Knife fighter Jim Bowie survives deadly brawl

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Jim BowieNatchez, Mississippi: September 20, 1827: Formidable frontier knife fighter Jim Bowie was shot twice, stabbed “many” times, and had a sword impaled in his chest but still managed to stand, fight, and kill in a gentlemen’s duel gone dreadfully wrong.

Since dueling is illegal in Mississippi, it all happened on a sandbar on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River just west of here, yesterday. Samuel Wells of Natchez faced Louisiana doctor Thomas Maddox in a pistol duel. Each man had a large contingency of witnesses.  Both men were allowed two shots at each other. Both missed.  So, the actual duel ended with a laugh, with a handshake and with the opening of a bottle of wine, celebrating the dueler’s new found “friendship.”

Bowie was Wells’ second in the duel, and Judge R.A. Crane from Louisiana was Dr. Maddox’s second.

As the wine flowed so, suddenly, did the anger, not between the duelists but between the two seconds, Jim Bowie and Judge Crane.

Crane pulled a pistol and fired twice.  A bullet punctured Bowie’s thigh.  He went down.  The second bullet hit Bowie’s friend Dr. Samuel Cuney, who was there just to witness the duel.   He slumped to his  knees, then toppled face first to the sand– dead.

Brawling bloody bedlam began.  Friends of each dueler became mortal enemies. Bullets whined through gun smoke, and knife blades slashed in the sun.

Major Norris Wright, a banker from Alexandria who hated Jim Bowie and had tried to kill him before, took the opportunity to unsheathe his cane sword and impale Bowie in the chest as Bowie lay wounded on the ground.  With the sword still sticking in his chest, Bowie grabbed Wright’s coattails and pulled Wright toward him on the ground, slashing Wright’s mid-section back and forth with his big, curved knife, killing him instantly.

Witnesses say Bowie then stood up with the sword wobbling in his chest, a bullet in his thigh, and a knife wound gaping in his side, as attackers continued to stab him and shoot at him.

When the attacks stopped, either through fear or fatigue, two men lay dead; two more men tried to patch serious wounds; and the others wiped blood with torn shirts from their grazes and gashes.

As smoke cleared, the dead and wounded were taken by boat across the river to Natchez for civilized burial and modern medical treatment.
Jim Bowie, who still called Louisiana home, spent two months recuperating in Natchez in October and November of 1827.  He emerged stronger than ever. No one was ever prosecuted as a result of this murderous melee that history calls The Sandbar Fight.

Bowie knife

An early example of a Bowie knife.

However, word spread throughout the American frontier about all the wounds Bowie suffered and how he still stood his ground and fought all comers with his deadly knife that became known as the Bowie Knife.  He grew to be a revered and feared legend in his own time, even though he did not actually invent his deadly calling card, the Bowie Knife. His brother, Rezin (Reason), invented it.

There is no doubt that Jim Bowie was an uncommonly strong, tough man for his size—about six feet and 180 pounds.  Friends and foes alike described him as absolutely fearless.  He never backed down from anyone in a fight, regardless of their size, and he always won.

Jim Bowie PaintingBut, he also has to be described as a reckless adventurer and somewhat of an unscrupulous businessman. He dealt in foreign slave trade throughout the south, even after foreign slave trade was banned in the US in 1808. He was a notorious gambler who often settled card disputes with his knife or a gun.  He was a scheming land speculator in Texas and Louisiana, not concerned with right or wrong or ethics, but only with what made him a profit.

Of course, Jim Bowie’s name was sealed forever in Southern Memories when he and 187 of his brave fellow defenders were slaughtered by General Santa Ana on March 6, 1836, in the Battle of the Alamo, during the Texas Revolution.  Bowie died at 39 years of age.   

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