On a recent visit to Natchez, Mississippi, my husband and I wended our way down Silver Street—the only road in and out of the infamous Natchez Under-the-Hill. In its day as one of the most raucous towns along the Mississippi, it was said the only thing there cheaper than the body of a woman was the life of a man.
I’ve been told the area once consisted of four streets filled with saloons, gambling houses, and brothels, but the mighty river has eroded it to only one. We enjoyed a Southern lunch in the Magnolia Grill where, on the wall, was posted this story about the legendary Jim Bowie, the knife guy.
Imagine yourself with me, eating fried green tomatoes topped with crawfish tails and shrimp while you enjoy the tale as it was told on the sign…
The Sandbar Fight of September 18th or 19th, 1827
In Which the Legend of Jim Bowie and His Famous & Deadly Knife Originated
The Natchez area was very much the western frontier during the early 1800s. Differences were often settled outside the law. Such was the case in the matter between Dr. Thomas Maddox and Mr. Thomas Wells. Each party consisted of 6 men who met on a sandbar near Vidalia, Louisiana, across the river from Natchez. Perhaps it was felt that a sandbar, not being a permanent landmass, was outside the jurisdiction of either state.
The duel itself was concluded without bloodshed. The combatants each fired one at ten paces…and missed. They considered the matter settled honorably (and, one would think, with relief at having escaped injury or death).
However, General Sam Cuney, with the Wells party, having some malcontention with Dr. Maddox’s second, Colonel A. Crain, issued a challenge and drew his pistol. Crain shot & killed Cuney, setting off a free-for-all. Bowie lunged at Crain, a huge knife in one hand, a pistol in the other. The Colonel threw his now-empty pistol at him, hitting him on his left forehead.
As Bowie staggered back against a stump, Colonel Norris Wright, Sherriff of Rapides in Louisiana (having no great affection for the man) shot him in hip. Bowie returned the fire, seriously wounding him. The sherriff unsheathed the sword hidden inside his cane and rushed at the injured Bowie. There was a flash of cold steel as the mountain man plunged the 103⁄4” blade of his hunting knife into Wright’s belly.
“The bastard has killed me,” he muttered as he fell dead.
With that grisly and brutal action, Bowie’s knife gained fame and notoriety as a killing weapon. The two groups gathered their dead and wounded, trudging back into the wilderness…and into American history and folklore.
Jim Bowie’s knife was, in reality, designed by his brother, Rezin, as a hunting and skinning tool. After almost losing three fingers on a twin-edged blade with no hilt guard, he gave to his blacksmith, Jesse Cliffe, a sketch and a large file with which to fashion the blade. Due in part to its use in the Sandbar Fight, it became a valued item on America’s push westward. The design was copied by thousands of frontiersmen with blades ranging in length from 9 to 18 inches and handles of everything from bone to elaborately chased gold and silver.
If Mr. Colt’s revolver was the gun that won the West, then Mr. Bowie’s knife was the weapon that helped feed and clothe the pioneers on their march across the vast plains and towering mountains.
Did you enjoy it? Now you have a taste of the days where my next book is set–where the Civilized East meets the Wild West.