under Wright’s body and give Blanchard a significant cut on his side.
Bowie survived the two bullet wounds, seven stab wounds, and the blow to the head. He never fully recovered from this fight, but those ninety seconds were the genesis of the legend of James Bowie. “Impelled by the rage that blinded him to fear or self-protection, he stood his ground and simply kept fighting. That was the sort of thing, which turned brutal, pointless brawling into legend. According to his brother Rezin, this was the only knife fight that James Bowie ever engaged in, however it and his courageous actions during the Texas Revolution were enough to immortalize him as a permanent hero of the American West.
THE CLAY-BROWN FIGHT -
Even the presence of repeating firearms did not eliminate the knife as a viable weapon. An excellent example of this is the 1841 fight between Samuel Brown and Cassius Clay. After a verbal argument and Brown lashing out with a “damned lie” and an umbrella, the fight was on:
I knew the man and that meant a death-struggle. I at once drew my Bowie-Knife; but, before I could strike, I was seized from behind, and borne by force about fifteen feet from Brown, who being now armed with a Colt’s revolver, cried: “Clear the way, and let me kill the damned rascal.” The way was speedily cleared, and I stood isolated from the crowd. Now, as Brown had his pistol bearing upon me, I had to either run or advance. So, turning my left side toward him, with my left arm covering it, so as to protect it to that extent, I advanced rapidly on him, knife in hand. Seeing I was coming, he knew very well that nothing but a fatal and sudden shot could save him. So he held his fire; and, taking deliberate aim, just as I was in arm’s reach, he fired at my heart. I came down upon his head with a tremendous blow, which would of split open and ordinary skull; but Brown’s was as thick as that of an African. This blow laid his skull open about three inches to the brain, indenting it, but not breaking the textures; but it so stunned him that he was no more able to fire, but feebly attempted to seize me. The conspirators now seized me, and held both arms above my elbows, which only allowed me to strike with the forearm, as Brown advanced upon me.
Martial historian and researcher Pete Kautz describes the conclusion of the Brown-Clay fight as follows: “Being armed with a Bowie knife, these lesser blows still made telling wounds, and in a few seconds the flashing blade had thrust out Brown’s right eye, cut off his left ear, and cleaved his nose in half.”
THE CLAY-TURNER FIGHT -
Clay’s other famous knife fight began under even less optimistic circumstances. Following an argument with Cyrus Turner, a local lawyer’s son at a political function, Clay realized that his life was in peril and drew his knife.
“I was immediately surrounded by about twenty of the conspirators and my knife wrestled from me… I was struck with sticks, and finally stabbed in the right side, just above the lower rib – the knife entering my lungs and cutting apart my breast-bone, which has not united to this day. Seeing I was to be murdered, I seized my Bowie-knife; and catching it by the handle and the blade, cutting two of my fingers to the bone, I wrested it from my opponent and held it firmly for use.”
Bleeding from his side, Clay brandished his knife around to encourage the crowd to move back and moved towards Turner. “I advanced upon him, and thrust the knife into his abdomen, which meant death.”
Given the stopping power and reliability of handguns of the day, knives could be and were used successfully as weapons to protect the knife’s owner. Many a man discovered too late the mistake of bringing a gun to a knife fight, as the Sandbar Brawl and Clay-Brown fights illustrate. The arrival of the revolver returned knives to more of a utilitarian status, but as the Clay-Brown fight shows, the Bowie knife could still be an effective weapon even in the era of repeating firearms. The Clay-Turner fight illustrates what was perhaps the most common use of the knife – against improvised weapons and unarmed opponents. The knife vs. knife engagement is not a myth, it did happen quite often. However the most common scenario was dissimilar weapons, such as knife vs. gun, stick or tomahawk vs. knife, or unarmed vs. a knife attack. Knives were used to settle affairs of honor, but rarely within the context of the code duello, which was essentially nonexistent on the frontier. Following the Sandbar Brawl, large knives of any sort were often referred to as “Bowie knives” throughout the American South and West and thanks to popular television and Hollywood movies, the legend of James Bowie and his famous blade will live on for eternity.
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