Knife Fighting on the19th Century American Frontier
By: Lt. Dan Trembula, U.S. Navy
Prior to the widespread introduction of repeating firearms during the Civil War, knives were the backup weapon of choice to single-shot rifles and pistols. They also served as primary weapons when firearms were not available or practical. Today it is common to hear the expression, “don’t bring a knife to a gunfight,” but until the perfection of the revolver, the reverse statement “don’t bring a gun to a knife fight” was even more prevelant. Many times when a single bullet failed to resolve a situation due to misfires, poor targeting, a determined opponent, or a flat-out miss; the combatants would continue to close with each other and the conflict would be settled with “cold steel.”
The new territories West of the Mississippi River were full of opportunities for adventurous men. However, they were not without great risk. Provided the Westerner did not fall victim to disease, malnutrition, or beast; he still had to contend with the threat from two legged predators: Native Americans, Mexicans, and outlaws. Honor was the most prized possession and men were bound to defend it against even trivial insults… “Trivial, that is, to outsiders, though not to the southern-born combatants and their sons and grandsons who faced shame and demasculation if they failed to respond to insult or challenge.”
As southerners moved west into Texas and neighboring territories, they brought with them a stubborn sense of independence and a strong belief in personal honor. One tradition that was not transferred was that of the code duello. “The formal duel was a part of the social training of upper-class Southern men…” and it “traveled with low-country Southerners into the hill country and beyond, but frontiersmen and mountain people were disinclined to accept the trappings of written codes of procedure for their personal affrays.” Amongst the “poor white” working class men in the antebellum South, personal squabbles were often settled with what was popularly known as “Rough and Tumble” fighting or “gouging.” Rather than attempt to gouge out each other’s eyes, rip off testicles, and otherwise maim and mutilate their opponents, gentlemen settled their personal affairs using canes, swords, and most commonly, pistols.
The men who were drawn to the West were no less violent than either of these groups, however they were much more likely to use knives and firearms to defend their lives and their honor. Knives, pistols, shotguns, and rifles offer increasingly greater degrees of physical distance from the opponent, avoiding the repellant nature of ending a fight with one’s bare hands. Furthermore, unlike the cane and sword, knives and firearms were ever-present tools that these men carried almost everywhere.
Like much of the popular culture and history that has grown up around the American frontier and the west, the reality of knife fights in the 1800s is surrounded by a considerable amount of myth. Thanks to television shows like “The Adventures of Jim Bowie” and books like “The Iron Mistress”, a flawed, idealistic, and downright fictitious image of edged weapon combat has been presented to the unknowing public.
Perhaps the two most egregious errors perpetrated are the “log duel” and knife fighting with one’s arms lashed together. The former came in different variations, but involved the participants seated (sometimes with their pants nailed down to prevent them falling off) on a log, usually floating in a river. The latter consisted of having third parties use leather strips or rope to tie the “free” arms of the combatants together to prevent one from running away. Sadly, one even finds mention of these inside history books like Jack Williams’ Dueling in the Old South, which mentions “knife fighting (sometimes while tied to each other, arm to arm).” In the vast expanse of human existence, I have no doubt that at some time or another there was at least one knife fight conducted while nailed to a log or tied together, but none of the primary or secondary sources examine for this paper described any specific knife fights of that nature. Given the novelty of such a fight, one would expect that had they occurred with even the slightest degree of frequency, that there would be numerous, detailed written accounts of the disposition of these fights.
Other fictitious film and written knife fighting scenes show laughably choreographed, largely bloodless dueling type matches between the protagonist and antagonist that would be more at home in a bad Zorro movie than a real knife fight. Finally, the stereotypical user of the knife, with the exception of characters like James Bowie is usually some sort of despicable and evil character: a Mexican, Native American, or criminal. In popular film and fiction, the “good guy” typically uses his fists and/or firearms, whereas the evil adversary is the man who uses the knife. In reality, men (and women) on the frontier from all walks of life used knives daily for both benevolent and violent purposes.
KNIFE FIGHTING REALITY -
While researching this paper, the author came across three particular fights involving edged weapons that the author considers to be representative of 19th Century knife fights. The first of these is the “Sandbar Brawl” of James Bowie. The second and third involve Cassius Clay.
Both the myth and reality of knife fighting on the 19th Century American frontier are inextricably linked to the legendary figure of James Bowie. His infamous use of a knife on that “chance medley” played out on the Vidalia Sandbar just north of Natchez Mississippi changed the nature of knife fighting forever and was the impetus for the legend of the “Bowie knife.” Knife vs. Knife fights did occur, but not with the frequency of “mixed” fights that could involve everything from empty hands, to chairs, clubs, firearms, and swords. The knife could, and was often used with great effectiveness against all manner of modern and ancient weaponry.
The effectiveness of the knife as a weapon is dependent on two factors. First and foremost is the skill and determination of the man wielding it. Second is the size and physical geometry of the knife itself. Most knife fighters were not formally trained and there was no codified “Bowie Knife Fighting System” on the Frontier. In and around New Orleans a number of fencing salles still existed during the antebellum years run by noted duelists and fencers like Jose Lulla. These master swordsmen were quick to adapt sword techniques down to the shorter and heftier blades of the knives of the era. “When I read the newspaper accounts of the 1800s, I found Spaniards fighting Frenchmen, Frenchmen fighting English, and all being credited with using Bowie knives. Any knife design was termed a ‘Bowie’ and the method of fighting was the ‘Bowie System’ regardless of the country of origin. This is the Paradox of the Bowie Knife.” The use of the Bowie Knife as a dueling and self-defense weapon was derived from the Spanish and French schools of swordplay coupled with the backwoods “Rough and Tumble” modifications of Scottish and Irish sword techniques, with a bit of military saber and naval cutlass training thrown in. All of these ingredients were found along the Mississippi Delta and it was there that the Bowie knife thrived.
Large knives of all manner of shapes and sizes were marketed as “Bowie knives” following the Sandbar Brawl in 1827. However, it would be a few years before the Bowie knife profile we see today was fully developed. The classic “Bowie Knife” design “with a much wider blade, a curved sharp edge along one side, and a concave indentation leading to the tip on the other, was not his [Bowie’s] design but done by what he termed ‘experienced cutlers’.” “We are talking about a knife with a blade that is at least 9 inches in length. Many carry blades between 10 and 12 inches; some even longer.” The sharpened “clip” along the first 1/3 to ½ of the top of the blade facilitated penetration on the thrust and enabled a particular clawing and ripping type cut to be made known as the “back cut.” A fairly large handle permitted a solid grip on the knife and the use of a substantial guard helped to protect the hand from slipping down on the blade and losing fingers or a thumb in a knife fight. The fencing masters of New Orleans quickly moved away from a simple guard and through curving the ends of the guard and adding a “Spanish Notch” to the blade, enabled the Bowie to trap and bind the opponent’s blade.
The deadly reputation of the Bowie knife led to it being banned in many areas of the South. “The year after Bowie’s death, the Alabama legislature passed legislation decreeing that anyone carrying a Bowie Knife who subsequently killed a person in a fight would be charged with premeditated murder. Mississippi prohibited it as a dueling weapon , and in 1838 Tennessee tried to ban its sale.” Laws are still on the books today in states from Virginia to Texas listing the “Bowie Knife” by name as a deadly weapon and prohibiting its carry. Insofar as large knives are concerned, the Bowie Knife represents an almost perfect melding of utilitarian and combat effectiveness that has not been duplicated to this day.
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.
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.
Bagwell, Bill. Bowies, Big Knives, and the best of Battle Blades. Colorado: Paladin Press, 2000.
Clay, Cassius M. The Life of Cassius Marcellus Clay. New York: Negro Universities Press,
Courtwright, David T. Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder from the Frontier to the
Inner City. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Davis, William C. Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives And Fortunes Of David Crockett,
James Bowie, And William Barret Travis. New York: Harper Collins, 1998.
Gorn, Elliot J. “‘Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch’: The Social Significance of Fighting in
the Southern Backcountry”, The American Historical Review, Vol. 90, February to December 1985, 18-43.
Hardin, Stephen L. Texan Iliad: A Military History Of The Texas Revolution.
Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
Kautz, Pete American Knife Fighting History: True Tales From the Lives of Ordinary Americans
in the 19th and Early 20th Century Taken from Oral Histories recorded by the WPA
Writer’s Project, 1936-1940 (Unpublished)
Kautz, Pete “American Rough and Tumble Fighting: Martial Arts in Early America”
Close Quarter Combat Magazine, February/March 2002, 27, 30-32.
Kautz, Pete ‘The Real Cassius Clay” Close Quarter Combat Magazine, November 2002, 6-9.
McLemore, Lt. Col Dwight. Paradoxes of a Deadly Myth. Yorktown: Self Published by Author,
Wellman, Paul. The Iron Mistress. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1951.
Williams, Jack Kenny. Dueling in the Old South: Vignettes of Social History.
College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1980.
Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s –
1880s. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
The Adventures of Jim Bowie Television series (1956-1958) starring Scott Forbes
Bowie Knife and Big Knife Dueling (n.d.) starring Lt. Col. Dwight McLemore, USA (ret.) produced by High Home Films.
The Crossing Blades! Knife Duel Training Film
Get the DVD Crossing Blades DVD
Download the Training video Crossing Blades Video